BY ANGELA BROWN
December 14, 2016 9:30am
©2016 PATRICK MCMULLAN COMPANY
Imagine an ascent up the Guggenheim Museum’s spiral rotunda, stopping along the way to stare into Agnes Martin’s grids and fields while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. Silence sets the scene, and gold leaf is flaking from museum-goers’ lips—for reasons that only later become clear—as they whisper to speak. After 70 minutes of this muffled lavishness, Marina Abramović enters the atrium below—and strikes a gong.
This was “Part 1” of Abramović’s 70th birthday party at the Guggenheim last Thursday night. Titled “MARINA 70,” the party did not lack the kind of performative interventions for which Abramović is known. Upon entry, bulky headphones were distributed along with an instruction card, which explained how the night would unfold. A group of attendants in long white garments helped guests apply sheets of gold foil over their mouths. Some made their way up Frank Lloyd Wright’s concentric circles to look at art, while others sat with eyes closed in the folding lounge chairs arranged on the rotunda floor.
Abramović emerged in a long black dress, statuesque as usual. She calmly made her way to a small stage and, after sounding the gong, slowly read a speech from a scroll. Anohni, a singer graced with an otherworldly voice, stood to the left, her face hidden behind thin black fabric.
“Friends and enemies,” Abramović said to her guests, “you have two choices: you can make age your enemy, or you can make it your friend. I have decided to make my age my friend.” She thanked her friends for their guidance, love, and support. She thanked her enemies for building “walls to walk through.” “Every one of you,” she continued, “has played a role in the theater of my life.”
The setting, with onlookers rising up in layers of circles to the ceiling, resembled a grand theater, a colosseum with Abramović at the center absorbing the energy of her spectators. “Now I’m standing and entering the last act,” she said, before quickly adding: “I can assure you, it will be a very, very long one.” The audience laughed, but Abramović did not seem to be joking. Stoic and unwavering on the stage, she looked like she would outlive us all.
After an anecdote about how her mother always bought her ugly flannel pajamas for her birthdays, Abramović offered some advice: “My life was not easy, but now I’m standing in front of you—[full of] more content, more vice—and happier than ever before. I’ve learned that unhappiness is a waste of time. No more suffering. No more heartbreaks. I vote for humor and I vote for happiness.”
She concluded by reading the last part of her new memoir, Walk Through Walls:
I took off my clothes and waded in. The waves were enormous and the water was jade blue, sparkling with the sunlight. The ocean was so gigantic. Sometimes I just need to feel life with every one of my pores open. When I came out of the water, I felt completely energized. I felt luminous. Then I got dressed again and walked into the forest just above the beach. As I moved deeper into the woods, the noise of the surf faded and all at once I could sense beings all around me and everything was life.
At that, a pianist began playing and Anohni broke into a rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” Abramović gestured towards her heart, her mirrored bracelets flashing in the lights. The song ended, applause resounded, and Abramović released us into the evening’s “Part II”: a Eucharistic feast of Rotari Brut champagne and loaves of sourdough bread. Empty glasses accumulated, their rims covered in red lipstick and gold foil. Photographers swarmed around models Naomi Campbell and Bella Hadid; artists Andres Serrano, Dustin Yellin, and Shirin Neshat; illusionist David Copperfield; and other friends and acquaintances including gallerists, journalists, and Abramović’s personal trainer.
The noise began to soften as guests kissed Abramović goodbye and gathered their party favor: numbered editions of Abramović’s lips cast in chocolate and gold leaf, created by Kreëmart and Ladurée. As an announcement for the event explained, “The concept of eating the gold leaf first became important for Abramović when she was given a gold ball to eat at a Tibetan monastery. This practice, which typically happens after a long period of fasting and seclusion, dates back to the 6th century and helps to achieve a clear state of mind.”
Abramović’s party planning, like her work, does not shy away from bodily extremes. She decorated, sensorially deprived, and then satiated her guests in just a three-hour period. Whether a “clear state of mind” was the end result was, well, unclear.