2 August, 2014

What’s happened to Marina?

I have something to admit: I am a Marina Abramovic mega fan. My first real interaction with her was through the brilliant 2012 documentary The Artist is Present which detailed the phenomenon that was her retrospective at the MoMA in New York. The woman in this film was fearless and powerful with huge reserves of mental and physical strength. She had a unique ability to move the people with whom she came in contact and never failed to make herself both physically and emotionally vulnerable. One of the most moving moments in the film is when she is confronted with Ulay, her former partner – both professional and personal – with whom she had had no contact for decades until she was suddenly confronted with him in the middle of her months-long performance piece.

But there have been some disturbing revelations lately that have tested my love for Marina.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that her – undoubtedly incredibly rich – institute advertises for unpaid ‘volunteer’ positions on the basis of the strength of the ‘opportunity’. Worse than that, I don’t even know what to say about this bizarre thing with Jay-Z so I’ll leave that one for later too. Let’s focus only on Marina Abramovic’s most recent corporate engagement: even typing that sentence makes me die a little inside.

She recently produced a film in collaboration with Adidas with the toe-curling tagline of “the first ever re-staging of Abramovic’s iconic 1970s performance ‘Work Relation’ … reimagined through the lens of the 2014 FIFA World Cup™.” FIFA? TM? To paraphrase John Oliver, she could not have chosen a more comically evil organisation if she tried. And call me old-fashioned, but isn’t performance art – and especially the art of Abramovic – supposed to be arresting, hard-hitting and uncompromising, all with the aim of shining a light on the ills of society to encourage us into action. This doesn’t exactly fit with Adidas’ primary aim of encouraging us to purchase wildly expensive and entirely unneccesary footwear. I fear a nihilistic future in which all art is helpfully “reimagined through the lens” of the blankly smiling corporate partners. How about Chris Burden‘s Shoot brought to you by the NRA, or Yoko Ono‘s Cut Piece supported by Uni Qlo, or hell why not Marcel Duchamp‘s Fountain brought to you by Armitage Shanks.

This slow trudge towards the total corporatisation of every aspect of human life fills me with a deep despair. We seem to be ever more accepting of the idea that no event, occasion or even idea can take place in the public sphere without some kind of institutional partner smearing their grubby fingerprints all over it. This can only lead to total mediocrity in public life as a vapid corporate morality based on the assumption of white, straight, male, Christian normativity is enforced on all collaborators. And this sorry present has the potential to not only destroy the art world. Is it such a surprise that in an age where John Lydon advertises butter and Marina Abramovic is cosying up to Adidas, the news from distant lands becomes so sanitised that the mangled corpses of dead Palestinian children are referred to as ‘bad pictures‘ right before we cut to commercial?

But somehow, Marina, I still love you. Maybe it’s because she was my first (performance art) love and thus I am doomed to a masochistic relationship in which I know she’s causing me pain but just can’t bring myself to let go. I still queued in the rain to see her new show at the Serpentine and my heart lept when I watched her slowly pacing up and down a blankly white room dressed head to toe in black while holding hands with a visitor. I still believe she can produce wonderful work, let’s just hope she finds a way back to being the artist that we need rather than the artist that we deserve.