“Sit still,” the teacher says to the rowdy student. We all know this scene. A good proportion of us were probably that rowdy student unable to sit still for long periods of time. That’s what makes Marina Abramović’s 2010 performance The Artist is Present so staggering. From March 14th to May 31st, Abramović spent a total of 736.5 hours silently seated at a simple wooden table as visitors and celebrities could take turns sitting across from her.
This 2010 exhibit was a part of the Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective on Abramović career as a performance artist. She has a thirty-year career pushing the limits of pain, endurance, and the human experience in her art. The Artist is Present was her longest-running performance to date. Although she and the museum organizers were initially worried that people would not show up, thousands of visitors crowded the second-floor atrium for their turn to sit with the artist. This simple concept was incredibly moving for some people. Many found themselves laughing or weeping. Abramović believes this happened because for the first time, people were confronted with the lonesome reality of their own personality staring back through her blank stare.
Abramović often calls herself the “grandmother of performance art.” Though she began her work in her late twenties, she did not garner the worldwide fame and success from The Artist is Present until she was 64. Malcolm Gladwell talks about these “late-bloomer” creatives as having different qualities than creative prodigies. Late bloomers often have more “experimental” work than their prodigy counterparts. This is certainly true of Abramović. Her work tests the limits of human endurance, pain, and tolerance. The Artist is Present specifically invited others to share in this experience. From twelve-year-olds, to regular museum-goers, to celebrities like Lady Gaga and Abramović’s former boyfriend Ulay, all were invited to partake in this large scale social experiment. So much of Abramović’s work relies on her confidence in her ability. In a follow-up exhibition in London, Abramović got rid of what little structure MoMA provided and just spent her time walking around the exhibition space. Each day, as with the 2010 exhibit, was different depending on the specific visitors of the time.
At the heart of this creative work is Love, claims Abramović. In other performances, Abramović would provoke hatred or anger by giving the public things like chainsaws or loaded revolvers. Yet, the New York exhibition was all about love. Abramović grew up in a tightly-controlled Communist home where her mother dictated every waking hour. Much of her work rebels against this upbringing. “My whole idea at MoMA was to give unconditional love to every stranger” Abramović said in an interview with the Guardian. Through the public’s reaction and the exhibit’s popularity, it seems that this motivation had a significant role in the Abramović’s success.