Repeatedly I have written and spoken about exhaustion in the arts. Think how easy it was for the possibly pseudonymous Longus to write the immortal pastoral romance Daphnis and Chloe in the third or fourth century, when there was relatively little competition in fiction writing. Think also of how easy it was for the early composers to write not especially original music at a time when originality was not much called for. In the fine arts, even before representation yielded to abstraction, it has been easier to be original all along, what with the variety of faces, landscapes and possible still lifes. Yet even there a certain sense of déjà vu is now making things more difficult.
For artists with words—poets, novelists, dramatists, essayists—it is, despite seemingly infinite possibilities, getting harder and harder to be original, given the prevailing glut. Forays into the absurd have become more and more frequent, what with true newness ever more difficult to achieve. As for dance, the beauty of the human body in motion guarantees a putative inexhaustibility, yet even so there is no superabundance nowadays of outstanding choreographers.
Where mass production is by way of becoming deleterious is in the cinema, where it would appear that the great innovators have been dying out, and the newcomers are having the devil of a time trying not to look like the epigones they are. And there is a big increase in remakes, mostly inferior to the makes.
But where the desperate quest to be new is most pronounced, or most demented, is in the hard-to-classify realms of conceptual and body art, in which the frantic pursuit of elusive novelty has wreaked the greatest havoc. Here let us accost one of the major practitioners of the typical quest for originality—or just difference— yielding the most pitiful examples. I name that salient practitioner of non-art posturing as art: Marina Abramovic.
A couple of years ago her so-called retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art was entitled “The Artist Is Present.” It consisted of having persons sit in a chair opposite her and gazing at her admiringly. And would you believe it? People stood in line for the privilege of sitting and staring at her. So what could she do now to top this? Well, now she has London’s Serpentine Gallery showing nothing except the colored empty panels of its walls. It is called “512 Hours” after the total time she will spend there doing nothing. And folks have stood in line to see Abramovic’s nothing, presumably superior to the nothing of lesser mortals.
It is written up in an article of the June 14 New York Times, which can be read as either laudatory or ironic, or possibly neither. It goes into some detail about how Marina is spending the 512 hours of the duration of this exhibition. She says, “There is just me and the public. It is insane what I try to do.” Note that here “insane” is a term of praise.
There is no limit to Abramovic’s superior insanity. She is “widely known in the art world,” the Times states, “as a pioneer in her field who had not just created performances of physical intensity—carving a star into her stomach with a razor, lying on a block of ice for hours, screaming until her voice gave out—but had also re-enacted grueling performance pieces by other artists.” For, alas, she is not alone in her art. “A number of Americans and curators have written . . . accusing Ms. Abramovic and the gallery of failing to acknowledge the work of Mary Ellen Carroll, a New York based conceptual artist. Ms. Carroll said in an email that she had been working on a project called ‘Nothing’ since 1984, describing it as ‘an engagement with the public’ without documentation.” Thirty years of working on creating nothing is indeed impressive.
One of the gallery’s co-curators with Julia Taylor Jones, Hans Ulrich Obrist, told the Times in a telephone interview that “Ms. Carroll was one of numerous artists before Ms. Abramovic who had explored the relationship between art and nothingness.” And Abramovic herself confirms that “now we are getting letters every day from people who did nothing first.” Truly a situation worthy of the pen of Jonathan Swift or Lewis Carroll (no relation to Mary Ellen).
But did they receive the same sort of recognition as the one for “512 Hours”? No. Lady Gaga did not come to them for instruction, and Time magazine did not put them on this year’s list of the 100 most influential people. I have no doubt that at this very moment doctoral theses are being written on the art of nothing. Indeed, Marina informs us, “relishing her fame,” that her public “are super young, and I become for them some kind of example of things they want to know.” And we read that on a given Wednesday attendance at “52 Hours” consisted of hundreds of knowledge seekers, and not only young ones, but that on the following Thursday there was no such crowd. We are not told what happened on Friday.
“There is an enormous need for young people to have contact with the artist,” Ms. A. avers. And how does that play out at the Serpentine Galleries? For example, Ms. A. hands a small mirror to a visitor and tells her to walk backward, using the mirror as a guide. “Reality is behind you,” she whispers.
This was, presumably, a young contact needer. But how about older ones? “You look suspicious,” Ms. A. said to an older couple. They looked “well, suspicious, as around them people contemplated those panels in bright primary colors [not painted by Ms. A.] or lay on he floor eyes closed. Ms. A. took the couple by the hand, “gently asked them to close their eyes, and led them away walking with a slow measured tread.” She explains: “The public are my material, and I am theirs. “ To this end, our material girl opens the gallery with her private key at 6 A.M. and presumably tarries there till closing time.
Now you may fear that this art is too ephemeral, too conditioned on the artist’s living presence. Not to worry. In Hudson, New York, there is a Marina Abramovic Institute, a center for long-durational work, that “she hopes will bring together figures from the worlds or art, science and spirituality.” I wonder who these figures might be? For art, we already have Lady Gaga—or is she there for spirituality?—but who might attend from the world of science? Scientologists, perhaps; I can’t see Mary Ellen Carroll making the pilgrimage.
So there you have it. “A Gallery Filled with Emptiness,” as one Times headline has it. The follow-up one, more explicitly, reads “Now She Fills Her Gallery With Emptiness.” But, of course, she won’t stop there. There are still many heads to be filled with emptiness, albeit not so the fillers’ pockets. It is all highly symptomatic. And this, and similar manifestations, are where modern art has progressed to. How much really separates those primary-colored gallery panels from the masterworks of Mark Rothko and his likes, say Yves Klein, the Monochrome?
Simultaneously in music, we get John Cage’s measured silence and the not much better Minimalists. In literature, where it all began, we had Gertrude Stein, the surrealists and Oulipo. The floodgates were open to a French writer who wrote a whole book with the letter E removed from his typewriter. But why stop at one letter? How about a book with no letters at all?