Marina Abramovic and Douglas Dunn

May 31, 2010

The Abramovic exhibit at MoMA reminded me of all the performance art in the 70s. It seems to me that her specialty is stillness—and a certain bizarreness. In one display area, a nude woman reclined with a skeleton on top of her. In another, two people, sitting back to back, were tied together by their hair. And of course they was the oft-photographed nude couple standing just far enough apart for visitors to squeeze through.

But the strangest, and most “performative” event was a woman mounted on the wall like a buffalo head or a priestess of some kind, nude, braced by stirrups at the feet and a bicycle seat at the crotch. I recognized the dancer/choreographer Jill Sigman in this sacrificial pose. In this case, she actually got to move. She raised and lowered her arms slowly, and occasionally loosened a  foot from its stirrup. What made it interesting was the discrepancy between her stretched, relaxed, nude body, and her slightly worried face, as though she were trying to understand something far away.

In the piece “The Artist Is Present,” Abramovic herself concluded 700 hours of sitting in a chair yesterday. Each time an art-goer sat in the chair opposite her, her upper back changed slightly as she sat forward a bit and lifted her eyes to meet that person’s gaze.

For us viewers, we could fantasize about who that person was and the silent communing that passed between them. One young woman started crying. Maybe she idolized Abramovic and couldn’t believe her good luck (too many hundreds were lined up for all of them to “visit” the artist before closing at 5:00). But I noticed that her profile looked an awful lot like Abramavic’s profile, and I thought maybe the young woman was her long lost daughter. Well, I found out later this was pure fantasy on my part. But it does seem like the cleaner the slate  an artist presents, the more fertile ground it is for fantasy.

Abramovic’s discipline in sitting for hours on end, combined with the potential for fantasy, reminded of a piece Douglas Dunn did in the 1970s titled 101 (possibly after that imaginary, dreaded room in Brave New World). He had built a wooden maze in his loft in Soho, and you had to climb through it. Eventually you got to the top layer, just beneath the ceiling. And there was Douglas, lying on his back, wrists and ankles tied with red scarves.

As an audience person, you were totally alone with this strange, unmoving version of Douglas, a much more other-worldly, inner-worldly situation than the fishbowl aspect of Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present.” First of all, you had to work to find Douglas. Second, once you found him, you had to enter into a very puzzling contemplation: What was his motivation? What were his images? Was this a performance or something else? What did I myself perceive and feel? I’m sure that each person who passed through that maze reacted differently. What happened with me is that I started talking to this still figure with an abandon that surprised me. And the whole experience has lingered for a long time afterward.