Marina Abramovic is an artist that courts adoration and disdain simultaneously. While her current exhibition 512 Hours at the Serpentine gallery in London has received rave reviews, her recent collaboration with adidas on their All in or Nothing World Cup campaign has been the subject of some scrutiny. This and her high profile associations with celebrities like Gaga, James Franco and Jay-Z jar, for some, against the academic and critical work that she continues to amass.
Abramovic’s artistic career spans over 40 years. She began performing in 1973 in Serbia, and over a short time became fully immersed in what was a highly political medium. Much of the performance art of the sixties and seventies developed as a reaction against a number of factors- art institutions' involvement in the Vietnam war, the commodification of art, discrimination and elitism in the gallery and museum systems, as well as widespread gender inequality. Abramovic, both individually and in her collaborative work with Ulay, contributed considerably to this movement and has continued to tirelessly expand the field where others fell away from it.
Part of this has been to establish an archive for performance. Now the self professed 'grandmother of performance art', Abramovic has witnessed the turbulent reception and treatment of the medium throughout her career. The eighties heralded a certain amnesia that somewhat sidelined the performance art of the previous decade as an extreme reaction to an extreme time and it was largely replaced by an influx of painting and sculpture. The inevitable commercialisation of performance art took place. The editioning of documentary film and photography became the means by which these works were eventually transitioned into the market place. Theoretically, performance has also been continually re evaluated. The primacy or authenticity allocated to encountering the 'original' performance has been undermined as fallacy and the audience's original reception of the work is thought to be as mediated as any resulting footage or commentary. And so questions arise as to how to archive this medium without stagnating it. How to engage with the debate and enliven it. How to remember without assimilating into systems to which performance artists were so vehemently opposed.
Abramovic is tackling these questions. Her performance Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005 saw her re-stage key performances from the 70's including Acconci’s Seedbed, Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic and Joseph Beuys' How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare. Each performance was revived in a different guise, finding relevance in a new time and living on through the flesh of their latest performer. The Marina Abramovic Institute is another step towards this. It is a centre in Hudson, New York that aims to be a home for long durational performance work. The artist came under fire for crowd sourcing the funding to open the museum, with the implication being that she was wealthy enough to fund it herself. But I'd challenge the mentality of this. By opening up the ownership of the institution and naming the contributors as founders, Abramovic undermines the very nature of an 'institution' and the hierarchy inherently associated with it. Her many founders feel an ownership and a belonging. They have an opportunity to engage with the space and shape the activities that are happening there. Abramovic is building a participatory and active community.
Marina Abramovic's collaboration with adidas is the latest project to incite confusion and some derision within the art press. It is a commercial for a pair of trainers, but it's a cerebral one. The artist takes the opportunity of the World Cup- a global phenomenon that engages more of the world's population than almost any other event, and harnesses that community to introduce them to her craft. During the film, Abramovic explains the performance in a very accessible and clear voice over. She gives the context of the piece and details regarding its relevance, drawing on the parallels she finds between performance art and sport. The message is unabashedly positive, encouraging us to find strength in togetherness, commitment and perseverance. Amidst a sea of advertising that is seemingly hell bent on both overtly and subliminally bashing our self esteem into submission, this campaign is a welcome relief.
This project and the others like it, introduce performance art to the masses and explain why it might have some application for people outside of the contemporary art sphere. This is an essential activity if the medium is to maintain the momentum it has gathered and create it's own history.