In May 2013, during “Odd Spaces,” a one-day exhibition of performance art pop-ups around the Museum of Fine Arts, Liz Munsell, assistant curator of contemporary art & MFA programs, was in the dimly lighted Egyptian Galleries when a visitor asked her when the performance there would begin.
It had already begun. Performance artist Marilyn Arsem had wrapped herself up like the mummies on display, with only her feet exposed, and was lying under a bench, where she remained for 6½ hours. The scent of jasmine hung in the air. At the panel discussion that capped the day’s activities, Munsell says Arsem received a standing ovation.
Now, the museum has awarded Arsem the 2015 Maud Morgan Prize. The award, a $10,000 cash prize plus an exhibition at the museum, is given every other year to a Massachusetts woman artist active for a decade or more. Honoring Arsem, the museum underlines its vigorous commitment to performance art.
The award has the ring of poetic justice to it. As founder of Mobius, the experimental collaborative and performance space, and a professor at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts for 27 years, Arsem is the godmother of performance art in Boston — an art form that was for years largely underground, noncommercial, and ignored by museums.
“It’s nice to have lived long enough to see this,” says Arsem, 63.
“Marilyn has very intentionally chosen to develop her practice at the fringes of the contemporary art world,” says Munsell. “She’s not interested in commercialization, but in community-building and creating spaces where artists can really experiment and take risks.”
Thanks in large part to Arsem, Boston has fostered a thriving performance art community. Young performance artists get out of art school and choose to stay here, unlike many visual artists drawn to New York. At the Museum School, Arsem, who retired earlier this year, was head of the performance area, and helped build a renowned performance art program.
“One of her major contributions is creating a framework to teach this art form,” says Munsell. “She’s written one of the most fundamental texts on teaching performance art.”
Arsem, who travels extensively to perform in festivals and at conferences internationally, is known for her site-specific, durational work that contends with themes of mortality, power, vulnerability, and — for performances in other countries — the local effects of US foreign policy.
Most of her pieces last between three and eight hours. In “I Scream,” a performance in Sweden in 2011, she stood holding several gallons of ice cream until the ice cream melted.
“Over a long enough time, you go past the notion of control of what’s going to happen, and you have to simply live it,” Arsem says. “The audience can come and go, and come back and see what has happened as a result of time.”
For her performance in the Egyptian Galleries, “With the Others,” she says many museum visitors didn’t notice her.
“That space has always been pretty
eerie to me,” Arsem says. “There are bodies there. For the people who did become aware, it was this sense of the uncanny. Is she dead, or are these bodies alive?”
As she planned the work, Arsem told Munsell she wanted to be invisible.
“I got a little nervous,” Munsell says. “I’d really like people to see the performance. But when I saw it unfolding in space, I realized she’s letting the viewer have this experience of discovery. That’s the magic of the piece.”
The Morgan Prize exhibition, which will open late in 2015, will include educational components about Mobius, which opened in 1975, and the history of performance art in Boston. But the main event will be Arsem performing.
“I’m thrilled that they’re thinking outside of the box, that they do want live performance, that they won’t have things on the wall,” she says.
Arsem hasn’t yet devised a plan for her performance, or performances.
“I’m used to going to a festival and not having an idea of what I’ll do, just having a couple of days to figure it out,” she says.
For the MFA, she says she’s considering, “a structure, over months, that allows for change, for something to transform.”
Munsell is ready to roll with whatever Arsem proposes. “She might decide to focus on a part of the collection,” she says. “It could be anywhere. It could be nowhere. It could be everywhere.”