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DVD Review: Seven Easy Pieces

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Belgrade-born Marina Abramovic, the subject of a recent New Yorker profile, is the first performance artist to be honored with a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. To coincide with "The Artist is Present," Microcinema has released Seven Easy Pieces, a document of Abramovic's week-long residence at the Guggenheim in 2005, in which the artist spent seven hours a day performing one of five landmark performance art pieces by other artists and two of her own.

Performance art is by nature ephemeral — documentation may exist only in photographs or perhaps no more than the memory of an audience. Abramovic seeks to remedy this institutional loss; but is anything lost in translation? Seven Easy Pieces, directed by Babette Mangolte, condenses 49 hours of performance into a 90-minute video. Abbreviated as it is, the time given to each work conveys a sense of the passage of time: a summary of gestures is introduced and cycled through and repeated, and the gestures are cumulative. So for Bruce Nauman's "Body Pressure," as the artist presses herself repeatedly against a Plexiglas divider, you see the traces of skin grease accrue over time, obscuring the view of the artist as she steps back from the wall.

Marina Abramovic performing "Entering the other side."
Marina Abramovic, "Entering the Other Side." Courtesty of Microcinema.

The pieces run from the sublime to the ridiculous, the funny to the self-indulgent, the simply uncomfortable to the frankly disturbing. A re-interpretation of Vito Acconci's infamous "Seedboard" is a case in point for any number of these. In 1972, Acconci spent nine days masturbating for eight hours in the crawlspace under a ramp in Sonnabend Gallery in New York, fantasizing about those walking over him and murmuring explicit thoughts through an amplifier. Ambramovic, despite a repertoire that includes generous amounts of self-flagellation and other varieties of pain, seems in this piece less self-contemptuous than Acconci. She invites her audience, sitting in an intimate circle above her, to interact and tell her their fantasies; in one shot an excited male spectator is seen lying face down, caressing the plywood and gently humping it.

In 1969, a black-leather jacketed Valie Export cut the crotch out of her trousers and trained a machine gun on a movie theater audience. "Action Pants, Genital Panic" dripped punk rock at the time, but lost some balls, as it were, in the institutional confines of the Guggenheim. A heckler can he heard telling Abramovic, "Put down that gun or use it!" This may be fodder for those who believe that a work of performance belongs to its own time:  a performance that once subverted expectations of passivity has become, if not passive, inert.

Gina Pane's "The Conditioning" is tailor-made for the ascetic element in Ambramovic's work (for her current show, she asked the young performers participating with her to adhere to a strict program of fasting). A jump-suited Abramovic lays on a steel bed atop an array of lit candles, which she switches out as they melt down.

Joseph Beuys' "How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare" may be the strangest of the pieces, and this is coming from someone with a very high bar for the strange indeed. The artist's face is sloppily plastered with gold leaf, fragments of which dangle from her face and fall to the stage (she sweeps up the detritus during the piece). She's accompanied by a taxidermied hare, which she alternately cradles in her arms, walks along the stage with and holds with its floppy ears dangling from her mouth.

"Lips of Thomas" is one of Ambramovic's own pieces, from 1975.  Originally performed over the course of two hours, this piece was expanded for the Guggenheim. It is uncomfortable watching at any length. The artist sits naked at a tale, eating honey from a jar and drinking wine as a metronome slowly keeps time. She gets up from the table to stand fully naked before the audience, revealing a five-pointed star drawn on her stomach. She takes a razor blade and cuts along one line of the star, then proceeds to lie on a cross made of ice (underneath a space heater aimed at her stomach), and then sits up to flagellate herself. She puts on boots and a military cap, and waves a flag, lined with the blotted stains from her razored belly, while a Russian folk song plays. Repeat, for an excruciating seven hours.

The seventh day must have come as a relief to both audience and artist. In "Entering the Other Side," Abramovic simply stands in a giant blue dress in the center of the Guggenheim rotunda.

Abramovic said, "I do not want the public to feel that they are spending time with the performances, I simply want them to forget about time." For 90 minutes of at times taxing performance — albeit not nearly as taxing as the seven-hour iterations — I was largely compelled, if not entirely convinced. Seven Easy Pieces is a frequently uneasy time,  and may not win the artist any converts. Nor will it answer the questions of purists who may argue whether performance art should be recreated at all. But as a well-produced document, fans of the artist will find it essential viewing.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.