Last Thursday, I spent almost eight hours in line to sit with Marina Abramović at the Museum of Modern Art.
I arrived just before the museum opened at 10:30am, and took my place at the back of a line that stretched to Sixth Avenue. I waited, herded by innumerable museum employees, to get to the door (15 minutes), I waited in a maze of wire stanchions to buy a ticket (10 minutes), I waited to show my ticket to the guard and walk up the stairs, and then I took a position at the end of the line for Abramović's performance just before 11 a.m. I was 27th in the queue.
Marina was sitting with a woman around her age. Then a man in a seersucker suit and natty little Cuban-heeled boots took her place. Anna Holmes joined me in line, and then next to sit with Marina was a young guy with curly hair who wore a shawl-collared tuxedo jacket over a dark t-shirt. After a few minutes with Abramović, his chest started heaving and he seemed to be on the verge of tears. Even from 20 feet away at the perimeter, we could see his Adam's apple bobbing furiously as he swallowed; his body language was somewhere between arousal and heartbreak. Then he got up and walked back out.
When Marina Abramovic concludes her piece, on May 31, she will have spent 716 hours and 30 minutes sitting down opposite a succession of more than 1,000 people, and counting. Where she sits, in the atrium on the MoMA's second floor, has to be the most overlooked area of the whole museum: while I waited, faces appeared, paused, and then vanished on balconies and at windows on each of the floors above. It goes something like this: Marina looks at you, you look at Marina, and hundreds of other people look at you and Marina looking at each other. The guy ahead of me in line, a burly, bearded man in a flannel shirt and work boots so unscuffed I took them for a fashion statement, had come to the MoMA four times and never succeeded in sitting down with her. (That day he'd cleared his schedule.) We talked about how we so rarely look at each other in daily life. When two adult strangers make eye accidental contact, we hasten to look away. "It's like we're scared of connecting," he said. It's a hard thing, to really see another person, and to be scrutinized yourself in return.
The sixth floor houses a retrospective of Abramović's career. Playing are films of her performances over the years, including 1974's "Rhythm 0," wherein she stood passively in a gallery for six hours, while the audience was permitted to use any of 72 objects on her body in any way they chose. (Among them was a loaded gun, which one man pointed at her head.) There are also live performers re-enacting some of Abramović's works, like "Imponderabilia," where two nude people face each other in a doorway that people walk through.
I cried when I watched "The Great Wall Walk," two videos simultaneously projected, one of her partner of 12 years, Ulay, and one of Abramović, each walking toward the other from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. When originally conceived, the wall copy explains, they had planned to perform the walk as a durational work of art, meet in the middle, and marry. But by the time permission was granted from the Chinese authorities, they were no longer a couple. (As Abramović puts it in a terse, Anne Carson-esque timeline that is reproduced for the show, first she and Ulay no longer had sex, then there was a problem in the relationship, then they got permission to walk the wall, and she found she no longer missed his smell.) When they met in the center, they separated. I can't remember the last time I cried at a museum, if in fact I ever have.
In another video, Abramović and Ulay plug their noses, lock lips, and pass the same breath back and forth and back and forth, inhaling and exhaling into each other's mouth and lungs, until more than ten minutes later they lose consciousness. It sounds almost romantic to hear it described — like a play on love's cutesiness, a real folie à deux, but to see it is almost sickeningly violent. They are sucking the air out of each other's bodies. Perhaps it is a metaphor for love.
When I visited the retrospective again yesterday, I saw Paco Blancas, the most famous of the handful of "repeaters": people who sit with Abramović more than once. (In Blancas' case, I believe the count is over 20.) He was in a darkened gallery where a performer was suspended on a wall, naked, her feet on two pegs, her pussy resting on a bicycle seat. The performer was framed by a rectangle of white light. Blancas looked at her for a long time. She looked back.
Down on the second floor, one thing you notice is that there are many, many more women waiting to sit with the artist than there are men. (The Flickr seems to skew about 2:1.) This is in direct contrast to some of Abramović's other works — compare the assorted art students with quirky hair and grandmotherly types to the crowd of men who surround Abramović on the video for "Rhythm 0." (When one leans in and rips open her shirt, I cringed and looked away.) There are young women waiting, there are old women, there are mothers and artists and office workers and the childfree — whether they are there to give props to a prominent female artist at the top of her field in the male-dominated and clannish art world, or because women respond disproportionately to the kind of communication Abramović is trying to achieve with the piece, or because women identify with the kind of masochism and self-denial implicit in Abramović's work, or because men are disproportionately hesitant to approach a woman in a position of power, isn't really knowable. I think it might be a bit of all the above.
The queue is a dynamic unto itself. The line starts (or ends) with a little waist-high sign at the entrance to the performance space, wraps around behind a wide square pillar, and then continues down the next side of the square. Some waiters stand, some sit. There are no stanchions or wires to demarcate the line from the rest of the atrium, and the exhibit guards — jovial types, and extremely protective of Abramović — do not intervene in its organization. Because galleries branch off from the atrium, not to mention MoMA's bookstore, foot traffic is heavy, and it can be hard to tell at a glance who is really waiting, and who is merely pausing to take in the action on her way to the café or the Picasso show.
