Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Artist is Present: An Appropriatly Exhaustive Account of Staring at Marina Abromovic

When I learned that Marina Abromovic was doing a performance piece at MoMA, I knew I had to go see it - to go participate if at all possible.  Abromovic is one of the few performance artists whose work I've bothered to know and respect.  When I first learned about her in art school, I was particularly arrested by this image,  from Rhythm 0, a piece where she provided a table of various implements, then stood totally passive for six hours, allowing the audience to decorate, pose, and abuse her:

For her current piece at MoMA, Abromovic sits in a chair, and museum-goers take turns sitting across from her.  The edict is to be silent and still, simply gazing at one another, until the museum-goer decides to leave and the next takes their place.  Abromovic stays seated in this way from open to close, every day for months. Here's a link to where you can see a live feed of Marina Abromovic's performance, whenever MoMA is open.

I arrived on site (in the atrium on the second floor) at about 10:35AM - five minutes after MoMA opened. There was a line, but not a long one - about fifteen people.  However, with a piece like this, length means very little.  Rumors moved up and down the line of a previous visitor who had sat for seven hours.  How quickly the line would advance was going to depended upon how long visitors sat, and how many people dropped out after it became clear that this was not a speedy endeavor. 

Detailed account of the experience after the page break:

The first museum-goer to sit is a balding man in a striped shirt and argyle socks, who gives the impression of being an accountant.  Abromovic herself wears a dark blue turtle-neck dress that pools on the floor below her, covering her entire body, except for her head and hands.  Both Abromovic and the accountant sit with their feet apart, hands on their thighs, their gazes fixed and solemn.  His posture is one of challenge, and I get the feeling that he will try to outlast her, but after about 20 minutes he relinquishes the chair.  Though his face is still impassive as he leaves, it also seems somehow lit up, vivid.

While the sitters are switching, Abromovic bows her head and closes her eyes.  The next man to face her wears a dark blue shirt, a dark blue sweater, and dark blue trousers - all a shade close to that of Abromovic's dress. after a couple of minutes of watching them, I am sure that he has planned this outfit to match Abromovic's, but I'm sure what the motive of this would be - to perfect the aesthetics of the moment? In hopes of recognition from Abromovic? After about fifteen to twenty minutes, the man in blue leaves.

(Image from

The next man to sit down is wearing all black, with a punk flavor: tight black jeans, a black leather jacket and strange black leather boots with triangular flaps on the front that look like sails.  When Abromovic raises her head and looks at him, she cracks a small but very definite smile, which lingers for a moment before her face resumes neutrality.  To those waiting in line, the smile is very curious. Does she know this man? Is his punk look surprising after the smiles that came before? Or is she returning a smile from him that we can't see, from our station behind his back?

The line has started to talk amongst itself in little sections.  There is a little chit-chat, but mostly we discuss the piece that we are waiting to enter.  We search Abromovic's face.  Is she really connecting with these people, or looking past them? She looks tired - how does she endure this?  Now she's moved her hands from her lap to the side of her chair. What does this signify?  We speculate about the museum-goers sitting before us.  How long will they stay?  Are they challenging her, communicating with her, simply watching her?  Are there differences across gender lines? We make jokes about them.  We discuss our own expectations, strategies, and background knowledge. And we watch the audience around the perimeter of the piece.  Some sit watching, some sketch Abromovic, or take notes, some try to take pictures but get scolded by guards.  What do the guards think of all this? 

After about fifteen minutes the first punk-styled man is replaced by a second, this one with long hair, tattoos and chunky rings.  When he sits it seems at first that there will be no smile, but then Abromovic's mouth lifts ever so slightly.  He stays only five minutes.  He is followed by one woman who sits for about five to ten minutes, then another.  So far everyone seems to be in pairs.  I had considered inviting a friend to join me, but am now glad I didn't.  Not only is it unlikely that I would have brought someone who'd wait out the whole line with me, but it would change the piece itself for me.  As it stands you have three layers of audience when you sit in the chair.  The museum-goers who watch you from the edges of the atrium, as the unknown variable in this equation.  People who watch the live feed online from afar.  And Abromovic herself, who's gaze is the foundation of the piece.  To add a friend who knows you - who has expectations of you and commentary and an agenda of their own, is to add a whole other layer of audience, one I was glad I didn't have to consider.

Next up is a slightly bulky man with white hair, a white beard, and glasses, who gives a professorial impression.  He lasted about forty minutes.  I started to get irrationally upset with him after he passed the twenty minute mark, afraid he'd camp out all day.  Abromovic did some head-rolls and moved her hands from her lap to the side of the chair after he left. Abromovic is starting to look more tired and removed than she did at first.  Or I may be projecting my own tiredness and remove onto her.

