In 2010, performance artist Marina Abramovic was honored with a retrospective at MoMA. During the exhibition, Abramovic created a new piece specifically for the three months it was up: sit in a chair for the entire time the museum was open, say and do nothing, invite visitors to sit across from her while they said and did nothing. It was visited by 750, 000 people, producing the images you see here and below.
Yes, that’s right – Marina sat for over 750 hours, over a span of three months, never getting out of that chair until the museum was closed. This week, HBO released a moving documentary about Marina and the exhibition. The documentary was mesmerizing for me and I wish I had been able to see the exhibit. At the time, there was a live stream that I did watch from time to time. Even through the live stream, I could feel some of what the visitors and Marina could feel themselves, a sort of loud calm.
Imagine looking at that face, those eyes! Some reviews of the film discuss performance art and its relevancy. The Atlantic had a particularly thoughtful one. I’m glad to know I am not alone in thinking that performance art is difficult to understand and I particularly dislike the ones that have the potential to make visitors feel bad. (That doesn’t mean people should stop doing them.) I believe the reason “The Artist is Present” was so successful is due to the accessibility of the piece, the calmness, and its willingness to go past conceptualism and straight to human-to-human connection. Not to say that the piece lacked in concept; indeed, it was chock full of it.
“She admits that she needs the audience to make up for a lack of love she felt in her childhood from her war-hero parents. This, in other words, is a woman who likes to be looked at. As MoMA curator Klaus Biesenbach puts it, ‘Marina is never not performing. The audience is fuel to her, in effect, a lover.'”
– Elizabeth Greenwood, The Atlantic
This was just one of the threads throughout this piece, but the heart of the piece is the people. People lined up for hours and even overnight on the street to have a chance to sit with Marina. There were a few rules of conduct, but not one of them dictated how long you could sit with her. You could sit for a minute, an hour, a whole day (just don’t look at the line of angry people behind you). The documentary revealed a man who sat with her 21 times and commemorated the experience with a tattoo bearing the number “21.” This is the power of the piece.
I can see some of you rolling your eyes and, yes, there are definite moments of “Really?” going on here. This kind of art can be pretentious, putting the artist on a pedestal they may or may not deserve to be on. However, if Alain de Botton is correct and the art museum is our new church, then I really think what we have witnessed here is a kind of transcendence normally found through worship. Does that sound extreme or blasphemous? If you experienced what these people experienced, it would be hard to argue with it.
 Image by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images North America
[2-5] MoMA Flickr stream
 Photo by Marco Anelli