Saturday, November 08, 2014

Being Present

I was at home on the couch with a nasty cold/flu bug on Thursday, finding concentration too difficult to do much reading, and decided to watch a documentary film entitled The Artist is Present, about a Yugoslavian performance artist named Marina Abramovic.  Over the past forty years, Abramovic has gone from obscurity to celebrity.  The film centers upon a culminating event in her career: a three month retrospective of her work at New York's Museum of Modern Art.  The film contains some disturbing clips of her past performances--such as one where she and a man sat across from each other and took turns slapping each other in the face--and there is a fair amount of frank, non-sexual nudity.  Abramovic is a fearless and provocative and controversial artist.  I'm not a fan of performance art in the least.  However, despite my distaste for her type of artistic expression and my discomfort throughout the first two-thirds of the film, I found the last third to be utterly transcendent and beautiful and quite moving.  Here is the reason why:

In addition to the retrospective of her past work at the Museum of Modern Art, Abramovic "performed" a new piece entitled The Artist is Present (hence the title of the film) in which she sat in a chair in a large empty room at the museum.  Across from her, a few feet away, was an unoccupied chair.  The two chairs faced each other.  Museum patrons, after touring through the retrospective of her work, were permitted to come and sit across from her and stare silently at her for an extended period of time, while she stared silently back.  Some people sat for minutes, some for hours.  That's it.  It sounds ridiculous, but it was actually astonishing.  She sat still, day after day, all day long, for a total of 736 hours.  Her goal was to create a space in which she and each guest were open and vulnerable and genuine to each other--where each person felt as if the artist had been fully present to them.

When she first proposed the idea to the museum, no one--including her--knew if it would work or if it would be a disaster.  The assumption of all involved was that she would spend most of her time sitting alone and staring at an empty chair, with only the occasional bold soul coming and sitting down.  But almost immediately there were long lines of people at the exhibit waiting to sit across from her, and then lines out the door and down the street.  People were camping out on the sidewalk overnight for an opportunity to be silently present with her.  People traveled long distances.  In the course of three months over 750,000 people waited in line in hopes of sitting across from Marina Abramovic. 

The beautiful cinematography of the documentary film captures the reactions of visitors as they sat across from her.  Quite often they broke into tears, as she patiently held their gaze (a few photos can be seen at the website Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry).  Sometimes she cried also. 

It is easy to mock artistic endeavors of this type.  Was it art?  I don't know, but it did affect people deeply and reveal something powerful:  People crave to be seen, not just acknowledged, but really seen.

A few years ago I learned about a New Age holy man named Braco the Gazer.  I wrote at the time, "People pay $8.00 to stand in a room with a bunch of other people and have Braco stare at them for 10 minutes. He doesn't speak, he only stares. People claim to have been healed, received peace, been comforted, etc. at these 'gazing sessions.' ... It is easy to ridicule the whole thing and write Braco off as a charlatan or worse, but I'm less interested in him and more interested in the people who come to him. What draws them to want to stand in a room with others to look at him and have him look back at them? ... Maybe it isn't about Braco at all, but about the collective yearning in the hearts of the people who come to be gazed upon."
"Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity" wrote Simone Weil.  To receive someone's (even a stranger's, even an odd-ball performance artist's, even a nutty New Age healer's) undivided time and attention is such a precious and life-giving thing.  In our culture of distraction and busyness this gift is more rare and beautiful than ever.  First and foremost, it requires the expenditure of patience.  I am reminded that in the list of traits that characterize love, given in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul begins with "Love is patient..."  Patience signifies love.  Giving our patience, our time, our attention, is kenotic (self-emptying) in that it requires a letting go and giving over of our most precious commodities.

Through contemplative spiritual practices I am learning to sit silently with God: to lovingly gaze upon and be lovingly gazed upon; to engage in what Jesuit theologian Walter Burghardt described as “a long, loving look at the real.”  This has gradually awakened in me a desire to endeavor to be fully present to whomever I am with--as a gift to them, to God and to myself.  This is what I aspire to. 

A synopsis of The Artist Is Present can be viewed here:

Marina Abramovic on The Artist Is Present (2010) from Marina Abramovic Institute on Vimeo.


Post a Comment

<< Home