Sunday, May 30, 2010

Is the Watermelon Shirt Present?

After my last post about Marina Abravomic, I was convinced that I needed to go back, even though it seemed a little crazy. But there's worse things than doing what seems a bit crazy -- to quote Andy Warhol, "You have to do stuff that average people don't understand because those are the only good things." (Though, I have to say, I don't totally agree with this -- I do think that the average person can appreciate many fine things in life. Bacon, for example.)

And this time, I had a plan.

I had a closing shift at work, then walked the four miles home to enjoy the warm weather and call my parents. I would go home, eat something, check my email, pack my bag, don my watermelon shirt, and then set off for the MoMA.

I ended up deviating slightly from my plan to look through some photos from the exhibit, and was surprised to find a photo of someone I know:

My friend Emily, from Sarah Lawrence! I quickly sent her an email to find out what time she had gotten there, and what her experience had been like. She responded that she really didn't think it was possible without advance tickets. Advance tickets! I hadn't even thought of that. I went back to the MoMA website -- but, problem: I didn't have a printer, and it was 2 am. I sent a text message to a partner in crime, who gave me the address of a 24-hour Kinko's he knew of in Manhattan. Perfect. I finished packing my bag -- including The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt, a 500-page novel I'd been meaning to get around to reading -- and started walking to the subway.

By the time I had gone to Kinko's, ordered my ticket, printed my ticket, and walked to the MoMA, it was about 4 o'clock. I sat by the gate and the waiting began. I took out my notebook and wrote. I tried very, very hard to feel inconspicuous, sitting on the pavement, watching a big truck with movers bring boxes into the museum. Around 4:30 am, after reading about 100 pages of my book, I had a thought -- I already had my ticket. Wouldn't it make more sense to wait at the other entrance, closer to the security guards that scanned the tickets, closer to the stairs, and closer to Marina? Yes. Yes, it would. I walked around to the other side and confirmed my plan with the man who was washing the windows who told me that yes, they opened up both museum doors at the same time in the morning. I sat and continued to read.

At six o'clock, another girl showed up. She introduced herself as Liz and I immediately identified her as a fashion student due to her homemade-looking jumpsuit, silk Hermes jacket, and the huge fake bird on her hair-barrette. She asked if I'd save her place while she went to buy a magazine to sit on. When she came back, we sat for awhile and talked -- she said she went to CalArts, and I almost said "I know" -- and then around six-thirty, we were starting to get a little worried that no one else had shown up.

"I wonder if there are people on the other side," I said.

We stood up and edged our way to the gate. Looking through the museum lobby, we could see a group of about six people.

"Crap," Liz said. "What if they open that door first?"

I tried calling the museum to get an official confirmation on the door-opening situation, but no one picked up. After a few minutes, one of the museum security guards came out and I asked him.

"We'll be opening the other door first, at 9:30. The museum opens at 10:30. But just so you know, the line outside has no bearing on who gets to be first for the exhibit. We discourage you from waiting outside, because we can't accept any liability. The museum opens at 10:30 and you are all first in line," he said.

"Crap," Liz said again.

We turned and ran around to the other side.

"We were on the other side," I said. "I've been here since four, and she's been here since six."

"Bummer!" the redheaded man who was first in line said condescendingly.

There were seven people ahead of me: Condescending Redhead, Man With Bowtie, Hipster-Looking Blonde, Short-Haired Professorial Woman, and two teenage boys listening to their iPods. The museum security guard came out and repeated the same speech he had given me about how waiting outside doesn't count as being in line. The two iPod boys left, saying they were going to go kill time. Five people in front of me. Hipster-Looking Blonde had a friend who showed up and joined her in line.

"Is she really going to cut?" Liz hissed in my ear. "Should I say something?"

"If you want," I said.

Liz stood and fumed for a minute before finally voicing her concern. Hipster-Looking Blonde's friend, who was a Hipster-Looking Brunette, looked at her very seriously and said, "I appreciate that you said something, but it's a part of line etiquette that a friend can join someone in line. We bought our tickets in advance and planned to go together."

The whole line began to discuss line etiquette and it was determined that Hipster-Looking Brunette could stay. I pointed out that it would be pretty obnoxious if everybody had a friend who joined them. "Yes, of course that would be frustrating," Condescending Redhead said. We all introduced ourselves to one another and I spent awhile talking to Short-Haired Professorial Woman, who was indeed a professor. She told me that she wrote primarily on senses and intuition in art and that she taught at York University in Canada, and I wrote down her name and some of her book titles because they sounded interesting. She even has a Wikipedia entry.

Around eight-thirty, an Awkward Brunette came and reclaimed her place in line behind Man With Bowtie. I learned that they had been saving her spot while she went to purchase an Alexander McQueen jacket. My place in line was #7. Behind me, the line stretched halfway down the block. I recognized someone else from college and we had a brief conversation in which we promised to help each other out if we could.

