The Artist is Present. Ish.

Seems like this summer is the age of the artist deigning to grace their public with their presence for more than just the private view. Ish. Continuing a theme I touched upon last year after seeing Antony Gormley’s “One and Other” exhibit, in which the artist handed over the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square in London to successive members of the British public to do with it what they liked, a couple of shows in New York this summer are similarly inclusive.

Marina Abramovic, for example, was heroic at MOMA, turning up from open to close every day from March 14 through May 31 to stare off a motley crew of assailants who included the moved, the confused, the uber-fans and, of course, the slew of celebs you might expect in Manhattan. Those attendees were the attention-grabbing but easily the least interesting thing about the piece, which culminated in a reunion between Marina and her former partner-in-life-art-love-hate-crime, Ulay. I was in France for the finale (for my brother’s wedding, which was a lovely and happy time so I can’t regret not being there, though I’d have loved to have beamed in for this moment) and so missed the former couple’s reunion, but I imagine it was impossibly moving. You couldn’t look at their work in the galleries upstairs and fail to be affected  by their fanatical sincerity and commitment to pushing any boundary they could imagine. It’s not a question of loving every moment of their work–I fair ’nuff ran through the gallery that showed video of Marina screaming herself hoarse, which I couldn’t handle at all. But the fact that she was sitting just a few floors below added to the pathos and impact of the whole.

Arguably less (self-) obsessive, but no less thought-provoking, is the current exhibit of Christian Marclay’s work at the Whitney. I’ve been familiar with Marclay’s work for some time, ever since my friend Jane excitedly dragged me to see a showing of his amazing sound/video piece, Video Quartet, which sadly isn’t on show here. But there’s much to admire. Marclay is a so-called turntablist who relishes in shattering expectations and  boundaries.

I settled down to watch a presentation of some of his older video work, including a piece called “Record Players”. The first shots show someone eagerly ripping open a new LP from its cellophane wrapper. He or she gingerly holds the vinyl in his/her hands… and then immediately scratches it violently. I literally gasped. It totally played with my expectations (I grew up believing in the sacrosanct nature of vinyl, and this was an unexpected, violent, totally shocking act.) The rest of the film shows a group of merrymakers defiling vinyl any way they can, music and rhythm coming from their actions. Towards the end, they take turns in breaking their discs and then stamping on them. Again, the noise is the soundtrack. It might sound a bit unlikely, but it’s intriguing and quite amazing.

Marclay is also interested in his audience. At the show here, one wall has been converted into a huge chalkboard, complete with musical staves. Attendees are encouraged to daub thoughts and notes (music and text). Another installation (image shown, top) is Marclay’s piece, Graffiti Composition, a seven year project in which the artist stuck up blank sheet music around Berlin, collecting it after it had been added to by locals. Now these images are used as scores for musicians to interpret, in performances that will take place throughout the duration of the show.

Honestly, I’m not sure what all this means apart from that remembering to be mindful that other people can have good, useful ideas too is a critical skillset we’d all do well to remember and develop more. For successful innovation to happen, alternative points of view have to be heard. That might happen by giving power to the public (Gormley) or it might occur by throwing yourself on your community (Abramovic). Alternatively, you might prefer to curate your audience (Marclay). All tactics have their merits. All are brave, deserve our applause–and have wider applications outside of the museum and in the world at large.

Image: Christian Marclay, Graffiti Composition, 1996–2002. Portfolio of 150 digital prints. Printed by Muse X Editions, Los Angeles, published by Paula Cooper Gallery, New York. Courtesy the artist and Paula Cooper Gallery. © Christian Marclay


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