Sitting with Marina Abramovic
11:38 am –on my ipod, Iron and Wine:
I was in my own world with my headphones on, writing, when I looked up and spotted a friend, Jay Mack, from across the exhibit. We had made eye contact at the same time and we both looked surprised to see each other. I gave a big wave and he came over to talk to me, since I didn’t want to leave the line. We were saying “hello” when Joshua, my friend in the top hat, came over to talk with us. He had finished sitting with Marina a few minutes before he came over to us. He looked shaken. He asked how long he sat and I said I think for about 10 minutes. He replied that it felt like a lifetime. He joked that he thought he was going to die and that he found himself actually counting to 60 while he sat.
Now, to give Joshua major credit for his experience sitting, because he was the third person in line to sit with Marina. The two people before had had only sat for a few minutes and I imagine he was still feeling the rush from running up the stairs. I know that I would have definitely been shaken if I had not had a chance to calm down before sitting with Marina.
Joshua gave me a hug and left. Jay asked what time I had gotten in line and I told him about my previous experience that morning. We briefly caught up about what was going on in our lives and our conversation came to an end. I went back to my place in line. Again, I waited. I waited for my turn to sit with the artist in the large atrium of the MoMA while visitors watch.
12:14 pm – no music:
I’m forth in line. The line has grown quiet. I text my Dad, in Texas, about what I am up to and let him know that he can watch live online via the video feed that is set-up in the museum. I text him a few more times as I slowly move forward in the line.
1:43pm – 2:00pm – sitting with Marina Abramovic:
I am next up in line. I was looking the other way when I was tapped on the arm that it was my turn. I stood up next to the guard.
“Are you ready?” he says.
“Yeah, I think so.” I say back.
“Well, you’ve waited long enough."
He gives me a run down on what I am supposed to do in a quiet voice. “You’ll walk in and sit down, when you are down put your head down. Try to maintain eye contact.” So simple. The instructions are minimal, yet the feeling is intense. I know that I am about to become a part of the Marina’s living exhibit.
I am given the cue from the guard to go forward. I quickly slip the straps off the back of my shoes and try to not have them fall off while I walk towards her. I let my focus shifted only to my walk to the chair I was going to sit in and try to keep my eyes on Marina. The chair is made of heavy wood and is a few feet away from the artist. There’s no turning back now. I am filled with a determination to do something different during my sitting.
Marina’s head is still down and her eyes are half closed as I take a seat in the chair across from her. I kick my shoes off and pull my legs up so I’m sitting cross-legged. My hands naturally fold into my lap.
Marina slowly brings her head up. Her eyes open and meet mine. She smiles. I immediately feel a sense of relief and almost amusement by her reaction. I got a sense that she was comforted to see that I have removed my shoes and was sitting cross-legged.
To give everyone a little bit of background on the performance, anyone can sit with the artist. As I stated before, you are supposed to maintain eye contact with the artist and not speak, but those are the only instructions that are given. The visitor sitting with Marina determines the length of the sitting. Some people sit for 5 minutes, others for an hour, but the average for the day I was there seemed to be about 20 minutes.
Everyone that sat before me, sat with their feet firmly planted in front of them usually with their hands stiffly on their laps. No one told visitors that the experience had to be so rigid or serious, but that seemed to be the way most people interpreted the experience. Often, people can be seen crying either while sitting or after sitting with Marina. My experience was nothing like that.
Marina’s smile to me felt warm and welcoming. I felt as if we were playing a game after her initial smile. She would shift and I would shift. I smiled, and she smiled slightly. We both blinked quite often while we were getting comfortable with each other. I had anticipated that my experience was going to be incredibly intense, after all, many people, both men and women, had been brought to tears, but my experience was nothing like that. It felt playful and fun. Serious, but also a little absurd. For the first few minutes my eyes were locked onto Marina’s, then we both settled.
Once I was settled, I began to notice the noise that surrounded me. There were people on all four sides watching me sit with the artist, but I couldn’t see them. I could pick up certain words, “she” and “her,” but I could not determine the context of the conversation. Where they talking about me or where they talking about Marina? How did the viewers react when they saw me take off my shoes and sit cross-legged? I also knew that over Marina’s left shoulder, my friend Jay was watching me. Was he still there? Or had he left?
The most districting part for me was the blurred vision of the massive telephone lens pointed in my direction. Twice, my gaze broke from Marina’s when I could tell the photographer as taking a picture of me. I think my gaze broke two other times, but I am not really sure what caused the shift.
My thoughts moved around while I sat relatively still. At times, I wondered what Marina was thinking. Was she trying to figure me out? What did she see? What was she feeling? There were times were I was engaged with what I was thinking and feeling. Sometimes it was something completely shallow like “I’m sitting with Marina Abramovic, that’s so cool.” And, “She’s looking right at me and only at me, wow.” Often, I found myself look directly at Marina but my interest was in the movement of people behind her and the blurred shapes on the wall. I was seeing people and shapes out of my peripheral vision, so they were all blurs that would move, pause, and then move again. I could make out a blurry guard swing his arms, probably in boredom. Sometimes, I felt as if I was in a living picture.
