Since the early 1970s Marina Abramovic has made performances that were all about connecting. One on one or with a large crowd, she created situations that were designed to make viewers feel more intensely -- in the moment, in relation to space, in relation to each other. She has built a career from such careful examination of how we see (or don’t see enough of, she would say) the world around us, and how little awareness we have of the human threads that bind us. Always insisting on the ‘here and now’, each of her performances stretches time, usually to many hours and sometimes to many days (hence the term “duration art” which she might have invented), for she recognized that the only way that she could get people to fully experience her work was to make them stop in their tracks, and to be with her in real time, one hundred percent and without distraction.
There are many examples of the ways in which Marina has done this, but in each case, the context for examining such an intangible, non-saleable idea about an individual’s consciousness of their own existence has mostly taken place in the art world: that somewhat insulated, frequently misunderstood enclave of museums and galleries where artists and art lovers like to investigate the outer limits of the senses and the entire history, from Paleolithic times to the present, of the ways in which artists represent the universe. Think of it as an experimental laboratory, where artists set up tests and trials, each having to do with human perception and awareness, which is exactly how Marina’s work functions. In addition, each of her tests or trials takes place in a setting that is frequently dramatic and quite beautiful; it might be an intricately decorated 18th century salon in a museum with bright accents of red or blue (of the clothing that she might wear) or it might take place in a pristine white gallery on a raised blond-wood platform built six feet off the ground, to resemble a set of rooms in a house. It was this last work, “House with an Ocean View,” where she lived for twelve days, only drinking water, standing or sitting silently and locking eyes with visitors, that would be her first to gain mainstream attention. It was seen by the producers of Sex and the City, who recreated the entire scene and used it as the dramatic start to Season 6, known as the Russian Episode, when Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) meets Alexsandr (Mikhail Barysnikov).
Marina’s sitting in a chair for almost three months, day in day out, across from visitors who would sit, one at a time, for varying lengths of direct eye contact with her, as part of her major retrospective The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010, sparked fires in the imagination of the thousands who lined up each day to see her, and of the many hundreds of thousands who only heard about it or viewed it online. One of those of course was Jay Z, who no doubt was fascinated by the idea of a one-on-one performance, in contrast to his stadium-filled concerts singing to an ocean of fans. That he was intrigued to try out Marina’s work, to riff on one of the most talked about art events of recent years, as the basis for a video for his new song about collecting art, “Picasso Baby,” is not surprising; indeed he chose well in selecting The Artist is Present as backdrop to a complicated and not un-ironic song, the words of which are as critical of race and class, of the presumptions of “high art” in providing status and power, as is Marina’s attempt to ‘democratize’ the art experience by concentrating on the basics of eye contact and connecting. His interest in her work speaks about the ways in which visual artists have frequently been the source for some of the most creative and inventive figures in popular culture. Those who translate from one side to the other, from the art world to pop music, like Jay Z or Madonna or Lady Gaga, do so with an instinctive understanding of the originality of the artists’ material even though they might have little knowledge of the circumstances that formed it. In their reworking of the artist’s ideas, they serve to popularize them. Far from trivializing or simplifying Marina’s performance, as some have said, Jay Z paid homage to her, first by securing her permission to create his own version of The Artist is Present and then by inviting the artist to be present with him. So, fans watching “Picasso Baby; A Performance Art Film,” get not only a hip hop introduction to Marina Abramovic, but also links to Jean-Michel Basquiat, George Condo, Francis Bacon, as well as Picasso, and a momentary glimpse into who they are and why they matter.