Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Thoughts on the gaze, Marina Abramović and Tino Sehgal

Marina Abramović, photo by Reto Guntli

From the press release:

The Museum of Modern Art presents Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present, the first U.S. large-scale museum retrospective of the artist’s groundbreaking performance work, from March 14 to May 31, 2010. Internationally recognized as a pioneer and key figure in performance art, Marina Abramović (Yugoslav, b. 1946) uses her own body as subject, object, and medium, exploring the physical and mental limits of her being by creating pieces that require her to withstand pain, exhaustion, and discomfort in the quest for artistic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual transformation….

Abramović, best known for her durational works, has created a new work for this retrospective—The Artist Is Present (2010)—that she will perform daily throughout the run of the exhibition. For her longest solo piece to date, Abramović will sit in silence at a table in the Museum’s Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium during public hours, passively inviting visitors to take the seat across from her for as long as they choose within the timeframe of the Museum’s hours of operation. Although she will not respond verbally, participation by Museum visitors completes the piece and allows them to have a personal experience with the artist and the artwork.

I wasn’t quick enough to get my bid in to write about Abramović for the art magazines; indeed, until I attended the press preview at MoMA last week, I didn’t realize how profoundly I related to her work. I’ve done many things in my life involving ritual, meditation, a certain amount of endurance (the only English phrase my Chinese t’ai chi master seemed to know was “hold for one minute”) and even danger (studying karate at a dojo with a policy of admitting everyone, even those with “problems,’ because that’s who’s out there on the street, in life)—experiences that offer me a glimpse into Abramović’s practice.

But just a glimpse. Because no matter how rigorous my practices have been, they don’t add up to anything like Abramović’s project. The press release doesn’t mention that Abramović is committed to also remaining silent during her “off” hours, but that would seem a necessary component, as she will be taking in a lot.

I think about an exercise I did once as part of a personal growth workshop which required standing just a little too close and silently staring into the eyes of another member of the group of 150, chosen at random, for ten minutes. During the workshop I’d been sitting next to a man in his 50s, whose conversation indicated that he was very much in love with his wife—who I’d only seen from afar, but seemed hardly the type to inspire such ardor. It turned out she was my partner, and after looking into her eyes for ten minutes, I was in love with her too. Following the exercise we went back to our seats, but my first thought upon leaving the room was that I wanted to give her a hug, an impulse that turned out to be mutual.

In the same vein I sat in on a workshop that Betty Edwards (Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain) gave, watching as adults went from drawing stick figures to lively, acutely representational portraits within just a few days. One of the exercises involved drawing another person, again chosen at random from the group. In the ladies room later I overheard a conversation where one participant was saying to another, “She’s not the sort of person I ever thought I’d be friends with, but after drawing her for so long, I found I really liked her and we made plans to have lunch.”

I think too of my friend Tim, a singer at the Met who, instructed by a doctor not to speak for three days, said he saw a lot of pain in people’s faces he hadn’t been aware of before.

What will Abramović see? Perhaps just a bunch of people taking pictures (I don’t yet know what MoMA’s policy will be). New Yorkers aren’t great at sitting still—or being quiet. Maybe they’ll come to confess. Whatever happens, Abramović will be changed by the experience, and it will have a profound influence on whatever she does next.

This would appear to be what Roberta Smith was calling for when she wrote (in her much-discussed article “Post Minimal to the Max”) that she wanted to see more “art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”--only in the case of Abramović it’s not the hand but the entire body.

This is art that comes from process, from doing, rather than thinking.

By contrast Tino Sehgal’s piece of interactive theater at the Guggenheim (see Holland Cotter’s favorable Times review) seems to spring from the head, an idea illustrated. The people who ask you questions as you ascend the ramp aren’t actors, but neither are they real people acting on their own impulses. Like the commenter on this blog, Kathy Hodge, who said, “I don’t want to be forced to interact with anyone for their own ‘social experiment,’” I don’t want to give thought to answers that will go nowhere—so I avoid as I do the television news people on the street corner who don’t really care about my opinion either. In both cases I feel as if I’m being used.

With Abramović, however, we meet on our own terms.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

On process and creativity

Alberto Giacometti, Tete Noire (Diego), 1951, oil on canvas, 31 7/8" x 25 5/8"

Reader Joan, in a comment on my post below, "Elizabeth Gilbert and Creativity" contributed this from James Lord's Giacometti: A Biography, and I felt it was worthy of reprinting as a post on its own:

It becomes always more painful,” Alberto (Giacometti) said, “for me to finish my works. The older I grow, the more I find myself alone. I foresee that at the last I shall be entirely alone. Even if, after all, what I’ve done till now counts for nothing (and it is nothing by comparison with what I would like to create), fully aware of having failed till now, and knowing from experience that everything I undertake slips through my fingers, I enjoy my work more than ever. Is there any understanding in that? Not for me, but that’s how it is. I see my sculptures there before me: each one—even the most finished in appearance—a fragment, each one a failure. Yes, a failure! But there is in each one a little of what I would like to create one day. This in one, that in another, and in the third something that’s missing in the first two. But the sculpture of which I dream incorporates everything that appears isolated and fragmentary in these various works. That gives me a longing, an irresistible longing to pursue my efforts—and perhaps in the end I will attain my goal."

Giacometti and Beckett, each in a deeply individual way, personified the pure commitment of the creative man. Driven beyond the conscious self by a need to express what defies expression, they found the strength to sustain that need in the ironic authority derived from a mortifying acknowledgement of failure. Beckett had learned that words are powerless to convey an idea of a feeling, just as Giacometti had found that neither paint nor clay can possibly embody the experience of vision. But both were infatuated with the expressive possibilities which baffled their passion for self-expression. It was the futility of the pursuit that made it fascinating and saved the effort from becoming monotonous. Its purpose was not to produce works of art but to wrest from the process of perception its utmost resources. A thankless, well-nigh ridiculous task, performed with humility as an act of pride.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Post-Minimal to the Max

As a young artist, I thought for sure when I got older that new, unfamiliar art would come along to challenge my assumptions and beliefs. I even looked forward to it. But now that I’m old enough to be a fogey, I see stuff like Tino Sehgal at the Guggenheim and instead I’m thinking, “OMG, this again? I have SO seen this, done that.”
I wonder how many more generations I will have to watch discover conceptual art, each time becoming more sterilized, more schooled.

The funniest is art that tries to shock. Sorry, but now things are reversed; it’s the younger generation that’s been coddled and the older one that has done more, seen more, and put more substances up their collective noses than the young ‘uns can imagine. Ours is the generation that produced Robert Mapplethorpe, for chrissake, who saw Nancy Spungen’s body carried out of the Chelsea Hotel, and needing to pee at Danceteria, found people fucking in the stalls--not to speak of having friends dying left and right from AIDS. So I’m going to quake inside when I see a (clothed) black man laying on top of a (clothed) white woman on the floor of the Guggenheim?

Roberta Smith, however, says it better, in “Post-Minimal to the Max” in Friday’s Times:

The current exhibition of Gabriel Orozco at the Museum of Modern Art along with the recent ones of Roni Horn at the Whitney Museum and of Urs Fischer at the New Museum have generated a lot of comment pro and con. So has the Tino Sehgal performance exhibition now on view in an otherwise emptied-out Guggenheim rotunda. But regardless of what you think about these artists individually, their shows share a visual austerity and coolness of temperature that are dispiritingly one-note. After encountering so many bare walls and open spaces, after examining so many amalgams of photography, altered objects, seductive materials and Conceptual puzzles awaiting deciphering, I started to feel as if it were all part of a big-box chain featuring only one brand. More…

The artists Smith would choose to feature are not necessarily those that populate my curatorial fantasies (for instance I’d start with Terry Winters, whose last New York museum exhibition was in 1992) but not to quibble. Smith sums it up when she says, “What’s missing is art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

Certain readers will take this as meaning that Smith is angling for a return to AbEx or somesuch, but I’ll interpret it my way. Readers of this blog know that I admire the work of Olafur Eliasson, who works with a team of collaborators and rarely executes anything himself, yet the aura of “intense personal necessity” surrounds everything he produces. It is also very highly developed. On the other hand, given how much art one sees that seems only half-realized, it’s important to recognize that process itself—the struggle to execute—can be an important path to new ideas. The stubborn development of technique (and by this I mean not facility, but the ideal vehicle for the concept) can provide the time required to take the art where it needs to go.

