The Artist’s Present
On Monday, May 31, a little before 5:00 pm, Marina Abramović concluded the longest performance art piece ever made. In conjunction with a four-decade retrospective of her work at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, which began on March 14, Abramović sat silently in a square wooden chair in MoMA’s second-floor atrium for every instant of the museum’s hours of operation, gazing at whoever had come to gaze back from the chair placed opposite her.
By the end, she had clocked some 700 hours of intense impassivity. Over the weeks of the exhibit, “The Artist is Present,” hundreds of people locked eyes with Abramović in quiet communion for periods ranging from a couple of minutes to a full day. Many of them—the critic Arthur Danto, the novelist Colm Toibin, posters to a “Sitting with Marina” Facebook page, myriad bloggers and tweeters—have written rapturously about the encounter. In a devotional gesture, some participants wore special outfits for the occasion, including garments made to match Abramović’s own full-length heavy turtleneck dress; some tried to disrobe. Many brought flowers. Those who sat as many as five or 14 or 29 times became legendary (both honored for their “commitment” and reviled for their “vampiric selfishness” by dueling website commentators). Celebrities—among them Bjork, James Franco, Lou Reed, Isabella Rossellini, and Sharon Stone—scored gossip-column mentions when they put in some minutes (often to the disgruntlement of those in the queue, which museum officials allowed the stars to jump).
But for all the ecstatic attention—and cranky critiques, too—trained on the art world’s equivalent of an audience with the pope, an important aspect of the performance has been overlooked: the deep aesthetic, communal, even spiritual (and sometimes contentious) experiences of hundreds of people who waited all day along the perimeter of the square performance space in vain hopes of taking a turn in the chair. Last Wednesday, I was one of them. And by day’s end, I thought that maybe it was in this periphery, on the sharp, invisible edge between spectating and participating, that the work’s most compelling meaning could be found.
I wanted to sit with Abramović for modest reasons, at least compared to the rituals of mourning, markings of life transition, and expressions of adoration or creativity that I heard has motivated some others: I wanted to complete my engagement with the exhibit, which I had much admired in two prior, lengthy visits; I wanted to honor it. Plus, having practiced some Zen sitting over the years, I was curious about how it would feel to turn that internal focus outward, to share, as it were, the emptiness. Arriving two hours ahead of MoMA’s opening that morning, I ended up about 20 spots deep in the queue—well-positioned for a late afternoon shot at a sitting, according to a few atrium regulars who, I soon learned, hung out there as frequently as several times a week. They formed a tight little subculture and were chummy with the guards.
Despite nine hours of waiting, my chance never came. The day’s ninth sitter, clad in a severe black monk’s cloak, took up the perch around 12:40 and stayed put until closing time, 5:30. Truth is, by at least 2:00 my odds had dwindled to nil, but something kept me rooted to the cold marble floor: a concentrated state of observance that I shared with the people near me in the queue. Concentrating our attention together over an extended period produced a calm, collaborative, meditative clarity I hadn’t felt in an art museum in ages. Instead of the usual rugby scrum of popular exhibits, where you crunch under someone’s armpit to grab a look at an artwork before shoving ahead, the perimeter of that lit square in MoMA’s atrium was an unperturbed space where contemplation was possible.
As those of us who were waiting watched others sit down across from Abramović and come to stillness, we came to stillness ourselves. We tried to read the connection—what participants reported as palpable energy—between the artist and her visitors and to notice the moment sitters recognized that they were ready to get up: how did they know they were done? We chatted, sometimes aimlessly, but more often exchanging interpretations of what we were seeing: how Abramović’s generous blankness functioned as an emotional projection screen and mirror, and how her ego-lessness conferred, through others’ needy presumption, pop idol status. Unlike Abramović, we took bathroom and snack breaks.
Then, in the last half-hour, without planning or conferring, our patch of the line went silent. I felt my breathing slow down and fall in rhythm with that of the college sophomore sitting to my left. What a paradox, this seemed.
Since the 1960s, Abramović’s work—powerfully documented and re-performed in the MoMA exhibit a few floors above the atrium—has participated in performance art’s challenge to the idea of the art object as commodity fetish, available for worship in the shrine of a museum (or for purchase in a gallery). In her early solo pieces as well as in the mid-career work with her erstwhile partner Ulay, Abramović often placed herself in perilous situations that tested her physical, mental, and emotional limits—and, as a result, those of her viewers. Mere photographs of performances that took place 30 years ago alarmed me. Putting her body on the line in various ways, Abramović rendered the line visible—and stretched it.
The ordeal and risk of such work made beauty and other old romantic ideals about art far beside the point. As the years passed, Abramović (along with Ulay) created durational pieces that began to be less about the body and more about the spirit —not that the artists ever subscribed to such Cartesian cleaving. But the possibility of bloodshed in earlier works—involving knives and a gun and a drawn bow with sharp arrow—evolved into less material menace. Later pieces—their three-month walk in 1988 from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China to a meeting (and parting of ways) in its middle, for instance—certainly taxed their bodies, but didn’t threaten them with violence. Something less tangible was now at stake. Still, the forty years chronicled in the MoMA exhibit trace a clear trajectory that runs alongside the postmodern spurning of the artist’s creation as an expressive object glowing with aura.
But now, the performance in the atrium seemed to hark back to the long-toppled notion of art’s special power: as inspiring awe, an exalted state of consciousness, a thrilling wonderment at one’s smallness in the face of mysteries beyond human understanding—in short, the artistic sublime. In its most radical exhibit ever, was MoMA returning us to a hushed and holy notion of museum as sacred space?
Well, maybe a little—insofar as the sublime can terrify, and bowing to the Muses beats bowing to Mammon. But I found a better answer in the queue. The avant-garde of Abramović’s generation hasn’t been concerned primarily with upending the art-world’s old order, as earlier movements had done. It is the world outside—the social order—it has meant to expose and perhaps thereby disrupt. Without Ulay (in a 1986 piece, the couple sat motionless, across from each other for seven hours at a time) Abramović required us, the public, to close the circuit as interlocutors, whether potential or realized; if we stuck around, we were implicated. In the longueurs of the line, relations among strangers were framed and magnified; we zoomed in on what it looked like to be pushy or resentful of those sitting for long stretches or cooperative or disengaged, on what expectation wrung from oneself and imposed on others.
New York’s splashy, participatory cultural events are never just about aesthetics. They also function as measures of the city’s psychic condition. They reveal us to ourselves. Five years ago, for example, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s billowing saffron “Gates” festooning Central Park laid bare our common desperation for frivolity in bleak times. They pulled us outdoors, into nature, in the dead of winter and national doldrums to share simple wonder and joy; the bright fabric flames rekindled public presence. On a smaller scale Abramović created a very different occasion for communal self-scrutiny, one that brought out (even as we checked emails from and texted to the world beyond the line) our eagerness for gadget-free, primal engagement with random neighbors, as we shared focus, commitment, and silence. Being radically present herself, the artist invited us to be present to each other.
Alisa Solomon directs the Arts & Culture concentration in the M.A. program at the Columbia Journalism School. In addition to contributing occasionally to The Nation, The Forward, The New York Times, and other publications, she was on staff at the Village Voice for 21 years, where she won awards for her reporting on reproductive rights, electoral politics, women's sports, and immigration policy. Solomon's book, Re-Dressing the Canon: Essays on Theater and Gender, won the George Jean Nathan Award for Dramatic Criticism.