Forensic Breath

Babette Mongolte's Seven Easy Pieces

published in Film Comment Vol.43 No.6, New York 2007

While cinema is indubitably founded on aspects of performative exchange in numerous levels of its production, it is rare for the apparatus of cinema to operate with the conceptual rigour of performance art. Hence the superb anomaly of Babette Mangolte’s documentary on a series of performances Marina Abramovic staged at the Guggenheim Museum in 2005, now titled as Seven Easy Pieces (2007).

Starting with her interpretation of Bruce Naumann’s Body Pressure (1974), Abramovic presents herself as an object obeying instructions outlaid in Naumann’s original text. Her body obscured by coveralls, Abramovic’s voice and its orifice render this event palpable. As she presses herself against a large glass pane, we witness her breath steaming the glass, plus her accrued frottage of spittle. Occasionally we hear her solemnly intoning Naumann’s instructions, but this is overwhelmed by her grunts and growls directly onto the close-miced glass pane.

Here in one stroke is how performance art – despite its uncreditable historicist dressage – constitutes a type of meta-cinema. Between the voice-over and the growl-under, Abramovic’s audiovisual presence straddles the polar fields between Merle Oberon’s demurred tone in Wuthering Heights (1939) and Amber Snow’s orgiastic suffocation in the Assploitation series (c. 2006). Seven Easy Pieces holistically presents Abramovic as body, corpse, object, ghost, instrument – yet always in precisely confronting ways, and always positioned at the precipice of scripted verbiage becoming vocal viscera.

Abramovic’s reworking of Vita Acconci’s infamous Seedbed saliently distills this. Where Acconci originally laid under a wooden platform feverishly masturbating while gallery visitors walked above, Abramovic inters herself under a constructed platform wired with speakers. Acconci left his seed to document the spread of energy beyond his body; Abramovic’s voice reports how the energy of those above her provide means for her to grow moist within. In the documentary, we observe in detail visitors relaxed and listening to her voice. A haunting de-eroticised calmness unfolds, as her invisibility transfigures her as a ghost longing for mortal contact yet barred from such communion.

Voice is always centre stage in Seven Easy Pieces. While language is theatrically collapsed in Abramovic’s performance of Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) as she mutters incomprehensibly to the titular hare, it is shredded through a series of painful inflections and expulsions in her own work Lips of Thomas (1975). Gulping wine and honey, straddled naked on ice, her back self-flagellated, her torso self-mutilated, her voice disembodied on tape mournfully singing a WWII ballad, Abramovic’s anguished cyclic performance ungainly merges The Perils of Pauline with the black hole created by the Croatian War of Independence.

Both language and voice are incisively planed into silence in Abramovic’s recreation of Valie Export’s Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969). Standing firm in leather jacket and crotchless black trousers while stoically holding a loaded machine gun staring out the audience, the documentary picks up the cavernous air-conditioning hum of the Guggenheim as well as the subtle creaks in leather and wood as Abramovic attempts to be pure chilled symbol. It’s a deafening silence; an unmistakable dread is exuded by her posture. At one point a PC-liberal in the audience off-camera urges her to put down the gun. But in this work Abramovic is not trading in the image of weaponry: she is the voice of all that follows the irreconcilable presence of weaponry.

Forensically offering Abramovic as a body on screen and a breath on the soundtrack, Seven Easy Pieces derails performance art from its sculptural scaffolding and photographic fixation, and directs it toward a cinematic rhizome of the voice audible in divergent filmmakers whose soundtracks escape the ocular gauge of orthodox film theory. Through Abramovic’s body, I hear echoes of Chantal Akerman, Robert Altman, P. T. Anderson, the Dardenne Brothers, Miklos Jancso, Meredith Monk, Manoel de Oliveira, Yvonne Rainer, Jean Marie Straub & Danielle Huillet, Agnes Varda. All voices materially unheard in orthodox film theory yet audible through the filter of Abramovic’s powerful performance.

Text © Philip Brophy 2007. Images © Microcinema International