I went through a bit of a Marina Abramović phase earlier this year. It probably started off when I read a Guardian article that linked to Marina’s The Artist is Present piece at MOMA. The Artist is Present is extraordinarily simple. Marina sits at a table in a large hall in MOMA, and visitors get a minute or two of sitting opposite her. The people queue for their moment of being sat opposite the great presence, the great artist. Marina waits for each person with her head bowed. When they’ve sat down and readied themselves she slowly raises her head and looks them in the eye, or through their face – this video shows you. It is an incredible drama. I found it, find it, totally compelling. I would love a minute of Marina’s gaze. I don’t know why. But there’s the thing.
Marina is kind of beautiful. Not conventionally beautiful. She is 66. Her face bears the swellings and tightness of plastic surgery – she would have been much more beautiful without it. Her beauty, I think, is much more to do with her presence, which is part performance, but surely underpinned by a tranquility. The performance is an impassive and neutral mask. What grabbed me, fascinated me, drew me in, was that I believed in this mask, this face. I wanted to look into her eyes, to be the subject of her gaze. I have never felt so sucked into a performance before. Especially not a YouTube (tiny screen, bad sound, etc etc!) video performance. Her gaze is such a primal thing. It absorbed me hugely. I wondered how I would feel when she raised her head to look into my eyes. Maybe I would collapse, maybe I would be full of joy. Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.
So like a schoolboy (I’m 40!) with a crush, I would have traveled to MOMA to sit across from Marina. But I was a year behind the news here, because her MOMA session was from the year before. So I did the next best thing, which was to click through the YouTube links, read her Wikipedia page, look at what she’d done before, where she’d come from. There’s some weird stuff, like when she meets with David Blaine (I can’t find the link), and he wants them to work together. She assumes that his work is ‘real’. So, being straight with her, he explains that it has elements of illusion. She is going to go ahead with some kind of partnership with Blaine, but her agent explains that it would confuse her image, her brand, as it were, to get mixed up with trickery. She agrees not to do it, and that’s that! And what becomes apparent there, immediately obvious, is that Marina’s work may have elements of performance – she describes her gaze dismissively, as ‘just a gaze’, as opposed to looking into your soul! – but it is not trickery. It is very simple, and, in literal terms, it is real. The bow and arrow is real. In Rhythm 0, she put a gun on table. Condoms, a knife, bullets, etc etc. The audience were invited to use those objects on her. That is real!
And the weirdest thing, and for me also the most life affirming thing, is Lady GaGa’s response to Marina. GaGa’s response really moved me, because it was almost exactly the same as my own. She sells a weirdly confused sex message, of simultaneously being abused and orchestrated, and yet also selling that dynamic. That Jordanesque dissonance of wearing nothing – for GaGa just a bra – and then accusing the world of looking. So as a middle aged man going nowhere, I just wasn’t expecting this female megastar – being beautiful, sitting there in her black bra – to provide words for my feelings. But there it is!
And now I think about it, my response to GaGa is kind of wrong. I saw her as ‘just’ a starlet – a beautiful little manufactured icon. But now when I look at her, I see that she is not conventionally beautiful. She is not quite like Madonna or Marilyn Monroe. She has a strange energy that is perhaps not suited to being a product. No doubt none of them do. It is really clear from her video that she reveres Marina, and that she has even based her own gaze on Marina’s. And that got me thinking that I was probably doing something similar. Marina is perhaps serving as some kind of hope for us, a figure of strength that we can draw from. Because Marina’s bravery appears absolute! She is godly. She is serene in the face of death, rape, torture, humiliation. And these are things that we all fear. I fear these things. Lady GaGa fears them too. When I was younger, I looked to Mike Tyson for these strengths. The male! The fighter! A disturbed kid – a convicted rapist! Life is not simple! Like Marina, Mike is also a strange blend of surface and depth. But now, for at least a moment, I turn to Marina instead. Or to The Wizard of OZ. But that’s another story.
And, stranger and stranger, while I made a connection with Lady GaGa c/o Marina, GaGa’s fans, so it goes, began to turn away from her. This piece skims some of the fan responses. The essence, from what I’ve read, is that lots of kids, GaGa fans, felt that GaGa was some kind of original artistic genius. A goddess! So they were a bit taken aback to hear her adoration of Marina, and to learn that Marina was also a mother figure to GaGa. So Marina becomes the goddess mummy. And doesn’t that give an inkling into what it must feel like to have children as your fans?! It’s such a mixed and conflicted thing. It reminds me of once hearing Jason Donavon, then a popstar, talking off camera about how embarrassing it was to have little girls flinging themselves at him. He wanted to be a proper musician, and for grown women to be flinging themselves at him. He wanted to be respected and admired, and yet there he was, singing crap by Stock Aitken Waterman, on children’s TV. I’m guessing that GaGa is pretty much there right now, in that Jason Donovan dilemma. I hope she doesn’t implode like so many young stars and starlets. I hope she spends more time with Marina and gets some perspective that way. I think she might just well do that. Good for her!