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An artist’s grand plans for Hudson

Old theater building seen as international center for performance art



Contributing writer



Within a few years, the hulking old Community Tennis building in Hudson could be transformed into new artistic hub under the guidance of one of the world’s best-known performance artists.

Marina Abramovic, who has spent four decades challenging herself and audiences with her creative works, bought the 20,000-square-foot building at Columbia and Seventh streets about five years ago and formally announced plans this year to turn it into the Marina Abramovic Institute for the Preservation of Performance Art.

She introduced the concept, including architectural models, at an open house at the gutted building last month.

Abramovic, who lives in New York City and also has a home near Chatham, is a leading figure in the field of performance art, a form of live creative expression that is intended to spark interactions between artists and audiences.

Her works have been reliably provocative. Last year, for example, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles found itself the focus of controversy because of a fund-raising gala at which the tables featured human centerpieces arranged by Abramovic -- live models whose heads protruded through holes cut in the tables and, at one table, a nude who lay motionless atop a slowly revolving lazy susan.

For the most part, Abramovic’s works have met with critical acclaim. In 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York presented a major retrospective of her four-decade career, and she is the subject of a new feature documentary, “The Artist is Present.”

In announcing her plans for the Hudson property, she explained that the aim of her new institute will be “to protect and preserve the intellectual and spiritual legacy of performance art from the 1970s into the future, and ... serve as an homage to time-based and immaterial art.”

The initial challenge for Abramovic and other supporters of the project is to raise $15 million to renovate and modernize the Community Tennis building, which has been vacant for years. The goal is to open the first phase of the institute in 2014.

Once it’s open, the challenge in this era of short attention spans will be finding audiences with a willingness to surrender their cell phones and commit to at least six hours to become part of “long duration” performance-art events.

‘A center for artistic brainstorming’
The physical design of the institute will reflect its eclectic and ambitious goals. Although it will function as a performance space, the facility will not be a typical theater.

The Community Tennis building was originally built as a movie theater in the early 1930s. It later was converted into an indoor tennis facility. More recently it had incarnations as a bar and as an antiques market.

Abramovic has commissioned Shohei Shigematsu and Rem Koolhaas of the international architectural firm OMA to design the new facility. The building, which will retain the basic current appearance of its exterior, will have an austere modernist interior with a large central performance and viewing space and three levels of smaller rooms and chambers around it.

The design incorporates elements from science and technology and such features as crystals and a “levitation room” to evoke less-tangible qualities. It will include specially designed chairs with wheels that will enable audience members to eat and drink and be moved to different sections of the space – including sleeping areas.

The institute grew out of the desire of Abramovic, 65, to establish an archive of her four-decade career. That evolved into a larger goal of establishing a public center for performance art, with live events, educational and training programs, artists’ residencies and other activities.

Although Abramovic remains its prime driver, the institute is also envisioned as the focus of diverse creative activities involving many artists and widespread public participation, both locally and internationally, according to its director, Serge Le Borgne.

Le Borgne described the institute, whose programming will be overseen by an artistic committee, as a laboratory to explore new forms of creative collaborations among artists, audiences and the larger community.

“It will be a center for artistic brainstorming,” he said.

He also sees it a reflection of the searches for alternatives to the status quo in modern society.

“There is a widespread feeling that it's time for a new era in society, including politics and the economy as well as the arts,” he said. “The institute can be one way to use art to express that and to explore different ways of relating to each other in society.”

Le Borgne, who operated an art gallery in Paris, said he and Abramovic first became acquainted in the 1990s, and they had been discussing the concept of the institute over the years.

After considering several potential locations, Abramovic bought the Community Tennis building in 2007.

The project moved forward in 2010, when Le Borgne became disenchanted with the commercial art world and told Abramovic he was closing his gallery and was ready to dedicate himself to developing the institute as its director.

“Her reply to me was, 'Finally!’” he recalled.

