On being present

The other night, a few of us went to see The Artist is Present – a documentary film about performance artist Marina Abramović’s retrospective and new piece at MoMa in 2010.

For the work, Abramović sat in a chair every day for 3 months (I think she had one day off a week) just looking at the person opposite her, who could be anyone from the audience.  In between ‘visitors’, she looked down and gathered her energy, only to look directly at the next person with an unwavering, engaging stare.

The reactions from people opposite were powerful and moving.  Many people cried, their faces softened, they put a hand to their chest, they smiled gently.

This performance, set in New York – a city notorious for people who never make eye contact – was an earth shatteringly good piece of art.  So simple, yet speaking so powerfully about the one thing we all crave – to be noticed, to be seen, to be REALLY looked at.

Having just returned from a large group event where I didn’t know anyone, I’d been thinking about thousand yard stares – you know, the way we all cultivate a way of looking without catching somebody’s eye, without actually connecting.  I’d experienced it a fair bit, especially from the organisers, who were understandably putting up walls to keep out potentially draining people.

I do it so much of the time in my own work.  I’m busy, I have things to get done and I’m afraid of getting sucked into a conversation I can’t get away from when I need to.  I’m wary of having my energy drained or having too much asked of me. 

I’d already been thinking, after being ‘stared through’ quite a few times this week, that I needed to find another way to set this boundary.  The staring through people just isn’t who I really am, no matter how useful it may be. I need to find a way that allows me to genuinely look at a person, to notice them, to welcome them and to set them at ease.  To say I’m creating a community without doing this is a nonsense.

So, my new practice is looking people in the eye – maybe not for three solid months without moving, mind – and really seeing them.  On the way, I will need to learn how to say when I need to break that contact.  It’ll be a good learning for me, one that is long overdue.  To hold one’s space and strength whilst reaching out to another, that’s quite a skill, and it’s one I need to grow.

In a very complicated world, Marina Abramović has shown me something quite simple.  The most radical, heartfelt, powerful thing we can do is to look somebody in the eye.


On being present — 4 Comments

  1. Wow yes! powerful stuff. What an insightful piece of art.

    I’ve learned to listen to people’s stories, I used to be a fixer, an advice giver, and boy is that draining! Just listening, is magical because as the person speaks they find their own answers.