As I browsed through her past exhibits/performances displayed at the MoMA during my brief trip to NYC this week, I suddenly realized that to dedicate one’s life wholly to art necessarily meant never to be happy. And this is what I saw, in some sense, in Marina Abramovic: the absence, perhaps futility, of happiness when one’s entire being must become art, must become a vessel for the physical, emotional, and psychological boundaries of the human, for the human species.
What Abramovic has accomplished is astounding. She has fundamentally changed the landscape of performance art–or perhaps changed is the wrong word. Rather, she has appropriated it to embody her. Our generation’s artist, our generation’s art, must be her, and it is difficult, if near impossible, to imagine how the next great artist (as, indeed, there must–and surely will–be one) will push beyond what Abramovic has done.
This latest exhibit at the MoMA is aptly titled, “The Artist Is Present.” And so she is. She sits at the center of a cordoned off square space in a main atrium of the building, and individuals are invited to come sit with her, in front of her, for as long as they like. She seems almost otherworldly, transcendent, and decidedly present: she exudes an artistry that brutally unmasks the facade pretension of the budding art students that strut around the space, flipping open their sketchbooks to publicly journal or draw this experience as they await their turn to sit with the artist who, they hope, will imbue upon them some sort of creative blessing.
In fact, what the artist’s presence seems to reveal, and likely inadvertently emphasize, are the all-too-human motivations and behaviors of those who desire to sit at the center of the square: those impatient for their turn, those who take too long, those who want to be documented, those who crave their fifteen minutes of fame. But also, albeit rarer, those who seem to seek something, those who want to pay tribute, and those who have returned to her from some moment in her past, to say, thank you, or perhaps, I’m sorry.
And the artist, thus, becomes audience. She is present, yes, to engage with her audience. They sit in front of her, one by one, her audience, but suddenly her equal. And she calmly, silently, views each one of them, in turn. She is present, yes, perhaps too present, as is the toll it takes on her. Between “visitors,” she closes her eyes, visibly drained, bows her head, sometimes kneels completely onto the floor, and does not, will not, or cannot look up at her next visitor until she must.
But perhaps even more she is presently waiting. She is present, now, and waiting for the past to catch up with her. She puts everything into viewing each visitor, but what, if anything, do they mean to her? Rather, for whom might she be waiting?