In yesterday’s New York Times, philosopher Arthur C. Danto wrote a piece called Sitting with Marina. Marina Abramovic is a performance artist doing a retrospective called “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She sits at a small table, across from an empty chair. Anyone can sit in the empty chair, for as long as they want. The show is nearly three months long, and there are long lines every day to sit with her. Some people come back again and again.
Photographer Marco Anelli has taken more than 1000 portraits of the visitors, documenting the length of time they remain in the chair. The faces are open and expressive as they gaze at Abramovic. There are a wide range of ages, including children. Many of the faces are grief-stricken or weeping.
Occasionally, a music-thanatologist has remarked to me that even if they didn’t have a harp or couldn’t sing, they could still offer a vigil for a dying patient. One of my colleagues speaks beautifully about moving from music into silence. On occasion in a vigil I have put down the harp and sat in a silence that felt just as transformative as the music. I have a similar sensation as I look at these photographs. The faces in some of these portraits offer a particular presence for Abramovic. There is calm, sadness, and longing. The intimacy is startling, and seems so unintentional that I wonder if it has to do with the nature of being human.
I’m left with questions: What are these strangers looking for, sitting with a stranger? Are they giving or receiving? What happens in that silence? There is a quality of suffering in the photographs of Abramovic which draws me in as well. She looks serene, but worn out. There is a is a real kinship here between what I experience in the music-vigil, and in these images: two strangers sitting together. One suffers, one gazes, and neither has words to rely on as mediator.