Something New, Something Old

How beautiful is this? From enpundit:

Marina Abramovic and Ulay shared a great love story in the 70s. Together they performed art out of the van they lived in, forming a collective called “the other”.

When their relationship had come to an end, they went to the Great Wall of China to walk it together. Both started walking from the opposite end until they met in the middle for one last big hug before disappearing from each other’s lives.

For her 2010 MoMa retrospective, Marina performed ‘The Artist is Present’, the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history.

During the performance, Marina shared a minute of silence staring into the eyes of a complete stranger who was seated in front of her. This is when Ulay arrived, without her prior knowledge.

I love the way the simplicity of something like looking at another person hints at a larger story here. The movements of their mouths and eyes – the quiet smile of acknowledgment Abramovic gives Ulay, the wry grin he flashes back at her- contain multitudes.

But the most astonishing thing about this performance, I think, is how the nature of the art fundamentally changes when Ulay sits down.

The artist’s creation is open to subjective interpretation, of course, but for me, Abramovic’s project challenges our standards of emotional capacity. It does this by shrinking the duration of the participant’s relationship with another while simultaneously expanding or intensifying the substantive nature of it. In everyday conversation, even intimate friends may only hold eye contact for a few seconds at a time – by inverting these norms, “The Artist is Present” creates a temporary emotional space so powerful that many people were moved to tears.

Imagine human interaction as a series of boxes, defined in size and substance by the amount of time we spend with another person and the intensity/intimacy of our interaction with them. For example, small talk in an elevator could be characterized as a small, nearly empty box – a fleeting interaction of minimal intensity and engagement. On the other hand, a lifelong bond could be described as a very large box filled to the brim – or, if the relationship has soured, a large box that has drained to near-emptiness.

With strangers, “The Artist is Present” creates a series of small, temporally limited boxes that begin empty and fill quickly, until they are nearly bursting – the experience is radically “creative” or “expansive” in that it summons an emotional relationship of unexpected intensity from thin air.

But when Ulay sits down, this “creative”, novel process changes instantaneously and flips the project on its head to become an experience of “compression” and recollection.

Ulay’s presence subverts the mechanical rules of the artistic experiment-performance at its core. The great love that Abramovic and Ulay shared subsumes and overwhelms the temporal and emotional mechanisms of the art. What was before an exercise in creation becomes one of rediscovery and memory. The intensity of eye contact serves not as a mechanism to establish intimacy, but to recall it. It is common to say that powerful stimuli cause memories to come “flooding back” – the space between Ulay and Abramovic isn’t being filled spontaneously from the inside, but from the outside, in volumes far beyond its capacity to hold. The final inversion happens to the artist herself – normally the force of genesis, the one who holds her audience with her gaze, she becomes the one who is moved to tears.

Something new becomes something old – creation becomes recollection, and the tangible experience is engulfed by intangible memory. It is a testament to the power and genius of this performance that its nature could be challenged so fundamentally by Ulay’s presence and become even more beautiful in the process.

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