Trump has the covid. Some of his staff, some Republican senators, his press secretary, have the covid. Spin that Kayleigh, you terrible example of, and for, blond women everywhere. Yes many white women are ridiculous. But that also means that some are not. And even some blond women are not so terrible and ridiculous as T’s current press secretary might make us seem. But her act may not be working as planned… T is down in the polls with white suburban women voters, likely Kayleigh’s main audience, her ivy-education used to perfect lies and manipulation, her barbie outfits and smooth subtle curls making sure she doesn’t look threatening in any way.
The other night I watched The Artist is Present, a documentary about Marina Abramović, the performance artist. This is a strange transition from Kayleigh McEnany, or maybe not, though T-world performance is of an entirely different sort. And watching the film felt like a way of responding to, or processing, this world dominated by T., who is a culmination of so much that has come before.
I only learned of Abramović recently, a few months ago, at an arts residency, from another performance artist who follows her work closely. So closely she (the person I met) became part of Abramović’s piece at MOMA in 2010. I hadn’t known what to make of the art. Only having glimpses of some of her work before watching the film. Her work has often been intensely physical, subjecting her naked body to violence or other physically demanding challenges. When I started watching the film, I still didn’t know what to think. But by the end, like so many of her real fans, Abramović has pulled me in, I become captivated. I know lots of art experts and critics have written and commented on her work, and I’m sure there’s all kinds of interpretations and explanations, reflections on motives and political messaging… I haven’t read any of that. I don’t know if I will. But as a writer, I’m fascinated by the total physical bodily experiences that so much of her work focuses on. The Artist is Present. To me it’s about the physical body/bodies in physical space. And mental and emotional presence. The main work during the MOMA exhibition was Abramović sitting for eight hours a day (6 days/week for three months) at a small table, and where visitors could sit in the chair opposite her and be with her at the table, in that space. She sat still, closing her eyes between visitors, so that when a person sat down, she opened her eyes solely upon them, and when they got up to leave, she closed her eyes again and lowered her head, creating an entirely new space for each successive person. She held them in her physical and emotional presence. Toward the end of the film, the camera gave more focused time to the up-close faces of some of those who sat across from her. Some cried. Some put their hands over their hearts. Some expressed deep and intense feeling from their eyes, faces, as if no one had ever actually looked at them before, hadn’t before sat in quiet presence with them in such a way. Abramović slowed down time to imperceptible movements during those visits. She gave her visitors the entire space of her attention and care. Her facial expression sometimes changed subtly, and sometimes more discernibly, as she connected with others. A few times, tears also fell from her eyes.
Some of the other pieces in the exhibition were also about physical presence in space. A number of her earlier pieces were re-created by other artists or actors hired to perform them in other parts of the museum. Two naked bodies, a man and a woman, faced each other with a small amount of space for visitors to squeeze through, so that the nude and clothed bodies pressed against each other for a few seconds at a time. Another nude body lay under a (probably real) human skeleton, a commentary on our own mortality maybe, or a look to the insides of ourselves that we don’t otherwise see. Videos projected on the walls showed Abramović’s past performances, including whipping her own naked back repeatedly, and two naked bodies slamming into walls or into each other. I think about how these represent the literal and figurative body in physical and other kinds of space. As our bodies exist in and move through the world. Navigate, survive, circle through physical, emotional, psychic spaces. We slam into walls, beat ourselves up. Some of us are subject to literal and metaphorical beatings, many kinds of violence and violation. Sometimes we move in the world without thinking, unaware of our physical selves. The videos were mostly in black and white. The other artists’ live performances were mainly naked white and black and brown bodies. The main element of color in the whole exhibition was the blue or red dress or white dresses that Abramović wore at the table, across from visitors. These kinds of physical/emotional resonances have always been true, but isn’t it all even more incisive now?
In the final month, the table was removed, so that the connection between her and her visitors became even more closely connected. I don’t know if she offered an artist’s statement about this exhibition, or reflected on the relation between the video works, the re-created works by young performance artists, and her presence at the table. I don’t know if she spoke to the intended disconnection and thereby connection between the violence done to bodies in the world and the undoing of emotional violence in relation, in human connection, in two people holding each other in their gaze and in their hearts. At first glance, one unfamiliar might see the naked bodies as sexual, sexualized, or calling attention (sex sells) in some way as an attention-getter or distraction. But the bodies are instead vulnerable in ways beyond sexual activity. Though sex can make one entirely vulnerable and subject to various kind of emotional or physical violence. But the performers in the nude, stripped of the false protection of clothing and accessories, make the audience vulnerable too, as maybe we see ourselves as fragile individuals in the world and subject to how the world treats us, or how we pass by others often in close contact but don’t connect. How sometimes we are put on display and held there, through no intent or motivation of our own.
By the end of the film, I am held in that space. I look into the eyes of the visitors across from Marina who connect with her in that space, and I think about art and the power it can have in the world. I think about how the idea of the power of art is often, for me, so hard to hold on to, to really know and trust in, when so much news and politics and literal actions and events are happening at breakneck speed every day. So hard to remember when scrolling through social media or working on random tasks that take up hours every day. And instead of imagining what it would have felt like to sit across from her, to look into her eyes and let her into mine, a thought that only now crosses my mind two days after watching the film, instead of that I thought about art. It’s power. It’s necessity. Marina was able to stop time in that space. She invited people in, and held them, for as long as they wanted to sit there. Recognizing how we are often alone in the world, battling and surviving and moving, often not allowed the vulnerability of our own feelings and emotions and need for human contact and love, she made a space of quiet presence, like a gift, for everyone who entered.
Even if, as is said clearly in the film, she needs the audience, needs to feel seen and acknowledged and loved, maybe as much as or more than the audience needs her, the power of that performance, and the clarity, is striking. The exhibition was in 2010. I don’t know what she is doing now. Or if her art has changed. Many artists have talked in these past few years about figuring out how to be artists and political activists. I wake up every day wondering how to be both, though in many ways I’ve abandoned my artist/writer self to be more active, more political, more focused on literal news and events and responses to those. I spend more time working, for my job, for volunteer causes, and less time writing or engaging in other kinds of creative practices. And I don’t know how to trust more in art, in it’s potential to affect and maybe even create change. Or to feel allowed to spend more physical and emotional time there. But I don’t want to have to choose. There are many kinds of art, many kinds of action, many things that make our lives whole, and that make us care and think and relate to one another, that make us question, and trust, and critique, and be human.