Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Blogger Is Present

If you stare long enough into the 3-D glasses, the 3-D glasses stare into you.
I heard, via my online knowledge base, about the Marina Abramović thing (installation, performance, exhibit, whatever) at MoMA, and I thought it was silly. I am not really a visually oriented person, I don't follow the art world, I don't read the New York Times, my knowledge of performance art begins and ends with Laurie Anderson (I used to own a number of her records, on vinyl, and I saw her in performance in Boston back in the 1980s: it was a fun show.), and if the OKB hadn't mentioned her thing (presence, staring, whatever) at MoMA, I would surely not have been aware of it, much less taken the time (ok, three seconds) to formulate the opinion that it was silly.

For those of you similarly provincial and ignorant of the performance art world, The Artist is Present works like this: Marina Abramović wears a long dress and sits in a chair. Someone sits down opposite her. They stare at each other until the other person decides to leave or the museum closes. Then, unless the museum closes, another person takes the place opposite Ms. Abramović. Sometimes one or both of them cries. Nobody speaks. And that was it. It went on for seventy-two days.

I likely would not have taken more than the aforementioned three seconds to consider the whole shebang if someone hadn't pointed me to a Flickr set containing a picture of each and every person who sat opposite the artist. They are some seriously great photographs. (There is also one photo of the artist for each day that she sat, but those pictures don't do so much for me.) And it is apparent that the vast majority of these people didn't find the thing (installation, bench warming, ogling, whatever) at MoMA silly in the least.

I did a modicum of reading and discovered just how serious many of the attendees were about participating. In order to sit, people had to wait in a line, often for hours, without any assurance that they would ever get a turn. Some of them had to wait on line several days before getting to sit. And many of them appear to have been genuinely moved by the experience, which raises (but does not beg) the questions: if someone has a profound experience in response to something that's silly, does that make the experience any less profound? Does it make the stimulus any less silly?

The answer to both questions is no.

Having looked at hundreds of pictures, I'm unable to question the intensity of the experience for the majority of the attendees. There are, of course, some exceptions, probably beginning with the people who came to sit multiple times. Most notable among these was one guy who was there over and over again and sat, on one occasion, for the entire day. The people on line must have been livid, and, indeed, he has a couple of e-stalkers in the Flickr comments to his pictures. I'm sure most of these people (especially this woman, who sat about a dozen times) would claim that they returned again because of the intensity of the experience, but it appears that most of the multiples were performance artists. For example, I counted four different sittings forTehching Hsieh. I didn't know anything about Tehching Hsieh, either, before I saw him in the Flickr set, but the "Works" section in his Wikipedia entry makes me giggle. Or perhaps snort derisively, I really can't decide which. Four sittings really wasn't that many, and I only include the pictures because I think he's cute. (Yeah, whatever: like you never had an e-crush on an age-inappropriate performance artist.)

Anyway, despite the presence of people who were likely there, at least in part, to further their own agendas, it's clear that many people had a sincerely moving experience as part of the Marina Abramović thing (inertia, revelation, dust collecting, celebration, whatever) at MoMA, and I would be the last to deny them that experience. It seems to me entirely reasonable to wonder how much of the experience's movingness was due to the hype around the event and/or the long amount of time standing in line, combined with the desire to find meaning and/or the desire to see the emperor's new clothes, but none of that makes the experience less real if the participant perceived it as real, and moving.

But let's face it: it's still just some chick in a long dress sitting in one place and staring at people for hours on end (and, one presumes, being compensated for doing it). It's silly. I have honestly not bothered to go into all the reasons people will claim that it's not silly, but I can rattle a couple of likely candidates off: the Presence should be considered in the context of Marina Abramović's entire body of work, the Presence creates a unique opportunity to explore the relationship between the observer and the observed, and the Presence creates a response in the participants that gives the performance a sort of reciprocal value. I just don't buy any of these arguments. Talented artists, of all sorts, create crap stuff every day. Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens and Titus Andronicus, neither of which are worth performing (though, sadly, they occasionally still are performed) simply because he also wrote King Lear.

