The line twisted along the East 53rd Street sidewalk outside of MoMA
and included its own assemblage of bodies and props: sleeping bags, bug
spray, notebooks, flowers. Most in line had arrived by 5 p.m. on Sunday,
May 30, to sleep overnight for a chance to participate in “The Artist is
Present,” a performance piece in which Marina Abramovic looks into
an audience member’s eyes for as long as the audience member desires.
was the final day of the MoMA retrospective of Abramovic’s work, and
the line was a testament to the enormous impact of the world-famous
performance artist. But it was also testament to the extraordinary
relationships forged in waiting. Many of those in line stayed overnight
because new friends they had met in line encouraged them to. The
conversations and relationships that emerged were a degree of audience
participation in the work that surprised even Abramovic. “How the people
actually started meeting each other around the work, how this
circulated and how they continue to get into kind of a friendship
situation—that was a really new thing to me,” she was quoted as saying.
Abramovic often pushes the boundaries of audience participation, and on
that final day, I guess I did too.
After waiting for 31 hours, I
was the first to be seated with Abramovic on Monday morning. I thought
hard about what I wanted to bring to that experience. Seeing her
retrospective had been a turning point for me. As a filmmaker, I spend a
lot of time alone in a room writing and editing—and fearing failure.
All of Abramovic’s work is about failing: It’s about discovering when
her body will fail, when her mind will fail, when her voice will fail,
when her relationship will fail. When she knows and understands this
failure, however, she has nothing to fear. By failing, she doesn’t fail;
she learns. She uses and pushes her body in ways many find masochistic,
but, in exploring the spaces where she is weak, where her body and her
mind break down, she reveals her incredible strength. The incredible
strength of a human being.
I wanted to thank her. I wanted to tell
her, before she even looked all the way up into my face, that I was
awed, inspired, terrified and opened by her work. I wonder now if I was
misguided—if I could have said and shared everything I wanted to with my
eyes—since I didn’t get to sit with her at all.
All because I
tried to sit naked.
When I first saw “The Artist is Present,” I
wondered: Why isn’t anyone smiling? It seemed, on the surface, the way
that performance art sounds: It’s boring; it’s serious; it’s completely
incomprehensible. I couldn’t find any of the same thrill I had found in
the pieces in her retrospective, where she and Ulay scream into each
other’s mouths until sweat, spit and snot sputter out. Where she presses
her face into a fan and breathes in the air until she passes out. Where
she takes on the delightful and strange in Balkan folklore by having 20
women run around in the rain presenting their vaginas to the sky.
artist is present—but so what?
In any case, I couldn’t stop
thinking about it. I looked through the photos on the Web and guessed at
the experience of those who sat across from her. I also guessed at her
experience: She must be exhausted; she must get very thirsty. Does she
Then I saw
a photograph of a female audience member whose expression of
elation, sorrow and love defy description, and I realized: “The Artist
is Present” isn’t a work you can understand in passing, or even in
sitting with it for 30 minutes. It’s a durational piece, and it can take
an entire day (or month) of watching to get inside of it and fully
comprehend the intensity, the hard work and the intimacy being
witnessed. What is present in “The Artist is Present” is a relationship
between strangers. One of those strangers is a performer, and one is an
audience member. But for the audience members not sitting in the chair,
both of those people are the performance, and the audience member in the
chair defines the entire experience.
Performance art has a unique history with
audience participation. In Yoko Ono’s “Cut Piece,” Ono set herself
onstage with a pair of scissors and invited audience members to use them
however they liked. In her 1964 London performance, the audience cut
most of her clothes off, and the piece ends with Ono covering her
With Allan Kaprow’s 1960s “Happenings,” audience
participation was the performance piece. In one Happening, audience
members were presented with a room full of ice cubes, which they were
encouraged to touch and therefore melt. The melting of all the ice
concluded the piece. This past fall, Kaprow’s “YARD”—which included
rubber tires and tarpaper for people to play in—was re-imagined at the
Hauser & Wirth gallery by contemporary artists.
Abramovic’s now-infamous 1974 piece “Rhythm 0,” 72 objects—from lipstick
to honey to knives—were laid out on a table, and she invited the
audience to use these on her in any way they chose. A sign nearby noted,
“I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility.” The
audience became more and more aggressive, cutting her and drinking her
blood. When someone pointed a loaded gun at her head, a scuffle broke
out, but the gallery let the piece continue.
participation in performance art, however, isn’t just a thing of the
’70s. Last summer, Abramovic created an event for the Manchester
International Festival in which “the public can be—not just the
voyeur—but experimenters themselves… We will meet the public and make a
contract with them; they can’t just leave, they have to stay the entire
time. We demand the kind of commitment that we think now in viewing
art—it’s never been done.”
