For­ays into Per­for­mance Art: Sit­ting with Maria Abramović | Kris­ten Hutchinson

Dr. Kris­ten Hutchin­son is a con­tract instruc­tor in Art His­to­ry at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Alber­ta and a visu­al artist and inde­pen­dent cura­tor. She co-found­ed the artist/curator col­lec­tive fast & dirty.

For the dura­tion of her ret­ro­spec­tive at New York’s Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (MOMA), from March 14 until May 31, 2010, Mari­na Abramović sat on a wood­en chair every day dur­ing the hours the muse­um was open. The per­for­mance, titled The Artist is Present, gar­nered much pub­lic atten­tion and press, enact­ing ele­ments that have been inte­gral to Abramović’s artist prac­tice since she began doing per­for­mance art pieces in the 1970s: dura­tion, endurance, silence, and a focus upon view­er inter­ac­tion and participation.1 What fol­lows is a reflec­tion upon my per­son­al expe­ri­ence of Abramović’s The Artist is Present performance.

Enter­ing the mez­za­nine of MOMA on April 16, I was delight­ed to see peo­ple wait­ing in line to get their chance to sit across from the well-known per­for­mance artist. Hav­ing cho­sen to learn as lit­tle as pos­si­ble in advance about the per­for­mance, I was unaware of who was per­mit­ted to enter the demarked space where Abramović sat, or whether it was the artist or the vis­i­tor who deter­mined the length of the stay in the chair across from her. Before my trip to New York, I had decid­ed that if any­one could sit with her, I was deter­mined to do so. With this in mind, I entered the line and sat down on the cold con­crete floor; I remained in line for four and a half hours.

Each par­tic­i­pant could sit across from Abramović for as long as she or he chose, thus mak­ing it impos­si­ble to know when your turn would come. Every par­tic­i­pant was record­ed with a photograph.2 The process of wait­ing in line became an impor­tant part of the piece.  The con­ver­sa­tions that occurred between me and the oth­er wait­ing par­tic­i­pants made the wait­ing bear­able and gave us time to dis­cuss the piece amongst our­selves.  Beside me was a Chilean per­for­mance artist who had recent­ly moved to New York and this was her third time par­tic­i­pat­ing in the piece. On the oth­er side of me were two women from Greece and a British woman who had trav­elled to New York togeth­er. Beside the Chilean woman was a writer from the New York Post who wrote arti­cle about his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the piece. In this arti­cle, Reed Tuck­er inter­views Camille Announ, who we watched sit­ting with Abramović for nine­ty minutes.3 We called the par­tic­i­pant inter­viewed by Tuck­er “the angry guy” because he sat with his arms firm­ly crossed and waves of hos­til­i­ty appeared to emanate off his body. If peo­ple sat for too long, oth­ers in the line became rest­less and began mak­ing neg­a­tive judge­ments about what was per­ceived as over­ly pro­longed participation.

The day dragged on, and it was final­ly the New York Post journalist’s turn. “Only two more peo­ple until my turn,” I told myself. I began to get very ner­vous. The enclo­sure around Abramović, demarked by a line of tape and four huge bright lights, was large and hun­dreds of peo­ple milled around the space through­out the day. You could not enter into the per­for­mance space unless you were going to sit across from the artist, and I had seen a num­ber of peo­ple whisked away by secu­ri­ty guards dur­ing the day for wan­der­ing into the enclo­sure. I tried to calm my nerves by remind­ing myself that I had par­tic­i­pat­ed in per­for­mance art pieces before, includ­ing a six-hour per­for­mance at the Art Gallery of Alber­ta in Edmon­ton, Alber­ta, and a twelve-hour per­for­mance in one of the lob­bies at the Epcor Cen­tre of Per­form­ing Arts in Cal­gary, Alber­ta. Because it was near­ing clos­ing time, I promised the three women sit­ting in the line after me that I would make my stay brief, so they too would get a chance. I intend­ed to sit there for five to ten minutes.

When it was final­ly my turn, the secu­ri­ty guard told me the rules, which was unnec­es­sary, since I had heard him repeat them to oth­er par­tic­i­pants; nev­er­the­less, I lis­tened and nod­ded my head: You are not allowed to speak, you have to remain in the chair, you can­not put your hands up on the table, and you can­not bring any­thing with you. Between par­tic­i­pants, Abramović would a break for about a minute to stretch in the chair and close her eyes. As she raised her head, I was allowed to enter into the space. It was the end of the day, and it had been a par­tic­u­lar­ly long one for Abramović, since she had been there for a lit­tle under nine hours. Her eyes looked red and tired. The New York Postjour­nal­ist had told me that he didn’t feel that she acknowl­edged his pres­ence at all, as if she wasn’t even there. How­ev­er, I did not find that to be true of my experience.

