When exactly did Marina Abramovic jump the shark?


Remember when namechecking Marina Abramovic carried some cultural cachet? Me too, but times they are a changin’. These days, hating on Abramovic is the “in” thing to do. Who’s to blame for this change of fortune?

None other than the artist herself. 

A few weeks ago, the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI) announced it was seeking “volunteers” for four positions including those in administration, tech, and production. This raised some eyebrows given that Abramovic is worth apprximately $10 million and the recent Kickstarter campaign for the institute raised an impressive $660k.

Let’s hope these volunteers at least get treated to the Abramovic-devised “mind and body cleansing exercises” the MAI is hosting in its 33K square foot space in Hudson, NY.

Let’s compare this episode to Abramovic’s collaboration with Adidas on a short film about “teamwork,” made to promote the 2014 FIFA World Cup. The video is basically a recreation of Abramovic’s 1978 piece, “Work/Relation.” In the three minute video, “workers” transport stones from one side of a room to another while wearing Adidas shoes and MAI branded robes that resemble lab coats. 

While the performance is underway, we see Abramovic looking on doe eyed and quizzical, no doubt wondering how big her endorsement check will be from the controversial sporting goods brand. Or maybe just how long she can keep “volunteers” on set, moving stones, before they realize this isn’t an actual performance piece.

The next two bones of contention coincide with Abramovic’s art. In October 2013, Abramovic did an interview with Harper’s BAZAAR entitled “Marina Abramovic Saves the World.” Cheeky, no? Harper’s catches up with the artist on her 26-acre sprawl in upstate New York (the star-shaped house is where Abramovic decompresses when away from her $1.5 million dollar Soho loft). The conversation turns to her $660K Kickstarter goal for the MAI and how she was fast approaching it due to her video collaboration with Lady Gaga. In the video, Gaga demonstrates the “Abramovic method” that will be taught at the MAI. She wanders around the estate naked and blindfolded, sits back-to-back with Abramovic in a stream, and hugs a giant crystal.

Why is this stunt eyebrow-raising? Well, when you’re a middle-class art lover thinking about funding a millionaire’s vanity art institute, you’d like to know how your money will be spent. Abramovic’s explanation? “What I want is to raise human consciousness,” she says. “Humanity is in huge crisis. People need to change their consciousness about the way they live, about the environment, about spirituality. There is so much confusion. I don’t care about making my art anymore; people have lost their purpose. I want to help them find it.”

It will cost an estimated $20 million to construct what Abramovic calls “the cultural laboratory” in Hudson. To be fair, she promises that both civilians and artists are welcome, but there is no cost specified as of yet for taking part in the “consciousness-raising exercises.” 

Now, let’s turn back the clock to 2010, a watershed year for Abramovic. It was the year of “The Artist is Present,” Abramovic’s blockbuster three month MOMA exhibition (also produced as a documentary with the same name). The performance consisted of Abramovic sitting for up to nine hours without food or a bathroom break while museumgoers waited to briefly take a seat across from her. It was basically an elaborate staring contest that smashed MOMA’s attendance records. Everyone was there: Bjork, Isabella Rossellini, and, of course, Abramovic’s BFF James Franco, about whom Abramovich is currently making a movie because “he is the most interesting actor of the moment.” (She also turned Franco into gold at one point).  

While I like the confrontation inherent in “The Artist is Present,” the idol worship exuded by curator Klaus Bisenbach felt uncomfortable. As Bisenbach put it, “Marina seduces everyone.” He goe on to say that no matter who sits in front of her, she pays the same keen attention. Some visitors likened it to looking into a mirror and coming to terms with inner pain. I appreciate the idea of art as a vehicle for self-reflection and therapy, but to queue up for hours with the express intention of staring at a woman in a gown is a bit bewildering.

And herein lies the problem. Give someone that much influence and media real estate and, next thing you know, the artist is present in Givenchy ads alongside Kate Moss, or dancing with Jay-Z in his art piece “Picasso Baby.” (Wait! Jay-Z makes performance art?)

Maybe the new disdain for Abramovic stems from a sense that she has “sold out.” Long gone are the days of her “Rhythm 10” (1973) piece in which she played the Russian game of stabbing her hand with a knife and jumping through flaming pentagrams. In her piece “Lips of Thomas,” she carved the five point Communist star into her abdomen with a razorblade, whipped herself, and laid on a block of ice shaped like a cross. In “Rhythm 0” (1974), she invited audience members to shoot her.

Marina Abramovic went from being perhaps the most punk and avant-garde performance artist to being a woman who relishes cosmetic surgery and Givenchy jerseys. It’s telling that she’s been asked to recreate many of her groundbreaking early works for institutions such as the Guggenheim. Now that she is canonized, the corporate art world has discovered how to best appropriate and monetize her.

When wealthy, superstar artists start crowdfunding for self-titled institutes whose employees are unpaid, it’s time to reconsider their credibility…and their etiquette.

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