Friday, May 21, 2010

The Watermelon Shirt Is Present

Today I paid $20 to sit in line for 7 hours. And somehow, I don't feel like I got ripped off.

After reading this Jezebel article about the Marina Abramovic exhibit at the MoMA, I decided to see what all of the hullaballoo was about. I planned to go on a weekday that I didn't have to work. I set my alarm for eight a.m. so I could run some errands (most notably, open a new checking account), and then make it to midtown Manhattan just before the museum opened at 10:30.

When I arrived, museum visitors were just being allowed into the lobby. I quickly found the end of the line and asked a museum worker to verify that the general line was the same as for special exhibits. "It's all one ticket," she said wearily, as though she had said the exact same thing thousands of times before. When I paid for my ticket and walked past the ticket-checkers into the museum, I began to ask the security guard, "Excuse me, where's the line for..." and before I could even finish my sentence, he cut me off with a gruff but smiling, "Right up the stairs. Second floor." By the time I joined the line, it was 10:42. It was difficult to see exactly how many people were ahead of me in line -- many people were just watching, and others had saved spaces for friends off satisfying hunger or any of nature's other callings, but I estimated about 30. Then, the waiting began.

I made a commitment early on in the day that I was not going to eat or drink anything, or leave my place in line for any reason. This was not because I didn't trust the people around me, or anything of that nature. Rather, I wondered how Marina could do it, and then if I could do it, too. It was a feeble gesture of solidarity, however insignificant.

The premise of the piece is this: Marina, the artist, sits in a chair during museum hours. She does not eat, drink, get up to go to the bathroom, get up for any other reason. She barely moves. Her facial expressions change ever-so-slightly, and her posture shifts. Her hands clench, or quietly move behind her back. Opposite Marina, there is a second chair. This chair is for anyone who wants to be a part of the piece to sit, facing Marina, for as long as he or she chooses. One can sit for just a few seconds, or for the entirety of museum hours. (I learned through eavesdropping on a variety of fascinating conversations that two museumgoers so far had sat for an entire day with Marina.)

For me, the people-watching aspect of such an exhibit compounds the fascination tenfold. I heard the twentysomething ponytailed guy resembling a satyr behind me in line confess to another would-be sitter that he, too, was a performance artist. "Yeah, every Friday at the New Museum, I'm in a crucifixion piece," he said. 

"Oh?" said the woman. "I would really love to see that."

"Yeah, they have me wear a loincloth and a crown of thorns, and hold my arms out. And I'm not supposed to interact with anyone."

"So is it a reenactment?" 

"I'd call it more a timing than a reenactment," Ponytail Satyr Guy responded.

After the first hour in line, when about five people had gone, I lamented my choice to run errands in the morning when I could've gotten there earlier. He looked at me like I was completely out of my mind. "You ran errands this morning?" He threw back his head and laughed like a hyena. Though I felt slightly foolish for not having done my research to know to come earlier, it struck me as even odder that this person was so sincerely incredulous at the idea that I could have the gall to do anything else with my day. 

A bit later, an older gentleman came and talked to the group of people I was waiting in line with -- Ponytail Satyr Guy plus two middle-aged French women. "It's going really fast today," the man commented. "I just worry -- Marina's having such a rough time, emotionally and physically. It takes her time to connect to everyone's energy. And even some of the people who sit for a long time, they just -- drain her of her energy. Some people just don't know how to sit."

And while the overall pretension level of many of the conversations around me passed the boundaries into absurdity, I couldn't dismiss the piece as a simple case of the emperor having no clothes. There was something profoundly spiritual happening in the room, and I couldn't quite articulate what it was. The placard beside the performance space read that one of the goals of the piece was to explore the boundary between the ceremony and the everyday. To me, one thing that stood out was how well-behaved everybody was. Nobody did anything disrespectful. Nobody was loud, or pushy, or ran into the square. It occurred to me how easy it would have been to run up to Marina and hug her before the guards caught me. I wasn't going to do it -- that'd be the sort of big change that would be best to discuss with an artist beforehand, which clearly wasn't possible -- but it amazed me how possible it was. Even groups of children sat and watched, as transfixed as I was. I was so impressed by this that I fumbled in my bag for my camera and, after carefully turning the flash off, tried to photograph them. After I put my camera away, Satyr Ponytail Guy said to me, "Just so you know, they encourage us not to take photos. I wouldn't want you to get in trouble."

I hadn't seen a sign banning photography, just flash as I'd entered the museum. But then I saw a guard chasing after someone taking iPhone pictures, and I knew it must be so. I actually felt a bit relieved, as it took the pressure off me to photograph the experience rather than experience it. 