One does not usu­al­ly sit across from some­one and stare at her or him with­out speak­ing for a long peri­od of time, and at first, I was a lit­tle unset­tled by this lack of ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Sec­ond­ly, I was a lit­tle star struck.  “I am sit­ting across from Mari­na Abramović,” I kept telling myself over and over in my head. As a con­tem­po­rary art his­to­ri­an, I had taught her work to my stu­dents many times, and my recent for­ays into per­for­mance art had made me admire her even more. I thought that I would be over­ly aware of being watched by the crowds that con­tin­u­al­ly mill around the perime­ters of the per­for­mance space, but this was not the case. I was struck by how tired she looked and thus found myself try­ing to con­scious­ly send her pos­i­tive ener­gy, and then it felt as if ener­gy was being sent back to me. I began to under­stand why so many peo­ple had cried while sit­ting across from her, or had sat there for hours on end because it was, to my sur­prise, quite a pro­found expe­ri­ence in that you become com­plete­ly present in that moment.  Per­haps it was the wait­ing, or the atmos­phere, or the sim­ple act of just look­ing at some­one and try­ing to com­mu­ni­cate with­out words, but every­thing except that word­less com­mu­ni­ca­tion fad­ed away. Time became irrel­e­vant and despite being sur­round­ed by crowds, I was entire­ly focused upon look­ing intent­ly at just one oth­er per­son.  This kind of focus is not an expe­ri­ence one typ­i­cal­ly gets to have in every­day life. When I final­ly pried myself away, a sur­pris­ing­ly dif­fi­cult task, I was told by the women behind me in the line that I had sat there for over twen­ty min­utes. I was shocked, as I had lost all track of time, and it was only remem­ber­ing the promise that I made to them that had got me out of that chair. I went to stand with the onlook­ers; some peo­ple came up to me to ask me what it had been like.

After look­ing at my pho­to­graph on the MOMA web­site sev­er­al days lat­er, I dis­cov­ered that it was day thir­ty-three of Abramović’s per­for­mance, when I walked into the enclosed, over­ly-lit space to sit across a wood­en table from this artist whom I deeply respect. The web­site also informed me that I had sat there for twen­ty-six min­utes. Abramović would con­tin­ue to sit there, every day, all day, for anoth­er month and a half.

Kris­ten Hutchin­son sit­ting with Maria Abramović; Pho­to by Karen Alexander


1 For press about Abramović’s The Artist is Present per­for­mance, and fur­ther infor­ma­tion about Abramović’s oeu­vre, see Hol­land Cot­ter, “Mari­na Abramović: The Artist is Present: Per­for­mance Art Pre­served, in the Flesh.” The New York Times, March 11, 2010: http://​www​.nytimes​.com/​2​0​1​0​/​0​3​/​1​2​/​a​r​t​s​/​d​e​s​i​g​n​/​1​2​a​b​r​o​m​o​v​i​c​.​h​tml; Bri­an Holmes, “The Artist is Present.” May 26, 2010: http://​tur​bu​lence​.org/​b​l​o​g​/​2​0​1​0​/​0​5​/​2​9​/​t​h​e​-​a​r​t​i​s​t​-​i​s​-​p​r​e​s​e​n​t​-​m​a​r​i​n​a​-​a​b​r​a​m​o​v​i​c​-​o​n​l​ine; and Arthur Dan­to, et. al. Mari­na Abramović: The Artist is Present. exh. cat. New York: The Muse­um of Mod­ern Art, 2010.

2 Images of the par­tic­i­pants and infor­ma­tion about Abramović’s per­for­mance can be viewed at: http://​www​.moma​.org/​i​n​t​e​r​a​c​t​i​v​e​s​/​e​x​h​i​b​i​t​i​o​n​s​/​2​0​1​0​/​m​a​r​i​n​a​a​b​r​a​m​o​v​ic/

3 Reed Tuck­er, “Stare Wars.” New York Post, April 20, 2010: http://​www​.nypost​.com/​p​/​e​n​t​e​r​t​a​i​n​m​e​n​t​/​t​h​e​a​t​e​r​/​s​t​a​r​e​_​w​a​r​s​_​e​L​v​0​V​0​E​J​2​I​Z​o​W​Z​x​Y​6​4​B​TWL