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Anxieties of Influence: Performance Art, Celebrity, and the Self

I have one goal as an artist: not to sit on my ass. For me, art is action in all of its variety of forms. Performance artists, then, should be pushing the boundaries of action, daring to engage with the environment, culture, and most importantly, other people as intensely as possible. I want to do the most frightening things that I can. I want to move past these things. I want to go deeper.

If you choose to be a performance artist, you really drink the Kool-Aid. Your brain goes off the grid of success. Big cars, flashy jewels, home ownership. Recessions don’t really matter, because your life is just one long recession. You chose you. You can’t rely on paint, photo paper, or welding tools; it’s just you and your mind and your body. You want to move people, you want to make your life matter, you want to shift the way people think, you want to put your face down in it and roll around, you want to break the rules.

And perhaps the mentality of a performance artist is related to a disregard for authority. Personally, I think authority is a little silly. One of my favorite books as a kid was Everyone Poops, and I think that when you think about everyone taking a crap, even the president or the pope or celebrities like the musician Lady Gaga or the legendary performance artist Marina Abramovic, it is the most democratizing thing. On the other hand, I do wonder if there is some transference of power from celebrities to their fans, a sense that celebrities can pass something on to their minions, some aura or glow that we actively feel.

It is both a push and a pull. A yes and a no. I don’t want to admit that I want you.

My performance pieces are about this ongoing struggle to connect with people, places, and things, and the correlating difficulty of making sense of the world. They are about our need to communicate with other living beings and the frequent failure of that endeavor.

In The Anxiety of Influence, I attempted to sort out my confusion about these relationships and my personal fears by participating in Abramovic’s marathon work The Artist is Present, a performance piece in which Abramovic sat silent and still in the Marron Atrium of the Museum of Modern Art while museumgoers took turns sitting silently opposite her. On Saturday morning, March 27, 2010, I arrived at the Museum of Modern art long before the lobby gates were open. I was dressed as close to Marina as possible. I searched high and low for a long, flowing blue dress and visited multiple wig shops before picking the right hairpiece. I wore deep red lipstick and darkened my eyebrows. I was first in line when the museum opened, the first person up the stairs, and the second person to sit down in front of Abramovic. When I first sat down, she showed no perceptible reaction to my garment. We sat together, silently, motionless, staring at one another in the atrium for the entire day, approximately six hours and twenty-eight minutes.

I went through so many transformations as I sat there. Initially, I wanted some rise out of her, some acknowledgement of my gesture. Then I wanted to confess to her, as if I had been a bad child. Then, I felt myself get so angry that I almost started to cry—why was she so special and why was I so small and weak? At times, I felt like we were locking horns. She leaned forward and so did I. I started aping her every little movement. I thought about how hard it is to let myself be loved, and I wondered if she felt that way too. I wondered what I wanted out of her, why approval from anyone was so important.

My piece, The Anxiety of Influence, wasn’t a tonic for my confusion. It didn’t provide instant clarity about who I am or how my life is or is not shaped by authorities and celebrities. It brought more questions than answers, and we humans like answers. We like straightforward definitions. The ambiguous, the murky, the convoluted, and the in-betweens are not the province of most humans. We want to know. As a performance artist, I like to confront this ambiguity through action. I like to work in these in-betweens, the cracks between mediums and practices.

And sometimes that means pursuing action by sitting on one’s ass for a day.

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Anya Liftig :
Anya Liftig’s work has been featured at TATE Modern, Flux Factory, Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, Yale University, INCUBATEChicago, and many other venues. Her work The Anxiety of Influence was an intervention into Marina Abramovic’s The Artist is Present retrospective at MOMA. Her work has been published and written about in the New York Times Magazine, Bomb, Wall Street Journal, Vogue Italia, and many other publications. She is a graduate of Yale University and Georgia State University and has received grant and residency support from the Field, Vermont Studio Center, University of Antioquia, Casa Tres Patios-Medellin Colombia, and Flux Projects, Atlanta.
  • Marilyn

     Your first and last sentence have made it into my stash of quotable quotes. Profound truths!