Marina Abramovic Is Still in the Dark

Photo: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan

With a glint in her eye and and an inviting tone in her voice, a woman next to me as we exited Marina Abramovic's latest outing at Sean Kelly Gallery asked, "Was it you who just felt me up? It was so nice." I looked at her, and then at her chest. We locked eyes. For an instant, I wanted to say "Yes, I will yes." Then — remembering that my vibe has never produced these sorts of encounters — I said, "I wish it'd been me, but it wasn't." And just like that, I snapped back from a dreamy life that never was to what I'd been thinking the instant before. Which was that the piece had been mumbo-jumbo, nothing more.

I feel about Abramovic's art the way I do about the High Line. It's a high-production distraction for tourists that simultaneously keeps them from over-crowding the already over-crowded real art world going on all around them. Indeed, Abramovic's latest much-ado-about-nothing performance-art stunt is pretty much the same hammy claptrap as her 512-hour staring spectacle at MoMA. It lets novice viewers think they're in the presence of some sort of mystic-crystal witch-artist able to transport them to spiritual artistic nirvanas. She’s a New Age psychoanalyst, one who works at a distance.

According to Mme. Abramovic, Generator, as the new work is called, is about "nothingness ... a full emptiness... that will push the boundaries of self-awareness and inner-conscousness ... Generator is about creation." Here are the rules and regulations. (There are always rules and regs with this sort of art.) You check your cell phones, watches, bags, and glasses before entering. You sign some sort of form. I didn't read it but there are always releases with this type of work; it sets up viewers for thinking that something unexpected or scary-wonderful might happen, a lawyer’s way of creating the anticipatory moment before the lights are switched off at a séance. Viewers are approached by young "facilitators trained by Abramovic," blindfolded, and equipped with large noise-canceling headphones over their ears. They are then ushered into the"nothingness" and told to "do whatever you like and raise your hand when you would like to be escorted out." That's it.

As a person of a certain age, I lived through all sorts of Communist theater sensory-deprivation group-activities: performances where actors stripped naked and writhed around, or smeared things on each other or viewers, or gently touched you or stared at you and cried or asked you if you'd protested the war today or hugged a stranger. Art schools used to have one student blindfold another and lead him or her around all day. There were "trip guides" to help people on acid "get into a good headspace." Not to mention all the mimes struggling with imaginary energy fields around them.

I put all thoughts of hocus-pocus out of my mind as I was guided into the Abramovic, however. As an art critic, you never know when an artist who’s a slow-motion train wreck will begin to turn it around. With her insane charisma and so much great groundbreaking early work, even Abramovic could surprise again. Plus, she's able to see the silly side of what she does and has admirably thick skin. I set myself for the big comeback.

Except that my guide forgot a crucial bit of information. Instead of being told to do whatever I liked and raise my hand at the end, mine only said "stand here and raise your hand when you'd you like to leave." I stood. And stood. And stood. As with all art like this I entered an introspective, self-examining space. I spent a lot of time thinking about being watched. Was she here? Was Marina here? The press release had explicitly stated, "The artist will be present." As someone who's written critically about Abramovic, I got paranoid, imagining her and her black-clad minions doing a hex-inducing dance around me. That gave way to thoughts of my bad posture. Which gave way to thoughts about what a potbelly these pants give me, and on to wondering whether there were sweat stains under my arms. I did occasionally feel hands brushing past me. At one point, I felt the heat of the back of someone's hand against the back of mine for a long time. I liked it and thought, Oh good, Marina's assistants are doing a psychic healing on me.

Then boredom. And more. But I remained patient. Open. Then a thought, a bad one. Then anger. I raised my hand. A person touched me. I said, "I cannot hear you, but I am going to ask you a question. The person who led me in here told me to remain in place. Squeeze my hand twice if I can also move about." I felt two quick squeezes of my hand. I yelled out "Goddammit! The person said to remain in place. You dopes. Get your act together."

I gently pushed the guide aside and began exploring the room on my own. Piece of cake. I knew exactly how to do this from all those 1970s performances and theater pieces. More recently, artists have really excelled at filling emptiness. Trisha Donnelly, for one, is a wizard of unoccupied space. Tino Sehgal, just two years ago at Documenta, had viewers stand in a blacked-out room where dancers and singers moved about to extraordinary effect. In David Hammons's epic empty gallery installation, viewers navigated with tiny blue flashlights. I edged slowly around, touching walls, a couple of padded columns, and occasionally other people. I wanted to figure out whether these other bodies were Abramovic's guides, so in each case I’d find an arm, follow it up to a shoulder and see if its owner were wearing a blindfold like me. In each case, they were. In each case, I would take the person's hand to let them feel my blindfold, as well. Finally, I sat down on the floor.

After a while, someone came up to me, took off my headset, and said, "We're closing." She took off my blindfold, and I was alone in a brightly lit empty white room with two padded columns and what looked like a camera lens in one wall. I was taken back out into the locker room where I met the woman I didn't feel up. I was told I'd been inside for 40 minutes. It felt like 40 years. Later I heard that on this evening, the bon vivant reveler-critic Anthony Haden-Guest had danced with Rufus Wainwright. A couple told me they kissed. I saw others in the antechamber writing down long recollections of what they'd gone through on prepared pieces of paper and depositing these slots in the wall. Very mysterious. People were very much into this, spending long periods of time writing. I'm told these reminiscences will be posted on Tumblr.

I presume that between now and December 6, when Generator closes, there will be long lines of eager seekers looking for experience, deliverance, and art. Tales of primal screams, crying, breaking down, inner struggles, breakthroughs, recovered memories, sexual awakenings, and other antics will ensue. Online rhapsodies will appear, pilgrims will decide to make their way to the Marina Abramovic Institute to learn her methods, and others may pledge allegiance to Marina's mystic powers of art. People may see God. Perhaps. The one thing that will not and cannot be gleaned in Generator, however, will be art.