Yesterday, The Guardian and a few arts journals reported on a tiff between performance artist Marina Abramović and conceptual artist Mary Ellen Carroll about Abramović’s upcoming show at London’s Serpentine Gallery. The exhibition, entitled Marina Abramović: 512 Hours, will involve the artist appearing in the gallery from 10 am-6 pm, six days a week, from June 11-August 25. It is billed as “a unique work created for the Serpentine” and apparently emphasizes the importance of “nothing.”
The problem is that Carroll already has an ongoing conceptual work called Nothing, so a group of concerned curators and art historians have written letters to Serpentine curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (not to be confused with Hans Christian Andersen, author of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which simply has to tie into this story somehow) complaining about the lack of acknowledgement of Carroll’s precedence and influence.
Because of the subject matter, The Guardian article contains some amazing quotations. It states that the art experts fear that without acknowledgement, “Carroll would find it difficult to perform ‘Nothing’ in future.” Says one art historian, “I am not prepared to say Marina Abramović is involved in plagiarizing or anything like that,” but adds that he told Obrist that it was important for the gallery and Abramović to “acknowledge this genealogy.” Another says he wouldn’t expect Abramović to “reel off the history of nothing, but the gallery should be responsible about the claims they make.”
Mary Ellen Carroll’s most radical incarnation of Nothing was presented in 2006, when she walked out of the door of her New York residence with “nothing” but her passport and the clothes on her back to travel for six weeks in a foreign country. (This prompted another comparison from one of the Serpentine complainants: “Mary Ellen’s work, when she left for Argentina, is in many ways more extreme.”) The conceptual artist, who works out of New York and Houston, is probably best known by Texans for her inclusion in the 2009 Contemporary Arts Museum Houston exhibition No Zoning: Artists Engage Houston, for which she took a suburban Sharpstown house and rotated it 180˚ on its original location. (Actually, that project was not completed until later; her exhibition work was a large table called prototype 180: table, the site of an interesting and eclectic series of performances and community activities—though as a round table, it should have merited 360˚.)
The Serbian-born performance artist Marina Abramović began her career in the early 1970s, but became a full-fledged super art star after her 2010 Museum of Modern Art retrospective, The Artist is Present, winning new fans and befriending celebrities such as Lady Gaga, James Franco and Jay Z. Her original performances created for that exhibition were seemingly very similar to the upcoming “unique work created for the Serpentine.” The Complex Art+Design article reports that Abramović came up with the idea of “nothing” in the middle of the night and she explained to BBC the origin of this new exhibition: “I called Hans Ulrich and I said ‘I don’t know how you’re going to take this, but this is what I want to do: nothing…there’s nothing.’”
Although there is a longer history of artists’ celebrations of “nothing” which can be added to the groundbreaking work of both Abramović and Carroll (John Cage’s 4’33” comes to mind), Abramović’s pitch to Obrist might also sound awfully familiar to network TV sitcom fans: