Say what you will about New York City, even when it attempts subtlety, it still knocks you over the head. And so it is with the Marina Abramović retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, a series of utterly haunting performances that have the superficial gloss of a middle school play underpinned by a steely, jagged pathos that stabs you right through the eye.
Even the retrospective’s title – The Artist Is Present – plays along. The artist is literally present, sitting silently in a large open square for hours on end, day after day, simply staring at whomever has the temerity to wait their turn to sit across from her. Abramović is present – get it?
But beyond the obvious, the artist is also present in every piece throughout the show spread across most of MOMA’s second floor. She may not be one of the pair who stands pointing at each other like accusatory mannequins, but you feel her energy of the sadistic joy of seeing somebody get it good and somebody give it good. But exactly who is who?
That’s her sitting back to back with another woman’s long hair braided into hers, hopelessly tangled with an unseen twin forever pulling her back. There she is nestled naked beneath an outstretched skeleton, providing comfort and companionship to her inevitable end.
And if she’s not one of the two nudes who stand only inches apart facing each other in a narrow doorway, she is surely one of the many passersby who gamely pass between them, gingerly confronting issues of intimacy and shame, all the while maintaining a façade of business as usual. “Who me? Passing through two naked men with their lengthy johnsons brushing my wrists like flaccid doorknobs? No big.”
Seeing the many films of her previous work scattered throughout the exhibition provides neither distance nor harbor from reality. Watching Abramović pound a skull into her naked chest, her ample breasts bouncing each time the skull bangs against her sternum, is not a sight nor sound soon to be forgotten. And it takes a particularly stout character to watch her documentation of scrubbing a bloody skeleton clean, like a cheery housewife might attack stubborn bathroom grime with a toothbrush.
Yes the artist is present, but not just in the flesh, not just in spirit, and not just in film. After an afternoon wandering these sad pavilions of cruelty and frailty that somehow evoke the importance and joy of being alive, Abramović is present in you.