At any rate, here's the low-quality, no-flash photo I tried to take of the well-behaved children watching the exhibit:

I spent hours silently, watching and writing. I thought about my process of getting ready that morning. I had carefully chosen my clothes -- I wanted to be the type of person who could give Marina some energy. I wanted to be memorable, maybe a little bit funny. The clear choice was my watermelon t-shirt (which also makes this a fitting first post for my new blog -- I'll explain the choice in title at a later date). Jeans and sneakers, for spending a long time in line. And as for makeup -- if somebody was really going to look at me, I wanted to bring out my eyes, even out my skin tone. I'd thought about the process -- how to prepare the face and body for being seen. This is something that most people do every day. But for some reason, this morning felt special, in that I was preparing to be truly looked at. 

Still, there's something a bit silly in applying make-up to sit across from a performance artist who sits and stares all day long. Almost like, she's seen so many people, and by this point -- maybe we all look the same. We look like people. Or maybe, everybody starts to look more and more unique, individual facial features what could be a monotonous sea of faces. Or maybe, by looking at so many faces, she's able to move past the realm of what people look like into who they are. 

It's easy to draw a God metaphor into this equation -- hundreds of people, clamoring to sit face-to-face with an artist who seems to look deep into their soul. I overheard one woman say that, although she never made it to the front of the line to sit with Marina, a big part of the piece for her was desire. She said she had to reconcile her desire to be sitting face-to-face with Marina in another part of the room to being truly present where she was standing. The man talking to her said, "Yes, everybody wants to sit with Marina -- but after you wait in line for so long, maybe you don't need to. Maybe the point is that you are already present and that you, too, are participating in her work." 

Something else to be said for the process of waiting in line is the change in perspective. At the beginning, I was positioned so that I could clearly see the sitter's face and body, but I could only see Marina's back. At this point, I primarily focused my attention on the sitter, wondering: Was it really possible for someone to be bad at sitting, like the know-it-all gentleman had asserted? I watched their face, their body language, the way some people folded their legs into lotus positions and others bowed as they left the square. I was surprised at some of the judgments that I began to make about how long people chose to sit. I had just begun to get irritated about how long one man had been sitting for -- thinking things like, "Who does this guy think he is? He is not that interesting. Come on, there are other people in line." Immediately after I had these thoughts, it struck me as noteworthy that I was making assumptions about someone based on how long he chose to sit, entirely within the confines of the score of the piece. Then I wondered, what does Marina think about the people sitting across from her? Is she able to move past making such judgments? I would love for her to release a book after the culmination of the project, to see what is going on inside her head. What happens if she runs into someone on the street who regularly sat with her -- would she say hello? What happens if someone she knows personally comes and sits with her? (I voiced this question in line and someone told me that in fact, on the first day of the exhibit, one of Marina's former lovers had come and sat with her. Both cried -- and on the subject of tears, an incredible amount of people who sit with Marina walk away crying.)

Anyway, I was beginning to talk about perspective. As I moved up in line, I reached a point where I could see both Marina and the sitter in profile, allowing me to focus on both of them as equal participants in the work. Then, as I reached close to the front -- I made it about to #9 before the museum closed -- I could barely see the sitter and instead, could focus entirely on the nuances of Marina's facial expressions and body language. There was something so profoundly beautiful about her just sitting, though her still, waxen body barely looked alive. 

As the type of person who feels the need to constantly fill her time with activities, I am totally impressed and humbled by those who have the ability to simply allow themselves to exist, without placing any qualifying expressions of good or bad. I think that's what bothered me about what the older gentleman said about people being "bad at sitting". Sure, exchange of energy exists, but I don't think that means anyone sitting with Marina for the first time will be an energy drain. I think for me, part of the beauty of the piece is the attention placed on just existing. Not doing anything -- just being present. (And considering the name of the piece is "The Artist Is Present", maybe that means I could be onto something.) At times, that's not a good or a bad thing -- it just is. And allowing ourselves to just exist sometimes is a good thing. I began to think of Marina as a visual listener.

Another aspect of this piece that interests me is how it jumbles the private and the public. There is something terribly intimate about sitting across from someone, focusing purely on staring into their eyes. And yet -- there are hundreds of people watching. In a way, it's voyeuristic. I hoped that I would see somebody cry in Marina's presence, then immediately afterward considered how odd of a hope that was. (For a look at some photos from the exhibit, mostly portraits of the sitters, take a look at the Flickr page. So many are crying.)

I suppose I can partially explain the desire to see someone cry by saying that it's unusual to see anyone unapologetically moved to tears by something, especially among strangers. Before going to the exhibit, I looked at a lot of the Flickr photos, and so I recognized a few of the returners. I was especially excited to spot this guy: 

(Photo is from MoMA Flickr page.)

He's one of the best-known "returners" -- those who have sat with Marina many times. For more than a few of those times, he's been in tears. He is one of the two people who has sat with her for an entire day. 

After being excited to see him, I was even more excited when he came over to where I was and started talking with a few of us, asking how long we'd been waiting and if we would try again. "It's interesting to see how many people there are now," he said. "Surely that changes the dynamic. When I sat with Marina all day, there was nobody behind me in line. I was the only one. And so I didn't have that voice in my head, the moral compass saying that I should give someone else a chance. The people from out of state, or who flew in from France and who have a flight to catch." We were curious about his experience spending an entire day with Marina, and he was friendly enough to tell us more, though not in a way that made me recoil in the same way as the gentleman from before. "After awhile," he said, "I completely lost track of time and space. I heard the announcement for the museum closing, but I didn't really hear it -- it sounded just like noise to me, not language. Then when it was repeated in the different languages, when it was in Spanish -- I speak Spanish -- then I understood it. It was very strange, and I can't explain it."

