Art News Roundup: Square to Spare Edition

The Serbian artist Marina Abramović (1946-) has been the doyenne of performance art for decades. Over the years, she has managed to push a lot of people’s buttons, despite the fact that her real talent lies in self-promotion rather than in creating anything of artistic value. Case in point, a group of Polish Catholics – God bless them – has been protesting a retrospective of her “work” that recently opened in the city of Toruń, thanks to the perception that she is a Satanist; given her politics and her penchant for wearing horns, it’s not hard to see why they reached that conclusion.

This is why a new made-for-tv film which pokes fun at Abramović is such a pleasure: it’s a wonder that no one has managed to do it previously.

“Waiting for the Artist” is part of the 3rd Season of Independent Film Channel’s “Documentary Now!”, a fake, PBS-style series similar to “Independent Lens”. Hosted by Dame Helen Mirren, the show takes serious documentary films as source material, and then recreates them (often shot-for-shot) as black comedies. In this case, the film is based on “The Artist is Present” (2012), which won numerous awards several years ago as it followed Abramović around ahead of a show of her work at MoMA.

In the IFC film, Cate Blanchett plays Izabella Barta, a Hungarian performance artist whose personal appearance, art, and certain personal details are based on Abramović. Izabella is preparing for a retrospective of her career at a Contemporary Art museum in Budapest, and is struggling to come up with a new performance piece. In this clip, Izabella has a rather dangerous idea for the show which understandably causes some concern for the museum’s director. During the course of the episode, we learn about Izabella’s childhood, her previous work, and her long romantic relationship with another performance artist, Dimo van Omen (played by Fred Armisen), who regularly stole her ideas in order to further his own career.

There are moments in “Waiting for the Artist” that are such perfect send-ups of Contemporary Art that I found myself crying with laughter. For example, there is a sequence when Izabella and a group of young artists are at her country house, and they engage in a series of performance art-related exercises, such as putting a young woman in a steel drum and rolling her down a hill until she crashes into a tree, or having piggyback rides where the participants yell out “Art is suffering!” in Hungarian. Sometimes the jokes go by incredibly fast, as when we are briefly shown a flashback of one of Izabella’s performance pieces, in which she rides a giant tricycle around a courtyard while screaming like a banshee.

Then there’s a segment which will remind “Seinfeld” fans of “The Stall”, the episode in which Elaine finds herself caught in the ladies’ room without any toilet paper, and Jerry’s girlfriend won’t share any from the next stall. Izabella sets up two bathroom stalls in the lobby of the Hungarian National Opera House, enters one of the stalls, and closes the door. She invites members of the public to sit down in the other stall, and to hand her toilet paper. People have emotional reactions to the encounter with the hand appearing under the dividing panel; one woman even weeps profusely. This is based, in part, on a performance in which Abramović sat on a chair in a gallery and invited visitors to sit opposite her, as she did and said nothing; similarly, some visitors wept and called it a spiritual experience.

What’s interesting about the mockumentary is that, although it has a conclusion which, one assumes, was supposed to make the viewer root for the Abramović character, as is often the case with film the viewer’s take can often be quite different from what the filmmaker intended. For ironically, Izabella is shown to be no better a person than Dimo. Not only does she create terrible art, but she takes advantage of him in order to extract revenge on him in a very public way. The only real difference between them is that up until the end of the film, she hasn’t been good at playing the one-upsmanship game.

“Waiting for the Artist” is definitely NOT for the kiddos or for those with a more sensitive nature, but if you can appreciate the absurdity of Contemporary Art, I suspect that you will highly enjoy it.


And now, on to some of the week’s art news.

Big Bouguereau

Need to fill up some wall space in your open-concept loft conversion? At their upcoming Impressionist and Modern Art Auction on May 14th, Sotheby’s New York will be offering French Academic painter William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s massive “La Jeunesse de Bacchus” (1884), which has rarely been exhibited since its creation, and until now has remained in the possession of the artist’s descendants. Although Bouguereau (1825-1905) has come back into vogue recently, and prices have risen considerably – the estimate on this one is $25-35 million, which sounds about right – I have to confess that I’m not a huge fan of his work. To me, many of his Classical-themed works look more suited to the ceiling of a bordello in the Wild West than to a serious art collection, but admittedly this is largely a matter of taste. Caveat emptor: the canvas is a whopping 20 feet long and 11 feet high, so good luck getting that through your front door.


Meiji Mascot

For decades, a giant bronze eagle has stood atop a column at Boston College, symbolizing the school’s mascot, Baldwin the Eagle. The original, which was first put on display in the 1950’s, was subsequently replaced with a copy back in the 1990’s, disassembled, and placed in storage. Now, as part of a new exhibition titled “Eaglemania: Collecting Japanese Art in Gilded Age America”, BC’s McMullen Museum of Art has conserved and restored the old eagle, which turns out to be a major Japanese bronze from the Meiji period. The exhibition, which opened last month, runs through June 2nd.


Sublime Sorolla

After more than a century since the last one, the UK will finally be holding a major exhibition on the work of Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923), one of my favorite artists. A contemporary and rival of American artist John Singer Sargent, and Swedish painter Anders Zorn, Sorolla painted everything from portraits of U.S. Presidents and heads of state, to informal moments with his wife and children, to scenes of ordinary people engaged in everyday activities. His best work often sparkles with the reflected light of the sea around his hometown of Valencia where, even after moving to Madrid to advance his career, he often returned to seek inspiration and relaxation. “Sorolla: Spanish Master of Light” opens at the National Gallery in London on March 18th, and runs through July 7th.