I was hugely fortunate to be able to go to the MOMA in New York yesterday to view Marina Abramovic’s performance, “The Artist is Present.” I had read some about it, and in particular love this blog of portraits of people who have sat with Marina.
I spent about an hour watching the piece. I’m uncertain as to whether I should call it a performance or a piece of art. I was struck by the austerity of the space. The whole time I was there the same woman sat across from Marina. She was a young woman in a black robe, actually similar to the one Marina is wearing above (which was identical yesterday, but white). The space where Marina and the woman sat was busy, with museum guests walking around constantly. It was noisy, open to the lobby and all of the ambient sounds produced by the hundreds of people passing through there.
Still, somehow, in the large square that was marked off with masking tape, there was a palpable calm. The woman across from Marina originally seemed agitated to me, despite sitting completely still. She seemed to be blinking fast, with a closed expression on her face, none of the emotion that is so visible in the portraits above. And yet as I sat there, she seemed to slow. Marina was shiny from the heat, statuesque, almost wax-like. She had a beatific glow to her, a stillness that radiated.
Two lines ran through my head as I sat on the border between the noise of people going through their days and the deep silence of the performance: “In the room, the women come and go/Talking of Michelangelo” and “Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” I’m not sure yet what message Prufrock and Desiderata carried in their hands; maybe I’ll figure that out as the experience sinks in.
My first and abiding reaction was that this is an immensely generous act by Marina. She offers herself, hours a day, to anyone who wants to participate, who is moved to engage with her. I’m struck by this act of grace, this offering of that most holy and rare thing: our attention. There was a potent energy between the two women, sitting across from each other, something they were sharing that was intensely private and yet accessible by all those who sat and witnessed. I felt peaceful sitting there, and also electrified. (and also old, as my knees were not happy on the stone floor).
The essential message of yesterday is that there is art, and something truly holy, in offering our authentic presence to each other. There’s never been any question about that in my mind, but Marina’s performance made this fact manifest in an indelible, inarguable way. I’m deeply glad that I went and shared in the experience, and know I’ll think about it for a long time.