Countenance

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.

One thought on “Countenance

  1. The “Two Things” Essay: From “Performance Mode” to Philosophical Reflections

    Despite the controversy surrounding the new “The Stone” column in the NY Times that features famous contemporary philosophers bringing philosophy to the hoi polloi (see Brian Leiter’s remarks here: http://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2010/05/what-is-the-ny-times-thinking.html), Professor Danto is a leading light in the field of philosophy. Indeed, his Nietzsche: A Philosopher ushered in the so-called “analytic” interpretation of Nietzsche’s works despite the flaws sprinkled throughout that text. So, after reading Jen’s post on Danto’s “Sitting with Marina,” I was excited to feast on Danto’s musings about sitting with Marina. After finishing that appetizer, it was Marina, rather than Danto’s essay about Marina, that I found intriguing. Of course, it’s quite unfair to expect Danto to do anything philosophically appealing in the space of a few paragraphs.

    I thought this statement was telling:

    “I was a sort of witness to the creative history of the work, since I had accepted the invitation to write the main essay for the show’s catalog. Part of my task was to establish the historical setting of Marina’s work, which was part archival and part interpretative. But it was another matter to describe the new piece; Marina was still uncertain what the atrium performance would be and on this point my essay was necessarily vague.”

    Given Danto’s task for the catalog, his quasi-struggle to “describe the new piece” is surprising. He is one of the most well-known philosophers of art of the twentieth century. His essay was, as he puts it, “necessarily vague.” I would argue that this is due to the intersubjective nature of the performance piece. If Danto wrote about intersubjectivity in the catalog, one wishes that he made it the centerpiece of his NY Times essay. Intersubjectivity seems key to appreciating Marina’s “The Artist is Present.” Put simply, the occupant of the chair opposite Marina is a witness of sorts. This person is a witness to her suffering and a) suffers alongside Marina {the emotional continuum here is diverse} and b) reconnects with the fragility of the human condition in an intellectual manner {the intellectual continuum here is diverse as well}. Of course, these two reactions/experiences could be mutually exclusive. Upon their departure, I’m willing to bet that those who sat across from her were persistently nagged by at least one of these given their participation in Marina’s performance. I doubt the passive, typically pseudo-intellectual utterances of “ahh…Picasso” or “look, Monet” of the bobo crowd (see David Brooks’s Bobos in Paradise), as well as the general taken-for-grantedness of oil on canvas were the de rigeur response to Marina’s performance.

    Before addressing some of Jen’s questions, which are intellectually taxing for this itty bitty philosophe, I would like to offer some comments about Danto’s observation that:

    “At MoMA, some have chosen to sit across from Marina for hours; one young woman sat for the entire length of a day’s performance, frustrating many others waiting their turn in line. Others have returned to sit multiple times. By rough estimate, visitors sit for an average of 20 minutes.”

    Skeptically, (and I say this with supreme snark) I have to wonder if the young woman who “sat for the entire length of a day’s performance” brought her lunch. She reminds me of those people who decide to remain in their parking spot once they realize you want it. It never fails. “Are they waiting for this spot? Hmm, I’m going to sip my diet coke, find my favorite radio station, call Darlene, check my Facebook and MySpace pages. I must not forget to tweet my whereabouts lest someone is in a panic about what I did in the last fifteen minutes. Oh, they left. Some people are so impatient!!”

    Jen asks: “{1} What are these strangers looking for, sitting with a stranger? {2} Are they giving or receiving? {3} What happens in that silence?” {1} Perhaps, in a Freudian sense, they are looking for themselves. Freud’s tripartite theory of mind would make for a revealing analysis of Marina’s piece. It would take a book to do this (one that Jen could write). {2} Perhaps this is a both/and rather than an either/or. {3} Perhaps, one glimpses the tip of an iceberg that conceals the most elusive knowledge known to humankind, namely self-knowledge. “Socrates, stop! That’s not Kool-Aid!”

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