Marina Abramovich (Yugoslav, b. 1946) sits across from you, looking at you as you look back at her, in the atrium of the MoMA. She is sculptured in a long red dress. You are anyone who wishes to sit at the table for as long as you like. You are acutely aware that the performance piece is being recorded. And you wonder if you should switch that awareness to something else. But what? Marina Abramovich sits across from you.
From the outside of "The Artist is Present," you may sit or stand at any point around the square marked out in white tape on the floor. If you look at the two sitters from the side, you are reminded of so many paintings of just that view. Two human beings seated across from each other, not touching and yet everywhere seems to touch.
If you look at Marina Abramovich, she becomes the art object. Black hair tied back on beautiful gaunt head. A red triangle. You can imagine you are seated across from her, but you are not. You are outside the square. If you look at the other sitter, who could be you, he or she becomes the art object. Sit down and look at him or her. You realize that the artist has given you the gift of looking at another human being, without embarrassment or fear of embarrassing the other. You are Marina Abramovich.
Upstairs, on the sixth floor, the exhibition of four decades of her work gives you the history of that body sitting so still in the atrium. That body had been stripped naked, shown off, tied up so that the audience could do what they liked to her, choosing from a table of assorted implements such as a chain, a handsaw, a gun, a bunch of grapes. It was always a dare. The body had leaned back, stretching the bow, before an arrow held by Ulay, her collaborator for many years. If the more recent work, with skulls and skeletons, smacks of theatricality, they come from a performance history that impresses with its single-mindedness and risks all for the sake of art.
I like William Kentridge's (South Africa, b. 1955) animated drawings. But when he starts preaching, against tyrants, mine owners, tycoons, he becomes boring. The imagination is given over to the abusers, while the abused becomes a mass.