Tag Archives: Marina Abramovic

The Venus Flytrap: Vicariously Voyeuristic

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Photographs of actor Jennifer Aniston, looking radiant as she greeted her ex-husband Brad Pitt backstage at the 2020 SAG Awards, capture vividly the micro-reactions within an encounter which video shows lasted barely a few seconds. Thrilled to see each other but moving in different directions, they touched as they pass. The affection shared between them sent ripples of delight across the world. It was a beautiful set of moments, but best understood as self-contained.

In 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramovic held a major show at New York’s MoMA, “The Artist Is Present”, in which she sat silently and essentially “gave darshan”. People who queued for hours to have her briefly look into their eyes reported epiphanic experiences, including cathartic tears. Among them was her former collaborator and ex-partner Ulay. There’s footage of her beginning to cry when she sees him, his own wordless communication, and her finally leaning across the table to take his hands. The crowd applauds. In the context of what Abramovic’s show tapped into – esoteric concepts of human connection, and of seeing and being seen – it was all very poignant. Still, he sued her to the tune of €250,000 a few years later (and won). Then he appeared for another public reunion at another event of hers (performance artists!). Now, they’re rumoured to be working on a book together.

Their true dynamic is between them. Our projections on the same belong to us, and show us insights into ourselves. Aniston and Pitt’s amiable encounter serves the same hunger in us for stories of reconciliation as the Abramovic-Ulay one did.

We do know that the end of their marriage was bitter, and that Aniston has been painted ever since as an icon of personal disappointment. They’ve been divorced for 15 years, during which Pitt created a family with actor Angelina Jolie. That marriage ended with child abuse and substance abuse allegations against him. How revealing of gender politics that he could make light of his chequered life onstage at the awards show, whereas Aniston never stopped being skewered in the press for having been abandoned. In the tabloid-fueled collective imagination, rekindling things with Pitt is supposed to be Aniston’s happily ever after. But would we really wish that on anyone?

The extremely, uncomfortably public lives of two others – and the decision they’ve made to protect themselves – are relevant here. The actor Meghan Markle and the gentleman formerly known as Prince Harry announced this month that they would be formally leaving the British monarchy in the hope of receiving less scrutiny and harassment. Their choice challenges both the institutions of monarchy and of family, which desperately need either dismantling or reconfiguration. Surely that’s more interesting that focusing on the individuals.

The “public eye” is not always so public. It may include neighbours, extended family, friend circles, strangers on social media. All of us are under pressure to conform to a narrative that’s acceptable, even attractive – even while vicious narratives may be imposed on us. It’s cyclic: we can’t tear our eyes away from other people’s lives, either. Since we are all constantly cross-watching, perhaps it’s prudent to ask – what are we being shown?

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on January 23rd 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: The Story Only Of What Survived

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There are objects and there are stories, and sometimes the two entwine.  Museologists embark on projects of assisted storytelling: the history of the world in one hundred objects, the history of India in two hundred. The latter, still being curated and inspired by the former at the British Museum, will find the objects catalogued into nine “stories”. Nine ways of telling, then. Nine connections of dots.

The objects have gravitas: articles of public religion, preserved scripts, art pieces. But something feels missing, scrolling through. This is not the history of the world as I understand it; this is only an arrangement of facts. Of course, that’s a matter of perspective. But what has always spoken to me is silence. The true history of the world, as I encounter it, is in that which didn’t get told. In the British Museum’s project, for instance, we find the Ain Sakhri lovers, an 11,000 year old Israeli erotic sculpture. It doesn’t move me, but it reminds me of artifacts that do: the 6,000 year old Valdaro lovers, skeletons laid to rest with their limbs embracing, ceremonial flint blades along the thighs. Or more poignant still, the 4,800 year old pieta skeletons: a mother cradling her baby, her skull tilted in a gaze toward her child, discovered in Taiwan.

What I mean to say is: the story of only what survived, or even the only stories that survived, can never be the whole truth.

How would she have measured that life – that mother? What objects – what everyday mortar-pestle, what tooth relic of the firstborn, what period rag – evidenced it? Imagine tabling them for ourselves too: the synecdoches of a history of the self.

Weapons are among the objects in those museum curations of the history of humanity. Handaxes of white quartz, jadeite, basalt. They are beautiful, if we forget their use. And they remind me of a gemstone I gave someone because among its properties was the capacity to distil the darkness from drink. I hadn’t known yet that he was addicted to toxicity. That object belongs to him but its history belongs to me. There is the reverse too: a pendant I don’t wear because someone terrible owns the exact same one. Perhaps other people’s objects tell our stories too.

Years ago, inspired by Marina Abramovic’s The Artist Is Present, I conceptualised an installation using absence. My absence, in fact. My departure from the country that was my home for 17 years, and all the things I left behind, not knowing that it was to be a permanent cleaving. What happened to that? Perhaps that artwork is a kind of object now, a question mark. For some reason, those photographs of workers on skyscrapers comes to mind suddenly: the way they posed dangling their legs over beams, eating lunch in high altitude without getting dizzy. Some things are like this. The frozen moment is best; all movement is precarious.

The object as narrative device. But that word’s the key I think. Device. Not a song, not a memory, not the way expressions flit across faces just long enough to tell the truth. A thing is only a thing.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on February 9th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.