The art of being still

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.

27 Comments for “The art of being still”

  1. posted by Amy on

    Another endowment for the arts, I bet. I think this is a waste of tax money.

  2. posted by Chris on

    I hate that everything seems to come back to people complaining about taxes. We live in a society, societies cost money. That being said, this is not art.

  3. posted by Tammy on

    I loved this. As a mental health nurse, I see that the value of simply being with a person is so important. In our busy, complicated, distracted western world, we need this input. So whether its art, or whether its worthy of our tax dollars is beside the point. America’s soul needs this.

  4. posted by Peter on

    Amy – This project is privately funded you artless old bore. Go back to watching America’s Top Model or something.

    Chris – Why do you think this isn’t art?

  5. posted by Anita on

    The idea of stillness is an ongoing trend in perfomance art. Inviting people to sit with her and make eye contact is a new element, I think.

    For those who don’t think this is art, you have to at least admit it’s an interesting sociological experiment. What compels all those people to sit down for a while, and what is it about the experience that causes an emotional reaction that strong? And after all, isn’t that what art is supposed to do? Challenge you, provoke a genuine emotional reaction and cause you to reflect?

    More to the point of this post, yes, being still and not getting distracted is hard. So many people in our society have all but lost the ability or willingness for (quiet) introspection, which is a pity. Projects like this one can help, I think, but sadly people are far too quick to dismiss them as not being worthy of their money. One has to wonder if a dollar sign has replaced Amy’s soul…

  6. posted by Blaine Moore on

    I’d find this very challenging; I don’t think I could do it.

  7. posted by Amy on

    Peter, your response does not change my mind that this is a waste of time and other people’s money. Performance art is a joke.

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  9. posted by Dawn F on

    All forms of art can be inspiring, uplifting and motivating. Open your heart and your mind – you never know how it can move you until you experience it personally.

    If the people involved in this project are happy and fulfilled, then it is NEVER a waste of time or money.

  10. posted by Dorota on

    In my experience, performance art can be one of the most fascinating kinds of art. It is extremely transient, though.
    But maybe /that/ makes it so powerful. It’s firmly rooted in the moment.
    This particular one seems very interesting – I wonder how our society forgot how to just be, without dilluting the experience with thinking, ruminating and such so easily.

    (I find it funny when people throw the word ‘art’ around – this is art, this is not art, as if they have some kind of ownership of the word. Also, money gets spent on much more futile, useless and depressing stuff, unfortunately. This had the benefit of changing the existence of many people and stirring their emotions.)

  11. posted by Erin Doland on

    Let’s try to keep the personal attacks out of the comments, everyone.

    Also, my point in writing about it wasn’t to discuss if it was “art” or not, or whether performance art has value. It happened already, there is no point in deciding if it’s worthy of being in an art museum. The exhibit is finished.

    Rather, my point was to discuss the act of being still. In our busy lives, can you clear the clutter enough to be silent, meditative, present in the moment, alone and comfortable with your thoughts? Can you be still, or are you constantly looking for stimuli to clutter up your time, thoughts, and life?

  12. posted by Dawn F on

    Honestly, I almost feel guilty if I sit in silence or meditate or allow myself some quiet time – I catch myself thinking “oh, I should be doing the laundry” or “I need to get lunches ready for tomorrow”. I guess my mental To Do List shakes me up and pushes me to go do something “constructive”. I know that I should give myself the time I need to slow down and clear my mind, but I always end up with a feeling of guilt.

    The one place I always feel the most relaxed and quiet with my own thoughts is at the beach. There is something about the sounds and smells of the ocean that slow my brain and my heart down long enough to become rejuvenated and inspired.

  13. posted by Amy on

    Erin, I appreciate you posting this article. The portraits are amazing and some heartbreaking. What were they feeling sitting across from her, I wonder. I believe that it is just as hard sitting quietly and looking at yourself in the mirror.
    I was startled to see Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed’s portraits. I am sure there were other well known artists that sat down across from Marina Abramović that I just didn’t recognize.
    Thanks for sharing.

