My Moment with Marina Abramovich

[Editor’s Note: Earlier in June we noted that HBO’s documentary, Marina Ab

[Editor’s Note: Earlier in June we noted that HBO’s documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present, is screening in theaters in NYC and LA throughout the summer. This film is a must see. Beautifully shot and edited, the documentary focuses on the collaborative efforts of Abramovic and the audience behind the creation of the epinymous, and now legendary, three month MOMA show in 2010. Even though I have been critical of Abramovic’s refusal to call herself a feminist, I could not but help to sit there in the dark theater, watching the strong affectations produced by the intensity of connections she made with each and every audience member, and think that she is indeed a feminist. The care, the consideration, and the intentional bond via the gaze are feminist gestures—this was, in its entirety, a feminist performance. In 2010, one of our editors, Patricia, sat with Abramovic. Here is her story. ~MB]

The second time I committed to a full day’s wait at the museum, I glanced up from my mobile just in time to watch someone walk away from the chair. As the middle aged woman strutted smugly, with an unforgettable, lifted swaggering of the shoulders, Marina crumbled a little. Cleansing her emotional palate took a little longer than we had been used to seeing. And a strangely grotesque feeling passed through my stomach, like an invisible current; a wandering illness.

Until that point, I had wanted to sit with Marina to experience a silent dialogue completely dependent on a setting where representations of the female body are usually cast, painted or drawn into the inanimate. The appeal was to animate the female form in a museum, while remaining still as a statue. After witnessing Marina’s reaction to this particular sitter, my motivation shifted from curiosity of form to an embodiment of sustenance.

When I first saw the show in March, sitting with Marina wasn’t imperative. Strolling by her in the bright square of the atrium seemed sufficient. After seeing the retrospective again, something clicked and a decision surfaced — I would try: to animate form within confinement, in direct dialogue with an expert at doing just that. This curiosity led me to stand and sit for three full days on queue. (And some previous feeble attempts; an hour here, two hours there, but feeble is not a useful word in the context of Abramovic. Even as a viewer it’s full dedication or nothing.) I succeeded on the third full day, with new friends cheering me on. What, was I not hungry enough? Did I not want this? Why was I so hung up on arriving with dignity, as my ankles were kicked and my small feet stomped? On day 61, I speed-walked, with a determined dignity on full-throttle.

The fellow who sat with her before my turn hugged me before leaving, depositing a renewed strength of happiness into my arms. The guard signaled, I walked to the chair and sat. Immediately, (to overcome shyness) I placed the right index finger on my left inner wrist, beat-matching breath to the vascular organ. Within several moments of focused calm and under Marina’s warm gaze, I relaxed. The circus sidelining the perimeter melted away.

Patricia sitting before Marina

Her first glimpse of me began with my shoes. Marina’s gaze brightened, towards the benign acknowledgment that precedes the union of strangers. The most overwhelming emotion wasn’t nervousness but an intense desire to deflect the direct harshness of strobes. Sitting still seemed easier than connecting with endless pairs of eyes under such probing light. Most of what I remember isn’t easily rendered verbally, but in approximation: intense, focused, open. That space between clavicle and lower rib flooded open, wildly. I didn’t anticipate nourishment to have rushed from there, but it did.

For me, Marina’s work carries severe Buddhist undertones: combining tenacity of spirit and discipline of mind towards transcending. In Buddhism, feet symbolize presence. How fitting, that she met each sitter by first acknowledging their feet. What better language for grounding the transcendent? If Buddhist theory is applied to the space between chairs, all forms of presence (being, mind, body) begin with showing up and taking seat. My black linen Chinese slippers now remind me of that power; the power of observance in tenacity, and vice versa.

Although I assured my new friends I would only take ten minutes, (“but it might be two, or maybe twenty…”), I didn’t want to be a devourer. But, just in case, I asked A. Y.  to walk into my field of vision and signal, were I to remain beyond thirty minutes. Wasn’t necessary — I stayed ten minutes exactly without keeping track of time or breath.

This exhibit brought out the best and worst. In simple shock at the fury offandom, a yogi musician behind me noted “Everyone is just hurrying to get somewhere, but if they realized that there’s no where to go — we could all just be.” Waiting was part of it, tolerance was key: not becoming overwhelmed by the neediness of others. Also, joy: witnessing love as language in those who were respectful. And, of course, observing disparaging comments here and there from passerbys. When art lovers complain about Marina’s work as an attack on the female form, have they not contemplated “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon”? Or “Woman, I”? Did they not notice Marina hovering as Saint Teresa? So many questions.

On the last day of the performance, thunderous clapping soared and echoed from the atrium to the museum doors. A few A-listers were there, completely obscured among the reoccurring faces on the Flickr diary, who were there, basking in a haze of instant micro-celebrity. Marina bowed graciously, surrounded by her troupe and made her way out of the spotlight, flanked by body guards and the grateful adoration of her loyal set. On my way out, I greeted familiar faces, some of whom didn’t get a chance to sit with Marina but remained authentically invested in the possibilities of the work as creation, as community, as life, as eternal. Their dedication is not captured in a Flickr portrait; or a webcam capture — but they were there. And they were quite present.

Patricia’s portrait from the Artist is Present. (image MoMA)
Watch the slide show of all of Marina’s sitters here show closed May 31st, 2010).