Marina Abramavic & Witnessing

Last spring I had the opportunity to see The Artist is Present, a new work at the MOMA by performance artist, Marina Abramavic. The piece involved a taped off square in the atrium, surrounded by lights and a camera crew. Within the square, Marina sat in a simple, wooden chair. Across from her was an identical wooden chair, where anyone could choose to sit with her. From March 14th through May 31st, Marina sat for all the hours that the MOMA was open, with whomever sat across from her. Over the course of 736 hours and 30 minutes, she looked into 1,565 pairs of eyes.

Many of the reviews of the exhibit had emphasized the lack of movement, in sitting still. The audio tour and wall hangings in the exhibit also emphasized this idea of stillness. Even Marina asked the participant to find a comfortable position and sit still. But I saw so much movement everywhere. There was movement all around the space: people waiting, some restless, some captivated, some jostling in line, and others sitting on the floor.

Immediately upon walking into the atrium, I was struck with emotion. The whole square was surrounded by people waiting to have a chance to sit. I was blown away by how many people desire to be seen, yet it was easy to see what was so compelling about sitting with her. This was a chance to have someone really see you. She was sitting with a young man when I entered and my eyes were immediately drawn to the pair of them in the square. The two people sitting in the chairs were not still. I observed movement in their breath and small movements throughout the whole time they sat together.

The young man began with an overly confident look on his face, as if daring the artist to connect with him. In time, it seemed that Marina did connect with him. His breath changed. I saw his belly heave with a huge breath as he began to nod slowly and gently, while looking into the artist’s eyes. His posture softened, and his breathing normalized. He seemed to collect himself. He got up as what appeared to be a changed man.

In Marina’s discussion of her intention with the exhibit, she used vocabulary that we are familiar with in dance/movement therapy. She challenged herself to be present in the here and now with another person. This is something that is so rarely pursued and achieved in our society. The impact of her presence was powerful. People waited hours and hours to sit with her, receive her gaze, and be present with her.

I looked through the portrait photography that captured each visitor that sat with her. It was clear that many people were moved by the experience with her. Many people in the portraits are tearful and many came back for more. There was no time limit to how long or how often a visitor could choose to sit with her. One person sat all day and another sat 14 times.

Seeing this exhibit reminded me of what we do in dance/movement therapy and how much people need it. Like Marina, we intend to be present with another person, in the here and now, attending to them, attuning to them. Sometimes this can include large movement and space, and sometimes it can be as small as two people sitting across from each other. The attunement between Marina and the visitor could be seen in the breath, the gaze, and the shifts. She chose to do small movements such as placing her hand on her heart, leaning forward, shifting back, and these movements made an impact on the person across from her. We work with these tools, these skills, every day, and we can also make an impact by being artists, by being present. Laurel Crawford

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