Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic is a worldwide star in the art world. Sakip Sabanci Museum brings her works to Istanbul, Turkey in a wide-ranging retrospective for the first time in the country’s history.
The corridor at the Sakip Sabanci Museum in Emirgan, Istanbul is dimly lit. On one wall is the projected image of a man and a woman, dressed in white, sitting across from each other.
The man slaps the woman, calmly and deliberately. The woman slaps the man, just as calmly and deliberately. He slaps her again. So does she. And once more. And again.
It is a mesmerising scene that continues on a loop. It can be read simply as a document of a domestic disturbance, or an allegory of a romance gone wrong. It could also be a metaphor for gender relations or something entirely different.
Of course, that is precisely the point of Abramovic’s art: each viewer is to take away something different from it and end up questioning the art and themselves rather than come away with their worldviews strengthened.
The piece, Light/Dark, was performed live at Internationale Kunstmesse, Cologne, Germany, for 20 minutes by Marina Abramovic and her artistic and romantic partner Ulay in October 1977. At Sakip Sabanci Museum, as with her other performance art pieces, it is presented on video, yet it does not lose any of its impacts.
The artist was present at the opening of her exhibition in late January, and her mood was infectious. After playfully chiding the press for being “too serious”, she decided to tell a variant on the lightbulb joke. “How many performance artists does it take to fix a light on the wall?” she asked the crowd. The crowd erupted into laughter when she answered “I don’t know. I was there only [for] six hours.”
Marina Abramovic’s art beguiles and provokes. It provides more questions than it does answers. Writing in “Danger and Disturbation: The Art of Marina Abramovic,” art critic Arthur C. Danto questions exactly the situation that is now happening at the Sabanci Museum, that is, presenting a performance when the artist is not present.
He explains the reason for his query: “[F]or the performer, the medium is his or her body. That is what gives this art its immediacy and unpredictability.”
He offers the answer soon enough: “The mere problem of preservation forces us to acknowledge the existence of something like a score - or script - and then the enactment through performance of what the score demands. Hence a two-staged entity.”
In the Sakip Sabanci Museum retrospective of Marina Abramovic’s art, called Flux, the artist will not be performing in-person daily. The exhibition, which runs from January 31 to April 26 offers, instead, a look at her past work, which still has the power to mesmerise.
Abramovic rose to fame in the 1970s in which she used her body in the context of the art space, putting herself in hazardous conditions. For example, she first performed her Rhythm 10 piece at the Edinburgh Festival in 1973 (with 10 knives; later editions were performed with 20 knives). She would pick up a knife, “stab in between the fingers of my left hand as fast as possible” and change the knife when she cut herself. This went on for one hour.
The museum has set up the exhibition in three parts: the first floor is devoted to Abramovic’s videos and installations. The second floor is set up to present handpicked artists performing eight hours a day, every day, after having gone through intensive training in the Abramovic method. And on the third floor, which viewers may find the most amusing, Abramovic asks visitors to leave their phones and watches at the door, and wander in to explore their creativity in a meditative environment.
The exhibition continues at Akbank Sanat in Istanbul's Beyoglu district. In addition to the works at Sakip Sabanci Museum in Emirgan, the works in Akbank Sanat are video documentation of performances by artists selected by Abramovic. These will focus on four themes, starting with Energy (January 31-February 22), Memory (February 25-March 14), Limits (March 17-April 4) and ending with Private/Public (April 7-April 25). There will also be screenings of films about Abramovic.