Art & Design

The Celebrity Artist Is Present: Tilda and Marina at MoMA

Art & Design

The Celebrity Artist Is Present: Tilda and Marina at MoMA


Tilda Swinton’s ongoing MoMA performance, The Maybe, has the actor showing up “unannounced” and “at random” at the New York institution to feign sleep in a glass case, like a Sensational Sleeping Beauty. The public is not to know anything of Swinton’s schedule, except that she’ll appear sporadically over the next few months—perhaps six or seven more times—and for a full admission day when she does. The Maybe’s little white placard reads, “Living artist, glass, steel, mattress, pillow, linen, water and spectacles.”

On Tumblr the other day, I mistook an image from the 2005 Venice Biennale as an ad for Swinton’s The Maybe. The mistake was understandable, I think. The image was an image within an image: a photograph of a banner ad of a photograph of a plait braided Tilda giving the “shhh” finger, hung from a neoclassical building in undeniable disrepair. The caption below said simply, “Tilda Swinton, Absent Presence.” I got my language wires crossed, thinking of a more recent “A-blank Present” show at MoMA, and assumed this was Tilda for the place.

Tilda shushing was actually from the 2005 Venice Biennale, when she starred in the Turkish Pavilion’s main representation, Absent Presence, a video installation by conceptual fashion designer Hussein Chalayan about the neurosis of terrorism in the UK. Footage of that video is impossible to track down online, but Tilda’s image in it is ever-present.

Swinton’s The Maybe is a lot like Marina Abramović’s 2010 MoMA retrospective, The Artist Is Present. Both are performance pieces staged at the same museum. The audience draw for both is that the “living artist” will being there. Marina was there all the time, sitting in cultish robes from opening to close every day (79) for the duration of the exhibit. Swinton will maybe be there. Absent Presence is a fitting alternative title for Swinton’s performance: the anticipation of her presence, which will be found absent more than not, is part of the *concept*.

Marina’s project was grand, like her. (Did you know her brain waves map “longer and brighter” than most other people’s? She proudly told me and a small crowd as much last Armory.) Tilda’s is more reserved. But both rely—their greatest commonality, probably—on the celebrity of the artist.

When I boasted during this last Armory that I’d get to attend an exclusive dinner in Abramović’s honor (Marina in conversation with Charlie Rose, thank you Mana Contemporary), I expected envious replies. Instead, I heard moans of dissent: where can you not see Marina Abramović these days? That thing has happened when something certain people felt was authentic becomes too popular, too mediated: they feel betrayed, pull away, become blasé.

“Performance art is living art, time based art,” Marina said to Charlie Rose that night. Her life’s work, this performance art, is all about presence, about being right there, attuned to the moment. This is something I crave, as an antidote to hyperreality. It’s something I gather many of us do, so much so that it’s worth waiting hours in line for, as we did to be present with Marina for the briefest mo’ at MoMA.

The irony of and anxiety around the presence Marina Abramović is that, to reach the mass she desires, which is another one of her art’s central preoccupations, to grace the whole world with presence, she’s opted to be hypermediated. After The Artist Is Present, the show, came The Artist Is Present, the documentary. Marina is everywhere: all over the magazines (we had her), all over Tumblr, all over that guy who is himself all over, James Franco. Her performance art may be about the body in real time, but she’s distributing that message through image now. For purists and old fans, this is the betrayal.

I was in Marina’s live presence, introduced to her—her in her dark Givenchy and flat shoes, telling me how something I complimented her on was, “pure nightmare.” Being physically near her didn’t feel much different than being in her mediated presence. She was just as mouthy, self-serious, and hilarious in person as I gathered through the screen at Film Forum when I watched her documentary last Independence Day (I cried). I’m going to suggest, to the dissenting moaners, that Marina’s media spectacle does not betray her or her art, but that it meets her where she’s art, that is captures just how spectacular, how grand, she is.

Marina Abramović is a bonafide celebrity now, not unlike critically-acclaimed actor Tilda Swinton, and on par with her puppy dog collaborator, James Franco. She has made the decision to turn presence into omnipresence, and I think that’s great. We will always have celebrity. And if the celebrities we have in the spotlight now are Marina Abramović, Tilda Swinton, and James Franco, then I think we’re at a great point in cultural history.