The panting dog was somewhat unsettling, but the click of a digital camera was just plain upsetting, because both seemed to violate the air of silence and vulnerability as Lisa Levy sat naked on a toilet seat in an ironic homage to Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present. Then again, these weird ways of interacting with the artist were more exciting to watch than people who approached the porcelain throne and looking blankly at Levy for what could easily be dismissed as a glorified staring contest.
Actually, for all the solemness and silence, Levy wasn’t trying to glorify anything during The Artist is Humbly Present at Christopher Stout Gallery this weekend. “Self-consciousness in the art world gets in the way of connecting with the person who’s experiencing the art,” she explained over the phone, prior to the performance. “I’m frustrated with the lack of work that I find inspiring, and I think everyone in the art world feels the same way, to some degree.”
While a French TV crew milling about the exhibition seemed to be searching for someone to say that Marina Abramović sucks (no one did), Levy explained beforehand that her homage wasn’t exactly a parody, nor was it a way to assail the famous performance artist. “I’m a huge fan,” Levy confided. “I was entranced by her work in the early days. What I find aggravating about The Artist is Present is that it feels like she’s putting herself above the viewer, it feels condescending to the viewer. It was in a very regal environment, and what I’m doing is the opposite of that.” However these issues, she pointed out, are not confined solely to Abramović’s work.
As for taking off her clothes, Levy said that she finds Puritan attitudes toward nudity “funny.” In fact, Christopher Stout revealed to us last week that his gallery’s posting about Levy’s show (which included a photograph of the artist partially nude) had been censored by Facebook. “I’m doing this mostly for my own experience to see what it’s like and I’m hoping most people have an enjoyable experience as well,” she said. “I don’t think nudity is a big deal.”
On opening day of the two-day show, people came in and out of the gallery– some holding back at the edges of the room and watching intently, almost as if they were holding their breath. While others, like that dude with the billowing hair and the dog, pranced in casually like they were on their way home from brunch and just felt like checking out some art before having a disco nap. One woman with pink pixie hair read silently from Men Explain Things To Me. Still others claimed to have experienced insanely weighty interactions with Levy. Jim Conely, who described himself as a close collaborator and longtime friend of Levy’s maintained that most of what he said was private, but was confident there was a great deal of mutual non-verbal communication going on. “I told her I was very proud of her,” he said. “This is a woman who’s non-stop creating.”
Linda Griggs, a painter represented by Christopher Stout whose work was also censored on Facebook, seemed equally impressed. She pointed to Levy’s other work that usually involves the bubbly, talkative artist taking over a room with her robust presence. (See: Rockin’ Granny, Levy’s performance piece at last year’s Bushwick Open Studios, in which she donned a curly gray wig and offered a Santa Claus-like service, inviting people to sit in her lap and be hugged.) “It’s interesting to see her so silent and still being so witty,” Griggs said.
After sitting across from Levy for all of two minutes, tops, but what seemed like hours, I found it difficult to imagine someone doing this for two straight days, let alone Abramović’s own three-month-long stretch. I began to feel a bit like she could see more of me than I intended to reveal, and vice versa– a billowing scar extended from her armpit to her right breast, and something like weariness and discomfort flashed across her face when someone quickly swooped in to place a tiny wooden block under Levy’s feet, which she promptly curled her toes around to support her posture.
Brian Whitely, another artist represented by Stout (the guy responsible for that bout of clown hysteria in Chicago) had waited in line to see Abramović at MoMA back in 2010. “I was one of those people who gave up,” he said. “Now I get to relive it here in a much more humble setting. I think it hits on all the notes of the Marina piece in a much more honest way.”
Whitely also expressed his appreciation for what he called Levy’s “scars-and-all” boldness which, like the environs, added a new level of vulnerability. “The second you take something into a museum setting, especially MoMA, it gives it this prestige that performance art hadn’t really had before. I think being here in Bushwick, it gives it substance,” he smiled. “It’s a beautiful rip off.”
Video by Andi Wang and Esme Montgomery.