Monday, June 7, 2010

From Afar: Absence in Marina Abramovic and Ulay's The Lovers: Great Wall Walk

Memory. Sight. Love. All require a witness, imagined or real.

~Peggy Phelan

While conceptual art only pondered the notion of the artist’s footprint on the work of art, the first wave of performance art was predicated on the audience’s experience of the artist as present. Likewise, for the first twelve years of their relationship, Marina Abramovic and Ulay created works that were premised on their mutual presence as cohorts in life, love, and art. They began their public relationship as art collaborators in 1976 at the Venice Biennial where they performed Relation in Space, a work that featured both artists running past one another naked. The artists obscured the binary between art and life as their performances embodied their relationship: they kissed, they screamed, they balanced on either side of a bow and arrow often alluding to the co-temporality of love and death. They tested the limits of their spatial and temporal coexistence as walking and sustained silence became symbolic representations of their endurance as a couple. In 1980, Marina and Ulay conceived the project that was to culminate their Relation Works as they intended to walk from opposite ends of The Great Wall of China to meet in the middle and be married in a traditional Chinese ceremony; the piece would be titled The Lovers. However, after eight years of negotiation with the Amphis Foundation, the Dutch government, and the Chinese government agency called the China Association for the Advancement of International Friendship (CAAIF), the relationship between the artists, as well as the relationship between the artists and their work had evolved drastically. The performance that was supposed to unite the artists forever instead became the catalyst for their prolonged absence from one another’s lives.

The manner in which absence renders itself present in the performance of “The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk” is tri-fold: the absence of spectator, the spatial absence of co-performer as experienced by Marina and Ulay, and the temporal absence of the performance itself from the present moment. Accordingly, the performance manifests absence in both a spatial and temporal axis as Marina and Ulay navigate the liminal space between the Yellow Sea and the Gobi Dessert, the East and the West, her life and his. However, while the performers posit absence from one another’s personal and artistic lives as the ultimate goal of their phenomenological journey, the documentation of the performance marks the experience in the memory of the performers as well as the collective cultural history of performance. The initial performance was ephemeral but the (re)presentation of the performance through archived documentation proliferates the event while altering future audiences’ experience of the initial performance. In fact, the absence of the performance reaffirms its past existence in documentation. Absence is thus reconfigured and undermined through the multifaceted lens of textual, visual, and auditory artifacts that archive the very disappearance of the twelve-year partnership. The dismemberment of which is reflected in the partial and conflicting accounts of what took place during the performance; it is this incongruity between documents that offers texture and restores absence to the performance.

Peggy Phelan, in her essay The ontology of performance argues, “Performance is the art form which most fully understands generative possibilities of disappearance. Poised forever at the threshold of the present, performance enacts the productive appeal of the nonreproductive” (Phelan, 27). Phelan suggests that performance as an entity only exists once in temporal and spatial history. The performance eludes any coherent form of representation due to its fragmentation into multiple documents, which consequently reaffirms its absence. As such, Phelan argues that the performance becomes the document that aims to commemorate the event: “Defined by its ephemeral nature, performance art cannot be documented (when it is, it turns into that document—a photograph, a stage design, a video tape—and ceases to be performance art)” (Phelan, 27). Phelan explicates the importance of ephemerality in a performance such that it is the disappearance of the performance that renders it a phenomenon, and the presence of the document that takes the place of the performance.

In the case of the Walk, the absence of a spectator imbues the document with the responsibility of recreating the happening for future audiences. In planning the performance, Marina and Ulay guaranteed the proliferation of the work through multiple accounts of its occurrence. They hired a videographer, Murray Grigor, to document the work for the exhibition that was to take place at The Stedelijk museum following the actual journey. Wim Beeren, the director of the Stedelijk writes, “One can regard the exhibition as a sublimation of the experiences both artists underwent during their journey over The Great Wall” (Abramovic, 7) as if to suggest that the exhibition was an affirmation of actuality of the performance. In fact, because most audiences did not share the spatial and temporal space with the performers during the duration of the performance, many spectators only experience the performance through its documentation in the exhibit.

In addition, the museum catalog of the exhibition, titled The Lovers, offers a romanticized depiction of the event. The photographs in Marina’s portion of the catalog portray the sublime in nature and the desolation of China’s barren landscape. The captions, written by Marina, exist isolated and sparse on the page much like the images of her lone self amidst the epic backdrop of the Wall. On the other hand, Ulay’s photographs of the event feature Chinese community members dispersed throughout his journey. His text takes on an epistle form as he writes of the communities that he passes through positing himself as somewhat of an imperialistic alien to the seemingly quiet lives of the Chinese country folk. The spatial absence of co-performer, despite co-temporal presence, as experienced by each artist allowed for both contrasting first person accounts of the same performance to exist. Amelia Jones, in her essay Presence in absentia, aims to invert the hierarchy between live performance and the document by suggesting that they exist symbiotically. She writes, “While the experience of viewing a photograph and reading a text is clearly different from that of sitting in a small room watching an artist perform, neither has a privileged relationship to the historical “truth” of the performance” (Jones, 11). Jones suggests that experience through archived document is as valuable as experiencing the performance live. However, Jones fails to account for multiple first-person accounts within this subversion of the hierarchy of documentation. Arguably, both Marina and Ulay’s textual records and exhibited artifacts are equally true representations of their subjective journeys.

