Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Artist is Present
I've been thinking about Marina Abramović (a person's swarming bee-mind buzzes off to many flowers and weeds and honey pots while reading book galleys), and in particular her The Artist is Present (March-May 2010) performance at MOMA. I've never been drawn to performance art, finding ugliness and tediousness in much of it. I'm rather quick to be bored, and my eye delights in color and texture and form and evidence of high aspiration. I don't tend to like this sort of spectacle, which so often seems to diminish rather than expand. If I were curator at MOMA, I doubt that I would have welcomed such an event. I thought it was pretty silly when they put Tilda Swinton in a box, and I can't really think of a performance piece that I long to have seen.

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 Mysticism
The 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.


  1. As often happens with conceptual or performance art, I like the idea of this far more than I probably would have liked the execution or experience of witnessing it.

    1. Well, I think it's clear that I liked this more than most such things--there was something very touching about it, and you realized that for some, no one had ever paid such attention to them in a sustained manner. In that way, it had meaning and mattered.

  2. Like you, I'm not usually drawn to performance art either. Having only seen Abramović ' work online, I had mixed feelings ranging from boredom to being intrigued by the idea, as it is an exchange between the artist and the visitor, while the viewer is very much the outsider. The artist's willingness to sit motionless for hours was an astonishing performance.

    So, in all of this comes your marvellous critique which has opened my eyes to another very fascinating, insightful and personal view! Have you ever thought of a second career as art critic?

    1. Probably I love the visual arts too much to be a critic... It would risk turning my playground into something codified, with rules!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.