Perhaps you’ve seen the show—you and 750,000 of your closest friends, who crowded through the Museum of Modern Art’s front door over the course of three months in the spring of 2010, to stand and stare at Marina Abramović, the Grandmother of performance art, sit in a chair across from a museum visitor. 1,565 people participated in the exhibit, spending the night on the sidewalk just to arrive early enough to join the line of those who would warm the chair across from Abramović. Abramović called her performance piece, “The Artist is Present,” and she was — she literally sat in the same wooden chair for 7 and a half hours a day, six days a week, without moving, speaking, eating or getting up to use the bathroom for three full months — that’s 736 days and 30 minutes in all. A square of white tape marked off the exhibit, and in that square was absolute silence and absolute presence.
(If you’re wondering what she did when nature called, as I was, I can assure you that they planned for the eventuality. Abramović’s chair had a hollow core, in which she placed a plastic tub. She cut a hole in both her chair and her dress to allow her to go about her business discreetly while living in front of an audience.)
Much of Abramović’s work is like this: shockingly in-your-face. Most of the time, she performs stark naked. She whips herself in front of an audience, she careens into a gallery wall so that it knocks her to the floor again and again, and she once placed knives and pliers and a loaded gun on a table and allowed visitors to the museum to use these tools to examine her, to cut her bare arms and chest, to cock the gun and hold it to her head while she stood still and silent.
For this reason, her art is controversial — hated by many, admired by a few, respected by thousands — except for this one piece, “The Artist is Present,” which was universally adored.
It was loved universally because of all moments that happened just like March 9, 2010. Abramović sits with her eyes shut and the guards lead over a man in a grey blazer, who carefully sits in the chair directly opposite Abramović. Then Abramović lifts her head and opens her eyes, looking straight into his eyes. The man sighs. For a minute or two, they simply stare across the table at each other’s faces. Then the man’s eyes widen and his eyes grow glassy and then tears slowly run down his cheeks, into his beard. He shuts his eyes and takes deep breaths. He looks back at her. Then Abramović begins to cry. This goes on for 17 minutes, the looking, the silent weeping, before the man bows his head, stands, and walks away, back into the anonymity of the watching crowd. Look it up; you’ll find the photos of this man on a Tumblr account called “Marina Abramović Made me Cry.”
Actually, all of the 1,565 people who descended into the seat across from hers wept—every single one of them. We’re talking grown men and women, many New Yorkers, with noses running; eyes puffy; cheeks red, blotchy, and wet — the kind of crying you might only do behind the closed door of a bathroom stall. They all broke down at the center of a crowd of spectators, all while Abramović, just a couple of feet away, stared them down. Most people pay a therapist for the same attention.
In the retrospective documentary “The Artist is Present,” Abramović describes her work (and particularly this piece) like this: “It’s so simple, it’s like nothing there — it’s just an artist sitting like a mountain. You know, I want to be just like a rock there, and looking you in the eyes…There’s just [my] pure presence…When [someone is] sitting in front of me, it’s not about me anymore because very soon, I’m just a mirror of their own self.”
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