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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. 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.