Private Archaeology is an exhibition of recent and historic work by performance art superstar Marina Abramović. Abramović and Mona go well together – the art in the Mona permanent collection centres around sex and death, and in Abramović’s art, these fundamental aspects of existence are never far beneath the surface. The exhibition is located deep within the bowels of Mona’s subterranean burrow, making Private Archaeology a particularly evocative title. The museum’s underground spaces are like archaeological sites even before Abramović’s archives are instated within them. There is also a sense of drama and extremism cultivated by both Mona (or, perhaps more accurately, by David Walsh) and Abramović: neither party compromises, and both create sites of secular worship where the regular rules don’t apply.
For Private Archaeology, old and new Abramović works are laid out in a warren of interconnecting rooms, separated by luxurious white velvet curtains. Chronology is not entirely ignored here: the first room features three early video works, collaborations with Ulay (German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen, Abramović’s former partner and collaborator). The intensity of her unrelenting vision is set up from the start. The works, presented as video documentation, are dated – it’s odd to see a very young and fierce Abramović on screen after being saturated in recent years of images and videos of an assured, implacable and restrainedly glamorous middle-aged woman. That these documents reveal their age doesn’t diminish their power, and it’s interesting to note that live intermediaries (re-performances of old works by new artists or interpreters) are foregone here in favour of the original, albeit in documented form. This makes sense in the context of a retrospective which traces the evolution of a practice with the artist at its nexus. Over time, Abramović moves from protagonist, antagonist, sufferer and redeemer, to replacing her presence with that of the audience.
There is an intermediary stage, in the form of participatory sculptures called Transitory Objects, which eases the audience into becoming the art. For Black Dragon (1994), solid blocks of polished semiprecious stones are mounted onto walls at the height of the head, heart and sex. The audience is invited to lean into their cool concave fronts, face to the wall. Duration: limitless. The boundaries of the work are dictated by each participant. White Dragon (1990), Red Dragon and Green Dragon (both 1989) invite viewers to stand, sit and lie respectively on wall-mounted copper, head on obsidian or quartz blocks, whilst Inner Sky (1991 and 2015) presents lumpy hollow iron forms, raised on tripods above head height, that individuals stand under with eyes closed. Their rough interiors are inset with faceted amethyst. It’s rather mystical and new age, suggestive of a non-specific, secular spirituality or modern witchcraft. At a more basic level, there is a simple imperative to stop. Wait. Look inside. Listen. Wait. Wait. Wait.
The apogee is the final room of the exhibition, in which the “Abramović method” is revealed. Patrons relinquish all electronic devices in exchange for white coats and are ushered into a room to count rice at a communal table. For some, it’s an exercise in efficiency – they count as fast as they can to get through the pile, tallying with apparent relish. Others come closer to the stated intent of the Abramović method and count slowly, deliberately, one grain at a time. Through this method, audiences evolve from onlookers to active participants that create and eventually become the work of art itself. Marina is effaced but the Abramović method persists. Thus Abramović ensures the continuation of her legacy.
It’s worth tracking down the Mona Library Gallery, where Abramović responds to Mona’s collection of ancient artefacts. Titled Power Objects, this work is instructive in terms of how both parties prefer to work. A selection of ten mostly animal or anthropomorphic objects – a baboon figurine, a sheep, a peach – are singled out and spot-lit in individual cases. A single stool is set before each, inviting one-on-one contemplation. Whereas in most museums, viewers crane over multitudes of objects in large vitrines, here any pretence of comprehensiveness or chronology is eschewed in favour of the possibility of a one-on-one, face-to-face connection through space and time. This unusual singling-out and slowing-down approach speaks volumes of Abramović’s and Walsh’s dual and complementary approaches to what art is and how it can be experienced. The evolving exhibition Monanism, which sees works from the Mona permanent collection displayed without wall plaques, timelines or didacticism, fills the remainder of the gallery.
It feels a bit late in the piece to be singing Mona’s praises – it’s been covered seemingly exhaustively for years since it first opened. The praise often comes with an element of grudging acknowledgement that the self-obsessed guy with ill-gotten gains has gone and done something that’s really quite good. Great, even. Ok, it’s really quite amazing. Terms like game-changer and place-maker are bandied about; comparisons with Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and The Wizard of Oz are invariably made. It’s mostly true, and mostly irrelevant. Mona is a complete journey and a total experience, and silences cynics with its undeniable completeness as a site for indulgence, darkness, reverence and irreverence. This ethos is extended during Dark Mofo to take over large chunks of downtown Hobart, trading on the city’s coldness and darkness in winter to create something a bit sexy, a bit dangerous, post-industrial and pre-apocalyptic.
My partner overheard a couple of older blokes – Hobartians – chatting over the urinals at the Dark Mofo Winter Feast. They were talking about how the festival was pretty wild for an outpost like Hobart. How it was a bit much, but undeniably a good thing for local industry. How yeah, really, it was actually quite awesome. “Yep, god bless Walshie,” one guy bestowed his benediction on Hobart’s mad genius as he zipped his pants.
Marina Abramović: Private Archaeology, Wed to Mon 10am-5pm until 5 October 2015; Museum of Old and New Art (Mona), 655 Main Road, Berriedale, TAS; (03) 6277 9900, mona.net.au