This week I am compelled to tell you about an amazing documentary I recently watched on HBO of the performance artist, Marina Abramovic, titled The Artist is Present, which takes the viewer through the process of creating and enacting her 2010 performance art production at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
For 3 months, 7 hours a day, 6 days a week, Marina sat in a straight-backed chair, initially with a table between her and an empty chair (she later had the table removed). She invited any museum visitor to sit across from her. For any length of time. The main rules for the visitor were that they could not speak to her or touch her. Other than that, whatever occurred was allowed to happen in that space… observed by museum visitors and vigilant security officers. And what occurred was amazing.
When I have described this performance artist’s exhibition to other people, I have gotten some interesting reactions and responses.
“Why would anyone want to do that?”
“Why would anyone want to see that?”
And I feel just a little bit anxious to defend this artist. Maybe like, if I were a ballet dancer who wanted to explain to someone unfamiliar with dance how incredibly hard it is to do a perfect pirouette. Or if I were a golfer trying to explain to someone who has never played golf why Tiger Woods is so amazing. (That would be my husband talking to me!) I want to defend it, because I feel like not only did I “get” it… the point, the performance, the intention… I have some small idea of how hard it is to do what she did.
And I am in awe of what Marina challenged herself to do.
How hard can it be?
Seriously, how hard can it be to sit for 7 hours a day in a chair? How hard can it be to sit across from somebody? How hard can it be to look deeply into someone’s eyes and be willing to “be present” with them, to accept whatever and wherever that person is at that point in time? How hard can it be to just “be there?”
Anyone could do that. Right?
You could do that. Right?
Visitors came and sat across from Marina and scowled at her in anger. They looked confused. Some were overwhelmed at the experience of looking into another’s eyes…someone who would not look away…and broke down in tears. No matter what or who sat across from Marina, she stayed in a place of authentic honesty… she showed emotion in her face.
She sometimes cried as well.
But she was “there” with every person…
750,000 individuals in the span of 3 months.
Every therapist makes a commitment to be “present” for every client they are with. They commit to leaving behind all thoughts and concerns about their own personal lives and about whatever has happened before you come into the room…and about whatever will happen after you leave the room… so that theroom will only hold you and your therapist. It is “sacred space,” where the outside world is not allowed to intrude during your “time.”
I’ve always thought it is an occupational perk that therapists have to learn how to be completely present with their clients in order to be effective. To empty your mind and keep it focused on what is happening in the NOW is a wonderful thing… and a prerequisite for being able to bring all you can offer to a client in a therapy session.
The Artist Was Present
Marina brought herself…all of herself… to this performance as an artist.
She was present. She remained present.
She gave each visitor the gift of her presence. What she was able to do is an art. If I am the only one who thinks this, that’s okay. Everyone’s allowed to be a critic, to have their opinion. And at the end of the day, you either appreciate it or not. That’s the real beauty of art.
In this case, the art of being present.
Dr. Anita Sanz, PhD, Psychologist
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