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Art : Interview

The Anxiety of Influence

by Tatiana Berg

On the morning of March 27, 2010, the MoMA opened with Marina Abramovic seated facing a table and an empty chair, on schedule, ready to receive visitors as part of her ongoing marathon performance “The Artist is Present.” But this day was different…

On the morning of Saturday March 27, 2010, the MoMA opened with Marina Abramovic seated facing a table and an empty chair, on schedule, ready to receive visitors as part of her ongoing marathon performance “The Artist is Present.”

But this past Saturday was different, as the first visitor in line was a young woman who showed up dressed in a long dark blue dress and a black braid swept over one shoulder. As Abramovic’s doppleganger, she sat across from her and assumed a mirror pose. And there she sat, to the bafflement of the museum staff and visitors, all day.

Frequently overhead in the crowd was the explanation of disbelief, “She’s still here?!” There were some grumpy folks who waited for their turn in line before giving up, because no one could beat this marathon sitter. I checked twitter to see someone whine, “Really mad at this Marina Abromavic[sic] imposter whose[sic] taken over the exhibit at the MOMA. A plague upon both your houses!”

It was intriguing. It was frustrating. It was hilarious. My initial thought was: what a better way to “kill your idol” than to beat her at her own game, but then I also wondered what if it was a way to present affection to a long-admired artist and influence?

It turns out the doppleganger is Anya Liftig, a Brooklyn-based performance artist, and her intervention on Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” was a performance of her own, which she has titled “The Anxiety of Influence” after the Harold Bloom book of the same title. Bloom’s main concern was how poets, driven to write by their admiration of their idols, could succeed in generating original work despite the pressures of influence.

I asked Anya to talk to me about her anxieties of influence, her endurance level, and what it was like to come face-to-face with the so-called “grandmother of performance art.”

Tatiana Berg What was your energy like when you were in line, waiting? Were you covered so it would be a “reveal”?

Anya Liftig I did not cover myself up. I got to the museum at 9:15am and was first in line in the lobby. I did a lot of prep work throughout the week, scouting the best locations, abstaining from alcohol, eating a high protein diet, practicing sitting still, not speaking for long periods of time. I also read everything I could on Marina and on the practice of sitting and breathing. I am a very squirmy, awkward, physically uncomfortable person by nature, so I knew that I my mental state had to be heavily fortified for this performance.

TB You had told me about some other interventions that had already been attempted by members of the public during “The Artist is Present.” What were those previously attempted interventions? Did they inspire the performance you undertook?

AL I know of several. There was something called, “The Other Artist is Present” that happened during the preview. A young middle-eastern man dressed in a red Marina-like dress sat at the table and offered to marry her body of work. When she remained silent, he started dancing and chanting and placed a notebook and other objects on the table. He repeatedly challenged her with his words and actions. The title hints at that too, and eventually the guards threw him out. I also went to the museum and asked the guards and spectators what they had seen. Someone apparently took their shoes off and put them on the table, someone tried to stand on the desk. One or two people have managed to sit all day, but to my knowledge, all of these interventionists have been male. I think that the guards were clearly worried when they saw how I was dressed and they gave me a stern warning that they would throw me out if there was any funny business.

I felt the previous interventions were really aggressive and presumptuous. I wanted to operate within the piece as Marina had defined it to create something that was more ambiguous. I wanted to meet her on her terms and leave the interpretation of my action a little more open than the others.

TB When I read reviews of “The Artist is Present,” writers often describe Abramovic’s piece as her “interacting” with her audience, which I think is a misnomer. The performance is really as far from inter_action_ as you can get, since in the museum setting surrounded by guards on all sides—who won’t even let you take a picture—the audience’s available set of actions is very limited. So rather than interacting with Abramovic, it’s more like she’s inviting the audience to sit there and contemplate themselves, not her.

What I liked about your performance was that you totally played by the museum rules: no one said you couldn’t be dressed a certain way, no one could say you had to get up and let someone else have a turn. Did you nevertheless feel like a transgressor? A museum interloper?

AL I did feel like a transgressor but I love the subtle art of subversion—playing with ideas from the inside out. As I was sitting there, I felt like that was one of the strongest elements of Marina’s piece. She is attempting to “interact” with the audience, but really, the endeavor for empathy is one of implicit sadness, as we connect and miss one another. It is not meant to be read at face value. It also brings up the role of the artist, how they connect on an individual, emotional level with others when they are constantly being observed and commented upon by the masses held at bay by the guards.


TB What did you think about? Did you ever wonder what she thought about?

AL I started off trying to tell Marina a story, about some very difficult things that happened to me as a child. I tried to communicate to her some things that I felt I had not addressed in a long time. I also tried to have a conversation with her about why she was an artist. I wanted her share with her how being an artist made me feel compelled to do some strange, strange things. I was asking her if she felt the same way. I wondered if she was communicating back. At certain times I thought that we were really in sync. Other times I didn’t. Other times I was totally hallucinating. She looked like a childhood friend I once had. Then she looked like a baby.

TB Just to clarify: you were communicating silently.

AL Yes, it was all silent. I was given three rules by the guards: Must be silent, no movement, no putting anything on the table. I had no intention of speaking anyway.

TB Were you at all aware of the passage of time?

AL Yes, at first. I thought time was flying by. Then time stopped. I lost track of everything. No hunger. No itching. No pain. I couldn’t feel my hands.

TB I overhead a docent giving a tour where she enthusiastically asked her group to imagine what your intentions were. She suggested, “perhaps she is a young artist here to show her admiration for Abramovic? Perhaps she is here to challenge her?”

What do you think about the speculation your performance provoked? I thought it was really funny, but pretty exciting too. I liked that any kind of challenge you were throwing down at Abramovic, the so-called “grandmother of performance art,” was done teasingly, or with some withheld affection. I really thought it was a total KILL YOUR IDOLS! kind of moment, like you had to confront this living legend and measure yourself against her to see if you are worthy to carry on the mantle of performance art.

AL I am glad that the action was read with such a variety of meaning. For me, it was quite simply the scariest thing I could think of doing and I always use that as a valid measuring stick for deciding whether I should go ahead with making a piece. Risk has to be authentic. And it was pretty damn terrifying! I was testing myself.

TB Did completing the day’s work change your opinion of Abramovic’s work?

AL Yes, I have even more respect for it.

TB How did the day end? Did the guards ask you to leave? Did Abramovic do anything or acknowledge you in any way?

AL The museum closed and a guard whispered in my ear that I would have to leave. Several guards came up to me and said congratulations. Marina gave me a slight smile.

You can find out more about Anya Liftig and her body of work on her website.

Tatiana Berg is a painter, and also writes for No Smarties, a joint blog effort by a group of young’uns (who should probably know better).