While visiting Antonio Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece, Casa Milà, or “La Pedrera,” yesterday on the Passeig de Gràcia in Barcelona, I was pleasantly surprised to see that in addition to the normal admission to the building (definitely worth the wait in line), visitors could also take in a video and photographic installation by celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović, included as part of the city’s ongoing LOOP Video Art Fair.
Abramović, needless to say, wasn’t present at La Pedrera yesterday (though the 12 minute video of her silently holding a full container of milk in the kitchen of a former orphanage in Gijón, Spain in 2009 definitely had “presence”). That would be because she’s currently in New York spending every opening hour of MOMA in a chair in one of the museum’s rooms, silently exchanging energy with museum visitors who care to line up for the chance to sit opposite her for a minute or two as part of a major retrospective of her work called, fittingly, “The Artist is Present.” A retrospective of performance art seems somewhat oxymoronic, and Abramović’s show has aroused some pointed discussion in various performance studies quarters for her decision to—in her words—“re-perform” some of her major past works of body and performance art (including collaborations with Ulay) using paid performers whom she has auditioned and trained. Indeed, one wonders what Peggy Phelan, Abramović’s great interpreter (see the amazing essay “Witnessing Shadows,” published in Theatre Journal), would make of all this. Phelan, after all, is the critic who famously argued (in 1993) that the “ontology” of performance rests on its “disappearance.”
It has only been a few years since Abramović’s last major gallery show in New York—at the Guggenheim, where, significantly, she performed all the works herself. In that time the artist seems to have wholeheartedly embraced the idea of filmic and photographic documentation: not simply as a way of recording and preserving the live event as an object of study, but also to create independent works of media and installation art in and of themselves. Hence the show I saw yesterday at La Pedrera. Comprised of a series of photographic C-prints and the single aforementioned video, the piece is called “The Kitchen: Homage to Saint Therèse,” and sees Abramović using the famous mystic from Ávila’s writings on rapture (especially as focused on her ability to levitate) to explore everyday suspensions between the physical and the spiritual, the rational and the emotional. How it’s possible, in other words, to become transfixed by a full bowl of milk. And how it’s possible to become equally transfixed watching someone watching a full bowl of milk.
Entirely appropriate that such suspensions, such liminal states of being in and of the world—including between the live and the mediated—should be explored inside Gaudí’s magnificent structure. After all, it was a building that was designed upside down.