THE INSTIGATING INCIDENT
On Wednesday the 17th, I attended a meetup hosted by the Couchsurfing folks here in Bangkok. I made some new friends, as one always hopes to do (and maybe drank too much...). On Thursday, one of my new friends posted some very weird pictures - like what I've posted here. One of which explained what was going on - the Marina Abramovic Institute had just opened an exhibition at the Bangkok Arts and Cultural Center (BACC). I made a beeline there on Friday, the second day it was open, because I knew I couldn't miss it!
Marina Abramovic (not pictured in this post) is a Serbian performance artist who has, for decades, pushed the limits of human endurance and human interaction. One of her most famous exhibits was entitled "The Artist is Present" where, every day for about two months, she sat in a chair and made eye contact with every visitor who sat across a table from her. Reading that sentence makes it seem trivial, but when's the last time you spent even just a minute looking someone in the eye? Visitors were often moved to tears by the simple moment of human connection.
Another of her famous pieces was Rhythm 0. She sat in a room, naked, with several dozen objects of pleasure and pain (from a feather to a loaded gun) that the audience were instructed to use however they saw fit. For a number of hours (six or eight - I forget) she endured everything the audience did to her - from caress to pinch to stab - including one incident where someone held the gun to her head until another audience member intervened. When the performance was over and she moved for the first time, everyone ran away, perhaps afraid of actually interacting with this woman some had just tortured!
At my former place of work we would often have luminaries come and speak about whatever they so desired. I've met about a dozen Nobel Prize Laureates (one of whom tried to cheat me at backgammon) - this isn't meant to brag, just to say that having a famous artist around wasn't a huge deal. In this case, Abramovic came to give a presentation about what art meant to her and about her new foundation, the Marina Abramovic Institute (MAI). I'd heard of her before, but dismissed her (as with a lot of her style of performance art) as "anyone could sit in a chair for a few hours" and the like. That being said, I attended her lecture, not sure what to expect.
Holy shit she blew me away. I know I'm doing a terrible job of explaining it, but how she talked about her work - her exploration of herself and her connection with others - really struck me at a gut level. Her art is about changing the artist and changing the audience. Performances like staring at a candle for hours on end (pictured above) are meant to bring an artist to the present - to clear away other thoughts and to just focus their brain on the flame, as if it were the only thing in the world. Of course the artist will fail, but it's a form of meditation. A form of mindfulness. A much-needed exercise in this world of social media. And, by making it art and putting it on exhibit, it invites the audience to watch the watcher. To contemplate what the artist is doing and why they're doing it. To slow the brain for a second.
In something like Rhythm 0 (or Protreptic - pictured at the top), the artist-audience connection is more explicit - the audience is given explicit permission to interact with the artist. It's an immediate assault on one's concept of social boundaries. Do you touch a (nearly) naked person, even if they've given you permission? For the artist, what does it mean to be touched? What invites touch? What discourages touch? Who breaks the boundaries and why?
With all that in mind, Abramovic started the MAI to teach and inspire a new generation of artists. I'm no artist (or even wanna-be monk!), but I left that lecture with a nibbling in the back of my head that, if they put something on in a city near me, I would be sure to go.
Over the past three months, I've been traveling westward around the world (see some ancient post I made about it - I've not been good about updating stuff). I totally forgot about the lecture and I was kind-of over seeing museums (and temples) in Bangkok. Then, as mentioned, a simple Facebook picture post kicked me into action. I paid the 6.5 baht for the bus and headed to the BACC, a free museum. The museum as a whole is full of some pretty great stuff, but the exhibit put on by MAI (8 Possible Islands? Something like that) did not disappoint. Eight performers invited you into their art (see four pictured pieces). As an extention of the exhibit, there was a large room in which the audience was given noise-blocking earwear and then made to do slow tasks, e.g. counting grains of rice, walking along a path, just standing with eyes shut. My only wish is that I'd done that first.
The performance that touched me most was a woman sitting around a "broken" chalk circle, drawing hundreds of small circles. I ended up sitting cross-legged at the edge of her area for at least a half hour, just watching. After I sat, a good dozen people ended up joining me, just watching the woman draw circles. She eventually entwined herself in rope. She then drew us in with prolonged eye contact and drew smaller and smaller circles, as if entrapped. It was honestly quite spiritually moving.
Oh, and as an epilogue, knowing about the art in advance and the idea behind it, I had a bit of an advantage going in to the piece pictured at the top. Of the people I talked to and the people I saw, I'm the only one who touched the performer - I traced a snake tattoo she had on her calf, I held her hand for about ten seconds, then squeezed her shoulder goodbye. I suppose I became part of the art - maybe five folks whipped out cameras to take photos of me interacting with her, even though they had full permission to do so themselves!
Alright, hope you like this write-up. I know it's a bit of a departure from my usual silly stories!