For decades, Marina Abramović had transmuted her body’s grueling feats of endurance into performance art gold with minor fanfare. But from its opening night in 2010, MoMA’s genre-defining survey of her work The Artist Is Present became a spiritual pilgrimage for New York’s museum-going masses. It tested one’s devotion to an art which had long suffered from a you-had-to-be-there feeling while being notoriously difficult to record or replicate. The ever-replenishing line to the chair across from Abramović, in situ throughout the exhibition’s duration, proved too frustrating for most. Yet its record-breaking droves made the artist a household name and institutionally redeemed her as a pioneer of performance art. A total apotheosis.
All spiritual implications aside, the piece spawned a network of flourishing on-site and online communities, as MoMA launched a web cam feed of the performance and a separate Flickr stream of sitter portraits, both accessible to the public. Hundreds of blogs sprouted from sitter and onlooker experiences, evidencing the countless personal connections among waiting participants. Abramović dissolved the boundaries between artist, artwork and viewer by coercing the chance audience member to be a cooperative, active participant.
If The Artist Is Present was an experience of sensory overload, Generator (2014) is an exercise in nothingness, the sober plummet to reality after an ecstatic trip. Exhibited by Sean Kelly Gallery, the performance consists of members of the public clad in noise-cancelling headphones and blindfolds, their personal belongings stored in lockers. Initially guided into the space by the artist’s assistants, the participants are left to ambulate around an empty room outfitted with hidden cameras; captures are uploaded daily to the exhibition Tumblr. If seeing is believing, Abramović is rendered mostly absent from the piece.
Contrary to the crushing mob and artist-baiting antics threatening to interrupt the final performance of The Artist Is Present, I was surprised to find an empty sidewalk outside the gallery this past Saturday, the last day of Generator. There was no line inside, either. I signed a release form, quickly stored my coat and bag, and allowed a pleasant woman clad in black to blindfold me and adjust headphones over my head. My heart raced as she deliberately led me into the space; my anxiety passed as soon as she let go of my hand.
Technically the piece failed. I could make out footsteps, deeply muffled sounds of conversations, and participants walking into walls. The blindfold allowed a clear view of the floor, which helped me to navigate the space and avoid unwanted physical contact. From beneath my blindfold, an elderly woman’s gnarled hand extended in my direction; I stood facing this person for several minutes and then walked away, bothered by my refusal to connect. Generator had made me self-conscious about my antisocial nature. Was this the artist’s intention?
Generator also amplified my already heightened ability to look inward. Deprived of traditional means to commune with the outside world, the only way out seemed in. After what felt like an eternity of vivid, intense introspection punctuated with uncomfortable yoga poses I began looking for an exit. Instead of raising my hand, I cheated by focusing on the floor, finding the familiar wall leading me to where I first entered. Stationed there I noticed a gaggle of black soft shoes from beneath my blindfold; I raised my right hand. Someone grabbed it and we walked a small circle away from where I was standing and returned through what I had already guessed was the way out. Abramović had succeeded, if her intent were to create a sustained heightened awareness.
More or less a reenactment of an earlier 2014 piece (the Serpentine Gallery’s 512 Hours) minus its holistic props and the artist’s presence, Generator resolves the multitude of questions and criticism she has faced since her retrospective. She dodges media accusations of celebrity obsession by removing herself from the work altogether in order to displace her potentially-distracting charisma and newfound fame, positioning the participant as the object of scrutiny. The performance artist’s body, traditionally both platform and instrument for rendering, remains conspicuously absent from Generator. Although the gallery’s press kit maintains Abramović will drop by daily to guide or participate, she is noticeably absent in nearly all exhibition snapshots hosted on the work’s documentary Tumblr, generatorskny.tumblr.com.
Who could blame her? There is no match for Abramović’s time-consuming obsession in preserving one’s creative process for posterity. Her eponymous Institute, successfully crowd funded and further endowed by the sale of her glass SoHo condo, demonstrates her belief that the future of performance art lies not with the artist but with its intended participants: the general public. In effect, Abramović has been preparing for a world without her. Give a man performance art, he eats for a day; teach a man performance art, he eats for life, the Institute insists, disseminating the ill-defined Abramović Method: a series of repetitive and performative tasks that encourage mindfulness.
The artist’s most recent work brims with Eastern spiritual traditions of willfully dissolved identity and dispersing of the individual into the collective whole. Contrasted with the glossy, expressive head shots taken during The Artist Is Present, it’s nearly impossible to identify (or appropriate as portraiture) the participants in Generator’s Tumblr photos. They tend to look and operate very similarly. The photos themselves resemble the virtual world of Second Life, teeming with occupants that clumsily interact. Abramović embodies Descartes’ great watchmaker, fashioning a realm with few, certain laws (“no talking, no rapid movements, raise your hand when you wish to leave,” quoth her assistant in Generator)–and then disappearing.
But Abramović is running out of time. Where does performance art go when the artist dies? If she has it her way, it lives on through perpetual reenactments by trained assistants, emulative artists and most important to her, the public. Generator, then, is a test run of a spiritual and creative utopia in its premise that participation, rather than observation, is the greatest teacher of all.