Monday, 15 November 2010

Marina Abramovic at the Lisson Gallery - Ritualistic Hairbrushing

I must admit that, before attending this exhibition, I had never heard of the Lisson Gallery and so didn't really know what to expect. The website seemed to indicate a very sophisticated operation and one that was possibly more high-brow than my favourite artistic haunts, but I was willing to embrace the high life in the name of blogging. It therefore came as a slight shock that the Lisson was nestled between grocery shops and tired-looking buildings, whilst the gallery itself (spread across two locations in the same street) stuck out like a sore thumb.

Marina Abramovic, meanwhile, was familiar to me through studying a lot of art history and theory in my undergraduate course, though I had never witnessed her performance art. The exhibition did not involve any live work, but used video footage, projections and photography to demonstrate her previous pieces. It was incredibly easy to immerse yourself in Abramovic's world in this sparse but impressive gallery setting, and the monochromatic images really stood out. I couldn't help but notice the obvious ritualistic elements to her work, from the use of chanting and repetition to the symbols of fire, knives and lambs. There were often sacrificial leanings, such as in the Rhythm 5 piece which involved Abramovic cutting her nails and lying down inside a large star shape which had been set alight. The ensuing heat caused her to lose consciousness, and she was subsequently rescued from this performance.

Some of the artwork also struck me as being too attention-seeking to be taken seriously, and two key examples spring to mind. Firstly, the piece involving stabbing herself with a knife, which felt visceral but not really art. For me, this just felt like an 'Artist glorifies self-harm!' tabloid piece waiting to happen; it was crude, not very meaningful, and also managed to look quite dull in its repetitive nature. I have never considered self-harm to be art, and I don't believe anyone else in the gallery did. If the knife had been another object then this could have formed an interesting comment on the monotonies of daily life and those ritualistic tasks we perform. Another complicated piece involved Abramovic with an air blower, waiting to pass out from the air flow which, for some unknown reason, required her to be naked at the time. I felt like the nudity didn't add anything to the piece and actually proved to be distracting from the event itself. If she had been clothed, we also could have understood the air flow currents more readily, especially if she was wearing billowing fabrics. Something that looked like a drunken teenage prank could have looked almost poetic with the right approach.

Another Rhythm piece really stuck with me, and this included the chanting which I have previously mentioned. Abramovic repeatedly brushed her hair, with painful sound effects, calling for the artist to be beautiful. I couldn't tell if this was her view, the projected view of someone else, or an attempt to mimick the views of others on the beauty of art and the involvement of the artist. Because of the loud and thudding sound effects, it seemed more like self-flagellation than a call to arms for women artists. I also felt strong links with the importance of image and perfection in modern society; it is not enough for the artwork to be beautiful, but the artist must also achieve a beautiful self-image. The question is, who becomes the real work of art here?

I enjoyed seeing something different in this performance art display, but without the anxiety of witnessing a live performance (there is something of the pantomime about some of Abramovic's audience participation). Sadly, the gallery provided little information on the exhibition and there were no staff available to interview. In addition, the location of the Lisson seems a little strange, though its dual sites somehow work well together. I would recommend a visit and would be even more enthusiastic in encouraging people to discover Marina Abramovic. She is more than just a stunt-woman, and many deeper meanings can be found in much of her work, but only if she wants them to be found. I just wish she'd stop flaunting herself in what I presume is an attempt to gain artistic integrity.

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