Monday, April 9, 2007

Paradoxes of European Arts and Culture

New Europe - new art.
"Marina Abramovic (Belgrade, 1946) is based in Amsterdam, although she continues to travel all over the world. She has had solo exhibitions and given performances in many countries, including 'Moving Pictures' (2002), in New York's Guggenheim Museum, 'The Hero' (2001), in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington; 'Balkan Baroque' (1997), in the XLVII Venice Biennale; 'Becoming Visible' (1995), in the Istanbul Biennial; 'Dragon Heads' (1993), in La Caixa, Barcelona; Documenta 9, Kassel (1992) and 'Magiciens de la Terre' (1989) in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris... Throughout her artistic career, Abramovic has tested the physical and mental limits of the human body. She was one of the pioneers in performances in the 1970s, and has said that performances enabled her to leap to other spaces and dimensions. They also allowed her to explore her body in public, upsetting social codes, and to adopt strategies that destroy myths about what is female, the body, its representation and identity."
I find it easy to illustrate and explain this thesis with facts. And with any discortions. Arts is a phenomenon determened by its time and place and the particular conditions unfolding there. Why, another speaker might instead enumarate quite different facts of artistic life. Facts that would cause neither joy, nor the impression, that the situation of arts in changing. Europe has essentially improved. Let say, we can find a notice that a book of poetry, published in Europe, runs on overage two or three hundred coppies only, while in Soviet times the smallest number of copies for a such a book was six or seven thousand.
Those of you who read the Times or J's Theater (Hi John!) or just keep up on these things have caught that Marina Abramovic is doing Seven Easy Pieces this week at the Guggenheim in New York. Six are restaged well known performance works by Abramovic and others. One -- "Entering the Other Side" -- is created specifically for this exhibition.
Last Thursday night, we went to see Abramovic's restaging of the Vito Acconci piece Seedbed, which first involved Acconci laying underneath a false floor in a gallery and masturbating, while talking into a microphone to passersby. Acconci responded to the sounds of people walking on this false floor. Errant Bodies attributes the following words to Acconci: "I was part of the floor; a viewer who entered that room stepped into my power field — they came into my house.” Much of the talk I'd heard about Ambramovic's recreation was about the suspicion (maybe even hope) that it would mean something different because she was a woman. I'm not sure that her being a woman made the performance something different as much as her being not-Acconci did. A big part of the difficulty I would have in answering that question has to do with the fact that I was not present at Acconci's performance. I'll take down some notes on the Abramovic's performance, but first, let me say what I think about Abramovic's work in general.
Abramovic's early work, though often discussed in the context of a number of other artists producing high-stakes but seemingly meaningless performances, has always intrigued me. Part of my enjoyment of her work has to do with trying to figure out the mystery in it. Sometimes the mystery in her performance is around what it means; sometimes it's about what makes her want to do it. Often, though, the mystery has been about what I would think were I to experience the work first hand. One of my favorite pieces is the Ulay and Abramovic work Imponderabilia (seen at the right). They describe the project in this way:

In a selected space Naked we stand opposite each other in the museum entrance. The public entering the museum has to turn sideways to move through the limited space between us. Everyone wanting to get past has to choose one of us.
In this piece, much like in others of their collaborations, the performance is an opportunity for the performers and others to investigate relations. How do people feel about gender and propriety? If you have to brush up against a man's naked front and a woman's naked front, whom should you face? To whom do you give your own backside? Other works, such as Rhythm O (in which the audience had 72 objects -- including a gun -- that could be used on Abramovic's body) and Rest Energy (in which Ulay and Abramovic created tension between themselves while pointing an arrow at her heart), ask questions about physical vulnerability (or, better stated, danger) and trust. In each of these performances, I understand the question being posed. Or perhaps it's better to say that I understand what is at stake in the live bodies being and doing.
Reading about and looking at images from their work makes me wonder where I stand, what my own relationship to gender and public behavior (and issues of propriety and safety and concern for performing strangers) might be. With Seedbed, I have less of sense that my own presence (as spectator) might matter. What is there to do? Make yourself heard, I suppose, but that is obviously a choice one could easily make or not make. It's not like the choice to face one of the artists or the other in order to enter a doorway. At Abramovic's Guggenheim restaging of Seedbed, the false floor covered only a small part of the gallery floor. Spectators lined up around the circular ramp to try make their way to the ramp. Others could look down onto the ramp from many levels within the museum.
Most of the viewers were youngish student types who (like me) weren't born when Acconci performed the work the first time. Spectators were mostly polite, reverent. Some stomped around on the floor or knocked on the wall. Someone (a museum guard?) went up and asked them not to do so and they stopped for a while. It seemed like a strange way to make oneself known to the artist, who could be heard quietly moaning into a microphone. If you're going to make noise, why not say something seductive or mysterioius to the artist through the floorboards? Abramovic didn't respond to the knocking and stomping as far as I could tell. Who'd want to encourage a bunch of stomping if you'd decided to masturbate for seven hours? Or, if you're uninterested in being polite, aren't there ruder, more spectacular ways to be a spectacle? Interestingly (or is it?), at about the same time that Roselee Goldberg had made it up the ramp and sat on the floor in front of the speaker, Abramovic began to moan loudly. She finally announced that she had come six times, that she was tired, and that she had to pee. A little while later, we heard a flush and she began to speak to us: "I know you're there. I'm so glad you came tonight." etc.
I'm not sure I could have guessed it, but my experience of the reenactment of Seedbed seemed to have been affected more by Marina Abramovic's fame than by anything else. I'm not going to lie: I was interested to know for myself what it would be like. At the same time, I'm not sure I was part of the event. And did something happen? I don't feel that I was brought into the field of a body and I don't think it's just because I didn't wait in line to step on the floor.
After looking at the documentation from Brandon Labelle's project "Learning from Seedbed", I think it may be because Seedbed is (or should be) more about space than about bodies. Or perhaps it would be best to say that Seedbed may have more to do with bodies in space(s) than it has to do with a masturbating artist. "Learning from Seedbed" was exhibited at Standard Gallery in Chicago in 2003. Labelle's installation imagined the ramp as the central figure in Seedbed. There were contact mics on the ramp so that sounds made while walking on it or sound made beneath it would be amplified. The press release reads:

