We normally think of galleries and libraries as places that host physical objects – a stockpile of memorabilia that can be revisited, considered and admired. They are spaces for looking at, rather than touching and interacting with, objects.
But performance artist Marina Abramović challenges this conventional relationship between the viewer and piece of art – and the reader and a book – with two exhibitions in Copenhagen this summer.
From June 17, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art will exhibit the first major retrospective of Abramović’s work in Europe, entitled The Cleaner. Only four days later, The Royal Library will open a collaboration between Abramović and its permanent collection at the modern extension, the, Black Diamond, entitled Abramović Method for Treasures.
Much of Abramović’s work is about presence and the subtle interaction between the artist and her audience. So Tine Colstrup, who curated The Cleaner at Louisiana, had to recreate a physical interaction between the audience and recordings of Abramović’s performance pieces: typically video, audio, and photographs.
The inverse is true at the library, however, where Abramović is extracting the content from physical books to create an interaction with the audience. In both gallery and library, the viewer is asked to reconsider how they interact with a book, and what they consider ‘art’.
Violence and spirituality
Contemporary and performance artists have long sought to unsettle the laws of the gallery space – the ‘white cube’ – taking the focus away from what is within the frame and looking instead at the body of the artist and, by extension, the viewer.
Tine Colstrup explains that performance art, and even the recordings themselves, are not a typical gallery experience.
“Performance art highlights tensions between people and pain and anger and gender politics, war and suffering, in a different way than what we typically experience in a gallery.”
Serbian-born Marina Abramović has labelled herself ‘the grandmother of performance art’, and has pioneered the genre since the 1970s, using her body as the primary material of her work. Her early work tended towards the violent, and her first publicly-performed piece, in 1973, involved her blindly stabbing between, and often at, her fingers.
Since then, she has walked half the length of the Great Wall of China to meet – and break up with – her long-term partner and collaborator Ulay. She has fasted for twelve days as a ‘living installation’ at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. She’s invited strangers to use 72 objects – including a loaded gun – on her in any way they want. In 1997, she was awarded a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale for Balkan Baroque, in which she spent six days attempting to clean the blood from a pile of cow bones, representing the enduring stains of war on her own country.
“There are two very central currents running through her work – violence and a silent, more spiritual track,” says Colstrup.
“But within these two veins, the rite of passage and catharsis are two very central concepts for her. At Louisiana, for example, our title The Cleaner represents the many works that deal with cleansing or cleaning or cleaning out and going from one stage to another.”
In selecting works for the exhibition, Colstrup worked in collaboration with curator Lena Essling from Moderna Museet in Stockholm, where an adapted version of the exhibition has already been on display. Colstrup has described the exhibition as a very classical chronological retrospective, in that it moves from Abramović’s early work to her contemporary pieces, and has also grown in collaboration with the artist.
What makes an exhibition like this so challenging to curate is that much of Abramović’s more recent work no longer relies on her own body. Colstrup therefore has to recreate the intimacy and dialogue with the participants in her pieces, but without her physical presence.
“Performance art is built in a paradox: it’s live and it’s here and now, a real body in real space. Yet video and photography have always been performance art’s best friends.”
Colstrup has deliberately avoided a presentation limited to the headphones and 1970s TV monitors that typically accompany Abramović’s early work, and instead presents videos of these performances as large projections to imply a kind of body that is not there. One trilogy of pieces, entitled Freeing the Voice, Freeing the Memory and Freeing the Body, will be projected in close proximity, so the sound naturally flows between the three.
But it was important to the museum, and to Abramović herself, to use ‘live bodies’ as well as the documentation of her earlier performances. Both Freeing the Voice – a piece in which a woman screams until she loses her voice – and Imponderabilia – in which a naked man and woman stand on each side of a doorway, forcing guests to squeeze between them – will be performed while the exhibition is open, the latter every day.
“Performance art always takes place live, in the here and now – we all know the difference between attending a live concert and seeing it on video. We all know the feeling when the energy in the room is really intense versus other times when it is flat. This is what the now is all about. We are in the situation together, and it is everyone’s contribution that creates the situation.”
Colstrup is particularly excited about the unknowns of this exhibition, and the fact that it will be shaped by the visitors themselves.
“We do not know how the audience will react and, in the re-performance of Imponderabilia, whether people will feel comfortable or not, or what will the dialogue be. We will only really know as it happens, and it will change minute to minute.”
But it is not just in the gallery that this curation of spontaneous reactions can be powerfully felt. For several years, the Black Diamond has collaborated with artists in order to make their hard-to-exhibit treasures – the rare books that are kept untouched behind glass – more accessible.
Spearheading this collaboration is Christina Back, exhibition architect at the Royal Library, who thought Abramović could create new and exciting dialogues – not between performer and audience, but between book and audience.
While previous artistic collaborations have focussed on visually presenting the contents of the books, with Abramović it quickly became clear that she was going to create a new method of interacting with books altogether, and in so doing create a connection between visitor and the precious objects locked behind glass.
Last year, Abramović visited the library to see the exhibition space and hear experts talk about the kinds of treasures she could work with. She was also given a list of the library’s treasures she could use, and she read them all – from Kierkegaard to Karen Blixen, from ancient medical textbooks to Nordic Sagas – declaring she wanted it all and more.
“She is not staging the objects, but staging rituals that will create new connections with these objects,” says Back.
“We want to unfold the stories of the Royal Library. We want to show the amazing treasures and we want to the public to connect to them. And I know that Marina Abramović, in developing this process, has the same goal. She really wants young people to slow down and reclaim the possibilities of connecting to wonderful literature.”
The result is the Abramović Method for Treasures, an immersive exhibition space that can only host 17 visitors at a time. When you arrive, you hand in your digital possessions – your phone and your watch – to detach from time, and in return you receive a specially-designed audio system: black, simple, with just one button. You take off your shoes and walk onto a carpet that she has selected, then lie down on specially-designed human shelves to be engulfed by an audio experience featuring her voice and the voices of the books.
“What is so fascinating to us is that the object is not the main part – it is much more about relationships. She develops rituals that create a condition, and there will be several ways of understanding what is happening. The understanding of the artwork is given to the visitor. And for us, this is what has been lacking at the library – the visitor having a personal connection.”
Back says the Black Diamond exhibition is supposed to say to the visitor, “Here is something that is not there.” Between Louisiana and the Black Diamond, the visitor will interact with things that are not there: the memory of Abramović’s performance pieces from the 1970s, the content of books detached from their physical casings.
But the results are not completely immaterial. Abramović’s work confronts us, often violently, with that which we cannot see and do not quite understand. We are taken away from the objects on the wall, and the books on the shelves, to deal with the ideas they want us to confront.
“Go to any classical art museum, and you will see the motifs of Abramović’s work – the screaming woman of female hysteria, the nude body, pain, love, hate,” says Colstrup.
“But there, they are trapped in the frame. What Abramović does is make those motifs alive again, embodied in the here and now, ready to experience anew.” M
Marina Abramović in Copenhagen
A major retrospective of Abramović’s early concept sketches, paintings and sound pieces to presentations of the artist’s performances up until today.
Opens June 17
Abramović Method for Treasures
Taking Kierkegaard, Saxo’s chronicles of Danish history, and the observations of Tycho Brahe as her starting point, Abramović has created an immersive total installation that includes a range of rituals, an audio system and specially designed shelves for people.
Opens June 21