So it's up to the line to set its own boundaries. What is a line but a means of regulating a social space? I formulated a series of questions, as in a workbook: Is it okay for the woman stranger next to you to leave and go to the toilet? Sure, why not. What about those girls up in front — they left their tote bags before going for a walk around the square. Now one is in the bookstore and one is talking on a cell phone. They're coming back. Does that count as still being in line? Will anyone challenge them? That man coming out of the gallery, was he trying to jump the queue or just talk to a friend? Did I see him before? Had he claimed a place before my arrival? Were there more people ahead of me now than before, or had I mis-counted? I wasn't sure if the people in line with me were my competitors or my potential friends. What if there are four people waiting, and three of them leave for a long time? Is the fourth friend a sufficient place-holder? What about going down to the street for a cigarette? Is this like a restaurant where as long as your party is there when your table is ready, all's fair? Or is the waiting part of it? Can we save places for friends who are running late? Is physical presence in the queue enough, or is absorption in a magazine, in a conversation, in anything other than respectful contemplation of Abramović somehow against the spirit of it? One dude sat and worked on his laptop. What is this, Starbucks? Anna brought her new iPad. I played on it. What if we all left some token of our status here, a newspaper or a sweater each, and then got up and left for a while? Could we come back? Would we be the same line we had been, or a different one?
Around 1:30, I was in about 18th place when a strange and virulent sensation of malice passed through the line. Who was that man? There was a man sitting with Abramović. We did not like him. Mr. Flannel used the word "vampiric." Anna and I imputed to him many unsavory motivations. Groups of people ahead and behind us held similar conclaves, gestured, pointed, shot him concerned looks. He wasn't doing anything — you can't speak or move or gesture to Abramović, you just sit there — but we knew he was up to no good. (Also he was taking a long time.) From somewhere ahead, I overheard the phrase "Black aura." Even the guards were pacing more than usual, gesturing talking amongst themselves, and frowning. A stranger, a man who had already sat with Abramović, came up to us and we started talking about the strangely behaving sitter.
Turns out the man, who was tall, with close-cropped hair, a large nose, and blue eyes, was an art world friend of Abramović's. He was able to explain certain important features about the piece that had been unknown to me previously: For one, that there is a VIP list. Mr. Flannel was distraught. "I hate nepotism! I hate it I hate it I hate it," he said, shaking his head. "Oh man, do I hate nepotism." Mr. Blue Eyes blinked; Anna and I exchanged glances. For another, that Abramović is undertaking her marathon of ascetic immobility under the supervision of a doctor. One who has provided her with appetite suppressants. For another, that although certain people are assured places at the very start of the line (like Mr. Cuban Heels, and the Tuxedo Jacket Man, whose behavior seemed less creepy once we realized he was known to Abramović), most of them sit down and get up again very quickly. You could argue that they function as the rabbit in a foot race. (Of course, you could also point out that rabbits are banned at the World Championships and at the Olympics, and that having any kind of special super-line is antithetical to the nature of the piece, because not all waiters are waiting under the same conditions.)
We wondered a lot about the situation of Abramović's excretory needs. Was there a catheter? "I hope something less painful than that," said Mr. Blue Eyes, making a face. Her skin looks waxy in all the pictures from the piece, and even more unreal in person. (Colm Tóibín's comparison of the artist to a corpse seems unkind, until you see her.) Dehydration suggests itself as a prosaic explanation for her complexion.
At around 4, Anna left the museum. A woman from Long Island — or, as she called it, "The island" — came up and began talking to Mr. Flannel and I. "She really doesn't go to the bathroom?" she asked. She had a head of gray hair, and wore purple wire-rimmed glasses and a purple shirt. "I wish you could hook her up to a brain scan while she's doing that. I wanna see what all those noo-rons are doing." She really liked the naked people on six. She squeezed between them, and faced the woman. "I wasn't gonna come all this way and not do it."
A group of school children appeared from out of one of the galleries.
"Is it a staring contest?"
"They're holding a staring contest!"
"What are they doing?"
"They're just looking at each other."
About six of them sat down around me and Mr. Flannel. We were now around 14th and 15th in line. I struggled to explain my purpose in visiting to a 6-year-old. "It's because we don't really look at each other," I said.
"I look at people all the time," she replied.
By stepping into Abramović's klieg-lit square, one agrees to be scrutinized and documented. (Sitters can refuse permission to the event's official photographer, but the live stream and video recording doesn't appear to stop.) Whether you think this is of primary importance to her piece or not — there are a lot of ideas you can throw at a work like "The Artist Is Present" and have more or less stick; I think that elasticity of meaning is more or less what people are objecting to when they call performance art "empty" or "attention-seeking" — doesn't really matter, because it's one element that's there. Looking can be a form of harassment (leering), an aggression (staring), a notation on beauty (furtive glances). It's communication. Somewhere around mid-afternoon, I realized that there was a reason that of all the lines I had waited in that day, this one was the least guarded and defined: The queue is part of the piece. By setting artificial conditions, like a line with no delineation and no external order, Abramović strongly tipped our hands towards communication in a place where we normally wouldn't speak. Days elapse between even my most cursory and codified exchanges with strangers, and on Thursday I had real conversations with six of them, counting the 6-year-old. It was unnerving and yet it actually made sense. Abramović was socializing us. We were coming together around our own norms within the space she had carved for us. It felt empowering, and hopeful.
5 o'clock rolled around. I was 10th. Mr. Flannel was shifting from boot to boot. "This is my fourth time coming here," he repeated. It was clear we were not going to sit with Marina before the museum closed at 5:30. But nobody, except for a few latecomers I'd assumed were wishy-washy to begin with, left the line. It was almost as if the hours that we had sunk into waiting fruitlessly for Marina Abramović mirrored her own silent, monumental hours of contemplation. To cut out early to gain a mere 15 minutes would be somehow wrong. At half past, the last sitter got up, and the artist slowly inclined her head. We all clapped. It had been a wonderful performance.
Marina Abramovic, The Artist Is Present [MoMA]
Marina Abramovic — The Artist Is Present [Flickr]
Visitor Viewpoint: MoMA's Mystery Man [MoMA]
Earlier: Sight At The Museum: Celeb Spotting With Marina Abramovic