Also to say that while I find Tino Sehgal's work mannered and superficial, I'm inspired by that of Marina Abramovic (actually this is a prime example of the watering down process I was speaking of, where one generation adopts the look, but not the substance, of the previous one), and will expound on this in later posts.
Terry Winters, Luminance, 2002, oil on linen, 94 1/2" x 133 3/4" (courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery).

Missed it!

A lecture at SVA Thursday evening by Ann Lauterbach (poet and critic, co-chair of writing at Bard College and visiting critic at Yale) on The Given and the Chosen: A Meditation:

The work of art mediates the given and the chosen. It takes place between the fixities of received orders and possible forms which simultaneously confirm and escape through those fixities. To decide to treat experience as the site of transformation of the given by way of the chosen is to decide to live as an artist. The materiality of the world, its givens, presents itself to the artist as a field of possible relations, or choices.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Elizabeth Gilbert on creativity

No matter what you might think of Eat, Pray, Love (if the Web is any indication, a lot of people have opinions about the book who’ve never even read it) Elizabeth Gilbert’s reflection on the nature of creativity is worth considering. For me, it came in the nick of time, challenged as I’ve been lately with my work (or non-work, as it might more accurately be termed) in the studio. I needed to be reminded that I’m simply the conduit, and that all I need to do is open the door, allow whatever is going to happen to happen, instead of trying so fucking hard.

This may be the reason some people have big successes and then fall off—they begin to believe the hype, to think that they did it, and then struggle to do it again. I think about Philippa Gregory, who wrote one of the best novels I’ve ever read (The Other Boleyn Girl) and some of the worst (all the rest). Or Rauschenberg, who never seemed to be able to get past himself.

Students are often taught—or at least given the impression—that making art is about having an idea and executing it, when actually it’s about doing the work and then getting out of the way.

If I build the tracks, the train will come when it’s ready.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Random Notes: February

I’m finally home after my adventures in the frozen north. I flew into Burlington (VT) on JetBlue, which neglected to send my luggage on the plane, and I wasn’t reunited with it until eight hours later (the rep said it may have gotten misplaced because I got to JFK too early—of course it was my fault!). Burlington, it turns out, isn’t really a city, but a university attached to a shopping mall, or a shopping mall attached to a university, however you want to look at it. The best part was the view of frozen Lake Champlain from my hotel window:

On the other hand I loved hilly Montpelier which, with a population of 8,000 or so, is the smallest state capital in the nation. Everyone there is so sturdy, red-cheeked, open and friendly that I’d have happily moved in with any of the families I saw in the Hunger Mountain Coop that would have me. Being a “critter” (def: a visiting artist who critiques) in the low-residency MFA program of the Vermont College of Fine Arts was fun; the students, who were of all ages and came from all over the country were particularly satisfying in their willingness to grapple with new ideas. Fellow “critter” Lisa Sigal gave an artist’s talk that was refreshing in its lack of biographical justification or self-psychoanalysis—she simply talked about what she does, how she does it, and let the work speak for itself.

The entire experience was a reminder that the most important thing you can bring to the making of art—or anything—is enthusiasm.
Meanwhile I read the latest on swine flu in the Times, which said:

The data contain one anomaly officials cannot explain: For the third week in a row, the proportion of all death certificates in the country listing pneumonia as the cause of death was well above normal. A week ago, New York City officials noted the same phenomenon, and they are investigating it.

Interesting because the only person I know who has had any illness associated with swine flu is my friend Dave in Chicago, an otherwise healthy guy in his 30s, who came down with severe pneumonia three days after being vaccinated.
My feature article on the Anne Truitt survey at the Hirshhorn Museum will appear in the March issue of Art in America.