The status of a postcommunist country, Europen' s geopolitical situation raises questions, what is the artist' s relation to the government, politics and - above all - to moral standarts.
In the earlier, totalitarian order artists had to be in oppossition to the regime. Now they feel a certain obligation to support the policy of the new leaders of independent Europe. On the other hand, they cannot forget the "eternal artistic resistance". It is not easy to choose. Maybe it is difficult because the art, seeking for new ways, has to remain sufficiently conservative.
In the Soviet period the artist felt his freedom restricted. Freedom is the essential condition for the existence of art. For a long time the main treating in this sphere was telling of the truth. After the Restoration of Independence one is no longer a forbidden fruit for Europen artists. But when our art lost this mission, it faund itself in a quate different or strange situation. Telling the truth remains a value. But the way to the truth is different. One has to tell the truth is universal and with all possible shades which corresponds to the nature of art. But the task is more difficult than earlier, since such a truth is also sought by philosophers, essayists and politologist in their own ways.
Freedom has demanded from the artist something more than simply the truth.
It is mentioned preservation of the truth in the relative world of installations, obscureness an meaninglessness, artistic noise and broken mirrors.
Freedom has demanded from the artist to defend the moral standarts, while sometimes it is extremelly difficult even to trace them. And last freedom has demanded from a Europen artist to protect the nature of arts itself, its essential features. Not to let art be eliminated from the list of humanistic values.
Two years ago The European Council of Artists asked for information about the social status of the Europen artists. Next was the asking of the Council of Europe : the National eport "Cultural policy of Europe" has been presented and adopted. Unfortunately, we have not been so far able to give such data. There has been no sociological researches in this area. It would cost a considerable sum of money, and the state is short of money for everything. Actually, the artists themselves know best about the conditions of their life. But it is very personal, individual information and it is unknown and mystery for our sociologists.
It is evident, that an artist is poorly paid for his professional work. It is evident, that there are too many artists that they could hope for success and money in a little country like Europe. Everybody knows that, but the number of artists is increasing. On the other hand, the number of artists committing suicide is not increasing (though Europe has one of the highest percentage of suicides in Europe) . To be seems to be more important imperative in the artists life than to have. Why ? That is a why, at least from my point of view, artistical thinking as the transformation of traditional (based on Romantism or Enlightenment ideas) intellegentsia into individually thinking intellectuals.
Still, I would like to mention certain figures.
There are seven national prizes, won by artists each year (each ten thousand USD) , The Ministry of Culture has established about 200 scholarships, which can be paid to an artist during one or two years (150 USD a month) . Organizations of proffessional artists can also apply to the Ministry of Culture and get money for the realisation of certain projects (for this purpose - about 400 thousand USD in 1998).
Why is it important ?
Europe is not one of big countries. So, proffessional art and its national identity cannot be left wholy dependent on an adventturous market. Today we have new expierence : arogant and oppressive wave of senseless marketing. Indeed, lots of money is being made somewhere, but it' s distributed through society in an entirely undemokratic fashion. As essaysist Horward Jarvis has said, "a condition of wild capitalism exists here (as it does even more dangerously in Russia)".
A state that understands that is probably dreaming about the future as traditional concerns : there is need to preserve the language, the national identity, to help it' s citizens to find strength when they are faced with a choice between good and evil, between truth and lie, between genuine and false, between the temporal and the eternal.
A state can (and must) invest in the arts withs fool confidence. As the poet Marcelijus Martinaitis has said, art is the only bank in Europe that is not threatened by bankruptcy.

I do hope that this saying is truth in all countries.

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