Around nine o'clock, a Loud Dissenting Girl tried to start a new line in front of another door. "The line doesn't mean anything," she said. "The museum guard even said. So I'm starting my own line."

At nine-thirty, the guard came out again. "We're going to open the doors in a few minutes," he said. "No pushing or shoving. You must enter single file through the revolving door."

The group around me in line huddled together. "Tight formation, guys. Don't let anyone cut in," Hipster-Looking Brunette said.

At 9:32, all hell broke loose. The guard came and opened not the door we were standing in front of, but the door between the Rightful Line and the Loud Dissenting Girl and a few of her followers. "No running!" boomed the guards. I went through the door as quickly as I could and speed-walked to the inside line. Number eight. Only one person had managed to cut in -- a Smug-Looking Curly-Haired Twentysomething.

"All right! Everyone needs to be single file. Only physical presence counts as a spot in line. We'll take the first thirty through now."

We were herded through into a separate holding area. At this point, they brought out the VIPs -- there were seven, putting me fourteenth in line. Amazing, I thought. I got here at four a.m. and there are fourteen people in front of me in line. There really is a lot of luck involved.

The main topic of conversation in line was, "How long are you going to sit?" We all agreed that we didn't want to sit for long, we just wanted to have a chance and allow others to have their moment. (Though, I wondered, if anyone would have admitted it then if they had planned to sit for a long time.)

Awkward Brunette pulled out a garbage bag and surreptitiously changed into a new outfit. This should have been our first clue.

"If you have to go to the bathroom, go now," said one of the guards. "This is your last chance."

We ascended the escalator, putting our arms out on either side so no one could try to sneak past. Then, we saw Marina. And all the memories flooded back, of the entire day I had spent already sitting in line in this very same space, just outside the square that I desperately wanted to be inside.

Most of the VIPs were performers in Marina's retrospective on the sixth floor, so none of them sat for long. Condescending Redhead and Man With Bowtie also didn't sit for terribly long -- between fifteen minutes and a half hour each.

Then, Awkward Brunette approached the chair and sat.

And sat. And sat. And sat.

We started to get nervous. "Well, if she gets up now, we can each have an hour," Hipster-Looking Blonde pointed out.

Then, "if she gets up now, we can each have half an hour." ... "Fifteen minutes." ... "Five minutes."

Hipster-Looking Brunette got up to talk to the security guard. When she came back, she told us, "Well, apparently she told the security guard that she needed to do some 'spiritual cleansing'. That is not a good sign."

We analyzed every aspect of her body, looking for a sign that she was going to get up. She had terrible posture, tilted over to one side with one shoulder raised. After awhile, we noticed that Marina mirrored this position. We each took turns standing up and walking to the opposite end of the square to look at Awkward Brunette's face (we learned her name was Helen). "Helen looks smug," I reported back for the group.

"You know, if only she had told me she was planning to sit all day, I would have done other things with my day and come back tomorrow," Hipster-Looking Blonde said. She was next in line...for about seven hours.

"It looks like Marina's telling her to leave," Liz said. "I guess Helen's not very good at reading social cues."

Some of the things people said were mean. Somebody said, "I should have known. She showed up looking homely like she was ready to sit." Someone else said, "Well, maybe it's the closest thing she's had to sex in years."

And although I was disappointed about the increasing unlikeliness that I would get to sit with Marina, despite having arrived at four a.m., I was struck by the fact that all these people were making character and lifestyle judgments about a woman based on her looks and how long she chooses to sit in a chair opposite a famous performance artist. And as a feminist, something about that made me profoundly uncomfortable. Sure, I was irritated that Helen had taken my chance -- and even if she was going through "spiritual cleansing", maybe there would have been many other people who could have experienced some of that -- but she was still operating within the confines of the piece. I really hope that Marina writes a book about her experience, because I would love to know what goes through her head while she's sitting, and if she's able to move past judgments of people. Somehow, I feel like she is.

I heard somebody say that maybe Helen was giving Marina a gift. That it was a response to the increasing speed of the piece -- that so many people just wanted to sit that Helen wanted to say, "This is a profound experience and I'm going to sit here with you and slow this down and share it with you." I don't know if that's true or not -- and again, I would like to know how Marina feels about it. I would like to think that Helen experienced something profound enough to cancel out my disappointment and that of those around me. If she did, I'll probably never know.

I asked Jennifer (Short-Haired Professorial Lady) if she would mind calling me if Helen got up so I could see the rest of Marina's exhibit. She took my phone number and I went upstairs.

