An Essay about Marina Abramovic at the MoMA in New York City, New York

The Power of Silence: A Chance Encounter with Marina Abramovic's 'The Artist is Present' at MoMA

The first half of my life I always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. I happened upon the best opportunities and experiences, almost like I was drawn to them. I would wander into the day and wherever I was things were happening. I’ve stumbled upon free concerts, interesting people and friendships, art collectives and markets, job offers, etc. I resonated with confidence and optimistic vibes and was met with like returns. One morning, I was walking the streets of New York City and walked the MoMA. The museum featured a Tim Burton exhibit showcasing drawings, figurines, animation, and models, encompassing his entire career before 2010; everything from Edward Scissorhands to Charlie and the Chocolate FactoryThe Nightmare Before Christmas to Mars Attacks!

I was walking through the museum and stepped into a large open, dimly lit room with off-white painted walls and dark grey granite tiled floors. A small crowd formed a border at the center of which was a small, simple wood table between two matching chairs. A woman with jet-black hair twisted and hanging loose over her left shoulder wearing a long, flowing red dress that obscured her feet, sat across from a man with long enough salt and pepper hair and a beard. He wore a black suit, red tie, and original high-top Converse shoes. The woman and the man sat with their hands folded in their laps never breaking eye contact. A crowd stood and watched this pair staring into each other's eyes. It’s intriguing, watching people hold space like that without speaking.

It was captivating. Marina Abramovic is an artist. Through a career spanning four decades, Abramovic has created nearly fifty conceptual and performance art pieces that include sound pieces, video works, installations, photographs, solo performances, and collaborative performances. One of her most well-known performances included Abramovic standing in a small room with more than seventy objects. Abramovic allowed participants to apply the objects in any way they wanted to her. These included a rose, a whip, a feather, honey, scissors, olive oil, a scalpel, a gun, and a bullet. The performance was brutal. And came close to ending absolutely. Besides one participant holding a gun to her head and a second participant taking it from the first, Marina Abramovic was stripped, and assaulted, rose thorns were jabbed into her stomach, she was picked up, contorted, and moved around, and after six hours (as planned), she started walking toward the audience, they all ran away fearing confrontation.

Marina Abramovic tested how vulnerable or aggressive people can be when their actions have no consequences. She said the performances created an aggressive atmosphere that quickly turned violent. The performance I saw at MoMA was about the power of connection, being present. Abramovic said the experience “changed her life… highlighting the depth and intimacy that can be achieved through simple silent connection.” The participants who sat with her discussed how emotional the experience was for them. I suppose at some point, when you look into a stranger's eyes, you start to see yourself through their eyes, I imagine that may not always be an easy thing to accept. Among the participants who sat with her were James Franco, Lou Reed, Alan Rickman, Bjork, and the performance artist, Ulay.

At the time I didn’t know this, the man in the black suit and salt and pepper hair was a former lover and collaborator of Abramovic’s. Before Ulay sat across from her the two hadn’t seen each other in many years. The emotion that the two must have felt in those moments is exhilarating to think about. Afterward, Ulay stood and walked away, saying nothing. I had no idea what to expect when I walked into MoMA that morning and ended up being part of something that has since been shared and discussed by millions of people. I stopped in to see A Tim Burton exhibit and walked out thinking about the connection people share in silence, there’s an intimacy that can be found in the silence that may not otherwise be present. Many people don’t know how to sit in silence with themselves or someone else. We’re losing a lot that we’ll never be able to explain, at least for now.

Many years later, I was talking to a friend in Texas. She was a fairly new friend, but when we started talking about the work of Marina Abramovic, we knew each other well enough. We learned that we were both there at MoMA, watching Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present,” at the same time, when Abramovic was sitting with her former colleague and lover, Ulay. Art has remarkable ways of exploring humanity. Some people miss the point entirely, and some friendships are forged on the foundation of art in one way or another. And to think, I just happened to be walking by.

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