As for the audience-based arguments, well, let's just say that if you can have a profound experience staring at someone who stares back at you, you can have an equally profound experience staring at a blank wall, or a mirror, or a stained glass window. Especially a stained glass window, because what the people who stand on line to sit across from Marina Abramović are doing is, essentially, worshipping. I would go so far as to guess that a majority of the attendees are atheists and reject the notion of a higher being, but they are merely replacing one god with another. They are worshipping at the altar of art, and Marina Abramović is their idol. Or their Pope, depending on where you want to go with the metaphor.

For the record, I believe that everyone believes in something, whether they acknowledge it or not, and art is as good a thing to believe in as any, and perhaps better than most. I just probably wouldn't choose this particular so-called art, and I certainly wouldn't think that standing in line to stare at Ms. Abramović is any different than kneeling in a church, praying to the Blessed Virgin (or to whomever). They're both pretty much equally silly: it's just that one of them has had a couple of centuries to build a following and the other had twelve weeks or so at MoMA. I'm sure that, given enough time, Marina Abramović could build a much larger following, and get her own recognition as a church, along with the concomitant tax benefits.

None of this outrages me, particularly. I know that a significant number of people feel abused by organized religion and despise it in all forms, but once you realize that everyone worships something (even if it's just a vague notion of humanism, which is probably what I believe in: I can't be bothered to figure out exactly what I believe in), it's maybe more appropriate to be amused than angry, except perhaps when a particular religion and/or its devotees have done you harm or are trying to do you harm. (One supposes that a similarly high proportion of the sitters support gay marriage, something that can't be said for most of the kneelers.)

Anyway, the photographs are great. I liked them so much that I wanted many of them on my walls, which are still rather barer than they ought to be, so I downloaded bunches of them to see what I could do with them. As it happens, the pictures are very nearly square (787x783 pixels; cropping them to a 4x6 or 5x7 picture ruins them, to my eye), and Costco will do an 8x8 print for about a buck and a half, which is pretty cheap. But I didn't realize that option was available at first, and I also wanted a larger array of the photos, so I used Gimp to arrange twenty-four of the photos into a 4x6 set and sent the very large resulting file to Costco to print out as a 20x30 poster. My previous experience with Costco poster printing had not been entirely great, but I figured that might be because I'd used files that did not have sufficient resolution. And, indeed, the large photo array that I sent came out perfectly. I could not be happier with it, and it's going to look great on my living room wall, once I figure out just how I want to hang it. It cost $8.99, plus tax, which really is a price that just can't be beat. I also got a number of 4x6 prints of the same file (at thirteen cents a print!), so that I can use them as postcards.

You will notice a certain theme among the photos that I chose for the poster. When I showed the picture to my OKB, one of them asked me "Why glasses? And don't say 'Why not?'" Sadly, I didn't really have a better answer for him than that I just liked the way it looked, but I'm sure that if I were to worship at the altar of art, I would come up with something about how it was a comment on the nature of perception. Just like the photo at the top of this entry, which shows my everyday eyeglasses opposite some 3-D glasses that I picked up at a viewing of Avatar, sitting on top of my bed. The piece of lint in between them represents man's inhumanity to man.


  1. Brillant! and worth thinking about it...

  2. In the preface to Dorian Grey, Oscar says something about controversy as an indicator that a work of art is vital.
    Also, in couples therapy, sometimes the counselor will ask the couple to look at each other without speaking for a full minute. The results are always astounding.
    In New York, where intimacy and anonymity are broiled into the same harsh reality, the direct gaze is potent.
    Ordinarily I don't much cotton to this type of "art", but this one I like.

  3. Chacun a son gout, I reckon. By the way, I wouldn't have used the scare quotes. I don't dispute that The Artist is Present is art. I have long held that for any work to be considered art, only two things are necessary: the intent of the creator to make art, and an audience. So clearly this qualifies, though that doesn't mean that it isn't silly.

  4. I went to the exhibit and I agree that it was kind of silly and superficial. I think that at should be accessible to those without a masters degree(instead of intellectual masturbation) and i don't think the average person would get anything from this!