The Depths of Nonverbal Conversation: Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present

© adm with CCLicense

Art and conversation contain elements that evade language and communicate on a different level. How do these elements reach us?

Marina Abramović is one of the world’s most famous performance artists. She uses her own body to create performances that defy explanation and convention and challenge her own physical and mental limits as well as the audience’s sensibilities. In 2010 the Museum of Modern Art held a retrospective featuring Abramović’s work, the largest exhibition of performance art in their history. Abramović herself performed The Artist is Present, sitting immobile in the museum’s atrium while observers were invited to take turns sitting in a chair opposite her. She did this for seven and a half hours per day, six days a week, for three months. Amazing fortitude and openness. Would you want to be on public display for such a length of time?

Video via NuvoleInViaggioll on YouTube.

When you have a nonverbal conversation with a total stranger, then he can’t cover himself with words, he can’t create a wall.

–Marina Abramović

© 16 Miles of String with CCLicense

When an artist tries something so minimalist, vulnerability ensues. Here, Abramović isn’t able to place before us a piece of art which represents her feelings and walk away, nor is she able to cloak and defend herself with words, music, or even movement. By sitting and doing nothing, she loses the identities we ascribe to her as an artist: creator, performer, interpreter. She is the equal of the person in the chair across from her.

And that person also becomes vulnerable. No longer an observer, that one is drawn into the art in the presence of the crowd. So much attention is focused there that some people break down and cry. Is it out of gratitude, discomfort, embarrassment, or just the simple act of being with others? This is an undecipherable mystery of being human: that we cannot know the inner life of others even when we are truly present with them. The beauty is that we don’t need to understand, only to notice. When someone notices our pain, our joy, our anger, or anything else about our physical or mental state and does not look away, we are touched.

© Andrés Nieto Porras with CCLicense

The reaction to this “touching” is not universal. There are cultures such as the Navajo in which looking someone in the eyes is considered disrespectful because it brings one into contact with that person’s spirit and invades their personal space. This affirms the power of directed attention. How many times do we remind our children that it is rude to stare? In many situations such attention is unwanted; it reveals to us that not everyone we meet is “safe”. The eyes are said to be the windows to the soul, and what we see there can be shockingly naked: anger, contempt, lust, fear, even madness. Wonderful emotions like love, acceptance, awe, joy, and curiosity can also be disarming, even scary. But is there something here which can be beneficial, something that we long to share?

2 thoughts on “The Depths of Nonverbal Conversation: Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present

    • katmcdaniel Reply

      Yes. I love words, but I can see how they hide us sometimes. Thanks!

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