A Spat Over “Nothing”: A New Marina Abramovic Project Raises Hackles


An upcoming exhibition by performance art icon Marina AbramoviÄ? has raised concerns among art historians and a consultant to arts foundations. They say that AbramoviÄ?’s next show is uncomfortably similar to an ongoing project by New York- and Houston-based artist Mary Ellen Carroll, and they have contacted the show’s curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist, to call for Carroll to be named as a precedent.

In “Marina AbramoviÄ?: 512 Hours,” at London’s Serpentine Galleries, opening June 11, the artist will focus, in her words, on “nothing.” She described the inspiration for the Serpentine project in an April BBC interview, recounting a late-night phone call to Obrist Serpentine co-director of exhibitions and programs Hans Ulrich: “I said, ‘This is what I want to do: Nothing. There is nothing. . . . It is just me. . . . That is the most radical and the most pure I can do.'”

“Given that AbramoviÄ?’s show at the Serpentine seems to be devoted to the idea of doing nothing, I think there should be an acknowledgement that Mary Ellen made works along those lines, and they have been published,” David Joselit, a professor of art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, told A.i.A.

“Even though the context in which AbramoviÄ? is going to be working is very different, the premise is really identical,” Yona Backer, of the gallery Third Streaming, which has hosted projects by Carroll, told A.i.A. “All we want is that Mary Ellen and her ongoing, rigorous project be acknowledged as the historical precedent in the catalogue and promotional materials. Not to say that AbramoviÄ? can’t do it.”

Carroll declined to comment for this article.

A related story appeared in London’s Guardian newspaper today.

Long before AbramoviÄ?’s nothing, even before Jerry Seinfeld famously conceived of a television show about nothing, Carroll began performance pieces on the subject—as early as the 1980s.

In a recent example, when invited to do a residency in Argentina in 2006, she conceived of Nothing, which she described in a document reproduced in her 2009 monograph as leaving home with “no money, no credit cards, only the clothes on your back. Do nothing as the performance.”

For its part, the Serpentine is downplaying the AbramoviÄ? project’s nothing-ness. “Marina’s performance is not about nothing,” Obrist said in a May 13 e-mail to Backer, obtained by A.i.A. “Many things will happen in the space. It’s just that she does not use any props.” Obrist did not immediately respond to a request for comment, though he told the Guardian that he is arranging for a conversation between the artists.

The gallery’s website describes the work as “unique” and unprecedented.”

“They’re wrong if they say it’s unprecedented,” Frazer Ward, a Smith College art historian who has written about ’60s and ’70s performance art, told A.i.A. “They should acknowledge the precedents.”

What is the possible effect on Carroll of AbramoviÄ?’s performance?

“If it goes forward as a nothing when Carroll has in recent memory performed nothing, it’s a slight,” Ward said. “Does it financially hurt her? Probably not. In terms of historical and critical reception it probably hurts her insofar as AbramoviÄ? has a big stage. If it goes forward as an unprecedented nothing then the prior nothings will get swept aside a bit.”

Carroll is not the first artist to engage with nothing. In the 1980s, Tehching Hsieh did a piece that involved making no art for a year. Before that, 1960s Conceptual artists were involved with what critic Lucy Lippard called “the dematerialization of the art object.” Yet earlier, in 1958, Yves Klein emptied out Iris Clert’s Paris gallery and called it “The Void,” or, in its full name, “The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility, The Void.”

But it’s also not the first time an AbramoviÄ? project has trod ground previously walked by other artists. German artist Regina Franke has for years been doing durational performances under the title The Artist is Present. She published a book by that name in 1999, 11 years before AbramoviÄ?’s eponymous MoMA show.

The kerfuffle presents a bit of a David-and-Goliath scenario. AbramoviÄ? has achieved worldwide success, both critically and commercially; Carroll is respected but less known. She’s included in the upcoming Prospect.3 biennial in New Orleans, and she was in the well-reviewed show “Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art” at Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art (along with AbramoviÄ?). Her work has been exhibited at institutions internationally, including New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art and the Institute of Contemporary Art, London. Her prizes include a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Pollock/Krasner Award.

In terms of legal repercussions, attorney Amy Goldrich, of New York’s Cahill Partners, told A.i.A., “This is the essential problem with conceptual art. It’s about an idea, and ideas can’t be copyrighted, only the expression of an idea. So John Cage’s 4’33” is actually copyrighted as text, with the copyright attaching to the sheet music or written expression of what is to be performed, and not the silence itself.”

But, as to the idea of the originality of AbramoviÄ?’s performance, Goldrich added, “Nobody in the art world exists in a vacuum.”

“I think it would be a great piece,” Ward told A.i.A., “if Carroll sued for the rights to nothing.”