“People don’t understand that the hardest thing is to actually do something which is close to nothing. It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell. There’s no objects to hide behind. There’s nothing there, just you—pure presence. You have to rely on your own energy and nothing else.”
When was the last time you really looked at a person? I don’t mean just looked at their face. I mean looked into them, looked into their eyes, gave them that level of your attention? It’s terrifying, isn’t it?
I watched Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present (click here to buy the DVD), the documentary about the artist Marina Abramović, for maybe the 5th time yesterday. I still can’t make it through the film without shedding a few tears. Have you seen it? If you haven’t, you should. The first time I watched it, I cried during almost the entire movie. I’m not sure why. Maybe just seeing other people cry makes me cry (you see a lot of different people crying in the film). But I think it is more than that. Knowing that people are capable of being so deeply moved by eye contact comforts me in a way I don’t fully understand. Maybe I take comfort in knowing that this level of human connection is still sacred, that people cherish it, that people feel the pain of its lack in their lives.
The documentary follows Marina Abramović as she prepares for and then performs in her three month retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She enlists a group of young artists to recreate pieces she has performed throughout her career for the show while she performs one new piece titled The Artist is Present. The set up is simple. She sits in a chair facing an empty chair. When someone from the audience comes to sit in front of her, she lifts her head to make eye contact with them. That’s it. She simply looks at them for as long as they sit in front of her. They leave. She lowers her head. In the film, her assistant explains why Abramović lowers her head after each person leaves. He describes the act as a kind of cleansing, “It reconnect[s] and it’s only for you so each and every one has a clean, unique, and personal contact with Marina.”
Abramović does away with artistic evocation and forces the audience irrevocably into the center of artistic experience. Such direct and unflinching communication elicits an intriguing range of emotions from the audience. Some people cry, some look angry or defensive, some look like her gaze is the sweetest thing they have ever experienced.
In one of the most touching moments in the film, we see a young boy, maybe 11 or 12 years old, break down after sitting with Abramović. He appears to be crying as he crouches near a bannister. His mother bends down to comfort him, to ask what is the matter. Seeing that her son is overtaken with emotion after his experience, she too begins to cry. “I’m just so proud of you,” she says. It is an incredibly beautiful moment. It is beautiful to see that even a child can recognize that something powerful and perhaps unusual has happened to him in the simple act of looking and being looked at. It is beautiful to see how touched his mother is to know that her child was deeply moved.
Despite the range of expressions we see on the faces of the audience, it is clear that they share one thing: they are deeply moved. As Abramović expresses in the film,
“There’s so many different reasons why people come to sit in front of me. Some of them they’re angry, some of them they’re curious, some of them just want to know what happens, some of them, they’re really open and you feel incredible pain. So many people have so much pain. When they are sitting in front of me, it’s not about me anymore. Very soon I’m just the mirror of their own self.”
I wonder why I cry watching the film, but more importantly I wonder why people cry sitting in front of her. What is it about eye contact—this kind of focus on the face-to-face connection—that causes such intense reactions in people? People became obsessed with Abramović, sometimes waiting outside the museum all night just to sit in front of her. As the art critic Arthur Danto notes,
“Somebody told me the other day that for most masterpieces, people stand in front of it for 30 seconds. Mona Lisa, 30 seconds. People come and sit here all day.”
What is it about Abramović’s work that people find so compelling, so moving, so riveting that they are willing to stay all day and night just to sit and make eye contact with her? One man even went so far as to tattoo the number of times he sat in front of Abramović on his arm (21), explaining that after the first time he sat in front of her “everything happened.”
Marc Rothko once said of his own work, “The people who weep before my pictures are having the same religious experience I had when I painted them.” I have had deeply emotional experiences in front of Rothko paintings, but I have never cried. I’m sure some people have. But I suspect more people cried sitting in front of Marina Abramović or, like me, cried just seeing the film. Assuming Rothko is correct about the reason people weep in front of his paintings, perhaps something similar is going on when people cry in front of Abramović.
