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Marina Abramovi&#263: Fall on Your Knees

A couple of weekends ago, I went to New York to look at galleries and to hang out with a friend who lives there. Not long ago, my friend used to be an art dealer—and not long before that, she was my art dealer.

I’m an artist but I always feel a little odd claiming as much. I make a lot of photographs, but my photographs are made for my own pleasure, and there’s something odd and very personal about them. It surprises me that anyone but myself is interested in them, and it surprises me even more that at one stage I managed to turn that interest into something of a career.

But that was around 10 years ago, and since then I have had a baby, separated from her father and become a Buddhist. I don’t make as many pictures as I used to, and the galleries I had and the curators I knew don’t have the same interest in me that they once did. What I haven’t lost, however, is my passion for art. Art has been and always will be the core of my spirituality.

So seeing Degas at the Met was, for me, a moment of enlightenment. I had forgotten Degas. I had forgotten his ability to align impossible pastel colours and conjure skin with them; I had forgotten his bathers and the tenderness that their unselfconscious demeanour arouses in me. I had forgotten the bronze of his beautiful little dancer, how she waits patiently in second position with a tangible mixture of pride and inattentiveness.

When I was quite finished with Degas and had wandered into another room, my cellphone rang, and my friend Cristina and I arranged to meet at the Guggenheim to see something more contemporary. I love the Guggenheim principally for its whimsical shape; I feel happy circling up through its displays. The show there was called “Haunted,” though neither my friend nor I was clear on why. Its few strong pieces were drowned by many bad ones, and a pall fell over Cristina and I before we arrived at the Whitney.

At the Whitney is the biennial—also presenting a confusing selection of work in which art and banality become synonymous. If it wasn’t for James Casebere and his gorgeous photographs, we would have quickly succumbed to despair.

By the time we reached Chelsea and the commercial galleries, we had low expectations. And judging by the absence of visitors on a Saturday, we weren’t alone. Going in and out of these galleries, I found it very difficult to tell the artists apart. Oddly, this didn’t appear to be unintentional. Instead, it felt as if my friend and I had just become part of a privileged minority chosen to attend an obscure conference of academics whose main thesis is that art is dead.

My friend Cristina is hotheaded, and she kept repeating, “I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.” To tell you the truth, even though I’d noticed that boredom and lack of passion in contemporary art was something of a growing trend, I hadn’t given it much thought. But going through Chelsea, I was struck dumb.

Which was why it was such a crashing relief to find Marina Abramovi&#263’s show “The Artist is Present” at MOMA. I saw Abramovi&#263 perform in the 1990s in Germany, and though I didn’t understand the performance, it left a profound feeling in me and I never forgot it. I never forgot the intensity of the artist or her conviction—these two things together touched me.

The show at MOMA, a collection of Abramovi&#263 performances re-enacted by others or recorded on video, is truly remarkable. The artist doesn’t waste her time trying to show us that she is clever, ironic or depraved. The audience, for her, is accidental. What interests her is the pursuit of awareness.

With the ruthlessness of Buddha she has engaged in numerous acts of self-mortification. She has brushed her hair until she bled, she has yelled until she was hoarse, she has danced until she dropped and she has free-associated until her mind was empty. Is she crazy? There were moments during this exhibit I thought so.

Abramovi&#263 tests the limits of her endurance again and again, and in doing so she arouses my love. I love the woman on that video who is naked and who keeps walking again and again into that wall. Each time she hits it I think, “That’s me.”

And while I recognize myself in the woman who walks into walls, I also understand the impulse of the man who obstructs Abramovi&#263 before being removed by a security guard. I too want to protect Abramovi&#263 from herself.

Abramovi&#263 clearly wants to protect us from ourselves too. After all, it was she who sat at the Venice Biennale after the mess in Yugoslavia, amid an appalling stench, and carefully washed hundreds of cattle bones. All these pointless performances conducted with absolute conviction. All this suffering. Isn’t this the history of humanity?

For these reasons and more I think of how much I would like to bring this artist a big bunch of red roses and place them on the table where she now sits in the atrium of MOMA, giving her attention to whoever is in front of her. This artist, who has heroic integrity and has made it her life’s work to be a mirror for us to see ourselves, is as exactly as promised. She is present.

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