The next participant is a woman, who sits for about a half an hour.  While she is seated, Abromovic closes her eyes for a short period.  This is the first I have seen her do this.  Later I learned that the woman had been closing her eyes while up there, in hopes that it would allow Abromovic her own vision break.  The woman's eyes are tearing up as she leaves, but she explains that this is because of the lights, which are diffuse, but bright.

After this woman is another man, her companion, who takes about twenty to twenty-five minutes, and after him a Lithuanian journalist with whom I'd chatted for quite some time, who lasts about the same. While waiting for the journalist to tire, I learn that of the couple behind me, an older couple that I assume to be married, with whom I've been speaking for quite some time, only the man intends to participate.  The woman has waited out the line with him for over three hours, but is not going to sit herself.  I find this very interesting, as I cannot imagine giving up so much time, only to neglect what is presumably the climax of the experience. I cannot help but ask her questions that border on rude about this.  Her answers are varied and at first a little wishy-washy, then a bit more pointed.  She's not really that invested, so why take up time that someone more so could be experiencing it?  She would probably just sit for five minutes anyway.  Besides, she can experience the piece quite well from the perimeter.  Then she mentions that she had had chemotherapy not terribly long ago, and is concerned that the lights would be particularly difficult on her eyes. I stop pushing the subject.

My turn finally comes next, at 2:00PM, three and a half hours after I got in line.  by this point I've gotten pretty dazed by waiting.  I've stopped looking at Abromovic much at all, and my chief concern is whether my stomach will rumble audibly while sitting across from her.

While waiting at the edges I had wondered if Abromovic and sitter could hear all the conversation going on about them at the periphery of the piece, but once seated I forget to note this, and in fact, don't notice the sounds of the audience at all.  I sit down with my hands in my lap and my ankles crossed, which is a mistake, comfort-wise.  It occurs to me that my head is slightly cocked.  I think that I've done this subconsciously, to present a receptive, curious air, or perhaps to mark myself as still being audience rather than participant - a way of keeping myself at some remove.

I try to smile a little in greeting.  I'm not sure if the expression registers correctly on my face - I certainly get no answering smile.  For the entire time that I am seated, my mood and focus shift continually.  I am jubilant to be here, a space I've waited hours to occupy, an experience I never thought I'd be offered.  I am hyper-aware of how I appear to the crowd - can they see the muscles in my legs twitching? I've moved my head a couple times - do they think I'm about to leave? What judgements are they making of my outfit, demeanor, execution of this task?  I'm hyper-aware of how I appear to Abromovic.  Can she see that I'm chewing my lip a little? Is she tired of looking at faces? Is she registering me at all?

I cannot see any sign of connection or communication - nothing directed at me in particular.  In line, others had spoken of a transfer of energy, but I experience nothing of the sort.  I become worried about how long I am sitting.  Should I get up after five minutes - give the people behind me their turn more quickly? Will I look like I've abandoned post too quickly? And most importantly - have I gotten all I can out of this?  Have I completed the task that brought me here?  I have no way to know.  I start to see Marina's look as one of disapproval.  She can see how I've idealized her, and finds it contemptable.  She can see that I am shallow, dense, and petty.  I start trying to send her telapathic signals - aim words at her with my mind - despite having absolutely no belief in telepathy  at all.  I try to make my mind blank, be totally receptive to the moment.  After what I judge to be about ten or so minutes, I leave.  The next person in line says that my time was closer to twenty minutes.

Although staring into the mirror that Abromovic presents is certainly interesting, I find afterward that the most vital part of the experience was the line: it's anticipation, specutlation, and sense of community.  Contemplating the piece in advance of participation was fascinating, afterward, meerly informational.


  1. does she pee during the day, or maybe under that long blue dress there's a bag of urine?

  2. Is this the punk guy?

  3. I'm quite jealous of how much patience her audience grants her. SOunds like they get their reward. I also understand that there are a lot of rules for participants. This is performance art. Are those rules meant to be broken? Maybe I should get up there and find out.

  4. I enjoyed reading your post about your experience B. Lee. I am fascinated at how different our experiences were. I wrote about mine here:

    Re: Anonymous: What I've heard is that she sits on an absorbent pillow, so yes, she does relieve herself during the day.

  5. Now I know where your Facebook profile pic came from!

    I was looking for you and James Franco:

    Looking at all of those faces...people start to look all the same. Except for Mustache Man, who definitely stands out since he seems to appear everyday.

  6. >Now she's moved her hands from her lap to the side of her chair. What does this signify?

    Gag me!