The documentary film Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present follows the artist in the months before and during her 2010 MoMA show of the same name, offering an addendum to the exhibition for those who saw it, and a fascinating secondhand glimpse into it for those who didn’t (like myself). With SFMOMA’s survey of theatricality in art and media, Stage Presence, having just opened, this seems an appropriate moment to reflect on one of the preeminent performance artists of our time — or at least the most notorious. The centerpiece of Abramovic’s MoMA exhibition famously comprised the artist herself seated in a chair with another empty chair positioned a few feet away; visitors were invited one by one to approach Abramovic and sit down opposite her, the cue for the artist to raise her head and look her visitor in the eye. Participants could remain seated there for as little or as long as they chose to.
What first strikes me about this performance is its incredible generosity. Forget the headline-grabbing nature of the piece and the adulation Abramovic received from hundreds of thousands of visitors, and consider the levels of energy and emotional focus required to sit motionless and silently address an endless stream of strangers for eight hours a day. Members of the public lined up in droves for their opportunity to be moved by the artist’s gaze. The film documents these wordless confrontations between artist and viewer in emotionally charged scenes, with Abramovic resembling a priestess or oracle, sitting day in, day out for three months in alternate floor-length gowns of red, black, and white, appearing to emanate love and warmth, and offering tears, smiles, and sincerity.
In return, though, Abramovic achieved near-messianic status. Has there ever been such a distilled representation of the artist as prophet — one endowed with special abilities to see things others can’t?
What most interest me are the motivating forces in this potent exchange between performer and audience. What compels viewers to sleep overnight on the street for their chance to take away something profound from this experience? The piece provides a window into the human need for confrontation, connection, love, and spectacle. And it’s hard not to parse the artist’s motivations, since this must have fueled her ability to complete the work.
One audience member in the film describes her wish to be as vulnerable as the artist when she has her moment in the hot seat. But is Abramovic really the vulnerable one in this exchange? Who holds the power? The fourth wall may have been broken down, relatively speaking, but when members of the public sit down opposite Abramovic, they enter a contract defined by the artist: no touching or movement beyond the seat is permitted, only looking. Abramovic says in the film that she wants to become a rock in the gallery space, and it is this sense of rootedness that perhaps grants her the magnetic presence that seems to dominate the space. And don’t forget, she likes playing this role. In the opening scenes of the film, the artist describes herself as a trifecta of personas, her favorite of which is Marina, the spiritually wise.
In the months prior to the show’s opening, Abramovic flirted with the idea of inviting the magician David Blaine to perform an intervention. One of her advisors argued against this, making the case that Blaine is an illusionist, while Abramovic’s work is real. But what is real about this interchange? Surely nothing staged in more ordinary circumstances, outside of a performance space and without an audience, could have produced these charged scenes? The time spent waiting to engage with Abramovic and watching others moved by the experience, the anticipation of one’s own time in the hot seat, all contribute to the event’s theatrical crescendo. But if this blog is anything to go by — http://marinaabramovicmademecry.tumblr.com/ — one imagines that audience members took away something that felt intensely real.
The piece manifests so much that is latent in contemporary popular culture — celebrity as religion, the fascination with reality television (Jerry Saltz makes a valid point about this performance provoking and expressing narcissism not only in the artist, which is clear, but also in her audience) — and is worth endlessly dissecting. I just wish I had been there to watch, voyeuristically, on the sidelines.