  14. posted by Jacki Hollywood Brown on

    A few years ago I was given the pleasure of riding a small Thoroughbred named “Cocaïne”. She was a very sensitive mare, you had to ride her with what my instructor called “the touch” Touch just enough to do the job but no more; touch smoothly and lightly – hardly at all.

    It was the hardest horse I ever had to ride because it is a lot of work to do nothing!

  15. posted by Christina on

    Call it what you want – art/human behavior experiment – all you have to do is look at the photos of the people looking and her and you can see there was something profound happening in the exchange of energy. We so rarely stop picking up our own stories long enough to really hear other people, as evidenced by many of the short sighted comments to this post.

    Also, Jacki, a mare named “Cocaine?” That is funny!

  16. posted by Patti on

    The artist “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,”

    And she did this for only 3 months?

    Lightweight. She just described my EVERYDAY adult life so far! 😉

  17. posted by Mletta on

    I think I learned the ability to be “still” when I was a child going to Catholic school. The nuns made it very clear that there was no fidgeting around, no talking to each other. Just sitting still and paying attention.

    This really got enforced when we’d attend mass (three times a week) and had to sit still for close to an hour at at time, something I’ve yet to see young children do these days.

    I’ve also gone on retreats over the years where you don’t talk, or text, or call, or go online for days at a time. Once you get over the initial OMG, what if…the end of the world occurs…bit, it’s truly relaxing. And there are plenty of A Ha! moments too, if one is open to them. The big problem: It becomes VERY appealing to totally drop out as it were. Returning to the world of chaos is the hard part.

    Most people avoid silence and sitting still because they are then left alone with themselves and their thoughts or lack of them. Sadly, too many people are uncomfortable with that. Ironically, many people swear that this is what they want, silence and time away from craziness and chaotic lifestyles, but very few make time for it.

    People go through most of their lives without really being “present” so I really “got” this particular exhibit as both an art form and as a psychological demonstration. Anything that calls attention to our need to stop, focus and be in the moment, with ourselves and others, is worth the time or money involved.

    To Patti, who posted:
    She just described my EVERYDAY adult life so far

    How can that be? Do you live in the wilderness?
    There are many ways to reach out and connect as humans each day, if we only take advantage of the opportunities. Which also means we must do our share and make ourselves available and take some initiative.

    I live in a major city and though I come into contact with dozens of people in a day, I do understand what Patti means. There’s “contact” and then there’s real CONTACT. Which I think is also the point of this performance art.

    The artist may have been present, but it wasn’t real connection or socializing.

  18. posted by Lilliane P on

    It’s not just contacting humans as mentioned above. I take a lot of photos of birds, large wading birds especially, and if I am very still, get into that place of inner stillness, they allow me to become a part of their landscape. The other day a duck walked right over my foot as I was standing, camera in hand, in a marsh. I can feel the stillness in me, almost as if I had become a bird in a human body. This is a magical experience. It’s more than just relaxing. For me it’s every sense being alive to the present moment.

  19. posted by Victoria on Okinawa on

    I was overwhelmed by the “portrait” section, so many people and only a few with a smile, most complacent and moody and a few emotionally affected. That alone would be overwhelming not just having to be still and not say anything on top of that too!

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  22. posted by Emily on

    I actually went to MOMA when this artist was performing and it was a really amazing experience. There was a strange air of stillness in the middle of the busy museum where she sat and the crowd watched as people sat with her. I think that the moodiness that some might see in the photos is actually the sense of awe and almost reverence that everyone was feeling as they watched this. I could sense that those that sat with her quickly realized the intensity of the entire experience, both physically and mentally, and left their chairs even more amazed that she could do every day for 8 hours what they couldn’t do for 10 minutes.

  23. posted by Kalani on

    What I find interesting about the portraits is how some people would come back again, and again, and again.

    I wonder if it is the stillness or the eye contact that is so compelling for the participants.

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  25. posted by Kate on

    Wow, I can’t even imagine how difficult that exhibition must have been to complete for the artist. Although I can appreciate the art of what she was doing and it seems to have had a very effective message, I personally would have gone about it a different way.

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