Typically, performance art isn’t my “thing.” It usually leaves me feeling dumb that I wasn’t able to figure out what the person was trying to communicate. Or ripped off that I just paid money to watch someone take a dump on stage. (side note: I’ve never paid money to see someone take a dump on stage) (further side note: nor have I watched someone take a dump on stage for free) (at least not literally) So I was skeptical when I clicked a link on twitter that brought me to a slideshow of the artist/participants in a performance going on at the MOMA in NYC.
The Artist is Present was performed for three months (it closed today) in a lobby of the MOMA. Marina Abramovic (the artist) sat in a chair for seven hours every day. Across from her was another chair, upon which museum visitors sat. They did not touch, they did not speak. They just sat across from each other, the visitor remaining in the chair for however long they desired. In addition to there being a live feed, a photographer snapped one shot of each visitor (the shots are posted on flickr) with occasional snaps of Marina interspersed.
I watched the live feed for a few minutes and found the intensity of two people staring at each other in a non-angry/non-passionate way very interesting. Think about the people in your life – if you are staring into their eyes for any great length of time, chances are you’re fighting with them, having sex with them or they just got back from a long trip and you thought you’d never see them again. So to have two strangers in a public space taking 8, 30, 60 minutes or more to sit a couple of feet apart and just…gaze is quite interesting.
But what I find more interesting is what you see when you look through the snapshots of the visitors. People had very different reactions to being in the chair. Some laughed, some cried, some were overly fashionable, some seemed bored while others were quite moved. Some seemed to have lost they damn mind. Others were Lou Reed. One super creepy guy sat with her an entire day and then continued to show up with stalkerish regularity. (he’s supposedly a makeup artist who felt like making himself part of the art) (he’s incredibly creepy – he sat in the chair for an entire day while other people were standing in line behind him only to not get in, which is pretty fucking obnoxious) Marina most typically looks like this. Other visitors sit on the floor and watch the proceedings.[When I was watching the live feed a few days ago, a number of the people sitting on the floor were texting, some even talking on the phone. It’s starting to feel like a number of people are doing things in life purely for the opportunity to post about it on twitter or facebook rather than for the real experience of it all. Which is just really, really sad.]
I watched the live feed for a while and was intrigued but not taken by the project. Then I started clicking through the slideshow of photos. Marina has a kind, if not exhausted, countenance and an openness about her that invites people to project the feelings they brought with them onto the situation. Judging by the number of people who had tears rolling down their faces, a lot of the participants let some emotions out of the carefully controlled containers that most people live in. Purely from the experience of having someone look them in the eye without judgment or shared history or their own desires. Interesting.
I’ve purposely not read anything about this performance (and I’m not likely to read much on accident since I just heard about it a couple of days before it closed). I don’t want to read some bullshit about what the thing means or doesn’t mean. I was surprisingly touched by looking at all of those people who were feeling something, if only for that moment, so it was an effective piece of art if just for that. Which is funny because, had someone described this to me, I would have said something snarky and dismissive.
And I wondered what my experience would have been if I’d sat in the chair. Most likely it would have gone like this: I’d sit down, blushing furiously because it all seems so ridiculous, I’d giggle nervously as I do when I’m uncomfortable, I’d look her in the eye with a slight twitch of my upper right eyelid, that would make me giggle again thinking that she noticed it, she’d continue to just look, without judgment, and I’d start to slip into the experience. Then? I don’t know. I don’t know what I’d do or how I’d feel.That’s what’s interesting about it all.