Meanwhile, Paul Ramirez Jonas’ current
exhibition in Times Square, Key to the City, invites audiences to come
pick up a key, bestow it on a friend and then go a-unlocking: to explore
“social contracts as they pertain to trust, access, and belonging.”
you visited Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress” at the Guggenheim this
spring, you followed and spoke to a series of “actors” as you ascended
the atrium. You may have been asked by an 8-year-old what you thought of
progress. The 8-year-old’s favorite answer: “Progress is a myth.”
audience may be invited to participate, but up to what point?
it moving. You can’t stand in this area,” a sixth-floor MoMA guard
barks seconds after audience members pass through two nude bodies in the
re-performance of Abramovic’s “Imponderabilia.” Some performers have
been groped by patrons, and efforts to keep them safe are important. But
not allowing a guest even half a minute to pause and digest an
extraordinary performance affects the work. Negatively.
what point does an audience member cross a line? And who decides when
that line is crossed? When is it appropriate for a gallery or museum to
intervene in an artist’s performance? To save her life?
Marina performed “Lips of Thomas,” in which she cut a star into her
belly and then laid on a block of ice, the audience intervened when it
became clear that Marina had lost consciousness. This delicate and
unusual line is one very specific to performance art. In most art, the
artist is on one side of the art and the viewer is on the other. The
viewer is watching, not participating.
When I took off my dress at MoMA, seven
guards surrounded me, forced me to put the dress back on and escorted me
from the building with the promise that I would be arrested if I
I was surprised when one of the guards, hustling me out
of the museum, commented: “You should have told us.” His implication
was that, had I checked with the guards, they could have checked with
the museum, who could have checked with Abramovic’s people, who could
have decided if it would be OK for me to remove my dress and sit across
from Marina Abramovic naked on the last day of her show.
comment made me realize that me sitting naked across from Abramovic
wasn’t a case of an audience member sitting across from an artist. It
was a case of an audience member sitting down naked inside of an
institution. And an institution can’t improvise the way an artist can.
MoMA guards don’t have the jurisdiction to decide if I was sketchy or
dangerous. A man later the same day tried to vomit onto the exhibit and
was also removed from the museum. Was he dangerous? Was my naked body?
It didn’t matter: We were both doing something abnormal.
guards weren’t empowered with the guise of the curator, the power of
artistic perception. The guards had to follow directions from an
enormous institution that, precisely because of its enormity, was able
to promote, publicize and enable an exhibition of the scope and wonder
of Abramovic’s retrospective. And that institution’s rules—while not
explicitly stated—did not allow for spontaneity. It just so happens that
Klaus Biesenbach, the organizer of this exhibit and the Director of
P.S.1 (as well as MoMA’s Chief Curator at Large)—ostensibly the man
anointed with such a keen eye—has shown that he’s skittish about such
interaction. He was responsible for the electricity being cut while Ann
Liv Young performed her “confrontational” character “Sherry” at P.S.1
this past February, ending the show.
But what if an
institution—because it’s curating an artist whose work is based on
spontaneity and unpredictability—adjusted its policies to accommodate
the work and taught its security to participate in and enable the art,
and not just protect it? What if guards gave viewers the space to
evaluate their experience of passing through two nude bodies instead of
shuffling them along seconds after the intense experience? What if
museum employees were trained to observe, discern and then react?
Perhaps we should ask the question that many have raised: If a
performance requires a degree of spontaneity and interaction, why put it
in an institution at all? Is it possible for an institution to
When I took off my clothes at MoMA, I hoped so. I hoped
that the guards—whom I had come to know and laugh with in my experience
of waiting for all those hours—would have the freedom to recognize my
intentions and observe my interaction with Abramovic before jumping to
action. I hoped that I would be allowed sit before her peacefully, even
if that meant putting my clothes back on. I hoped that my interaction
with security would merge naturally with what Abramovic explores in
staring into her audience’s eyes: We would look into each other and
I realized only later that I was being idealistic, that
what I intended as a pure and loving act could have come across as the
actions of a crazy person. “Who knew what she could have done next?” one
audience member noted in regards to my nakedness. “She might have had a
gun in her vagina!”
Although I didn’t get to sit across from
Marina Abramovic, she did give me a huge gift. During the 31 hours I
spent waiting to sit with her, I developed a host of new friends:
friends who are passionate, creative and clearly committed to
One woman flew in from Los Angeles with nothing
but a book and a purple skeleton suit to wear for the exhibit. She even
extended her plane ticket to return a day later when she found that
arriving by red-eye at 6 in the morning on Monday was already too late
to sit with Abramovic.
I do have doubts about that day. If I had
known that I would be ejected from the museum, would I have taken off my
clothes? Probably not. My intention was to pay tribute to the art, not
to disrupt it. But maybe I’ll still get to pay homage to Marina. My new
friends and I are already talking about developing a performance art
piece together, inspired by her work.
It may or may not involve
Josephine Decker is a filmmaker. Read
more about her work at www.josephinedecker.com.