Being Present

>I am thinking these days about presence. About what creates it. About what makes it real, or maybe palpable, since what is real and what is unreal, these days, I find difficult to decipher. (And, of course, the other huge question here is: Does real matter?) More specifically, I am thinking about how much energy it takes to be present. To respect another person’s presence by showing up, by becoming present yourself.

I am first thinking of how being present can take everything out of you. As evidence: me standing on South 4th Street and Bedford Avenue, waiting on the blessed B62 (which, by the way, hasn’t gotten better since the restructuring.) There was a man standing there as well, mid 50s maybe, something slightly off-kilter about his clothing. (But this is New York, and you never know anything about anyone, really.) I notice that he’s looking at me. Not looking at me like one New Yorker looks at another New Yorker. He’s trying to make eye contact. I get the feeling that he wants to ask me something. (This is natural at the bus stop. People often have logistical or directional questions at bus stops, and I, apparently, look like the kind of person who has the answers.) So, I take the bait, and look back at him.

“My wife died,” he said. “Two weeks ago. She was 62 years old.” “I’m sorry,” I said. He said thank you, and we stood there a minute, quietly, waiting on the bus, with this fact suddenly between us.

For the rest of the day I carried all that around with me, and before I crawled into bed, I spent an hour playing thrashy folk songs on the guitar, maybe annoying the neighbors, until all that was out of me and I felt like myself again. He needed to say it out loud. He needed to give some of the weight to someone else so that he could go on with the motion of living. This makes sense to me. Sometimes saying something out loud can make it real. Or sometimes we say things out loud that aren’t true at all, and it’s a way of feeling the realness of them, if only an instant, like trying on a new pair of strange glasses, or like sliding your feet into a pair of your father’s shoes. That guy just needed me to be present. Or, by default, my presence contributed his relief. Even if he made it all up, I was there, and we shared that weird, horrible, tragic conversation. And there was nothing to say afterward.

Second, I went to MoMA to see the Marina Abromovic retrospective. In addition to filling the 6th floor with lots of photos and videos, there are several recreations, or “reperformances” as Abromovic is calling them, by actors, dancers and other performance artists, of her previous work. Meanwhile, for the duration of the exhibit–about 700 hours that is–Abromovic herself will be seated at a table in the main atrium. Museum guests are invited to sit across from her for a duration of their choosing and do nothing but meet her gaze and feel whatever you feel, in a piece called “The Artist is Present.” This is what it looks like, from the outside:

Sitting in a chair for an hour is difficult. Try it for 700 hours, all the while under the gaze of lights, viewers, the art world, critics, fans, people who hate you, etc. Marina ain’t kidding, y’all. I’ve been thinking so much about presence after seeing this piece because of the way the reperformances failed to create the kind of excitement, mystery, emotion, verve–any of the things you feel when you see “The Artist is Present” in the Atrium.

So then what is creating that feeling? The situation is so simple, and other than blinking and the slight movement from her breathing, she didn’t move at all for the half hour I stood watching her. So how can it be that the reperformances don’t carry the same weight, if the actions are the same as in the original pieces? And Abromovic herself has been coaching and training the performers for the past several weeks. It begs the question, what is performance? Is it the sum of the actions, or is it the intention behind the actions? (I recall Yeats here and “how can we know the dancer from the dance?”) And if the reperformers are supposed to be truly in the moment, and truly present, then why not call them performers? Why divide the past from the present, if what you are looking for–I think–is the magic of the moment?

In the new piece, Abromovic is basically doing everything at once, controlling every aspect, either directly or indirectly, by just being present. One museum-goer opted to sit across from her for about two hours. This made me angry–this person was taking up so much time, other people were waiting, how selfish! But what does that say about my sense of time? What does that say about my own selfishness? What does it say about what I think about the act of being present, and the limits, or extensions of it?

One of the things I like most about “The Artist is Present” is that the catalog copy calls the piece “generous.” Such a rarity in art, I think. A kind of slow, meaningful present generosity.

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