Saturday, May 1, 2010
The agony and the ecstasy of waiting for Marina Abramović
Marina Abramović - The Artist Is Present
A few weekends ago I made a trip up to New York, having laid out vague plans of my museum itinerary for the day. I scrapped all of it when I got in line for my turn to sit with Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art. Once I got into that queue, I knew I would not leave without my turn to sit with the artist. This meant that I did not have the opportunity to see anything else in the museum that day. But waiting in line had its share of benefits and frustrations, ultimately rewarded by the greatest pay-off possible.
Sitting in the cavernous MoMA atrium, you begin to notice many things. You overhear the incredulous comments, like, “Do you just sit and stare at each other?” You see the ebbing and flowing waves of visitor traffic throughout the day. You notice how just about everyone takes pictures of what they are instructed not to photograph. And a certain camaraderie begins to develop with those whom are also waiting in line.
To return to the skepticism that some possess regarding the performance, there are probably two camps: those who know something of her work and those wholly ignorant of it (or performance art in general). For those to whom her work is a novelty, I would suggest active participation in the performance as a remedy for disbelief. However, a cynical person cognizant of her career might consider this latest performance to be spectacle which exploits some artistic hokum derived from the cult of personality surrounding Abramović. Again, I would suggest looking into her eyes for any extended period as proof that this is an experience as true and as real as any that can be had in the creation and enjoyment of art. Indeed, celebrity and spectacle are in play. If this were not Abramović performing, would it constitute such a draw? Insofar as you and the artist are on display when sitting at the table, none of it had bearing on my experience at the time (I will come back to this point).
Like many of Abramović’s performances, her latest abdicates an extraordinary amount of power over to the participant. You can monopolize her and her gaze for as long as you please, even for the full seven hours of operation per day that the museum is open (which some have done). But there is an extra layer, because you are also granted complete control over the experience that others want to have with the artist. Unless you are the first person to arrive in the morning, waiting in line while others take their turns is part of the process. Fairness has no bearing. Then you yourself sit with her and nothing external matters; the hordes of people around, whether waiting their chance or just looking on, fade from mind.
After a wait of a little over five hours, and by the grace of several people ahead of me in line getting frustrated and leaving, I was one of the last that day to sit with the artist. Between sitters, she lowers her head into her hands and hunches forward, taking a nano- break from the exhausting task of constantly engaging in direct eye contact and sitting motionless all day long. As I approached the chair my heart was beating out of my chest; I did not think I would be able to take much more than a minute or two of participation. Then she raised her head and locked with my gaze.
It became hard to see much more than her eyes. Giant flood lamps at all corners of the atrium blare at you. Her face went out of focus as I concentrated on maintaining eye contact. Occasionally I would notice small facial ticks—relaxing of the jaw or involuntary swallowing—and also notice that I was doing the same. Sometimes I was aware of the motion and shuffling of other people in my peripheral vision, but mostly not.
Emotion as an aspect of the performance is exceptionally strong as a participant, though as a passive viewer it is not. I understand why many have been moved to tears in their experience with the artist, because I was overwhelmed by such an effusion of feelings with each minute that passed. I think the reason for this, as far as my experience was concerned, is because the act of participating became deeply self-reflective. Staring constantly at someone whom you do not know without the interceding act of speech or communication is uncomfortable and awkward. Therefore, it is natural to retreat inward. In those moments, I thought more profoundly about myself than about Abramović or anyone else around us.
I sat with the artist until I felt moved to get up and walk away. At that time it was 5:20, just ten minutes before MoMA would close. According to the Flickr page where portraits of all participants are uploaded, I sat with her for 26 minutes. It did not seem so long; in fact, the moment felt suspended in time, without duration at all. Afterward, both in the museum and at the subway station, some people approached me to ask about the experience. But I faltered, still affected and totally withdrawn into my own thoughts, and nearly unable to speak. How does one describe an occurrence which is so intensely personal? It needs to be felt for oneself, rather than be explained. It was at that moment that I became acutely aware of having been on display and watched by countless individuals. And there is the paradigm: once you participate, you fully understand the blurred concurrence of personal and public from which Abramović has fashioned a life’s work.