Performance artist Marina Abramović recently completed a two-and-a-half month exhibition named “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Every day, from the time the museum opened until after it closed, she sat as still as she could in a wooden chair and invited visitors to the museum to sit down for a few minutes in the chair across from her.
To get an idea of how physically and mentally demanding this type of a performance was — a fixed gaze, not speaking, not getting up to go to the restroom, trying not to fidget — watch just 30 or 40 seconds of the time-lapse video of the exhibit. You’ll see she often collapses at the end of a day:
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s “Speakeasy” blog, the artist talked about the arduous realities she experienced being part of the installation:
First of all this was extremely painful physically. It looks simple. I am sitting peacefully there, but it is incredibly painful for the body and the muscles and for the eyes … I didn’t have any social life. I went home every evening. I didn’t talk to friends three months except just the people I work with, like a security guard, a curator or my private assistant. It was so difficult to be under these four lights. For three months I feel like human fish.
She wasn’t the only artist performing live for the exhibit. Many other artists sat and/or stood from March 14 until May 31 as parts of the exhibit. All of the performance artists trained for the grueling experience of being in one continuous position, keeping absolutely silent, for 8- and 10-hour days.
In our busy lives, it can be difficult to be still for even just a few moments. I try to sit in silence for only 15 or 30 minutes a day and often find the task extremely difficult. Many days, instead of being present during this silence, my mind fills with thoughts of things I want to do, regrets, frustrations, and a powerful desire to get up and do something else. But, by being still for more than 700 hours, Abramović said that she really learned how to control these distractions, live in the moment, and connect with other people:
You are sitting there, and you are reflecting on your own life, all the things that are important, not important but what’s really happening? Seeing the other people you come to that state where you start to feel unconditional love for the total stranger. That is what happened to me. My entire heart opened to the level that was incredible. You see them and by being still they become eyes like the door of the soul, you really start knowing them on the most intimate level. That is why people avoid looking in the eyes, especially here in New York. I looked by now, 1,565 pair of eyes. This is enormous amount of eyes. It was so touching to see I knew the people so intimately but never spoke word with them.
As a final interesting tidbit, you can view portraits of each of the people who sat across from Marina Abramović during the exhibit. Many of the people appear to have had very strong emotional responses to the experience of being still.