I first became aware of Marina Abramović this past summer. I was in Oregon, in the woods with my closest friends, taking part in a workshop encouraging us to somehow become even closer. We sat down across from each other in pairs, listening to tidbits about Abramović’s life, waiting to begin.
Marina Abramović is a performance artist, essentially working to make “a stage for the audience.” Active for over three decades, the Serbian artist has been described as the “grandmother of performance art,” pioneering a new notion of art by inviting observers to participate, and focusing on “confronting pain, blood, and physical limits of the body.”
Viewers become part of the art, and the art helps us look at ourselves more than we usually feel comfortable with. In 2012, she elevated this concept and performed a show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City called “The Artist Is Present.”
The Artist Is Present, a three month long, static, silent piece, consisted of Abramović sitting in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her. That’s it: the piece was comprised entirely of her staring into the eyes of the person who happened to take a seat across from her.
The two most common reactions to sitting across from Abramović were laughter and tears. In my microcosm of performance art in Oregon, the reactions of my friends were similar. I hadn’t been introduced to this type of art before, and allowing myself to experience it made me realize the importance of an open mind in order to connect. It’s a profound moment to have uninterrupted, silent, sincere intimacy with someone.
After I got back from my trip, I ended up watching the movie named after the exhibit, showcasing Abramovic’s life. This was an entirely different experience. For the first time, I saw Abramović’s face and heard her voice. I watched the intensity and genuine love she channeled into her art.
The Artist Is Present offers up a complete anthology of Abramović’s work. In 1973, she performed “Rhythm 0,” making use of twenty knives and two tape recorders. She played the Russian game in which rhythmic knife jabs are aimed between the splayed fingers of one’s hand.
Each time she cut herself, she would pick up a new knife. After cutting herself twenty times, she replayed the tape, listened to the sounds, and tried to repeat the same movements, attempting to replicate the mistakes, merging past and present.
In 1988, after several years of tense relations, Abramović and partner Ulay decided to make a spiritual journey which would end their relationship. They each walked the Great Wall of China, in a piece called “The Lovers,” starting from the two opposite ends and meeting in the middle.
In contrast, “The Artist Is Present” is quiet. It’s a piece of art that anyone can take part in. My advice is this: if you watch the film, don’t make any immediate judgments. Abramović invites us to keep an open mind. The importance of Abramović’s work is not determined by judgments regarding our reaction to it; rather, the work succeeds by evoking something in us that is beyond judgment.
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