By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 18, 2010; E02
NEW YORK -- For years, Marina Abramovic was one of those radical artists who make their wildest peers seem tame. As one of the great pioneers of performance art, her medium was herself, and she played fast and loose with it. In a piece called "Rhythm O" from 1974, the year before she fled to the West from her native Yugoslavia, she set out 72 objects and implements, from an ax to a red rose, and invited her audience to apply them to her body. In a nerve-wracking performance from 1980, she held a bow so that its arrow pointed at her heart; facing her, a fellow artist named Ulay, her boyfriend and collaborator, drew the bowstring that put her life at risk. In a piece from 1977, less risky but in some ways more unnerving, Abramovic and Ulay stood nude, facing each other on the two sides of a doorway and leaving barely enough room between them for someone to pass through. Anyone who wanted to enter or leave the gallery had to brush against their naked body parts.
Those wild years have passed. In "Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present," her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art -- the first comprehensive show she's had in the United States -- Abramovic, now 63, has let herself become a work of art like any other. The museum has tamed her.
In the first rooms of this sprawling, raucous survey, videos and photographs of the early performances leave them feeling as powerful as ever. Even though you know the outcome, you still worry that Ulay will loose that arrow or that someone will use the ax to chop away at the artist; you still feel anxiety at the thought of brushing past a naked stranger's nipple or glans. Documentation of another performance, in which the healthy Abramovic took strong drugs, first for catatonia (they sent her into spasm) and then for schizophrenia (they knocked her out), still leaves you feeling that her dedication to her art form must be close to insane.
Strangely, however, when MoMA and the artist restage some of these old moments live, they lose their force. Early Abramovic performances must once have felt like harsh little fragments of reality, eager to invade an art world that preferred appealing commodities. Now, restaged at MoMA, they feel like fragments of reality that have been safely commodified and artsied up, like the fruit in a still life. Partly, that's because Abramovic has hired hard-bodied young pros (actors, dancers) to take her place in these "reperformances," as she calls them, and that changes everything.
For most of these projects, it matters that it was the artist herself who first performed in them. They involved a full conflation between artist-as-maker and the artwork that's made. That gave Abramovic's performances a special power and poignancy, and a true sense of danger. Now that she's just stage-directing others, you know that no one can be truly at risk, given today's liability issues and rules on workplace safety. Once upon a time, this artist's artform was herself, stuck in a predicament; get rid of the artist in that equation, and all you've got is some stagy street theater.
The nudes-in-a-doorway piece, for instance, is no longer installed on an obligatory path from one place to another; it's off to one side, so that MoMA can leave an alternate, more obvious route for those visitors the work might unsettle. That means that no one passing between those nudes is doing it against his or her will, or with surprise, or is taking anything but pleasure in it. Also, now that it is "staffed" by a changing roster of gorgeous professionals, the whole piece becomes voyeuristic and suspect. It's one thing for an artist to offer her body to her audience; it's another for her to pay young beauties to do so.
In the videos of the original work, you can hardly blame Abramovic and Ulay for having firm young bodies: The piece was about them, and that was the flesh they happened to have. Three decades later, it's easy to blame Abramovic for choosing "replacements" who are equally toned, buying into fat-free cliches of beauty you'd think she'd want to resist. Abramovic has long insisted she is no feminist, and this show proves her right. (A group of teenage boys seemed especially pleased to experience the reperformance of this piece, since at the moment they came by it was being staged by two lithe women. It struck me that this was like using two flutes to "reperform" a Beethoven sonata conceived for violin and piano.)
What's really happened in this retrospective is that Abramovic, the daring and experimental young outsider, has been hijacked by herself 30 years later and has now become a histrionic grande-dame artiste.
The newest piece in the show, titled "The Artist Is Present" and conceived for MoMA's atrium, is just Abramovic, sitting at a table for the duration of the exhibition, offering visitors the chance to sit across from her in silence and stare into her eyes. That's not a bad nod at what paintings must feel like on museum walls and a nice literalization of the idea of performance artists as their own works of art, obliged to remain on display during museum hours. But then Abramovic ruins the simplicity of her conceit by dressing up in a blood-red gown with a train and by using high-design furniture as props. Instead of reading as a straightforward experiment -- as the investigation of a social situation -- the piece comes to read as a "performance" in the operatic sense, meant to astonish and impress. That red dress turns Abramovic into an art object, but only according to hackneyed, romantic notions of what makes something art.
The kind of showy melodrama that we find in MoMA's atrium runs through most of the more recent works on view in the exhibition, from a huge pile of spotlit cow bones scrubbed white by the artist to a piece that casts her as a Jesus figure, suspended high up on a wall in a blaze of baroque light. (That 1997 work, titled "Luminosity," originally featured Abramovic, perched absolutely naked on a tiny bicycle saddle protruding on a bracket. The young "reperformers" at MoMA get to have foot- and hand-rests, too, which helps dilute the piece.)
Somehow, over the 40 years of her career, Abramovic went from making work that was robust and scary, even verging on macho, to work that seems to buy into old cliches of woman as hysteric, at the mercy of untamed emotions and a surfeit of flesh. She's become too present for her own good.
Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present runs through May 31 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Call 212-708-9400 or visit http://www.moma.org.