Okay, yes, the point of “New to you Friday” is to invite new readers into the discussion of blog posts from two years ago, not two weeks. But I thought of something else I wanted to say about this, and it’s my blog. So neener neener.
Last night I gathered with a group of creative people from my church–a playwright, an author, a children’s therapist, a poet, a professor, an actress and more. We ate heaping plates of sweet corn salad and my famous orzo with roasted vegetables (I declare my recipes “famous” if I’ve made them more than once) and discussed faith and art and the intersection between the two.
At one point, David, the organizer of the evening, asked each of us to share why the conversation mattered to us personally; why (besides the orzo) we showed up.
I found myself telling them about Marina Abramovic and her performance at MOMA and the reactions of the people who participated with her. Her exhibit was titled “The Artist is Present” and, as noted in the original post, that was the power of the piece—she was fully present, seeing and acknowledging each person who sat across from her. Although she didn’t speak or interact, she was there, inviting the other person to also be present and honest in that moment.
And I realized that’s why I think the arts matter to people of faith—because they point us to the Giver of all creativity, who, frankly, sometimes acts like Abramovic. Usually I want Him to talk and respond and fix my problems—to do. Usually He simply wants to sit quietly with me—to be. In those times, music and literature and visual arts remind us that while he may be silent, The Artist is always present.
I spent this past holiday weekend in New York City with my brother Geoff and sister-in-law Lisa, having more fun and eating more food than I could include here. (Oh, okay, twist my arm: picnics in Central Park and along Long Island City’s waterfront, walks through impeccably manicured gardens at dusk, tours of subway cars from the 50s, the Brooklyn Flea Market, and possibly the best cafe au lait ever).
But what I will remember long after my shin splints fade away and I work off the goat cheese omelets is Sunday afternoon at the Museum of Modern Art. Marina Abramovic’s special exhibition “The Artist is Present” was in its final weekend run, and we spent much of the afternoon viewing it (and much of the evening discussing it).
Abramovic is a performance artist who has scrubbed meat and blood off cow bones to protest the slaughter of war, taken mind-altering pills to explore unconsciousness during a performance, and fasted from food for 12 days while living on a shelf open to the public in a New York gallery.
But “The Artist is Present” included no such spectacle—instead, the 80-day performance simply featured Abramovic sitting silently, gazing into the eyes of a person sitting across from her. From the moment the museum opened each day until the last crowds left each evening, Abramovic sat without speaking and gave each person, in turn, her complete and focused attention.
And thousands of New Yorkers lined up each morning for the privilege of being in the chair across from her. Some smiled or giggled self-consciously. Some returned the unbroken eye contact. Several wept. Until the last two days of the performance, each individual could sit as long or as little as he wanted. Some stayed just a few minutes, others remained in the chair for hours.
In an interview before the exhibit, Abramovic said,
It’s really the idea of creating a moment of presence…… I want to create a stillness in the middle of the tornado, with just a tiny little table and two little chairs. And the chair opposite me is always empty, and any member of the audience is welcome to come and engage in the gaze with me. There will not be talking, there will not be anything, just the motionless gaze.
The eyes are the windows of the soul. You can see so much. And it will create an energy, a luminosity around it. The more time goes past with this piece, the more the piece will go where it should go – into that timeless state. It’s about the here and now. It’s not about future or past. It’s just about the present moment. I want to construct many present moments during the 600 hours, and be available and vulnerable for anybody in the audience. This will create a trust so that the other person looking at me can also be available and vulnerable, and we can create a contact which is very direct and very human.
This vulnerable human connection made the piece irresistible. Despite the huge closing-weekend crowds and the presence of two of my favorite Van Goghs on level 4, I returned to MOMA’s atrium three times during our three-hour visit. I watched Abramovic, I speculated on the stories of the people sitting across from her, and I considered the lessons this piece can teach us.
Because like all good art, this raises questions about the times in which we live and the timeless components of the human condition. Abramovic has said one reason she wanted to perform the work was to create a “center” of peace in the midst of our country’s largest and arguably busiest city.
But, of course, the hurried pace of life extends beyond New York, and so does another insight of this piece—people are ravenous for human connection.
Sure, some people sat across from Abramovic to say they had been part of one of the famous artist’s most ambitious works, but that’s not why dozens wiped away tears, or stayed for five hours, or returned several times. It’s not why the show has received worldwide attention or why MOMA’s live video feed of the experience received more than 800,000 hits.
By sitting in the chair you also received another person’s undivided attention. You became the focus of another person for as long as you needed it. You participated in something not only public but deeply intimate.
When is the last time someone gave you their attention–no cell phone glances, no mid-conversation texting, no checking the time, no looking over your shoulder for someone more interesting? When is the last time you gave that gift to someone else? The real lesson of “The Artist is Present” is how un-present so many of us are, to our own emotions and to the moment and to the people around us. Abramovic’s art reminds us that in a city propelled by image, in a nation focused on appearances, many people simply need to be seen.