It was not without anxiety that I went to « The Artist Is Present », Marina Abramovic’s exhibit at MOMA.
I had always feared that performance art would require a lot of patience, or specialized knowledge, like the kind needed to understand some japanese dances. And I’ve got this big book on Feminist Art with photographs of performances I’m glad to never have endured.
What to expect from a woman who, since the Seventies, has constantly exposed herself to danger, disgust or boredom, played with sex and Death? This morning, a friend remarked that Art is always about Death, but it’s one thing to do a gloomy painting, and another to cut yourself with knives, hold snakes, and scrub skeletons.
On a happy Spring Saturday afternoon, I finally joined a peaceful crowd of tourists and Art lovers at the museum.
On first entering the Marron Atrium, I saw Marina in her red gown. It was stunning.
She was sitting alone, her face in her hands, with the facing chair unoccupied. Standing on the perimeter of the rectangular area, visitors were silently looking, in awe, as if witnessing the last moments of a saint or a beloved outer space queen.
I personally felt sorry for Marina, that nobody would dare sit in the empty chair. Summoning my courage, I considered walking up to the table so that, at the very least, the artist wouldn’t be present for nothing.
But before I could commit, a short plump woman slipped in, moving with less noise than if she had been walking in her socks, and was already in the chair.
She was sitting stiffly, her feet firmly on the ground, her hands flat on her knees, with an expression of calm submission and awareness, as if attending an examination, or a yoga class for the first time.
Marina still had her face in her hands. Was she asleep ? Or in profound pain ? Or intolerably bored with the museum institution, or the idea of « Art » itself ? I sensed she might suddenly stand up, kick her chair, slap the participant’s face, and leave, never to return.
Instead, she slowly lifted up her head, and started to gaze at the woman.
Walking to the other side of the perimeter, I realized that what I had originally taken for a more condensed group of viewers was, in fact, a line. It’s not because Performance Art is imbued with the spirit of Seventies happenings, that there was no order here. Or maybe it was adapted to today’s standards of order. More likely, it was part of the ceremony and constraints within which the visitor was invited to take part. I asked for confirmation from a tall brunette in a very Salinger pale green dress, who was writing in a notebook.
Helen was an Art student in Maryland, and she had indeed been in line for 2 and a half hours.
- Are you afraid? I asked.
- Afraid ?… No. Well, I guess, yes, a little bit.
- I think it’s very brave!
Because who knows what’s going to happen, once one is left alone with his inner self under imaginary scrutiny?
In the distance, opposite to the person facing Marina, was photographer Marco Anelli. He sat behind a telephoto lens, similar to those used to capture wildlife, or celebrities sunbathing on a private island.
He has been documenting the performance since it began, and clocks the same hours as Marina. All his close-ups of participants are on the exhibit website, and it’s the most astonishing body of work.
A strange collection of faces, some illuminated, some in tears, some lost in the void, and a few trying to aggressively dominate. There’s even a priest (one wonders if he is mentally exorcizing the artist), a bewildered child, and a woman wearing a veil, so only her eyes can be seen (was she trying to say something?).
I pointed out to Helen that the people seated in front of Marina always mimicked her position. Although there was no rule clearly stated, it seemed not to have crossed anyone’s mind to slouch on the minimalist wooden chair.
While this made the art student slightly smile, I left her to her upcoming experience with the artist, and went to speak with Marco.
I was curious to know if he was taking pictures randomly or instead, choosing the moment. He said he usually waited at least 10 minutes. Then, he explained, people’s faces changed, something was unleashed and revealed.
In the meantime, the line has reduced. Soon it was my turn. I walked to the chair, and my heart beating, I sat down.