Yes, Marina Abramović Is Selling Out—and That's OK

The performance artist has raised eyebrows by working with Jay Z and Lady Gaga, but her new show embraces the age-old necessity of commodifying art.
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AP / Evan Agostini

“Being cool,” my art-student friend told me during the intermission of Marina Abramović’s new show The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, “is knowing about what other people don’t know about.” Which, he continued, is why he hides his fanboy-like admiration from Abramović from his friends. Nowadays, she’s too popular to be cool.

The performance art world would seem to agree. Marina Abramović has, for four decades, been a noted figure in performance art, and among its most extreme practitioners. Abramović is known for extreme acts; she’s stripped and starved herself, often over long periods of time. Her art sits at the juncture of theater, spirituality, and masochism. If you remember that long scene in My Dinner With Andre, where Andre Gregory describes being buried alive as part of an artwork—Marina Abramović is like that, but with more blood and nudity.

But today, she’s often accused of being a sellout; the art magazine Hyperallergic referred to Abramović’s short dance with Jay Z “the day performance art died,” and even The New York Times has divided her career into two parts, bisected by the 2010 retrospective and exhibit “The Artist Is Present.” In the first, she’s an “avant-garde, inward-looking Belgrade-born experimentalist.” But since 2010, she’s a “celebrity darling.”

Something did change with the 2010 show at the Museum of Modern Art: At age 64, Abramović got discovered. The show was a combination of a retrospective of 40 years of work (actors restaged some of Abramović’s most notorious performance pieces: standing naked in doorways, lying naked with skeletons, etc.) and a new performance piece in which Abramović sat motionless, staring into the eyes of anyone who wanted to sit opposite her. As it turns out, thousands of people did, and waited up to six hours for the privilege. Since The Artist is Present, Abramović has collaborated with Lady Gaga, chilled with James Franco (and worked on a movie about his life), and announced the founding of the Marina Abramović Institute, a school in Hudson, New York, where she will teach her method to students.

Well, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. While it predates some of the most recent anti-Abramović hype, you can’t help but feel that The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, is in on the joke. It begins with the artist’s funeral—attended by three dogs, wandering on the stage of the Park Avenue Armory—and it seems to wink at the haters, to acknowledge the transition of the last few years and to revel in it.

Life and Death is actually less Abramović’s own creation than that of her artistic collaborators, a kind of hipster all-star cast featuring theater producer/auteur Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach), singer Antony, and actor Willem Defoe. According to the program notes—formatted as a large-size newspaper with Abramović’s obituary on the front page—Abramović only provided a few basic incidents from her life, leaving her collaborators to decide what to do with them. She has done this before—offer up her life as the basis for a work created by others—though never at this high a wattage.

The result, unsurprisingly, feels a lot more like Robert Wilson than like Marina Abramović. Stunning tableaus, slow-moving gestures that are at once poignant and absurd, brilliant lighting and staging, and an elliptical form that asks as many questions as it answers. Willem Defoe is unbelievably brilliant, narrating the show in a variety of personas, and rapid-firing bewilderingly complex instructions to Abramović’s performance pieces; a blizzard of dates, affairs, and breakups; and repeated lines which function as mnemonic devices, jogging memory and giving birth to the scenes on stage. Antony’s music, partly performed by the singer himself (who looks oddly like Abramović), is as haunting and unexpected as ever. And Abramović, playing her mother in the first act and herself in the second, is a terrifying presence.

And yet, there is something odd about the show’s first act, which focuses on Abramović’s unhappy childhood, marked by abusive, violent parents. The abuse is horrible, the staging is brilliant, and yet, it’s unclear what the point of this narrative is. That Abramović’s self-endangering art really is masochistic after all? Or, worse, a reenactment of her childhood? Really?

It’s only in the second act that Life and Death begins to cohere. Abramović is brought out on a tableau, reclining like an icon. She is assumed into heaven, like an icon. And that’s who’s dead: the icon, the unhappy artist with the unhappy childhood, the character, the cliché. Marina Abramović.

It’s this character who chants “Salt… salt in my wounds,” only to switch the words to “Gold… gold in my wounds.” It’s this character who is perhaps Abramović’s longest-duration performance piece yet—an artifice, like Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton, or the Bob Dylans of Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There or Dylan’s own Masked and Anonymous. The hype is the art is the persona is the performance.

For some time now, the question surrounding Abramović has been, Has she sold out? But that very question seems anachronistic. It implies that there is “high art” at MoMA, and then “low culture” at the Barclays Center, and never the twain shall meet. Never mind that Warhol guy, or Keith Haring, or Takashi Murakami, or the plethora of artists who have thrived at the intersections of popular and elite culture. For that matter, maybe Michelangelo “sold out” when he took that commission from the Medicis.

The reality is, art has always sold out, and contemporary art has recognized that. Would it be better for Abramović to fund her new center with government grants, if the often-erotic artist could ever score one to begin with? Surely Abramović is using Lady Gaga for the publicity, exposure, and funding as much as Gaga is using Abramović for artistic credibility, shock value, and cool factor—and surely both of them realize that and celebrate it. “Artpop,” indeed.

Moreover, as Michael Stipe said when R.E.M. signed with Warner Brothers, “at a certain point, it becomes more interesting to work within the mainstream.” Here’s an opportunity not only for Abramović to bring a language of art to a vast new audience that has never before encountered it (I follow Lady Gaga on Facebook, and once I saw 50,000 followers "like" her status updates about Abramović—more than the entire readership of ArtForum), but also for new questions to be asked in Abramović’s art itself. Yoko Ono moved onto much larger stages of art and activism when she married John Lennon. Similarly, Abramović now has a new, larger stage on which to play.

And there is no larger stage than the Park Avenue Armory, one of the biggest enclosed spaces in New York City. Wilson, Antony, Defoe, and artistic director Alex Poots have offered up the image of the Artist, using Marina Abramović’s life as material. So have many of her new fans. And yet, at the end of Life and Death, it is Abramović, high above the stage in a swing, saying “bye bye” to pain, fear, death, and perhaps art itself. She’s moving upstate, starting a school. Maybe even gardening.

So, maybe it’s true that Abramović died when she danced with Jay Z—or a myth of her, a commodity which she can now liquidate to go on to the next thing. Maybe that’s selling out. Or maybe it’s trading up.

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Jay Michaelson is the author of five books. His most recent is Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment.

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