The graciousness and sense of wonder of this man made me think, perhaps, anyone who thought they'd figured the piece out had totally missed the point. Maybe the point is to get people to ask questions, to think, to wonder, and to feel something. There's something honest in that. It's a common belief that it's harder to lie when looking someone in the eyes -- and while I don't understand why that is, I think it's relevant. Maybe, in the end, it's about being human. Maybe if we took the time to sit face-to-face with our enemies and look into their eyes, maybe there'd be more understanding, fewer wars. If we fully understood the humanity of other people, how could atrocities like the dropping of the atomic bomb happen? How could anyone burn the flesh of a child's face while recognizing the child? 

And so, I think I might go back. Next time, perhaps I'll stay up all night in a diner, drinking coffee and writing. At dawn, I'll stand in front of the museum in my watermelon shirt, ready to sit in Marina's presence. This time, though, I think I may bring a bag of trail mix.

(You can watch the live feed of the performance here.)


  1. The mind boggles. I was happy to receive updates from Michael as to your thoughts in the queue. I went through the gamut of emotions - anger, amusement, frustration, acceptance - while waiting for your face to turn up. I also wondered if this piece would be as interesting if it weren't being photographed. You know, if a tree falls...

    Anyhoo, I hope you do go again. Even though it sounds as though your experience was quite full, I'd be very interested to hear what it feels like to be "in the chair."

    One request/suggestion: if your hair is long enough, could you braid it over your right shoulder, like Marina's, so as to look like a mirror? That'd be cool.

  2. It's funny that you mention braiding my hair, because that thought did occur to me as I was waiting. I am planning to go back on Wednesday, and I'll try my best to let you know when I'm in the front of the queue so you can watch for me. Other than the mustached man whom I met, the other person who sat with Marina for an entire day actually took your braid-mirror idea to an extreme -- she bought a copy of the exact kind of dress/robe that Marina was wearing and did her hair the same way. There was a girl behind me in line dressed as a superhero and I'm a bit sad that she didn't get to sit.

  3. I really enjoyed this post, but actually the comment that jumped out at me the most was where you said that you were glad there was no pressure to photograph. I HEAR YOU!!! Lately I have become like a crazed anti-photograph person - I have felt increasingly that somehow people have crossed a line where they become too busy capturing a moment to actually experience it.

    Two examples:
    - When I was in Egypt, we'd be doing something like sailing along the Nile, and he'd be pointing out things on the shores. Sometimes he'd say, "Get your cameras ready, because we're going to pass this quickly and it's very interesting." At that point, I'd usually not pick up my camera - if it's quick and interesting, I want to look at it with my own eyes, not watch it on my tiny camera screen and then look at it later on the computer.

    - I was working at camp this past weekend and we had a big group of Girl Scouts. 30 girls, along with their moms. The moms didn't ride, and instead popped up constantly, whack-a-mole style, to photograph the whole thing. The problem was, this was no documentary style, unobtrusive photojournalism. Instead, every time I turned around, they were having one of the girls stop their horse or come over to the wall for a photograph. (Best comment of the weekend? A mom was by the English tack room, photographing each girl leading her horse into the indoor. One girl was walking leading Lightning (doing fine) but the mom said, "Oh, wait, stop here for your picture," and the girl stopped and Lightning promptly lunged into a stall, knocking the little girl to the ground. Mom looks at her camera and says, "Darn, it's blurry because he moved." After propping the child back on her feet and wrestling the pony out of the stall, I informed the mom in my iciest tone that she needed to please go wait in the barn lounge.) Anyway, I was super frustrated that these mothers were so determined to document the experience that they weren't allowing the girls to EXPERIENCE the experience.

  4. Here's the thing, though -- there should be ideally one person in every group of friends who disagrees that taking photos can detract from the overall experience. Otherwise, there are no pictures of anything ever. That person in my group of college friends is Gwen, the one who currently lives in England. As a result, we basically have no pictures of us doing anything. We joked that there would be more pictures of the weekend that she visited than of the last year combined...and then it wasn't a joke, because we were totally right.

    Hmm...I wonder how much Facebook culture has contributed to the we-must-have-photographic-evidence-of-everything epidemic. I've definitely heard people say, "Pictures on Facebook, or it didn't happen." Maybe part of it results at least partially from people trying to prove that their lives are cooler/happier/more satisfying to people that they knew in high school. It's not unlike creating an avatar, a stand-in for yourself (in the general sense of the word) that's closer to the person you wish you were.

    Haha, Lightning...I love his attitude. He's all, "Hey there, Mom, you better watch yourself. I'm tryin' to teach your kid how to ride here. Word."