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the inside and the outside: marina abramović and her dresses

One thing I like about Marina Abramović’s performance – ‘The Artist is Present’- at the MoMA (till May 31st – [see Jac Jemc’s related post here]) is the significance of the dresses she’s been wearing. She alternates between dresses of three different colors – red, dark blue, and white – each pertaining to a mood or energy level she believes will help sustain her at different times throughout the exhibition, which is two and a half months long, and which involves her sitting in silence across from any number of museum visitors almost every day.

Below are pictures of her in the three different dresses. If you click on any of them (during exhibition hours) you’ll be connected to a live streaming video of the performance.


Here’s what Julia Kaganskiy, blogging for MoMA, said about the dresses:

Marina’s choices are based on energy. For the opening of the exhibition, she chose the bright red dress. For the rest of March, the first month, she wore the meditative, deep blue dress. In April, to gain new energy because of the increasing difficulty of the performance, she has chosen the red dress. For May, Marina will wear a white dress to achieve a calm state for her final month of performing.”

Something about Abramović’s use of these colors is appealing. Her anticipation of her own emotional peaks and valleys within her performance is indicative, I think, of the sincerity of her art, by which I mean her intention that it be, among other things, a test of her own endurance. Notice how the difference in her posture in the pictures above corresponds to the difference in the color of her dresses; in red, she is intense, assertive, while in dark blue and in white she is reticent, withdrawn. This correlation might be involuntary (when she slumps, she might simply be tired, or even depressed), but the fact that she is aware of the associations the colors evoke suggests a premeditation that complicates the involuntary aspects of her performance.

Similarly, we can speak about the length of her dresses. There is something about the way the hem gathers around her feet, so impractically, that otherizes her in a way that is almost regal. I’m reminded of the story of Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) who is said to have worn bright red (the liturgical color for martyrdom in the Catholic Church) on the occasion of her execution.


Samantha Morton as Mary Stuart, or Mary, Queen of Scots, in 'Elizabeth: the Golden Age'


That story might be apocryphal, but even if it is, it exists because we understand how dress can alter a person’s relationship to those around her. And while there is a significant difference between the two contexts – between a woman condemned to death and a woman condemned to nothing but the fulfillment of her own choices (as Abramović is) – there is also a significant commonality. In both situations, the dress functions as a symbol of the wearer’s emotional or spiritual identity.

Some viewers might wonder what the point is of Abramović’s performance. Even if they agree that the color and length of her dress is significant, they might not agree that what she is doing should be categorized as art, or even as performance. One might argue that anyone with discipline and health (both physical and mental) could replicate, or appear to replicate, her performance. Isn’t it just a woman sitting in a chair?

But it’s for precisely this reason that what Abramović is doing might be special. Almost anyone can sit in a chair; almost anyone can choose to do what she has chosen to do – to contemplate, to impose boredom on herself, to consider her life as it has so far transpired; to not work, or to work by not working at all; to sit with strangers and look at their faces. But who does it? Her talent is not only for contextualizing such an activity – for bringing to the mundane an element of the grandiose – but for seeing in the fact of existence a sort of everyday holiness, for simply doing what to most of us seems unnatural to do.

4 thoughts on “the inside and the outside: marina abramović and her dresses

  1. I love her work. I think someone could easily think of it as ‘silly’ ‘egotistical’ or ‘irrelevant’ but I agree when you say that she appears sincere, and isn’t just trying to pull our leg. My favorite of hers is where, in order to get into a room, you have to wedge yourself in between two naked people, a woman and a man. How interesting who people choose to face, and how they approach such a challenge! That’s art.

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