Some pieces I found really interesting. Some I didn't. One in particular scared me -- Marina had set up a table with a lot of objects, including a gun with a bullet, various knives & whips, condoms, a cupcake, lipstick, and a hairbrush. On the table was a sign that said participants in the exhibition could use any of the objects on Marina in whatever way they wanted for the duration of the piece (between 6 or 8 pm, I don't remember, and 2 am). "I am the object," said the sign. "I take full responsibility."

Another piece consisted of two naked people standing really close to one another, facing each other. Participants could walk between them. Another piece was a man lying naked on a table with a skeleton on top of him. The skeleton moved up and down as he breathed, and the man was crying. In another piece, a young woman was suspended nude in midair sitting on a bicycle seat with her arms out, balancing. Since one of the focuses of Marina's work is energy, it struck me as interesting that Marina chose to change the gender of the performers in many of the pieces, since that strikes me as a huge change in energy. Originally, the naked-people-doorway piece was a man and a woman, and I saw it with two women. Nude With Skeleton was performed by a woman, and I saw it done by a man. When I returned from the exhibit, Jennifer asked me which performer I had turned toward when passing through. I said I had turned to the left. It didn't occur to me until later, when we discussed the possible implications of gender in these performance pieces, how much it would have changed the piece for me if the option was turning toward a man or a woman. Would I have turned toward the woman on the basis of familiarity/a mirror for myself or toward the man on the basis of difference/attraction? How different would the piece feel if it were performed by intersexed individuals, or someone whose external genitals didn't match their gender expression?

Later, I talked to my dad on the phone, and he asked me if I was going to go back.

"Well, I really think that $40 and two full days of my time are the most that I can put into it," I said.

"Congratulations," he said. "You've just answered the age-old question, 'What is the value of art?'"

Monday, May 24, 2010

New Home, New Leaf

I like the sense of moving forward that comes with moving to a new place -- leaving a part of myself behind and inventing a new home out of thin air. I like to think that if I can make a home anywhere, I'll always be at home. A few of you (especially my parents, who think I'm really cool) have been nudging me to post pictures of my new apartment since I moved in mid-March, and I'm finally getting around to it now. At some point, I'll add some pictures of the outside/courtyard area, which is really pretty with lost of flowers. Also, fake chickens. I promise I will photograph the fake chickens. The first time I noticed them, it was late at night and one of them had been knocked on its side, and I thought it was a real live dead chicken. Real Live Dead Chicken would be a good name for an emo punk-rock band.

Living room:


The strawberry-print apron hanging up is one of my favorite things I've ever bought.

I've been really into chickpeas lately.

This is where I do my writing. I used to write in bed, which is a terrible habit for an insomniac (who am I kidding, I still do sometimes). But when my roommate Zac moved out, he left us his desk, which is now a communal work-space and eating-space. He also left us the fan, which I think I will appreciate more and more as the summer progresses.

My room! As you can see, I am awesome enough to have turquoise walls and purple curtains. The big green dresser was inherited from former roommate, and it's bubble-wrapped partially for style, partially so I'm less likely to hurt myself. Please notice the Mason jar filled with wooden clothespins -- it's one of my favorite things, aesthetically speaking. I mostly do laundry by hand with Dr. Bronner's all-purpose organic soap and hang it on the clothesline out my window. This saves the money, hassle, and time commitment of going to the laundromat (though there's one right outside my building). Also, I want to have at least one story-for-the-grandkids about how I saved money during the Great Recession, when I lived in Brooklyn on minimum wage.

In terms of feeling like a real grown-up, picking out my own bed and mattress was pretty exciting. I've basically never slept in anything bigger than a twin, except at hotels, so I love having a full-size bed. I can spread out like a starfish or, if you prefer, the kind of tiny puppy that takes up way more space than you'd think possible.

This is the bookshelf that I'm trying so, so hard not to fill with books that actually would belong to me and instead, get them from the library and return them. This takes a superhuman amount of self-control, considering I work in a bookstore.

I got all of the furniture in my room -- bed, mattress, bookshelf, bedside table (not shown), and dresser for under $500, including delivery. Everything is from IKEA. Here's the trick: hire a car service for delivery instead of IKEA's official service, which will charge you almost $100. A lot of car services have vans or minivans, and because IKEA's stuff is all flat-packed, it's pretty easy to fit into a regular van. I ordered a minivan from Pratt Car Service, and paid $20. Then I tipped the driver super, super well because he even helped me bring everything up the stairs. I did have a lot of trouble with the assembly initially (the instruction books have no words, just pictures, so they don't have to be translated into a million languages, so it's a bit confusing) but luckily I have great friends who are happy to help me out. Otherwise, IKEA will assemble it for you for a fee, and private businesses will probably assemble it for less.

In other news -- going back to see Marina on Wednesday. Stay tuned for further developments.

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.)