Bringing Yourself to Art

"The Artist is Present" A viewer sitting with Marina Abramovic at MoMA - New York

Performance art is a difficult art media to understand — one which people may be less comfortable with or familiar with, than say visual art. Marina Abramovic, perhaps one of the most well-known performance artists who began her work with the emergence of the form in the 1970’s and ’80’s, is exhibiting at MoMA in a work entitled “The Artist is Present”.

In this work, she simply sits in a chair. Across from her is an empty chair in which viewers can sit for as long as they like. Some viewers sit for 5 minutes, some sit all day. A camera crew is present to photograph these viewers, many of whom are very emotional; some cry and others show extreme anguish). This is striking. What can possibly be so interesting about Marina’s face, her hair, her body, her expression?

It appears that she takes on a luminescence, that she somehow is able to look through the viewer. In interacting with others, we usually have their full attention — there is engagement. This performance art seems to keep the art on display and the viewer distanced, yet I wonder if Marina’s movements or changing facial expressions reflect the viewer’s response? After all, aren’t they also reacting to the piece and being photographed as the art? In essence, is the viewer actually part of the art? And is the title of her show “The Artist is Present” yet another clue that may allude to the viewer also being the artist?

The photos that the photographer has taken of these viewers are surely fascinating to look at, and cause me to wonder if indeed they will, in the future, be an accompanying piece to any writeup or essay on this exhibition, where the viewer is artist…



  1. I attended the Abramovic show twice during its run, and wrote about it on my blog. I did not sit with Marina – didn’t have the patience to wait on line for hours – but I did observe some of those who did. My theory on why so many people cried or experienced strong emotions is this: It’s the eye contact. Marina Abramovic does have a certain charisma, and an intensity born of a lifetime of pushing her own boundaries of endurance and concentration. On one hand her performance at the MoMA retrospective was an act of endurance like what David Blaine does. But it wasn’t just about sitting for 700 hours. With each person who sat with her, she maintained silence, steady eye contact, and full attention for as long as they returned the same. The experience of sustained eye contact is intimate, unsettling, and rare. I am sure that most people seldom experience more than a few moments of steady eye contact even from their closest companions. I believe most people often feel that they are invisible, insignificant, or completely alone in the universe. To be engaged with steady eye contact not only makes one hyper-aware of one’s own presence in relation to the other, it also strips away one’s mask, penetrating the defenses of deflection. These strategies we use to hide from others also allow us to hide from ourselves. Making eye contact with another switches on a circuit. As when an electrical contact is made and the energy begins to flow, when eye contact is made and held, the emotional energy flows. Marina offered people eye contact in a setting where there were no expectations. The “art” context removed the experience from the realm of religion or psychology or sexuality, made it clean and simple. Whatever people had bottled up came bubbling out.

    1. Hi Fred,

      I went back and re-read your blog post on the Abramovic exhibit and it and your comments here brought up two thoughts for me: 1) reinforced the idea that while we are intent on watching a physical act in the performance art, there’s some underlying dynamic going on – that as you quote Abramovic “presence rises and falls”. That just as the performance morphs (even if it does only very slightly) that we can’t help but respond emotionally to these fluctuations. Interesting that we are a captive audience, and that the performance artist is able to solicit a broader range of reactions from the viewer than a static piece. 2) even though performance art is in motion, it seems to me that the more still the piece, the more we have the time/inclination to wonder about it, think deeply about it. I suppose that in fast-moving or pieces intent on quick-stimulus, we as viewer might become confused, awestruck, and unable to process what exactly the point of the piece is. In reading articles that detailed audience reactions to Abramovic, some people were very emotional, as if the less the object moved/acted/reacted, the more it required action/reaction on the part of the viewer. Perhaps we are uncomfortable with this imbalance, and seek to balance it by becoming more reactionary. I’m not sure I’d say this is the case in viewing all “slow” art, though, as when I view a pastoral piece I sink right in line with its calm. Abramovic’s steady stare erupted a heightened nervousness in the viewer that spawned heightened sensitivity.

      I like how you bring up the concept that Abramovic created a space of no expectations. This does bring the viewer to bear – that they may have reacted differently to Abramovic on Day One vs. Day Ten, depending on what emotionally was going on in their lives.

      So great to hear from you, Fred!

      1. Try asking a friend to hold steady eye contact with you for ten minutes, and see what you feel. I’ll bet emotions will arise!

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