A challenge to audiences
Although performance art draws on elements of other art forms such as theater, dance, music, visual arts and video – as well as real-life events – it uses and combines them in unique ways. Because it stretches the traditional definitions and boundaries of art and performance, it can elicit many responses in viewers, ranging from inspiration and excitement to puzzlement, anger or boredom.

Abramovic has provoked all of these reactions throughout her long career. A native of Belgrade, Yugoslavia, she has challenged audiences and taken many risks – both physical and creative -- for the sake of her art. Her works have included acts of extreme endurance and self-revelation, sometimes involving nudity and the risk of physical injury to herself.

In one of her pieces, for example, she stood totally silent and immobile for six hours next to a table that was covered with various objects capable of inflicting pleasure or pain, including a gun. She invited audiences to use them on her body in whatever way they wanted. During the performance, some attendees got carried away with threatening or abusive acts.

In another, she ended a relationship with her longtime partner, the West German artist Ulay, as an art event in which each started walking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. They formally said farewell when they met in the middle.

Time is one of her ongoing themes as an artist, and it is also at the heart of her vision for the institute.

With its emphasis on direct experience in the moment, performance art is inherently more ephemeral and transient than physical media such as painting and sculpture. It also contrasts to the traditional performing arts such as music and plays, which are based on scripts, scores and other guidelines for others to re-create in the future.

Abramovic says she sees the institute, in part, as a vehicle to overcome that temporal limitation and to perpetuate her works and those of other performance artists. One purpose of the institute is to train young artists in methods that will carry on the spirit of performance art and also to replicate specific past works in the future.

A particular focus of the institute will be on what Abramovic describes as “long-duration” art. Very long performances, she contends, have the potential to engage the audience in transformational experiences in ways that shorter works and quick looks at art cannot achieve. The institute is intended to immerse audiences in these experiences so they become active participants in the creative process.

In Abramovic’s plan, audiences who attend a long-duration performance will sign a contract to stay for at least six hours. Although it is not enforceable, Abramovic sees that as a commitment to an exchange of the audience’s time for an experience offered by the artist.

Symbol of city’s changes
It remains to be seen whether the institute will be a natural fit for Hudson, although city officials say they’re enthusiastic about the concept.

In the past two decades, Hudson has evolved from a struggling industrial city into a regional center for the arts and tourism, with upscale galleries, restaurants and shops. Farther down Columbia Street, lively performing arts spaces at Helsinki Hudson and Time & Space Limited regularly draw crowds.

But Hudson continues to struggle with poverty and other fallout from the waning of its old manufacturing economy.

Mayor William H. Hallenbeck Jr. predicted the institute will be a good fit for the city and will advance its goals related to overall economic-development.

“I talked with Marina at the recent open house, and I told her the city will be there every step of the way to help,” Hallenbeck said late last month.

The mayor, a Republican, said the institute is likely to attract many new visitors to Hudson, thereby stimulating the tourism economy and other business activity and employment.

“It's a home run when it comes to the arts and entertainment, and it ties in with the other developments that have taken place here over the last 15 years,” he said. “Anything of this size and magnitude will bring new people and much-needed new revenue into the city. It's another piece of the puzzle for Hudson.”

When asked how the local community will relate to the institute, Hallenbeck pointed out that the city's population has become increasingly diverse, and people will likely see the institute in varying ways.

“From a local standpoint, I expect there will be people who will be very enthusiastic and excited to see it here, while other people will not have the same level of interest and would rather see something else at that site,” he said. “But I haven't heard anything negative about the idea.”

Le Borgne said the institute’s relationship with the local community is very important to him, Abramovic and other proponents. He noted that they also want to work with hotels and other businesses to help ensure that the institute will benefit the local economy.

“We see the community as a central part of the project,” he said. “This institute will exist 'by the people, for the people,' whether they are actively involved or knowledgeable in art or not. It will also help the economy here if everyone is connected to it and works together.”




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