Marina Abramovic at MoMA : The Cruddy Ok Oh Review
My brother, the oldest one, has a small tattoo on his right ankle, garnered during a brief stay stay at a fraternity at a large, provincial university. The small stick figure, a sort of Sambo-esque island warrior carrying a spear and a shield, has the Greek letters of the fraternity scribbled underneath. It is his only tattoo. My other brother, as far as I know, does not have any tattoos. When I was 17 years old I went to the very same tattoo artist in down town Seattle where my oldest brother had been inked some eight or so years earlier. I now know a lot of tattoo artists. It is something approaching an acceptable career for my generation, they have kids that go to my school, they play soccer on my soccer team, they are regular, tax paying professionals, more or less. This, of course was not always the case. Tattoo artists used to be the roughnecks servicing the roughnecks. Fringe dwellers marking up those who felt permanently on the fringe themselves. Whereas now tattoo parlors nod to some sort of bygone anti-cultural charm, the dim lighting the blood red paint, the nodding wink to the interior of a tall ship, packaged and highly conceptualized, the tattoo parlor I visited when I was 17 was a squat, dirty cube of a shop with one middle-aged frowner who looked like he just arrived from fixing the corroborator on his truck. He eyed me a little, flipped through his dingy book of past mistakes and found, with disturbing directness, the very tattoo I was looking to get. The very same one I had always admired on my oldest brother's ankle. This weekend we took the boy to see the Marina Abramovic retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. We got our fair share of quizzical looks heading in, two docents pointing out the displayed live nudity to which I nodded and smiled, struggling to be the coolest, most nonchalant parent, openly introducing my young son to the liberalness of art. Chiara Clemente introduced me to Marina Abramovic a few years ago when I agreed to help her make some first editorial steps in what would become her movie Our City Dreams. I didn't last too terribly long on the project, the kind of introspective, impressionistic style Chiara finds her forté being fundamentally difficult to truly collaborate on given my time constraints. Chiara's film followed the artists Swoon, Kiki Smith, Ghada Amer, Nancy Spero and Abramovic as they detailed their art and life in New York. Then, of the group, Abramovic seemed the most difficult to wrap my mind around. The kind of high conceptualism she practices hit me as both needlessly flippant and overly self-important, the same way much conceptual and performance art still initially hits me. However, for whatever reason, when I walked away from Chiara's project the name Marina Abramovic stuck with me in a way the others didn't. My wife had been talking about going to the MoMa show for some time, mentioning it every other weekend as a possible family outing and Saturday, the last Saturday of the show, I finally acquiesced, outwardly grumbling something about long lines and goofy conceptual art while inwardly titillated by the possibilities of a stop at Burger Joint at Le Parker Meridian hotel afterward. As it turned out, as it turns out, I can't think of a more rewarding show I've seen at a major museum. The point of view the retrospective offers, delineating a lifetime spent challenging both perception and rigorously practicing art to that end, made me feel a little sheepish for ever being so pessimistic. Every bashed head, every naked nipple, every bizarre experiment, every masochistic dalliance found importance to me in that context, the embarrassing realization creeping in that I've probably never possessed the sort of artistic intelligence to grasp the fullness of her work had they been presented to me piecemeal. And therein lies the greatness of the show for me, the opportunity to educate my brain, to show it something it had long foolishly dismissed.
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