The Artist is Present

On Saturday, I led a morning workshop of mindful writing (or “Write Mindfulness”) at the Katonah Library.   I had doubts about offering another one just two months after the last.   But the rich, “live” material people that people share is always new.   The key it seems (at least for now) is being willing to receive the inner and outer impressions that are always being offered.   One person told me he hit a wall, just went blank, during certain exercises.  It’s taken what seems like a thousand years, but I’ve come to see that this hard place can turn out to be a gateway.   A very important story and/or source of “juice” can sometimes be buried under such a rock.  The key (for me anyway) is to very gently investigate, circle the rock on tiptoe,  interview it very politely: What are you protecting?  What forbidden feelings or wildly contrarian views?  Could be really juicy and real.

When it was done, I  went  to the Museum of Modern Art to see the performance artist Marina Abramovic perform her longest and possibly her most challenging work to date.  “The Artist is Present” strives to make an art form out of that state that so many of us seek in the privacy of prayer or on the meditation cushion, and in the communal privacy of meditation halls, churches, and mosques.  The raven-haired Serbian artist is seated at a wooden table in an atrium and visitors are allowed to take turns sitting across from her for as long as they want, “becoming participants in the artwork rather than remaining spectators. ”   Wearing a long red Mortia-Adams-looking gown, Abramovic maintains a soft gaze and fixed pose no matter how briefly or how long a person sits opposite her (the guard monitoring the line of people waiting for their turn told me that one day four people held her gaze all day).   This ” art work” is meant  to distort “the line between everyday routine and ceremony; positioned in the vast atrium within a square of light, the familiar configuration of a table and chair has been elevated to another domain.”

Has it?  The reactions I heard ranged from a person scoffing “Narcissism!” and walking away to others marveling how anyone could go day after day for months just sitting, not eating, not going to the bathrooms.  The friend I went with was enthralled.   I was interested but my heart wasn’t touched. My mind kept floating back to the people who had hours earlier dared to sit quietly together in a library, allowing themselves to be present body, heart, and mind, and sharing from there.    What was missing in “The Artist is Present” for me was any indication of real vulnerability.   I felt she had gone deep inside herself, like a prisoner–she even had the days of her show marked off on a white wall like a prisoner.  I want to dare to be free.

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”

— C.S. Lewis (The Four Loves)

4 thoughts on “The Artist is Present

  1. Tracy,

    Your impressions of “The Artist is Present” has the ring of truth and for me is very sad. The title says ‘present’ and my understanding of what you say is that in fact she wasn’t there.

  2. Tracy,
    There is so much in your piece that spoke to me. Thankyou for the “investigation” questions that probe and pierce our resistance to writing some thing down. I love getting to the source or etiology of something and really like inquiry as a path. Although I missed this second session , I felt I was present and visulaized the class that morning.
    I took a virtual journey through some of the interviews of Marina Abramovic and today I watched “live video” on and off for 30 minutes.Surely a stunning women with great training in concentration and perfomance capabilities. Is it really such a fine line we walk…presence or perfomance??
    Of course I was not the one looking into her eyes or she mine today but I could not “trust” the deep knowing of another as self in this staged situation. A test of minds, a challange to win, I vs. you.
    The short exchanges that I have done in workshops facing a stranger, looking in their eyes for even 10-15 minutes has produced deep remembering of our connected threads. First the fears, resisitance, tensions flake away and then the melting and feeling the oneness of the person sitting across from me , their eyes the entrance to their heart(soul, spirit, om). I cannot judge what is happening for those sitting at the table , on display. I suspect their somehing is being exchanged and felt..
    I lived with 2 llams(as in llama glama, the south american camelid)for 8 years or so. They have a visual acuity…each eye working indepentently. THey knew I was not a predator but could stay focused on me in an awesome stare for 15 minutes , when I would leave. It felt like the world could be seen throught the pools of their beautiful eyes. An if one has had the gift of sitting darshan with mother meera, the feeling and findings in the eye contact is long lasting, not to be forgotten.
    well, no conclusion on this except that art, creativity, perfomance, and presence are all dynamic situations , not a single event.

    1. Hi Judy:

      Your comment are very touching and interesting. I do feel there is a connection between seeing and being seen–or between truly seeing and being willing to be seen. In the writing workshop, we experimented briefly with sketching another person and being sketched, noting how it felt to really see also to submit to be seen. It revealed how often I feel the opposite of the performance artist impulse–wishing to be invisible, the proverbial fly on the wall. But slowly I begin to see that it is only by allowing myself to be seen as I am that I am free. It feels like coming out of hiding, like surrendering a fear of being harshly judged. And it can even be deeper. I remember reading somewhere that Meister Eckhart wrote (I’m paraphrasing) that the eye that sees God is the eye in which God sees me. You make me want to study Marina Abramovic a bit more closely–but those llamas seem even more touching. I agree with you very much, art, creativity, performance, and presence are all dynamic situations, and not at all separate from one another. Art can be a means to be present…if a person is sincere about investigating and not just “putting on a show.” Thanks for the insights! Peace, Tracy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.