I don’t usually write art reviews; notwithstanding my own history, it tends to be a little too close to my day job. When I do (as here), I try to skip the language of the art critic in favor of the directness of an ordinary viewer. With that introduction, let me start by sating that the Marina Abramović and William Kentridge shows at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) make a good pair.
I think art can serve a number of different purposes: to present a perspective on beauty; to challenge our assumptions about the world; to speak truth to power; and to make us uncomfortable,while using that discomfort to provoke other thoughts or feelings. Abramović’s art encompasses all of this. While you can concoct prurient justifications for seeing this show, I found the titillation unwarranted in the face of the art itself, both the videos of older pieces and the actual performers live in the galleries. Abramović’s works are not about the nudity; the body is just the clean canvas she uses for staging her ideas, and to great effect. Certainly, some works are more explicitly sexual, in the way that the naked human form can be implicitly sexual, but this rarely comes across as the purpose.
Discomfort is definitely the reigning sensation. It is uncomfortable to watch someone violently brush her thick hair, or to see two people sitting back-to-back (live) with their pony tails entwined, or even (in one of the more explicit videos) to see women of various ages running around in a muddy field in the rain, pulling up their skirts for the camera. In each case, however, that discomfort also translates into other feelings and ideas, about the role of the body, questions of beauty and age, of love and relationships and connectedness, and of patience.
At the same time, there is humor, too. I couldn’t help but smile sweetly at the video of Abramović and Ulay, her now-former partner and collaborator, running into each other and allowing their bodies to bounce gently backwards. There may be a serious statement here, about the impact on the body or about a certain kind of human frailty. But it is funny, to watch and to think about, and to imagine the two participants deciding to do this and film it. Likewise, one of the most uncomfortable pairings in the show is a video of Abramović writhing under a human skeleton—stationed next to a model, live in the gallery, under a skeleton (though it looked like a fake skeleton). The very presence of the skeleton suggests many things, death and decomposition among them, while the contorting, angry body underneath it creates other obvious connection, from passion to a passionate resisting of death. Yet it is also funny. We live in a culture that has so caricatured and cartooned the skeleton, from Halloween to YouTube videos, I think you cannot help but smile, even if you feel the seriousness of it. And again: the nudity here is anything but pornographic. Indeed, if the artist or the performer hadn’t been nude, it really would have felt like a joke, not an artistic statement.
The pairing with Kentridge works well. In his series of drawing-based video pieces exploring some of the terrible history of his native South Africa, the viewer is forced to confront the Apartheid-era conflict through hauntingly beautiful imagery. I think it is impossible not to be moved, because, unlike the more static figures in a traditional drawing or painting, these people come alive—and are abused, tortured, and murdered before your eyes, along with the landscape itself. Yet because this is not animation in the Disney-driven way we commonly think of it, the viewer never loses the connection to the artist, to the reality that these scenes are all hand-drawn. [Disclosure: this exhibition was organized in part by SFMoMA, a client.] Taken with Abramović, you have twin statements on aspects of the human condition, coming from different perspectives but united in the kind of truth-telling that art does so well.
The Abramović exhibition closes at the end of May, so anyone should hurry to see it. For the reader who cannot get to MoMA, some of Kentridge’s works can be found here, on YouTube.