Forays into Performance Art: Sitting with Maria Abramović | Kristen Hutchinson

Dr. Kristen Hutchinson is a contract instructor in Art History at the University of Alberta and a visual artist and independent curator. She co-founded the artist/curator collective fast & dirty.

For the duration of her retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), from March 14 until May 31, 2010, Marina Abramović sat on a wooden chair every day during the hours the museum was open. The performance, titled The Artist is Present, garnered much public attention and press, enacting elements that have been integral to Abramović’s artist practice since she began doing performance art pieces in the 1970s: duration, endurance, silence, and a focus upon viewer interaction and participation.1 What follows is a reflection upon my personal experience of Abramović’s The Artist is Present performance.

Entering the mezzanine of MOMA on April 16, I was delighted to see people waiting in line to get their chance to sit across from the well-known performance artist. Having chosen to learn as little as possible in advance about the performance, I was unaware of who was permitted to enter the demarked space where Abramović sat, or whether it was the artist or the visitor who determined the length of the stay in the chair across from her. Before my trip to New York, I had decided that if anyone could sit with her, I was determined to do so. With this in mind, I entered the line and sat down on the cold concrete floor; I remained in line for four and a half hours.

Each participant could sit across from Abramović for as long as she or he chose, thus making it impossible to know when your turn would come. Every participant was recorded with a photograph.2 The process of waiting in line became an important part of the piece.  The conversations that occurred between me and the other waiting participants made the waiting bearable and gave us time to discuss the piece amongst ourselves.  Beside me was a Chilean performance artist who had recently moved to New York and this was her third time participating in the piece. On the other side of me were two women from Greece and a British woman who had travelled to New York together. Beside the Chilean woman was a writer from the New York Post who wrote article about his participation in the piece. In this article, Reed Tucker interviews Camille Announ, who we watched sitting with Abramović for ninety minutes.3 We called the participant interviewed by Tucker “the angry guy” because he sat with his arms firmly crossed and waves of hostility appeared to emanate off his body. If people sat for too long, others in the line became restless and began making negative judgements about what was perceived as overly prolonged participation.

The day dragged on, and it was finally the New York Post journalist’s turn. “Only two more people until my turn,” I told myself. I began to get very nervous. The enclosure around Abramović, demarked by a line of tape and four huge bright lights, was large and hundreds of people milled around the space throughout the day. You could not enter into the performance space unless you were going to sit across from the artist, and I had seen a number of people whisked away by security guards during the day for wandering into the enclosure. I tried to calm my nerves by reminding myself that I had participated in performance art pieces before, including a six-hour performance at the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, Alberta, and a twelve-hour performance in one of the lobbies at the Epcor Centre of Performing Arts in Calgary, Alberta. Because it was nearing closing time, I promised the three women sitting in the line after me that I would make my stay brief, so they too would get a chance. I intended to sit there for five to ten minutes.

When it was finally my turn, the security guard told me the rules, which was unnecessary, since I had heard him repeat them to other participants; nevertheless, I listened and nodded my head: You are not allowed to speak, you have to remain in the chair, you cannot put your hands up on the table, and you cannot bring anything with you. Between participants, Abramović would a break for about a minute to stretch in the chair and close her eyes. As she raised her head, I was allowed to enter into the space. It was the end of the day, and it had been a particularly long one for Abramović, since she had been there for a little under nine hours. Her eyes looked red and tired. The New York Postjournalist had told me that he didn’t feel that she acknowledged his presence at all, as if she wasn’t even there. However, I did not find that to be true of my experience.

One does not usually sit across from someone and stare at her or him without speaking for a long period of time, and at first, I was a little unsettled by this lack of verbal communication. Secondly, I was a little star struck.  “I am sitting across from Marina Abramović,” I kept telling myself over and over in my head. As a contemporary art historian, I had taught her work to my students many times, and my recent forays into performance art had made me admire her even more. I thought that I would be overly aware of being watched by the crowds that continually mill around the perimeters of the performance space, but this was not the case. I was struck by how tired she looked and thus found myself trying to consciously send her positive energy, and then it felt as if energy was being sent back to me. I began to understand why so many people had cried while sitting across from her, or had sat there for hours on end because it was, to my surprise, quite a profound experience in that you become completely present in that moment.  Perhaps it was the waiting, or the atmosphere, or the simple act of just looking at someone and trying to communicate without words, but everything except that wordless communication faded away. Time became irrelevant and despite being surrounded by crowds, I was entirely focused upon looking intently at just one other person.  This kind of focus is not an experience one typically gets to have in everyday life. When I finally pried myself away, a surprisingly difficult task, I was told by the women behind me in the line that I had sat there for over twenty minutes. I was shocked, as I had lost all track of time, and it was only remembering the promise that I made to them that had got me out of that chair. I went to stand with the onlookers; some people came up to me to ask me what it had been like.

After looking at my photograph on the MOMA website several days later, I discovered that it was day thirty-three of Abramović’s performance, when I walked into the enclosed, overly-lit space to sit across a wooden table from this artist whom I deeply respect. The website also informed me that I had sat there for twenty-six minutes. Abramović would continue to sit there, every day, all day, for another month and a half.

Kristen Hutchinson sitting with Maria Abramović; Photo by Karen Alexander

Endnotes

1 For press about Abramović’s The Artist is Present performance, and further information about Abramović’s oeuvre, see Holland Cotter, “Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present: Performance Art Preserved, in the Flesh.” The New York Times, March 11, 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/12/arts/design/12abromovic.html; Brian Holmes, “The Artist is Present.” May 26, 2010: http://turbulence.org/blog/2010/05/29/the-artist-is-present-marina-abramovic-online; and Arthur Danto, et. al. Marina Abramović: The Artist is Present. exh. cat. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2010.

2 Images of the participants and information about Abramović’s performance can be viewed at: http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2010/marinaabramovic/

3 Reed Tucker, “Stare Wars.” New York Post, April 20, 2010: http://www.nypost.com/p/entertainment/theater/stare_wars_eLv0V0EJ2IZoWZxY64BTWL