by Ann Jones
Until recently I had always considered Marina Abramović to be formidable to the point of scariness and possibly not entirely of sound mind. Her work is extraordinary and utterly compelling but its intensity and seriousness seemed to leave no space for the woman herself to have a sense of humour. But then until recently, though I’d read about her work and seen it in reproduction, I’d seen very little of her work in galleries and had never seen Abramović herself in the flesh, something of a limitation when talking about the work of a performance artist. Somehow I never quite made it to Manchester in 2009 to see her piece at the Whitworth Art Gallery for that year’s MIF and, more annoyingly, was in New York a few weeks too early to see her retrospective at MOMA in 2010, for which she created a new performance The Artist is Present which saw her sitting virtually motionless facing a succession of visitors to the exhibition for the duration of the exhibition (over 700 hours in total). But last autumn, I saw her Lisson Gallery show and talk at Tate Modern, and discovered that the woman who has made uncompromising performance art for several decades, at times risking her life (usually, but not always, intentionally), is unexpectedly personable. Indeed at Tate Modern she started with a story – one of the childhood memories that featured both in Confession (2010), shown at the Lisson Gallery, and in The Life and Death of Marina Abramović (2011), which had its world premiere at MIF last week – and ended with a joke. Perhaps age is softening Abramović. Or perhaps she was never as scary as I’d assumed.
The visual art on show at this year’s MIF is all at least loosely connected to performance. As well as Abramović’s work – included in the group show 11 Rooms at the Manchester Art Gallery, and her ‘poetic piece of biographical theatre’ – The Life and Death of Marina Abramović – at the Lowry, there is Šejla Kameric and Anri Sala’s 1395 Days Without Red at the Whitworth Art Gallery , produced by Artangel and shown along with Projections, a collection from Artangel’s collection of film and video works, and a video work by John Gerrard – Infinite Freedom Exercise – showing at Lincoln Square. But the names that drew me to Manchester were Marina Abramović, Robert Wilson (director and co-creator of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović) and Tino Sehgal whose work occupies one the of the 11 Rooms and whose Guggenheim show I did catch in New York last year (having somewhat shamefully missed it at the distinctly more local ICA).
The opening image of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović broadly sets the tone of the piece. As the audience arrives the scene on stage is of three beds each occupied by a dead-looking Marina Abramović, dressed in white and wearing a ghostly Marina mask. The stage is strewn with bones, deep red in colour and picking up what light there is – the Marinas are lit but the stage is largely dark; three dogs roam the stage, seemingly picking over the bones. This is an image that will stay with me a long time (as will the ascent to heaven of the three Marinas that marks the end of the piece); despite the connotations of death and the clear reference to Abramović’s Balkan Baroque performance at the 1997 Venice Biennale (in which she scrubbed animal bones clean for six hours a day for the four days of the opening weekend), the scene is beautiful and absorbing. The aesthetic here would clearly seem to be the work of Robert Wilson.
Though Wilson’s is one of the names that has attracted me here, he is someone I actually know little about. Inhabiting the often uncomfortable space between art and theatre that few really know how to deal with, Wilson has an ability to create scenes that stay in the mind a long time. The only previous work of his I have seen was the extraordinary multi-room installation H.G. made with Hans Peter Kuhn at Clink Street in 1995, parts of which I can still visualise clearly after nearly sixteen years. Abramović, who seems to be preoccupied with her own life and legacy at the moment, apparently approached Wilson and asked him to design her funeral. He agreed on condition that he look at her life as well as her death to make a play, and so the piece was born. Abramović provided the stories, many rooted in her childhood and her relationship with her mother (who, at Wilson’s insistence, she plays), and her collaborators devised the show. Those who know Confession – a video work in which she kneels before a small donkey while the stories appear as a rolling subtitle across the screen – will be familiar with some of the stories and their habit of ending with Marina’s face being slapped by her mother. The result here is a show that tells Abramović’s story in a somewhat disjointed and often melodramatic way (though given Abramović’s evident self-obsession it’s possible there is no other way to tell it), referring in passing to some of her work but keeping the focus firmly on her life and imagined death and funeral. That the piece works as well as it does owes much to the work of her collaborators. In addition to Robert Wilson’s fundamental contribution I would note the music, provided by Antony Hegarty and William Basinski, with Svetlana Spajić and her group of singers providing extraordinary traditional Serbian singing; and on stage, the piece is bound together by Willem Dafoe’s narrator, evoking Shockheaded Peter and the Joker in a military uniform.
