A little while ago I watched The Artist is Present, a film about Marina Abramovic’s preparation for and participation in her 2010 retrospective at MOMA, New York. At the centre of the film is Abramovic’s eponymous performance piece, which involved her sitting at a small table for the duration of the three month long exhibition. Across the table from her was an empty seat that visitors were invited to sit on. Touching or gesture appeared to be banned so the artist and spectator were left to contemplate each other for presumably a given amount of time. Other visitors stood or sat around the edge of the gallery space watching or waiting their turn to sit opposite Abramovic.
What was striking about the piece was the way it seemed to capture the imagination of the public, at the very least the gallery-going public, and the extreme emotional impact sitting or even wanting to sit opposite from Abramovic had on individuals. This may have been partly down to the editing of the film but the exhibition did attract thousands of visitors apparently and as it neared the end of its three month run we see queues forming of people who are desperate to participate. On one level this could be another manifestation of the celebratory culture, albeit of a somewhat more clannish nature to that you might read in OK or other celeb driven magazines. One scene features the Hollywood actor James Franco, who visits the exhibition only to be asked by another visitor if he acts.
Abramovic set out with her performance to ‘achieve a luminous state of being’ and to engage her audience in an ‘energy dialogue’. She say’s she knew it was the right piece to do because the mere thought of it made her ‘nauseous’ . Describing her piece in mystical terms seems appropriate for both in the way Abramovic committed her body to the ascetic discipline of sitting almost motionless every day for three months and in the reaction to those who made the trip to see her and especially those who sat across from her, the performance begins to take on the character of a religious experience.
This is interesting because, certainly in the UK, maybe less so in the US, religious belief is on the wane. The recently published Census for England and Wales reported 14.1 million people as having no religion. And yet one of the things that religious practice gives us – a set of rituals that promote a shared set of values and regulates our daily or weekly behaviours – still seems important to people, though clearly those rituals and shared experience can come through other non-religious routes, politics, the media for example. The art critic Peter Fuller often wrote about the absence of a shared set of beliefs or references through which the viewer can look at and understand contemporary art. Without this framework in which he or she can locate their work then the practice of the artist, according to Fuller, would begin to resemble that of the mental patient (Pollock, Debuffet) or mimic advertising and the language of capitalism (Hamilton, Warhol).
Another current artist whose work displays the language of ritual is Spartacus Chetwynd, one of the finalists in this years Turner Prize. Her Turner piece Odd Man Out had all the features of a tribal ritual; totems, movement and dance, markings and clothing to transform the human image. The drawings of Chetwynd’s fellow finalist Paul Noble, of his fictional Nobson Newtown, also have an obsessional quality about them. If Chetwynd’s performance draws on animism, Noble and Abramovic recall, I think, the actions of early christian hermits or anchorites, who would be shut away from the community in order to devote themselves to strict religious practice.
What each of these artists lack of course is that widely shared set of beliefs in which to locate their practice. For Fuller, who was in his early career a Marxist and atheist, nature provided that shared experience. Watching The Artist is Present, I’m not sure if the people who came to look at Abramovic were coming consciously with a shared set beliefs or experiences. I don’t know if that was even something Abramovic was wanting or expecting as a sort of precursor to visitors coming to her exhibition. Maybe it was enough for each visitor to come with their own expectations, prejudices and enthusiasms and make of the work of Abramovic (or Chetwynd or Noble) what they will.
I read a quote recently of someone who said that galleries were the new cathedrals, or something like that, frustratingly I now can’t find the quote. It may have been a response to those Census figures and in some ways it feels an accurate statement. I’m certainly not arguing for a return to widespread religious practice and belief. I am concerned though, like Peter Fuller was, that in the absence of some shared values making art in a society that under globalisation is becoming ever more atomised that artists often seem to do no more than obsessively work away in mental or physical isolation producing work that is amusing or interesting and in some cases highly valued but ultimately irrelevant.