The six floors of the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) are all crawling with soldier ant-like museumgoers, basking in MoMa’s admission-free Wednesday. But downstairs, right past the backpack drop-off and the exhibition entrance, Marina Abramović sits in silence, draped in nothing but a white smock and a matching wool blanket, displaying both warmth and an overwhelming state of fragility. She is exhausted, but present.
Abramović, a Serbian-born performance artist now residing in New York, began her fascinating career in the early 1970s, exploring the relationship between the limits of the body and the possibilities of the mind. Her work — bluring the line between statement and simplicity — formed at the peak of European student revolutions and the dwindling sexual revolution stateside.
Now, her most recent installation at the New York MoMA, “The Artist is Present,” is partly a retrospective of her 40-year career, with 37 artists re-performing works from her past. Throughout the exhibit, video art and recordings of older works are shown continuously on loop. But it’s downstairs on the museum’s main floor that Abramović’s newest and most startling performance piece of art sits and waits.
On an unadorned wooden chair squared off in the center of the room, Abramović sits in complete silence with a visitor who has been drawn to her undeniable magnetism. There, both parties simply sit and stare.
One chair is permanently occupied by Abramović herself, and has been for the past 63 days. The other is always filtering new attendees, willing to sit in the hopes of understanding both the artist and the person she is relaying the gaze back to. The connection can continue for as long as the participant desires. The first few days of the exhibit found the average length of minutes of contact to be in the single digits.
Now in its ninth week, some have come back to the installation multiple times for a chance to reconnect, sitting anywhere from an hour to the entire day.
Around Abramović is a line of people — some of whom began lining up outside hours before the MoMA even opened — comprising both willing participants and curious onlookers. All sit quietly, watching this wordless interaction between performer and audience take place.
Rest assured, Abramović is, above all, a performer, and we are simply her audience. But, once that gap between viewing and participating is blurred, “The Artist Is Present” becomes electrifyingly dangerous. Much of the piece’s meaning is left purposefully hazy — the changing of her robe’s color from red to blue to its current white, the sudden absence of a table between her and the participant/viewer.
But the power is in that silence, that willingness to connect. At times it feels artificial — forced, even. After all, there is never a moment at which it feels like Abramović is entirely out of control. But, as the days pass (her performance installation lasts until May 31, making for a total of 77 days), her vulnerability comes into focus. There is almost a guilt that washes over the participants, who drain her of further energy the longer they sit.
Attendees have been growing steadily in numbers. The museum has been cataloging every participant through its Flickr account, creating micro-celebrities in the process. And, as word has spread, Abramović has found herself in a new realm of relevancy. But that realization is, in itself, potentially problematic. For it draws on the inherit absence of what Abramović is offering in daily life, which is connection at the simplest level.
In New York, the city of disconnect, people walk like the very subways they ride — fast, straight, and on their own tracks. For a city that finds itself teetering on the edge of emotional abstinence, Abramović’s work is something entirely new.
But I realized that such an absence of connection is simply not the case for a Santa Cruz resident. And it’s because of this that Abramović’s work was so captivating — not because it spoke directly to me, nor about me, but, more importantly, because it spoke about everyone else. In Santa Cruz, connection is nearly inevitable. And, while onlookers thank Abramović for her willingness to break through noise and connect, I thank our community for making that desire wholly unnecessary, if only because I receive it daily.
That is not to say I was above the performance’s power. Far from it — I found myself emotionally shaken at the sight of a twenty-something-year-old woman breaking down into tears in front of Marina, her hands desperately clenched, as if to prevent herself from reaching across the swell of silence to feel the kind of connection that only flesh can offer. But, if her piece is an antidote to our growing disconnect — and it very well might not be, as the joys and pains of modern art are that nobody gets it and that’s the point — then I am pleased to say it didn’t pound me with its power. Because I have felt that same feeling that Abramović is giving hundreds of New Yorkers every day simply by walking along the crowded downtown sidewalks.
Abramović may be present, but her exhaustion speaks volumes.