On first impression, a woman-only talk at the Southbank Centre sounds like a profoundly radical gesture. Marking out a space within a publicly-funded institution where for one hour, men are prohibited entry, is an inherently feminist statement that surely demands rigor in its critical thinking. Certainly, had the organizers done the opposite and programmed a man-only event, there would have been impassioned and laboured debate. However, the woman holding the floor at A Lecture for Women Only, senior performance artist Marina Abramovic, declares she is not a feminist. In fact, she suggests that “the artist has no gender” –a perplexing position given the very premise of her discussion.
Invited by friend and collaborator Antony Hegarty as part of this year’s Meltdown Festival, Abramovic places herself at odds with his own politically charged belief system as a transgender artist who so publicly voices his cynicism for patriarchy and cites the emancipation of female power as a mode for progress and sustainability. Appearing among Hegarty’s contemporaries in a program of outsider musicians and artists such as CocoRosie and Kembra Pfahler, who deal in a vernacular of subversion and transgression, Abramovic’s reluctance to address gender politics comes as a surprise. She begins, “I will talk about the things I like, the problems I have, my childhood… It will not be political talk, just a human encounter, woman to woman”.
Abramovic’s approach is, perhaps despite herself, an inherently feminine one. She describes the discussion as a fundamental mediation on energy, intuition, why we are here and, specifically, seeking an understanding and transcendence of pain through her work. These existential ponderings were sincere, at times moving and strangely confounded by the presence of Kim Cattrall of Sex & the City fame -icon of material pleasures- opening the talk.
Thoughts surrounding artistic integrity were delivered with unfaltering conviction, while ideas of what it could mean to be a woman were less cogent and rare. This is disappointing considering the recurring motifs running through Abramovic’s oeuvre of eroticism (see ‘Balkan Erotic Epic’, 2005) and gender roles (best evidenced in her collaboration with Ulay). They betray an obvious preoccupation with her feminine ego.
After sharing a series of clips of her favourite works, some from her ex performance art students, others, fragments of archival footage of choreographer Pina Bausch and opera singer Maria Callas, Abramovic appeared naked on stage. Standing in a pool of light she read her life manifesto, which she suggests is a necessary thing for any artist “to have his own manifesto. To have some kind of moral conduct; how he should rule his life, what his belief should be”. Repeated use of the masculine noun aside, Abramovic’s shift from nude woman to performer was palpable. What began as a softly spoken, visibly vulnerable address, transformed into an artwork with commanding presence; her body became anchored and her voice charged with a new strength and intensity. What could so easily have felt like a quasi-radical gesture, getting naked for old times sake, actually served as reminder that a body is simply a vehicle for action.
Antony’s Meltdown Festival is on at the Southbank Centre August 1 –15, 2012.