Exploring Presence. A brief introduction to three artist’s groundbreaking work within the theme.
The state or fact of existing – presence – seems simple enough; but exploring it’s finer points, restrictions, and consequences draws one in. Marina Abramovic, Senga Nengudi, and Joseph Heinrich Beuys represent captivating and important cultural work exploring physical, emotional, racial, cultural, and environmental presence.
“Sit silently with the artist for a duration of your choosing”—so the instructions read on a small plaque in the second-floor atrium at The Museum of Modern Art. Behind the plaque, a queue of visitors forms, eager to enter a large square space—demarcated only by tape on the floor—to sit down at a wooden table across from a dark-haired woman in a navy-blue dress that conceals every part of her body save her face and her hands.
The woman is the pioneering artist Marina Abramović, but it’s likely that few of the people in line have any sense of this woman’s indelible impact on contemporary art. As I wait, an anthology of her performances scrolling through my head. Watching her from afar, I look to see the courage and fearlessness in a woman capable of incising a five-pointed star on her own stomach, screaming until she loses consciousness, and living in a gallery for 12 days without food. Strangely, she doesn’t seem reckless at all, but peaceful and wise. I then remember she trained with Tibetan Buddhists and has said she’s able to transcend the limits of her own body and mind through meditation. She’ll need these skills now more than ever as she attempts her longest performance-to-date, sitting at this table for every hour of every day that her retrospective is open at MoMA. No food. No water. No breaks.
Rebecca Taylor, “Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present,” in Smarthistory, August 9, 2015, accessed August 23, 2022, https://smarthistory.org/marina-abramovic-the-artist-is-present/.
Influences from Africa, avant-garde art, and more merge in Nengudi’s work.
Interested in the visual arts, dance, body mechanics and matters of the spirit from an early age these elements still play themselves out in ever changing ways in her art. She has always used a variety of natural (sand, dirt, rocks, seed pods) and unconventional (panty hose, found objects, masking tape) materials to fashion her works, utilizing these materials as a jazz musician utilizes notes and sounds to improvise a composition. The thrust of her art is to share common experiences in abstractions that hit the senses and center, often welcoming the viewer to become a participant.
“Sharing each others cultures through the arts provides a true bridge to a healthy respect for one another and arts education in general provides a means to stimulate the mind and exercise creative problem solving.”
Senga Negundi, “Introduction” August 9, 2015, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.sengasenga.com/.
Joseph Heinrich Beuys
12 May 1921 – 23 January 1986
A German artist, teacher, performance artist, and art theorist whose work reflected concepts of humanism, sociology, and anthroposophy. He was a founder of a provocative art movement known as Fluxus and was a key figure in the development of Happenings.
Beuys is known for his “extended definition of art” in which the ideas of social sculpture could potentially reshape society and politics. He frequently held open public debates on a wide range of subjects, including political, environmental, social, and long-term cultural issues.
TATE, “Joseph Buey’s” August 9, 2015, accessed August 23, 2022, https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/joseph-beuys-747