Yesterday I caught Marina Abramović at MoMa. Then I saw Fuerza Bruta. The achingly austere exhibition and disco-ish theater piece don't have much in common besides naked/ near-naked people. But the pairing further confused my feelings about interactive art.
Abramović is a very (self-?) important performance artist who could only have emerged from the minimalist war-ravaged cocoon of Serbia. MoMa's exhibition of her work, "The Artist Is Present," is the museum's first devoted exclusively to performance art. It has caused a big stir not because of this but because of the many naked performers it involves and the celebrities who have sat across from and stared at the artist who is indeed present in a flowing white robe.
Fuerza Bruta is the raucous acrobatics show playing at the Daryl Roth theater just off Union Square. The audience stands as an impressively limber cast dances to club beats, runs into jet streams, breaks furniture over its heads and, most notably, swims through a shallow pool of water whose translucent floor is suspended over the crowd.
What do the two have in common?
Audience participation: MoMa's 2nd floor is currently devoted to two wood chairs sitting about three feet apart from and opposite each other. Abramović sits in one. A rotation of visitors sits across from her for a conceptual staring match. The Fuerza audience is invited to dance with the cast, have the cast break furniture over its head and gawk at the scantily clad nymphs floating just above (the pool is eventually lowered to within inches of your head).
Provocation: Naked "guards" stand a foot or so apart in a narrow passageway between MoMa galleries. Spectators are invited to step betwixt them. Some artsy pervs have gotten in a grope. Fuerza Bruta has the aforementioned sea nymphs, who are less naked than some viewers would like. But they're wet, which makes up for it.
Celebrity Admirers: Bjork and James Franco have entered the Abramović blinking contest. A Flickr stream shows starers famous and boring alike. And Fuerza has a whole photo gallery dedicated to VIP guests. It makes you wonder how celebs feel about entering these kinds of things and stealing the thunder of the people behind them. They're probably OK with it. Anyway, the star factor likely encouraged both productions to embrace modern technology, turning a fleeting shared experience into a permanent one on the lonely web.
I'm glad I saw both of these shows. But neither cured me of the slight nausea I feel whenever I might be pulled from an artistic viewing gallery and deposited into the spectacle itself. Abramović's Princess Leia-ish rags scared me a little. The fact that a crowd assembled around the square-off made me more nervous. And frankly it's annoying that starers get to choose the length of time they can sit across from the artist. Not that I would have done it myself, but one goth Asian kid hogged Abramović's time for the whole hour I was there.
There's also the nagging question of how Abramović performs some of the less dignified bodily functions while glued to her perch.
The prospect of a crowd of international MoMa visitors looking at me looking at Abramović made me uncomfortable. But then, so did the neck-craning involved in Fuerza Bruta as everyone looked up at the descending pool. I felt bad about my neck.
Maybe I'm not entirely cool with interactive art because I take myself too seriously. After all, I'm no James Franco, so no one will really give a damn about me as I gaze into Abramović's eyes. And just because I can't dance to save my life doesn't mean anyone would judge my white man's overbite while rocking out next to the talented Fuerza Bruta fly guys and girls.
But maybe some performance artists take themselves too seriously. Abramović is getting a lot of mainstream fancy press these days, but following her show up with Fuerza Bruta's makes you realize the MoMa gig is a bit on the somber side. Would it kill her to smile? Or take a note from Fuerza Bruta and join the stranger opposite her and bust a move?
Photo 2 via Tamara Beckwith