Museums & Exhibitions Music & Performance

Performing Life


Saying their goodbyes halfway the Chinese wall, each having departed from opposite sides, Marina Abramovic and Ulay performed a grand conclusion to their intense relationship of twelve years in 1988. There would only be one way imaginable for the two performance artists to ever be in each other’s lives. And that way went viral on the internet just this week.[1]

In the performance piece The Artist is Present of 2010, Abramovic spent 2,5 months in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sitting at a wooden table in a cleared museum hall, people could line up to sit across from her. Each meeting started with Abramovic looking up, and finished with her facing down. Every time she rebooted herself for a new encounter with an unfamiliar face. Being the artist she had full control over the conditions of her presence, while simultaneously being completely exposed in embodying the actual performance. The sitters decided upon the duration of each encounter.

Silence was essential to the piece, no one spoke, but many sitters became very emotional. Abramovic describes how at the beginning sitters would feel conscious of sitting in the middle of a museum hall, of gazing at each other and feeling the gaze of the surrounding audience. After getting used to that, through the silence sitters would increasingly direct their gaze inwards. And that’s when emotions would be unleashed.[2] Several sitters would return more than once.

By silently sitting there, the artist thus frequently became a mirror of confrontation. In turn, once a sitter became an emotional mirror for Abramovic and that was, indeed, Ulay. On the opening night, she looked up and saw an oh-so familiar face, a face that reached deep, a face that touched immensely. Looks of disbelieve and acquiescence were exchanged. With tears in her eyes and that initial feeling of control all gone, Abramovic decided to reach out to him, hands across the table. The surrounding audience started applauding and made the two of them, after those few moments of isolated connection with each other, yet again aware of their surroundings. She let go, he got up and left, while she wiped the tears of her face, preparing for the next encounter.

Halfway the performance period, Abramovic removed the table to enhance the exchange of energy between her and the sitter. However, on the opening night it was still present between her and Ulay and underpins the display of her emotions through her body language. After letting go of his hands, she has a slight, precious moment of hesitation. But, after their shattered love of so many years ago, there was nothing left to say. This act of performance said it all. And being the performer as she is, Abramovic decided the show had to go on. In that split-second of hesitation, life and performance had become one.

[1] As the performance took place in the spring of 2010, I have not yet found an answer to the question why the video only went really viral in March 2013. Most of the video links posted on youtube of this footage, were posted over the last couple of months.

[2] A day after the performance closed, Abramovic answered audience questions on the MOMA website. Read the Q&A here.

Top image: Marina Abramovic, The Artist is Present (MoMA: March 14-May 31, 2010). Still of the performance footage.

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