On the Saturday afternoon in March of 70 mile an hour winds and trees crashing into houses, the line of those aspiring to participate in Marina Abramović’s 700+ hour MoMA performance piece, The Artist is Present, hadn’t budged for five hours. A sitter had parked himself in the participant’s chair at 10:30 and seemed increasingly energized as the minutes went by. Rumor had it that he was Ulay, Abramović’s romantic and artistic ex. The raven-haired fellow did share surface features with the original: slender build, bottlebrush moustache, clean-shaven jaw. But he was too young. Whoever he was, he was riveting.
The Artist is Present—peer to the similarly named 40-year retrospective on the museum’s sixth floor—has a simple plan: Abramović sits before a spare wooden table and gazes ahead. One museum-goer at a time may take the facing seat and gaze back. That’s what the public sees. What it cannot perceive is the self-imposed austerity the artist will undergo for the run of the exhibit (3/14-5/31/10). She’ll take her seat each morning before the museum opens and never rise until after closing at night. During that time, she will not eat, drink, use the bathroom or stretch her legs. Her partner on that March Saturday withstood a comparable day’s worth of duress—and perhaps a bit more. The audience member’s chair lacks even the minimal padding to cushion butt and back that Abramović’s has. Nonetheless, the man and the artist improvised a duet of mutual steadfastness that advanced with small shifts of attention and mood—for seven hours.
Abramović is now 63 and has been committing herself to physical extremes for most of her performance career. Though she doesn’t call herself a choreographer, like many (if not all) dance pieces, her work addresses the body in relation to time, space, and energy. Starting with her “rhythm pieces” in the 1970s, she has seemed to ask: What are the temporal limits of endurance? How is time organized and experienced along the way? That early series of performances, and Abramović’s work in general, is notorious for the artist’s flirtation with self-abuse. In Rhythm 10 (1973), she rapidly thrust a knife into the floor between each of her splayed fingers. She then repeated the sequence, deepening the wounds that resulted by chance from the initial round. In Rhythm 0 (1974), audience members were free to do whatever they wanted to her by using any of a table’s worth of objects, including flowers, a cleaver and a gun.
The Artist is Present invokes a similar indeterminacy, if much more rigidly controlled by protocol. Abramović sits in the center of the broad second floor atrium, which resembles—and truly is—a photo shoot: light-towers flood the arena in an icy wash. Video cameras spy from above, recording continuously. Signs warn visitors that entering the atrium, let alone the performance square, signifies consent to be filmed. Until it’s their turn to participate, Abramović is unapproachable.
When I made a return visit another day, a young woman occupied the museum-goer’s chair. Once again, I was transfixed by the sight of the non-professional. Over the course of an hour, she held the same position: weight into her right hip, hands thrust into the pockets of her army jacket. Her face, however, slowly relaxed into an expression of tender regard.
I waited to see the moment when the sitter relinquished the chair and another stepped in. Would Abramović acknowledge the end and beginning? No, it turns out, and no. At the first hint that the sitter was rising, Abramović closed her eyes and bowed her head to her chest—not to acknowledge her partner but to curl protectively inward, to escape the other. She had moments to regroup before the next sitter arrived; she looked wrung out and submitted wearily to her new duet.
Witnessing raw evidence of Abramović’s physical and emotional ordeal is brutal. The rhythm of gaze, retreat, gaze, retreat is perhaps more elastic than is the rhythm in some of her 70s performances, but the exercise seems no less violent, even evoking serial sexual assault. And the current piece is more insidious than the earlier works. Not only has the artist staged a visually elegant rite of self-mortification, she has invited the unsuspecting to be agents of her abuse through a process of ostensible—and, I suspect, deeply felt—communion. Yet it is precisely that which makes the piece seem so exploitative. In a recent interview with James Westcott, Abramović bemoaned the public’s failure to grasp the privation of sitting for hours as she does during The Artist is Present. But if people did recognize her suffering, fewer would clamor to share their gaze. Even by watching from the sidelines, I felt I was made complicit in Abramović’s pain.
L.J. SUNSHINE is a writer living in New York. She has written about dance and Italian cultural events for Oggi Sette.