Wow what an amazing class that was with Wafaa Bilal! Like Nathanael I took extensive notes throughout his talk and our discussion at the end, and going over these again this past week it was easy for me to identify several main ideas/comments that had the strongest impact on me. What’s interesting is that not all of these were major points within his presentation, or even ‘points’ at all: some were simply small passing observations that I felt gave me very intimate (and thus unique and powerful) insights into his work.
I wanted to explore this further, to look at the relationship between these takeaways and the genre of interventionist performance art as a whole. In other words, to see how his commentary could be applied to another work. During his talk several other artists and their performance pieces came to mind, but one in particular: Marina Abramovic and her works The Artist is Present (March-May 2010) and her Rhythm series (1974).
Marina Abramovic is a conceptual-performance artist who has been making art since the early 1970s, just as the genre of performance art itself began to really take off. In March – May 2010 MOMA held a major retrospective of her work, the biggest performance-exhibition MOMA has ever seen. The retrospective included detailed documentation and re-enactment of a collection of her past works from the past four decades. Yet the main attraction was a new piece by the honored artist herself. Named accordingly, The Artist is Present, the work was a performance in which Abramovic sat motionless in the museum atrium for the entire duration of the show (a total of more than 700 hours). Opposite her was an empty chair in which visitors were invited to sit and return her silent gaze.
Wafaa Bilal made a point of distinguishing between performance art that is interactive and performance art that is dynamic, and emphasized the importance of the artist-performer’s own body (particularly its movement) to achieve both of these states within the spectator-participants. As he phrased, “the body in motion triggers something in the viewer… body language tends to activate the audience’s body.” Both Bilal and Abramovic seek to push the limitations of their body, often to the point of suffering, on multiple levels. Bilal revealed that Domestic Tension (2007) “emerged from a need within to break myself physically and emotionally.” Abramovic’s 1974 piece Rhythm 0 – the last in a series of Rhythm works – also involved surrendering all power to her audience. In place of a loaded paint-ball gun, Abramovic’s audience had a selection of 72 objects with which to induce either pleasure or pain within the artist. These included a feather, a flower, honey, scissors, a scalpel, a whip and a gun and a single bullet. The time frame was significantly smaller (6 hours as opposed to 31 days), yet the potential for serious damage was much higher. In addition, Bilal’s attackers could hide behind the detachment and anonymity of the system, whereas Abramovic’s aggression was immediate and first-hand. She described “I felt really violated: they cut up my clothes, stuck rose thorns in my stomach, one person aimed the gun at my head, and another took it away.”
Both of these works are clearly examples of what Bilal termed “Dynamic Encounters”: platforms with which all end states are unknown the narrative is kept open. Abramovic’s The Artist is Present is another – considerably less violent yet equally intense – instance of a “dynamic encounter” between the bodies of the performer and the audience. Here there were no invitations for torture, no props (except for the table and pair of chairs), and no “active” performance. In fact the piece was defined by her lack of movement, so that all that really existed was the direction and concentration of her gaze. The audience members typically mirrored her stillness, yet they were in no sense unmoved. Many that participated were moved to tears: one artist collated a whole blog of such portraits as they sat openly crying opposite Abramovic. Thus instead of a “body in motion”, she embodied an absence of motion, which with its peculiar gentle ferocity, may have been more powerful than handing them a weapon.
It is here that I will remind you of the question that I posed to Bilal at the end of his presentation, requesting him to expand upon his experience of this balance between control and submission between the artist and the audience throughout the duration of his performances. He replied by saying that it was necessary to release control during a piece for it to have an open narrative, and thus exhibit dynamic encounters. However what I find interesting is not when both these artists chose to let go of their power, but when it was forced upon them, and the implications of these two instances. For Bilal in Domestic Tension this occurred the day that the system broke down from overdrive and he was without gun-fire for a considerable time. Whilst it may have appeared that this was his first encounter with any ‘power’, as he was no longer a victim/target, it actually represented a moment where the platform which he had set up (controlled), and in which he had chosen to be passive, now no longer existed. So the question was in what alternative system was his body to inhabit now? He described feeling a sense of loss for the firing of the gun, which in turn invoked deeper personal losses, as he said “The gun was my company in the space, as soon as it was silent there was no need to think about my safety so I put down my guard and emotion came flooding in.” (This was really moving to hear for me.) Each gun shot for Bilal can be likened to each stranger opposite Abramovic. Whilst they may be somewhat ‘passive’ in their respective performance, and the narratives somewhat ‘open’, both their presence and unfamiliar identities are constants. So for Abramovic her true loss of control came when the person who sat down in front of her was someone she knew, and for that matter, very, very well. On the last night of the show her former lover-collaborator of fourteen years, a man who goes by the name of Olay, was the one returning her gaze. For the first time it was she that broke down in tears (however momentarily). The footage is extremely moving, the link is below.
The last aspect I wanted to touch upon briefly is the connection I see between Abramovic’s The Artist is Presence and Bilal’s Third I Project. In Third I Project, the importance of subject and capture device is inverted: the system, (not the image) is the work. It is the fact that a camera is surgically inserted into his skull, and is programmed to take photos every minute for a year, each one uploaded instantaneously to the Internet. The images, however interesting and often unexpectedly beautiful, are somewhat inconsequential. I believe Bilal’s ‘third I’ can be aligned with Abramovic’s presence in her work, as the title itself too suggests. The artist’s situation (within the gallery, with an open invitation to audience members to sit and share her space for as long as they wish), is the work’s system. What she looks like, what the table and chairs are like, who the participants are, and how they react, are all part of the work, but of less significance. With Third I Project Bilal also talks about the convergence of surveillance and sousveliance: the notion of “returning the gaze”. This is certainly a large component of Abramovic’s work, both literally and metaphorically. In performance art there is often a disconnect between performer and audience, and the gaze is primarily uni-directional (audience onto performer). However in The Artist is Present, Abramovic’s performance is precisely what Bilal termed “returning the gaze”. However Abramovic is also aware that in this exchange of gazes, the hierarchy of artist over audience collapses: they are both objects of each other’s gaze. In this way, Abramovic is as Bilal described himself: “also a victim of surveillance, because you can’t control it.” We are all simultaneously surveyors and victims of surveillance.
Here’s the link to the video of Ulay and Abramovic and the blog of tearful audience members, both incredibly moving.
PS. Lady Gaga went.