Currently on the sixth floor of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the museum is presenting "The Artist Is Present," a retrospective of work by the Yugoslavian performance artist Marina Abramovic.
There is a busy room providing pictures and videos that make up a cacophonous visual biography -- here Abramovic
is eating a raw onion, there she is with a snake on her head -- and there are the interactive pieces.
In addition to the live nude performers (many of whom have complained about inappropriate advances by museum-goers
), these works help a viewer move from the visual sphere and closer into Abramovic's mind.
This experience of the artist and her work, of course, can only communicate so much, and on the atrium level is Abramovic
herself, silently seated within a large cleared square, with football-stadium-style lighting set high up around the quiet enclosure, eliminating shadows.
A chair is set across from her, and anyone is invited to sit, likewise silently, and stare. Visitors to "The Artist Is Present" start queuing before the museum opens and patiently wait hours to accomplish this.
However, the experience "is much more than a staring contest," noted Dimitri, seated on line next to me during my more recent visit.
A graphic designer and photographer from New Jersey who'd come ready to wait for the day, Dimitri became interested in "The Artist Is Present" after seeing the live cam online, and subsequently creating his own version with screengrabs.
Dorel, a New Yorker who'd also been waiting since the museum opened that day, was visiting with her 16-year-old daughter. She too was sucked in by the web cam, which her daughter had shown her. It was her third visit to the show. The first, she said, was overwhelming, and on the second visit her daughter was "the one who kind of got it." Now she was back again, but with a bad sunburn, so unsure whether she'd endure the wait for an actual audience with the artist.
What is it about this woman in a chair? In New York City each day, millions of people sit across from other perfect strangers on subway trains. Here,
doing just that, the viewers often start to cry
. Like the woman shown here; it took her 189 minutes before she broke down in tears. Though others crack much sooner.
And they all wait in line to do so.
The sitting becomes part of the experience.
I found myself staring at Abramovic from afar, in her long white gown and powerful side braid, wondering trivial thoughts that slowly built up and ran around my brain: Was she beautiful?
I couldn't decide. I guess all faces look the same
, I thought then, two eyes, a nose and a mouth
. Do they look the same to her? Does she have face nausea from looking at too many people?
Sometimes, I noticed, she would close her eyes and bow her head, inducing the current fellow sitter to leave.
Did that mean she was tired of that particular person!?
Or maybe she was just trying to egalitarianize the line.
(There were rumors of a woman who had warmed the chair across from Abramovic for a full seven hours. Hello, therapy!)
With no answer for my own thoughts during the first visit, I started talking to the patient people waiting around me – Kevin, 36, was visiting from Rhode Island and was, like most people I talked to, prepared to stay until closing time. For him, the waiting was part of it – "I've been to MoMA a ton of times, and I've never sat and just people watched, and contemplated," he told me. Abramovic, it seems -- by inducing viewers to watch her -- has also led them to notice each other more.
Of course, there are always exceptions.
It was on my second visit, still trying to take my rightful turn in front of the artist, when Isabella Rossellini arrived
-- and was promptly ushered in front of the masses for her tête-à-tête. Surprisingly, I wasn't jealous -- or seething. From having spent so much time observing, it was clear that making it into the chair was only one aspect of the piece, and, in her rush, Rossellini may have missed out on one of the most fundamental, and more importantly, rewarding aspects of the work.
For my part, though I never got to stare deep into her eyes, thanks to
, I studied faces more carefully all the way home. The features, the emotions. The sameness of us all. And the not-sameness, too. Just by sitting, with an empty chair serving as an invite,
had turned the world into a living museum for the rest of us.
Susannah Edelbaum lives in Brooklyn. She's covered gallery shows for Art Cat and more gallery shows, plus fun fashion stuff, for Gen Art Pulse.