Your Own Personal Jesus


The New York art community has been gathering for a spate of panels and programs on museum practices, all prompted by two concurrent exhibitions that could not be more dissimilar. At the Museum of Modern Art is “Marina Abramovi´c: The Artist is Present” [through May 31], a chronologically ordered retrospective of four decades of performance and its documentation, with a new piece ongoing in the museum’s giant fishbowl of an atrium, where the charismatic artist is seated silently at a table for what will amount to some 700 hours. Visitors are invited to sit across from her and experience her presence. The piece gives the exhibition its subtitle, and might even be a preemptiveresponse to anticipated controversy. For the show also includes live reperformances of five historical pieces by a crew of three dozen surrogates, all trained by Abramovi´c at her home in Chatham, NY. The show’s curator is MoMA/PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach, formerly chief curator of the museum’s department of media and performance. The museum’s mission is to collect, preserve and educate. How to do that with time-based live art? Should it be done? Is reperformance an acceptable answer?

Downtown, the New Museum is presenting “Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection” [through June 6], a 50-artist panorama of the market heavyweights and bright young stars collected by one of the most influential figures on the global art scene. The majority of the works date from the present decade, though a handful are earlier. The exhibition stands charged with a whole list of offenses against a strict definition of museum propriety: showing a private collection that is not a promised gift, showing a trustee’s collection, turning over curating to an artist well represented in that collection, turning over curating to the artist Jeff Koons.

Both institutions scheduled panels, and others have proliferated around town. A double program at the New Museum on Mar. 13 delved into the history of the collector as museum founder and/or benefactor, then examined current circumstances and reached the unsurprising conclusion that where museums are concerned, it’s the same as it ever was: rich collectors—can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em. At MoMA’s panel a week earlier, Martha Rosler reminded the audience of performance art’s birth as a form of resistance aimed at evading institutions by leaving behind neither script nor collectible. Fellow panelist Biesenbach countered reassuringly that MoMA has always collaborated with performance artists to realize their distinctive visions. Even if your knowledge of World War II is confined to repeated viewings of Casablanca, the swift counterpoint between the words “resistance” and “collaborate” has a certain tang.

It might be helpful to approach reperformance in terms of the frequently slighted distinction between body art and performance. Think of body art as site-specific—in this case, specific to the body of Abramovic. Surrounded by photos and videos of the original events, the reperformances in MoMA’s galleries seem more Madame Tussaud than Marina. Years ago, Abramovi´c turned the performance dial into the red zone with situations of imminent danger, masochistic endurance and reckless unpredictability. There exists—or existed—an intimate, vital connection between each performance and this artist’s own history and being. Abramovic says it best in the exhibition catalogue: “But performance art is about presence. It’s all about energy, which is invisible, in a way. You go through purification, you elevate your consciousness, and that really affects the audience. So, that exact point of danger is what puts my mind and body in the here and now time. The public knows it and they are there with me.” Abramovic has made her own body into a ritual site for art (yes, do think of Walter Benjamin here), and it is a site of suffering, memory and transcendence. Reperformance requires a different discipline. Abramovic’s workshop (which included fasting, meditation, periods of silence and ice-cold skinny-dipping) emphasized readiness and entailed rehearsal. It prepared apostles, not artists.

And so it’s worth noting that these disparate exhibitions do share one feature: the inclusion of a reperformance work that references the Crucifixion. At MoMA there is Luminosity (1997/2010), in which the Abramovi´c surrogate straddles a bicycle seat high on a wall, arms outstretched, feet propped on blocks. A light on the figure intensifies over two hours to the point of radiance, as if the iconography of the crucified Jesus and the risen Christ had merged. You’ll see any one of six women up against the wall at MoMA, as if in a sacramental reenactment of the Passion of Marina: this is my body, this is my blood.

Four actors are taking turns at the New Museum in Pavel Althamer’s Schedule of the Crucifix (2005), arriving each day around 3:00, changing into a loincloth and crown of thorns behind a folding screen, climbing a ladder and assuming the position for an hour or so on a wall-hung cross. This Jesus, too, perches on a bicycle seat (Marcel, Marcel, what did you start!) and avails himself of a footrest that, in a nice Caravaggesque touch, is soiled by dirty feet. The reperformance is a daily routine; Jesus might as well carry a lunch box and Thermos. He’s the son of God, and this is the family business.

Althamer, unlike Abramovi´c, is not the martyr here. He’s far too wily for that role. Koons and his installation team were wilier still. Charles Ray’s figure of a nude girl stands in the gallery a few feet before the cross—a white aluminum Eve. Jesus looks down toward his right and contemplates both the abjectly creeping, rawhide-draped figure in Janine Antoni’s Saddle (2000) and the poor sod in the mechanized rocking chair of Andro Wekua’s Wait to Wait (2006), a mannequin in more urgent need of a consciousness jump start than is the Sistine’s Adam. Althamer reminds us that the Crucifixion, which is enacted around the globe during Holy Week, is the very paragon of faith-buttressing reperformance. Uptown, pace the exhibition’s title, reperformance demands that we forgo Abramovi´c’s matchless presence and vivid humanity. In exchange, reperformance gives us predictable theater at best, karaoke at worst and, inevitably, the basis for a canon according to MoMA.

May 2010 Cover: James Casebere, Landscape with Houses (Dutchess County, NY) #1, 2009, digital chromogenic print,74 by 1041⁄2 inches. Courtesy Sean Kelly Gallery, New York.