In his cover story for The Weekend Australian Review, Tim Douglas interviews Marina Abramovic in Abu Dhabi. However the account of her experiences in the Australian desert three decades ago leaves a seriously problematic trail for its account of her cross-cultural relationships. (“Primal Performer: Artist Marina Abramovic was transformed by a desert epiphany.” Weekend Australian Review, March 30-31, 2013, pp. 6-7.) In this promo piece for the upcoming Kaldor project, Douglas gives us the latest version of Abramovic’s story:
Following an appearance at the third Sydney Biennale in 1979, Abramovic and her artistic collaborator and lover Ulay – German artist Frank Uwe Laysiepen – trekked out to central Australia and requested to meet the indigenous people of Western Australia’s Little Sandy Desert, near Lake Disappointment [according to Douglas’ interview]. That meeting [he relates] would become the best part of a year living with the local Aborigines. “For me, Aborigines are the most natural human beings: they live not in the past or in the future but in the present. They have a story and a meaning for everything, “ she says. “In that desert I spent a lot of time just sitting down: meditating, listening to the silence. This is what opened my universe.”
According to Douglas’ interview, it was in the desert that Abramovic had her epiphany:
…what she terms a “non-rational extra sense of perception”. “I walked out of that desert after a year and had this realization that, ‘Wow. I see things differently. I am new.’”
The historical account tells it somewhat differently, as history is wont to do. In The Third Hand: Collaboration in Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism (Sydney, 2001), in a chapter devoted to these artists, author Charles Green concludes his description of Ambramovic and Ulay’s experience as a form of contemporary “primitivism.” What follows is how he comes to this conclusion:
BE STILL QUIET AND SOLITARY: Abramovic and Ulay in the Desert
Artists forestalled the consciousness that they were aware of being beheld by removing themselves from the audience – literally absenting themselves to distant, isolated places where the only evidence of their actions after the event would be photographic or documentary traces of solitude and self-absorbtion in a desert, wilderness, or darkness. Marina Abramovic and Ulay incorporated an extreme type of this artistic “tourism’ into their work. Their search for an expanded sense of self, one that they were sure was possessed by the Aboriginal people living in the Central Australian desert, might be seen as touristic – as yet another chapter in modern art’s narrative of cultural primitivism. But if their romanticism was necessarily an orientalism, then such charges should probably be leveled at anyone who ever leaves home or empathizes with somebody else. In any case, as Ambramovic later observed. “Australia changed my life dramatically.”
Marina Abramovic and Ulay were already shifting the focus of their work from violent actions to passive immobility (even though both types of work involved audience obliviousness) during 1979, when they had performed [in the 1979 Biennale of Sydney]… They returned to Australia in 1980, traveling between October 1980 and March 1981 across Central Australia. Their slightly mad, Bruce Chatwin-like epic of crushing heat (they were visiting the center during its searing-hot summer), loneliness, disappointment, and delayed epiphany took them, like the English traveler and novelist, to Papunya 9near Alice Springs), where, coincidentally, major Aboriginal artists had been producing acrylic paintings on canvas since 1971 – and then through the Gibson Desert to Leonora, Wiluna, and Mount Newman. Abramovic and Ulay spent considerable time alone in the desert. Much of their journey was spent struggling with sheer physical discomfort while camping alone for extended periods at remote desert water holes, but they were at the same time refining and extending their experiences of immobility and self-absorbtion. According to Abramovic: “But, also, it is quite logical that we went to the desert because of our kind of background, and the work we do. We minimalize… and we try to realize with pure body and energy.” They were using the opportunity presented by their solitary existence to develop a heightened sensitivity and, they hoped, the ability to communicate through means other than speech or physical sight – in other words, through telepathy and clairvoyance…
In the brief interview published shortly after they had returned from the desert, Abramovic and Ulay recorded their frustration with the apparently inaccessible primitive Other. Abramovic said, “I must say for myself I expect very much from the contact with the Aborigines, and I get very disappointed,” adding, “I found there was something like a wall between them and me.” [in Jennifer Phipps, “Marina Abramovic/Ulay/Ulay/Marina Abramovic,” Art & Text, no. 3 (Spring 1981): 43-50] Nevertheless Abramovic and Ulay were eager to draw parallels between the nomadic heritage of desert Aborigines and their artistic practice. She observed: “We move all the time; they move all the time.” She noted the impermanence of both her performance actions and Aboriginal ceremonies…
Abramovic and Ulay expected Aboriginal artists to create paintings as close as possible to traditional culture, but Aboriginal artists desired to hide those truths. Contrary to the European artists’ desires, Aboriginal artists enacted the same refusal to enact or instruct contemporary artists such as Abramovic and Ulay. The European artists, however, were oblivious to the cultural ironies attendant upon what was a largely vicarious, albeit completely sincere, romanticism. Abramovic recalled that the Aborigines they met were completely indifferent to them: “The Aborigines were not impressed at all.” Abramovic and Ulay’s literally fantastic expectations of what they would find in their meetings with Aboriginal tribal elders in the desert were – at least initially – ludicrous and predictably disappointing…
Green continues: Ambramovic and Ulay’s melodramatic expectations were the result of their powerful desires for the supernatural, which they projected onto Aboriginal actors in their spiritual “desert quest”; the result was primitivism.
In a later essay Green analyses a subsequent, and apparently more successful encounter, that is here only mentioned in passing: “Later, however, they forged powerful and rewarding relationships with Central Desert Aborigines, which culminated in Aboriginal participation in one Amsterdam version of Nightsea Crossing. (1983)”. In this more detailed account (“Group Soul: Who Owns the Artists Fusion?” in Third Text, Vol. 18, Issue 6, 2004, 595-608) Green relates the circumstances of Abramovic and Ulay’s second visit to Papunya, in 1981, where they witnessed significant paintings being made, and where they met the famous artist, Charlie Tararu Tjungurrayi. It was the latter artist they flew to Amsterdam to participate in the work Conjunction (1983). In Conjunction, Abramovic and Ulay and their two invitees sat facing each other across a round gold-leafed table for seven hour periods. At the other points of the compass, Charlie Tararu Tjungurrayi sat facing the Tibetan Lama Ngawang Soepa Lueyar. Of this work, Green suggests, inter alia: “Abramovic and Ulay, it might be argued, were indulging in a problematic exploitation – an orientalisation – of Aboriginality and Tibetan culture through stereotyping. The chromatic coding [of their costumes] could be understood to fix their collaborators in aspic, according to which ‘Aboriginal’ art or ‘Tibet’ would indicate the condition of a ‘spiritual’ thing, thus undermining from within the primary sense of the collective inaccessibility from which these works emerge.”
It would seem to this reader, on the basis of Abramovic’s most recent comments at the head of this post that this thread of romantic primitivism remains the take-home theme of this artist’s Australian experience.
Ps. Here’s the latest phase: The Artist Is Not Present But the Brand Sure Is, by Alicia Eler on Hyperallergic.