If a painting is capable of bringing the artist and the viewer into a common field, a space of shared emotion, it can only do so if the viewer approaches it with an openness. Making eye contact with a person is the same. To really look at someone, we must be open to stepping out of our own insular world of thoughts and memories and emotions. We must enter into a new kind of space, a shared space comprising some mixture of their world and our world. To look into another person, we must make ourselves vulnerable, allowing ourselves to be seen more fully than we are used to. We expose some sliver of the usually secret side of our existence to them. But we also join the other person in their world. In returning the gaze, we are asked to confront their emotional landscape with all the pain, joy, confusion, or anger they may harbor. Sitting in front of Abramović, I imagine people feel the combined effects of being truly looked at (with all the fear and relief that may bring) and sharing in a part of Abramović’s own world and experience.
This kind of intense contact and connection with the other demands an extreme amount of exposure and vulnerability from both parties. But it also requires a presence we are not accustomed to maintaining in our busy, distraction-riddled world. Performance art, Abramović explains, “is all about state of mind”. When you stop to look at someone, when you take the time to deeply encounter their infinite incomprehensibility, there is nothing left but you, your pure presence. The question is, can we manage to stay present enough to look at someone and connect with someone this way? Indeed, this kind of sustained presence is what Abramović describes as the goal of performance art,
“The idea is how you can bring performer and the audience in the same state of consciousness here and now.”
It is rare that we have time to stop and truly connect with someone, to truly look at someone, to expose ourselves to them and allow them the space to expose their world to us. Perhaps this is why a work of art that takes this kind of shared exposure as its central theme strikes people as profoundly significant. As Klaus Biesenbach, curator at the MOMA observes, “She’s treating every human being she encounters with the same attention and same respect. That’s pretty shocking.”
Exposure, vulnerability, allowing ourselves to be seen are, as Brene Brown taught us, the roots of human connection and a necessary ingredient for love. We want to be seen because we want to be loved. We want to feel like people know us and accept us, accept all the features of our emotional landscape and experience, accept our ultimately mysterious and contradictory nature. But we are also terrified of being seen because we know that with exposure comes the risk of painful rejection. So we hide. We move about our day lost in our own thoughts, hurrying from one distracting experience to another. We do not truly see the people around us as people. We do not truly look at the person working at the check out counter at the grocery store. We may make eye contact, but it is almost like making eye contact with a painting or a photograph. We do not look into them, opening the channel so that they too can gaze back at us, see us. We couldn’t. It would overwhelm us to constantly expose ourselves and be exposed to other people in this kind of raw way. There is pain in that kind of intensity. As we go about our day protecting ourselves from this raw emotional intensity, are we also slowly habituating ourselves to avoid truly looking at people?
What do we risk by protecting ourselves this way? What do we risk losing by failing to connect over and over? When we avoid encountering the other with the kind of openness that lies at the heart of The Artist is Present—when we avoid allowing space in ourselves for another person’s complexity to fill us and even overwhelm us—we may risk losing the fundamental experience that lies at the heart of morality. What moral obligation do you have to a shell of a person whose complexity you deny by refusing to look into them?
What would happen if we allowed ourselves to be exposed to the pain we avoid? Reflecting on her experience of the piece, Abramović says,
“There is pain, but the pain is like a kind of secret. The moment you really go through the door of pain you enter to another state of mind. This feeling of beauty and unconditional love. This feeling of there is no kind of borders between your body and environment. And you start having this incredible feeling of lightness and harmony with yourself. It’s something…like holy. I can’t really explain.”
In this case she is speaking about the physical pain of sitting in one position for so long. But I wonder if the same is not true for emotional pain. If we brave the pain of allowing ourselves to be naked and open and vulnerable with people, to show them our world and to take on the responsibility of looking into theirs with the same kind of openness and respect, will we not emerge on the other side into something…holy?