Performance reviews: Marina Abramović Institute: Takeover, Adelaide Festival

A suite of duration works from different artists in different spaces.
Elderly man is sitting on a step ladder in a black suit with his eyes closed. He is dipping a paint brush into a tub held by another person and on the wall is a large splash of red paint.

A man smashes bricks with a hammer, a woman lies naked on the floor, a man sits unmoving in a chair with a cloth over his head, another is holding a bucket of black paint while a man with his eyes closed loads his brush. These and more were the stuff of this four-day Adelaide Festival headline visual arts event.

Australian artist Mike Parr was the one with the loaded brush, performing Portrait of Marina Abramović, from a series of blind painting performances he started in 2019. Parr stood inside a three-and-a-half-metre high, 10.5-square metre cube, made of panels like a film set – raw exposed construction on the outside, painted white and smooth on the inside.

Audience members could walk the perimeter on ground level and view the work going on inside projected onto a large screen or they could circle the cube, looking in from a first floor walkway. Inside the cube were ladders and buckets, tins of red and black paint, assistants (because this was “blind painting” and Parr had his eyes closed) and, of course, cameras to capture the performance.

Parr was the centre of attention as he sloshed paint (loaded with political rhetoric) onto the walls, along with himself and the floor. According to a recent article published in The Sydney Morning Herald, 78-year-old Parr has been “dropped” by the his long-time gallerist, Anna Schwartz Gallery in Melbourne, for just that reason (the politics, not the paint on the floor).

Where was Abramović? She was at home in New York –  she’s now 77 and has been unwell. But her presence was felt in the foyer where she appeared like a headmistress instructing the audience on how to breathe, sit and stand! And, yes, there were a surprising number of people doing just that.

Parr was only there for the first day, but his paintings were on display in the cube for the rest of the four-day event. On those days, the cube could be accessed through a single door to view the work close-up; inside was a shrine-like atmosphere. People came in and peered at the contents with reverence, the sort usually bestowed on a sacred space. There was a quiet respectfulness each time this reviewer visited, people walked quietly, paused and reflected, and few spoke. 

While some were enamoured, some were not. While I watched Parr at work, a woman next to me looked at the artist somewhat bemused and whispered, ‘Looks like I’ve done my dosh on this one’. And it was expensive, with a four-day pass at $199 and day tickets at $69. With the requisite paper wrist band attendees could return throughout the day. This was billed as site-specific, long-durational projects and some audience members did indeed commit to sitting for hours on end watching the events unfold.

The theatre venue was perhaps confusing for some and maybe created an expectation that was not fulfilled. The Adelaide Festival Centre’s Space Theatre (and surrounds) where Takeover was held is a well-known venue for theatrical performance and perhaps some attendees expected something more theatrical, not the slow burn of a durational art piece. 

Despite performance art having a long history –  think early Modernism at the start of the 20th century – in this respect, performance as art occupies a liminal position between art and theatre, just as as art does with poetry, or video art and cinema.

The venue for a performance artwork is the equivalent of the frame for a painting or a plinth for a sculpture. While for all practical purposes this venue seemed perfect, it was perhaps a poor choice for these works as curated by Abramović. It raised questions of authenticity: was the Collective Absentia artist who sat still for hours performing Our Glorious Past Our Glorious Present Our Glorious Future: Our Glorious Spring, a work about political violence in Myanmar, an actor playing the part of someone concerned about political violence or were they authentically concerned? This reviewer believes the latter to be true, but the choice of venue perhaps undermined that. 

Artist Yingmei Duan was the nude on the floor, lying face down with a digital picture of herself naked placed on her back by an assistant. Every so often she got up, walked around the space, and lay down in a different spot. Duan’s work questioned social conventions and human behaviour, exploring fear and desire. There was a casual but confident simplicity in Duan’s work that felt right. 

A standout work was Amnesia (2016) by Melati Suryodarmo. Through the entire duration, Suryodarmo stood by a wall armed with a piece of chalk, saying, ‘I am sorry’ as she made a mark on the wall, then repeating the task (slowly) as the wall filled with tally marks. This was a powerful work – sad, reflective and intensely moving.

The small audience across the weekend was surprising. Would there have been more enthusiasm if Abramović had appeared in person rather than on video?

It was disappointing that many of the pieces were older works that have been performed and seen before. There was also a disappointing sense of hierarchy in the Takeover as if some ideas were more important than others, something surely at odds with the philosophy of a collective approach. 

Read: Theatre review: Two of Them, Adelaide Fringe

In one of the video pieces, Abramović described durational performance art as ‘the most difficult, the most immaterial and the most real’ form of art. Duan’s work was definitely immaterial, but I’m not so sure about Parr with his 147 square metres of carpentry and the work left on display as if in a conventional gallery.

Takeover was an interesting and engaging proposition that didn’t quite deliver on its potential. 

Marina Abramović Institute: Takeover
Space Theatre and surrounds, Adelaide Festival Centre
Marina Abramović (appearing digitally) with artists curated by the MA Institute
Collective Absentia
Li Binyuan
Yingmei Duan
Mike Parr
SJ Norman
Indigo Perry
Melati Suryodarmo
Christian Thompson

Marina Abramović Institute: Takeover was performed 1-4 March as part of the Adelaide Festival.

Stephen Richardson is a visual artist based in Adelaide. He has a poly-hyphenate art practice and has exhibited locally and internationally. Stephen is the Honorary Ambassador in Australia for the European Academy of Sciences, Arts, & Letters (EASAL) and is currently completing a PhD in visual art with La Trobe University.