I had never wanted to travel just to sit across someone in complete silence until I heard about Marina Abramović’s grand retrospective, currently ongoing at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. As fascinating as I find the most extreme of her works – ingesting medication for catatonia and schizophrenia to induce radical effects on the body and a ritualistic game of five-finger fillet among them – what truly transfixes me is her newest installation, “The Artist Is Present”. Abramović, in a single braid and an operatic dress of red, navy blue or white, sits in silence and looks at whoever wants to take the chair opposite her. Members of the public are welcome to participate. When the exhibit ends this month, she would have done this almost every day, during museum hours, for eleven weeks.
It could be argued that this is the least sensational or vulnerable of her productions. It does not endanger her physically, as most of her earlier works have done, or invade her privacy (by comparison, take the 2002 installation in which she spent twelve days in a gallery structure, exposing every moment of her life to onlookers), but it is probably her most revelatory. Its effects on participants have been profound. The Internet is full of images of those who weep as they sit across the artist and look her in the eye. Juxtapose this work against an early piece in which she remained passive for hours, inviting spectators to have their way with her using 72 instruments of pleasure and torture: Marina Abramović has long proven that she gives herself without limits to her art and her audience. But this is by far her most spiritually generous act – the invitation to be borne witness to. And for this reason, it is her magnum opus.
For an artist in the modern world – working in any discipline – it is becomingly increasingly difficult to make a lasting impact. Celebrity as we know it today is remarkably easy to achieve, and it’s become increasingly clear that “art” is tailored to suit our shrinking attention spans. Forget entertainment (which has its uses); we are in the age of distraction: anything to keep the viewer from switching tabs or channels. To be shocking or controversial is easy – too easy. To shake a person to their core, however, is a far more elusive reaction.
And so this is why I have been entranced by Abramović’s installation. The artist at the height of her powers, returning to her audience the gaze which it has trained on her for forty years, and thus becoming the artist as redemptrix. She has taken that common creative conceit of “witnessing the world” to the only level at which it truly matters – the individual, the smallest detail in a crowd.
As a writer who frequents the stage, this is meaningful for me both in terms of presence – personal elemental force – as well as absence. Language as distance, language as defense, language as disguise. Stripped of how we choose to present our inner workings, through speech, text or movement, what remains? What would get communicated anyway? If I sat before you and said (if only in my head), I myself am my poem – what would happen? Would you hear it, or see it, or most importantly, feel it anyway?
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.