I studied Marina’s face; the color of her eyes, the shape of her mouth, the complexity of her skin. She was natural, with no make-up and she was beautiful. Her mouth and eyes said the most during my experience. Slight shifts left me with different feelings: happiness, wonder, and curiosity. The things I noticed the most was that she had beautiful lips and beautiful, but tired green eyes.
During my time sitting, I never left Marina’s eyes leave mine, but I thought I could feel shifts in her moods. Sometimes it felt like she was close to tears, but more in a positive, relieved way. Or, that’s at least how I’d like to think of it. Sometimes, I felt her drift off, as if she was no longer in the moment. And I would feel myself drift off. Then we would both come back and we were again, connected to each other.
Only a few times, did I wonder how long I had been sitting. At one point, I could feel how tense my body was, especially my back and legs. Had it been 5 minutes, 10 minutes, half an hour? I had no idea. I would take a deep breath and felt my body relax further into my sitting position.
I checked in with myself and thought I am almost done, but then that shallow thought crossed my mind, “I am sitting with Marina Abroamovic and I should enjoy it just a little bit longer.” I go for a few more minutes and am able to keep my focus strictly on Marina. I am happy and decide that’s enough. I slowly move my head down and lose my eye contact. I reach down and put my shoes back on. I stand up and walk away. Done.
2:00pm - My experience after sitting
My experience was nothing like I expected, but everything I could have asked for. When I walked away, I felt completely energized and connected. I thought I would reaction like other people and want to be by myself, but I did the complete opposite. I walked back to the line of people and plopped myself back down next to the people I had met.
My goal was to sit for about 20 to 25 minutes, which was about how long I sat. Tyler asked me if Marina looked at me when I took my shoes off. I had to stop and rethink the experience. When Tyler asked me the question, I wasn’t completely what had happened. What I remembered was that Marina’s head was down while I was taking my shoes off and I was completely settled before she looked-up at me.
Tyler told me that Marina had given me a huge smile when she looked up at me. This made me really happy. I could not have asked for a better reaction from her. The girl in between Tyler and myself was currently sitting with Marina. She had left her purse with Tyler and Tyler asked if he could leave his personal items, wallet, cell phone, and watch, with me while he sat. I half jokingly asked if he was going to sit for hours before I said yes. He said no and gave me his things. I left the line and walked around the viewing area to see all the different angels. I was completely amazed at the amount of trust we had all felt with each other in line. We had only known each other for a few hours, yet we all felt comfortable asking the people around us to watch our belongings. Part of this was because there was security everywhere, but the biggest factor, at least for me, was that I felt a sense of closeness to the people in line.
A gentleman asked me if I minded sharing my experience with him. We talked for a few minutes and then we both moved on. I finally settled on the side and sat so I could see the profile of both Marina and the participant. Tim, from earlier that morning, finds me and we discuss our experience. He was still unsure what he thought about the whole thing and said he would need to process it for a while. However, he was definitely emotionally moved.
The girl sitting with Marina finished. She had completed her 28th time sitting with the artist. Tyler was up next. I was in and out of conversation with the people around me, while Tyler sat very serious and straight-faced. That is until the very end. I saw him move out of the corner of my eye and could tell that he had cracked. A few tears and he stands up and walks out.
I wondered if he had seen me sitting on the side since I had all of his stuff. He speed-walked to towards the bathrooms. Two women attempted to ask him what his experience was like. He kept walking. After a few minutes, he took a seat beside me. We hang around for a few minutes and then decide it’s time for some lunch. I decided that I am going to come back another day to see the rest of the exhibits at the museum. I didn’t want to see anything else today.
We walk out of the museum and our time with Marina Abramovic and the exhibit The Artist is Present comes to an end. Well, at least for today. Tyler and I grab some food and talk for a while. He decides to head back to the museum and I go to Central Park. He has my card and we both say that we are going to keep in touch. We wave goodbye.
I take a seat in the grass in Central Park. It’s a beautiful day outside. I text with Joshua about my experience and tell him that I will email him the pictures taken of him sitting with Marina when I get home.
Then I talk with my Dad on the phone. He recounts to me what he saw while he watched me sit with Marina via the live video stream. My Dad and Step Mom were both able to watch my experience live. My Dad said that he had watched a few other people sit before me, but when I walked up, he felt an intense nervousness for me. He said he felt like he was there sitting with Marina. I was surprised to hear that his experience of watching me sit was almost as intense as me actually sitting with Marina. He shared what he saw and I shared my experience. We both agreed that Marina seemed to be energized by my presence and that she maintained a strong presence during my time sitting with her.
I hang-up with my Dad and give Danny a call to tell him about my experience. Another call ends and I find myself sitting in the park, and continuing to reflect about my experience. I remain energized and excited about the whole thing, especially my actual experience of sitting with Marina, until later that evening when a wave of exhaustion hits me.
I am honored and humbled that I had the chance to participate in Marina Abramovic’s exhibit The Artist is Present and am looking forward to hearing more about the exhibit once it closes at the end of May.