By contrast with the lushness of The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, the exhibition 11 Rooms is spare and strangely business-like to look at. Eleven artists, all working with performance, have been given a room each in which to make their work. This means that one arrives in the gallery to white walls and doors behind which the work is found. As a structure this bypasses many of the problems that can make performance art difficult to include in group shows, allowing the audience time to take the work in almost as a series of small solo shows. There is a lot to think about here. In Swap, in the first of the eleven rooms, Roman Ondák creates a space to consider how we value both things and transactions; the performer starts by placing an object on the table at which he sits. Visitors are invited to swap something of their own for the object. The performer – who is not the artist himself – discusses the object, the idea and the process engaging the audience and keeping the swapping going. While I am there someone swaps a plastic bag with an elastic band round it for the pen left by the final visitor the previous day; this is in turn swapped for an apple. I found it hard to decide what to swap; despite having a big bag with me there was little in it that seemed both swappable – I wasn’t about to give up my phone for instance – and enough. I ended up swapping a tin of mints for what turned out to be a flyer for a performance art event in London. Placing this work in the first room seems geared to getting the audience to understand that performance art makes demands on its audience that other art generally doesn’t. Though in many of these spaces we are watching quite passively we are always aware that the subject of our gaze is another person and we are repeatedly faced with questions of how long to stay and whether to stare or look away.
Two rooms, those of Joan Jonas and Marina Abramović, have naked women performing works previous performed by the artists themselves. In Jonas’s Mirror Check (1970) the performer examines herself with a small mirror, working from head to foot to try to examine her whole body. Here two performers alternate, each sitting robed on a chair to watch while the other performs. This pairing makes the performer seem somehow less exposed. In Marina Abramović’s Luminosity (1997), we look up at a woman sitting on a wall mounted bicycle seat bathed in light; her pose somewhat reminiscent of a crucifixion. The title label tells us that the work was originally performed continuously over 6 hours; it was first restaged at MOMA in 2010 in 45 minute shifts over 7 hours and in Manchester it is as 30 minute shifts over 6 hours. A half-hour shift looks hard enough; the idea of staying there all day seems unthinkable.
Though there are several artists I’m interested in at 11 Rooms, it is Tino Sehgal’s work I am most excited to see and, despite the inevitable modesty of scale imposed by the structure of the show, it doesn’t disappoint. In Ann Lee (2011), a young girl introduces herself. Her name is Ann Lee and she started out as a Manga character before being sold to two artists Pierre (Huyghe) and Philippe (Parreno). Over time she has been passed on to other artists and is now trying to hang out with Tino. She has gone from being two dimensional, to three and now four but she’s really never met people before and she has questions. The first question, whether you would rather be too busy or not busy enough is straightforward enough but others can be trickier. The last question each Ann Lee asks before leaving the room is the somewhat baffling ‘What is the difference between a sign and melancholia?’ She never gets an answer. There is a strange dynamic at play here. Though there are several Ann Lees – each performs for no more than a few minutes at a time – all are young and speak tentatively. As an audience we are somewhat protective of the child but can nonetheless feel uncomfortable at being put on the spot with a question, aware at that point of our own audience. This shift from being part of the audience to being in some way part of the work is something Sehgal uses well; the audience lives in the work, albeit briefly. In This Progress, Sehgal’s piece at the Guggenheim last year, visitors were approached at the bottom of the spiral by a young child who asked what they thought progress was; a little way up a teenage would join and asked the child what had been said. The journey and conversation then continued with the teenager walking the visitors further up the ramp and delving further into the meaning of progress. The next ‘interpreter’, as Sehgal calls them, was an adult – on my visit a feisty twenty-something who asked challenging questions and drew us into an interesting debate – who finally hands the visitors over to an older person given to more gentle discussion. The unique structure of the Guggenheim worked perfectly for the piece, allowing audience members to be taken on actual and metaphorical journeys simultaneously.
Other than Abramović’s Luminosity, only one of the rooms has anything on the wall. John Baldessari’s space is occupied by evidence of the attempts made by the exhibition curators, the gallery and MIF to finally realise his Unrealised Proposal for Cadavre Piece (1970). Despite months of trying this proved impossible in the time frame – the work involves exhibiting a cadaver as a tableau viewed through a spy hole, referencing both Andrea Mantegna’s painting Lamentation of Christ (c 1490) and Marcel Duchamp’s tableau Étant Donnés (1968) – though the intention is to keep trying and show the work at the Manchester Art Gallery at a later date. The email correspondence makes for fascinating reading as the parties try and fail to navigate the complex issues involved.
Although I made it to the Whitworth Gallery for 1395 Days Without Red and Projections, both of which run until early September and are worth seeing, sadly I didn’t manage to get there at night to see Tony Oursler’s The Influence Machine projected into the trees in Whitworth Park for an hour each night during the festival. If that were running through the summer too I would definitely be making a repeat visit to Manchester.
Though visual art isn’t the main emphasis of the Manchester International Festival there is clearly a commitment to ensure that the work that is included is challenging and of the highest possible quality. I’m now a bit more cross with myself about not going before and I’m pretty sure I’ll be back next time. And if, in the meanwhile, that Baldessari piece finally gets realised, well, there’s a good chance I’ll be there then too.
‘The Life and Death of Marina Abramović’ was at the Lowry as part of MIF 2011 from 9–16 July 2011 and will be shown at Teatro Real, Madrid in April 2012.
’11 Rooms’ was curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach and took place at Manchester Art Gallery from 9–16 July 2011.
‘1395 Days Without Red’ and ‘Projections: Works from the Artangel Collection’ continue at the Whitworth Gallery until 4 September 2011