Asceticism as art: Sitting in silence with Marina Abramovic

WNYC: Serbia-born performance artist Marina Abramovic is renowned for her works of physical endurance and mutilation. She has plunged a knife between her fingers at high speeds, brushed her hair until her scalp bled and taken pills that induced seizures — all in the name of art.

Now the artist is the subject of her own solo retrospective at MoMA, which will include documentation of her past performances as well as re-enactments. But the pièce de résistance will involve the artist herself: for the roughly 700 hours that the exhibit is open, Abramovic will sit in MoMA’s second-story atrium and invite the public to sit and gaze at her in silence in an act of marathon mutual meditation.

Last weekend, I attended the dress rehearsal of this experiment — standing in line over two days (I didn’t get in the first time around) to sit and look into Abramovic’s eyes. It is an imperious set-up, for sure. The atrium is currently sporting enough high watt bulbs to light up Times Square. Abramovic sits illuminated at a table in the center. Security guards patrol the perimeter. And a long line of hopefuls anxiously wait their turn.

If sitting in the atrium day after day is an act of artistic penance for Abramovic, withstanding the line is an act of penance for the public. There is no time limit set on how long people can sit. Some viewers hang out for 20 minutes (about the average), others stick around for more than an hour. In the meantime, everyone in line stews — making for some spectacular overheard conversations. An outraged German woman in front of me was “disturbed visually” by the fact that some participants took their bags and coats when they sat with Abramovic. Another babbled on about her upcoming women-only ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon. One bored-looking group ahead of me gave up to go to Saks.

In the meantime, I plowed through the same stream-of-consciousness pollution clouds my brain any time I try to meditate: Wait, how long has that guy been…

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sitting with Abramovic already? German coat lady sure is making me stabby…I could use a burrito… okay, going to focus now…

By Day Two, my brain had been tenderized and I was in a mood of total resignation. I’d let go of my initial skepticism over the three-ring circus in the atrium and the fact that an artist was manipulating me into standing in line just to look at her.

When I finally sat down before Abramovic, the bright lights blocked out the crowd, the hall’s boisterous chatter seemed to recede into the background, and time became elastic. (I have no idea how long I was there.) Sitting before me was a tired, fragile woman on the outset of what will likely be a very arduous task. And for the first time in two days, I had absolutely no trouble focusing.

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