Museums & Exhibitions Music & Performance PhD Research

Performance takes time

A blog post from August 14, 2013 ·


Marina with Study Model © OMA

Visits to contemporary art museums demonstrate one thing above all: it is next to impossible to preserve and present performance art in a way that reflects the engagement this artistic genre intends to incite. Take the blocks of fat displayed in the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. These are reminders of Joseph Beuys’ Unschlitt/Tallow (1977) project, but are in no way reflective of the sentiments conveyed by the act of putting the fat at its original location. This consisted of dead space, an unused pedestrian path. By covering this “senseless urban construction” the fat was “used as a positive substance to rescue a cold, wounded place.”[1] However, as objects in the museum space, these blocks do not speak to the public at all. In themselves, they have become senseless objects in a museum hall, in need of being rescued.

The fact that the museum wants to tell the story of this remarkable moment in art history makes sense. The question is then how to preserve and present work of which the essence lies in time, in the fact that it takes place, and thus will end at a certain moment. Are we, as museum public, looking at relics of a distant past when looking at objects that had once an active role during a performance? After it has finished, does the performance become non-existent? These kinds of questions are of concern to one of the best-known performance artists of the moment, Marina Abramovic. She is actively seeking for answers incited by her iconic performance The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2011.

At the time of writing, she has eleven days left in her kickstarter project for the realization of the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI), a crowd funding appeal to back her in her search for answers. “The institute will be dedicated to the presentation and preservation of long durational work, including that of performance, art, dance, theater, film, music, opera, and other forms that may develop in the future.”[2] She envisions the institute as a place that puts art, science, technology and spirituality in a new context: that of long durational work – or performance art of at least six hours. In addition to preservation and presentation, it is also a place of education. Abramovic wants to learn people on how to properly deal with performance art. It is not something to look at, it is something to engage with and participate in. Through engagement, people can have meaningful or even life changing experiences. This kind of change she encountered herself during and after The Artist is Present. And as the performance demonstrated, many of the people sitting across from Abramovic were moved immensely through their participation in the piece.

It is a brave and ambitious plan, this institute. It is an attempt to reach beyond the object-oriented displays of the contemporary art museums. After all, by exhibiting the wooden furniture she sat in and the dresses she wore, the meaning of The Artist is Present can never be conveyed. Performance is all about time and participation. So the only way of conveying that, is to take time and require participation. In addition to reaching beyond museum practices, it also reaches beyond the practices of our own daily lives. In times of continuous input of images and sounds everywhere we go, dictating schedules, and possibilities of non-stop fleeting contacts through social media, Abramovic wants us to stand still and take time. Take time to fundamentally connect with our own thoughts and feelings, take time to relate to emotions and experiences of others, and most of all it is a challenge to take the time to engage with something we might not understand right away, but will be worthwhile engaging with over time.


[1] Text on museum label, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 2013.
[2] Mission statement on the Kickstarter website. August 2013.

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