But The Artist Is Present is a curious thing, and in some ways possibly more peculiar than MOMA ever intended to sponsor. As Abramović sat in her strange, heavy robes for all those months, all day, looking into the eyes of people who stared into hers, occasionally smiling slightly or impelled to let a tear fall, she became something other. In fact, she became something that relates strongly to the holy. She became one with another, over and over again.
Mysticism is the art of union with Reality... All that [the practical, ordinary person] is asked to consider now is this: that the word "union" represents not so much a rare and unimaginable operation, as something which he is doing, in a vague, imperfect fashion, at every moment of his conscious life, and doing with intensity and thoroughness in all the more valid moments of that life. We know a thing only by uniting with it; by assimilating it; by an interpenetration of it and ourselves. --Evelyn Underhill, Practical MysticismThe appearance of union was opposed to her much earlier Rhythm 0, in which her own passivity and the presence of weapons allowed others to pierce and cut her. Rhythm 0 (1974) diminished the humanity of those present and separated them from her, even while they were touching her. In The Artist is Present, there was never any touching of bodies, though there was a greater touching through the mind and spirit.
Those who sat with Abramović were asked--without any words at all--to match and mirror back a contemplative consciousness. They achieved something rare in daily life, a kind of union, and in a quiet not so far removed from still prayer. Here was a linkage with "intensity and thoroughness" and the production of "valid moments" of lives. The participants woke up a little; they became more alive, according to their desire to experience and see, and according to their ability to be childlike and freed from the fetters and fritterings of thought. They experienced a rare turning of undivided attention to them--an examination from a place removed from ordinary life that offered no criticism and appeared to be an attention that involved the simplicity of receptiveness and love.
Such a turning of attention like sunlight onto a naked soul is clearly tied to the mysteries of life--God and love and the truth of one soul looking back at another in receptivity. There is, indeed, something beautiful and strange about it, something that draws its strength from religion and from the old, now-obscured aspirations of high art. In this aspect of the work, The Artist is Present is far closer to the traditional, orthodox aims of art with its spiritual, moral needs and timeless world than one might imagine.