Moreover, the artists invited their colleague Thomas McEvilley to join them on parts of the Walk as an observer and a companion who would go forth to write a book about his own personal experience of the Walk. In his work titled Art, Love, Friendship: Marina Abramovic and Ulay Together & Apart, McEvilley recounts his time spent with either Marina or Ulay, while situating the performance within the macroscopic sociopolitical context of East-West relations. He explains, “[The performance] is geopolitical in reference: it refers above all to the Opening of China to the West, which the Walk is a small but distinct and precise stage in” (McEvilley, 151). McEvilley’s textual account grounds the performance in the bureaucratic baggage that other photographic documents of the performance transcend. The author is not concerned with the performance as a signifier of the relationship between his two colleagues. In fact, his retellings focus on each artist separately as he omits writing about the final moment of departure. The author does, however, reveal Ulay’s material infatuation with the gear required for the trip as well as Ulay’s desire to become a part of the communities he passed through in contrast to Marina’s individualistic and ascetic approach to the walk. McEvilley occupies the privileged position of being one of the only spectators who was allowed to be present at the time of the performance; his presence in the spatial and temporal space of the performance endows him with a first hand account of the experience that some may consider to be more authentic than subsequent experiences of the performance through documentation. Yet, within Jones’ framework of understanding the hierarchy of experience and documentation, would his experience be considered any less valid than that of Marina or Ulay? Does his status as initial audience member render him farther from the truth of the performance than the performers? On the other hand, one could argue that his experience of the Walk was not mired in the sentimentality or nostalgia associated with the dissolution of the relationship and therefore is a more objective record. Ultimately, McEvilley offers a third, first-person, retelling of the performance through both text and photographs that adds yet another layer of absence between the occurrence and the spectator’s experience of the performance.

While the catalog photographs of the performance romanticize the endurance of the Walk—the mysticism inherent in isolation, each artist braving nature on the architectural feat of mankind—McEvilley’s memoirs reveal the pedantic reality of a performance mediated by greater political bodies. He writes of the entourage of Chinese bureaucrats that accompanied Marina and Ulay throughout the duration of the Walk and their active intervention in the realization of the project’s initial intentions. Phillip Auslander argues that the presence of the initial audience plays a nominal role in the archived performance: “the presence of the initial audience may be important to performers, it is merely incidental to the performance as documented” (Auslander, 7). However, the role of the Chinese government officials as neither passive spectator nor active performer complicates this assertion. Though the officials are omitted from the photographic record of the performance, McEvilley’s texual account of the event describes their active participation in the trajectory of the performance whether by insisting that Ulay sleep in a hotel or through prohibiting the couple from walking the entirety of the Wall. Consequently, the presence of the Chinese government officials as part of the initial audience ultimately altered the documented performance as certain images were staged as propaganda to suggest the harmonious collaboration of the East and West. Their continued presence as omniscient spectators is reasserted through the presence of certain photographic documentation and the absence of other potentially more political photographs.

In addition, McEvilley’s book includes personal photographs of the couple at their final encounter. Unlike the photographs in the exhibition catalog that portray Marina and Ulay shaking hands for what is posed to be their last encounter after 90 days and 2,000 kilometers of walking, McEvilley displays a happy couple embracing one another while jovially waving for the camera. This disjuncture between the idealized intentions of the work as portrayed in the exhibition photos and the reality of the performance as experienced by a third party who was present at the time of the departure exposes the layers of performance and absence in the event. Evidently, the spectator’s experience of the performance in the present is altered greatly depending on the source of documentation and no source is complete. While the catalog pictures could be understood as theatrically staged for the sake of documentation whereas McEvilley’s photographs document the behind the scenes representation, neither documents a universal “truth” of the event. Auslander collapses the difference between documentary and theatrical archives of performance events; the former refers to photographs that are made after the fact of the performance with the purpose of reconstructing the event, while the latter refers to photographs taken of a performance staged solely for the purpose of its documentation. He writes:

It may well be that our sense of the presence, power, and authenticity of these pieces derives not from treating the document as an indexical access point to a past event but from perceiving the document itself as a performance that directly reflects an artist’s aesthetic project or sensibility and for which we are the present audience. (Auslander, 9)

Auslander reiterates that the audience’s experience of the event through multiple fractured documents is in itself an experience of performance. Accordingly, it is in this dissonance that performance renders itself absent and documentation takes its place.

Other levels of documentation exist beyond the initial exhibit at Stedelijk, the exhibit catalog titled The Lovers, and McEvilley’s textual and photographic representation. In the March 2010 retrospective of Marina’s work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, text and photographs from the original exhibition at the Stedelijk are resituated alongside the documentary film made by Grigor and that made by Marina herself. The remnants of The Walk performance only make up a small part of her individual body of work on display. Nonetheless, each of these archived documents continue to fracture and reassemble the performance for new audiences as well as audiences who previously experienced the performance in other contexts. Consequently, each document re-performs the initial event separate from the act that each artist originally experienced. Both artists independently experienced the dissolution of their relationship signifying the end of an era of works created in one another’s presence. In many ways, the relationship between Marina and Ulay, like the performance of The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk is reaffirmed through its disappearance. Through the documentation of Marina and Ulay’s life and art, created together and apart, their relationship persists through the fragmentation and reinterpretation of what once was present, but now is absent.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful post! Thank you for provoking me to think more clearly.
    Peggy Phelan