Marina Abramovic at MoMA

In the MoMA’s Atrium Marina Abramovic sits at a wooden table dressed in a high-necked, long-sleeved navy blue dress that gathers in a pool of fabric at her feet. She’s lit on all sides by 5ks – big, bright, hot lights. Her face is serene and statuesque, her gaze completely focused, and you’re welcome to take the chair on the other side of the table and sit with her for as long as you like.

Meanwhile the rest of her retrospective, “The Artist is Present,” is happening upstairs, and really, it’s a happening. Far more than pictures on a wall in a series of white rooms, there’s an energy and ‘aliveness’ to Abramovic’s work. No doubt this has a lot to do with the bevy of reperformers who recreate some of her more famous performances throughout the exhibition and whose nakedness seems to titillate everyone in the room. The famous entrance, for example, the narrow space between the two naked sentries through which one must pass in order to get to the rest of the exhibit, has visitors scratching their beards. Mostly, I think, because MoMA has democratically provided a second entrance without a clothing optional policy, and so visitors have to make a decision. “If I go through the second entrance, am I a wimp or a prude?” or “If I go through the first, which way do I face?” Once on the other side I watched an older woman slip through the two bodies and do a little victory dance.

It’s a fitting introduction to Abramovic’s work, which is less about putting on a show for a seated audience and more about physical, tangible human interaction and emotional transference. If this sounds like performance art mumbo jumbo to you, consider Abramovic’s total commitment to her work and her unbelievable discipline. During some performances, especially those that last several days, she fasts and doesn’t speak, as in “The House With Ocean View,” the 2002 piece in which she lived in a NY gallery for 12 days and was on view to the public for all of her daily functions.

Abramovic doesn’t show up and give a performance and then go home to her normal life. The performance is her life and her life is the performance. In fact there’s a good chance that as you’re reading this she’s sitting in MoMA looking into a stranger’s face, never breaking her gaze. And when you finish reading and go on to something else, when you’re at work and when you go home afterwards and eat your dinner, she’ll still be there. And if at any point you’re not sure, you can even watch her. It’s a commitment to her art that is admittedly tiring to watch but thrilling to witness, and if you accept her invitation to participate in it with her it’s an experience that cannot be put into words, which is, of course, her intention.

Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present at MoMA until May 31, 2010.