At ten o’clock on a recent weekday morning, when the crowds were let in the door and up the stairs to the big hall on the second floor of MoMA, Marina Abramović was already seated in the center of a space that had been cordoned off by lines on the floor, strong lights making it seem like a movie set. She was wearing an immensely dramatic flowing red dress. Her black hair was in a single plait which folded around her left shoulder. She had her back to the stairs. She would not move from her own chair, not once, not even to eat or go to the bathroom, while the museum stayed open. In front of her was a small simple table and an empty chair, a line forming to take the seat facing her.
I was second in the line. The woman in front of me seemed nervous as more people joined the line behind us. By ten thirty there were more than twenty people waiting to sit on that chair opposite Abramović. Many others stood around and watched.
Marina Abramović’s eyes were closed and her head was down. She was like a figure praying or in a state of concentrated reverie. The effect, the pose, was from a painting in its designed, self-conscious stillness rather than a moment in opera or the theatre. As the woman who was first in the line approached and sat down, Abramović did not move; she let a few seconds linger. And then she lifted her head and opened her eyes.
She seemed immensely weary. The gaze was of someone who has been gazing too much into too many faces. But it was not tired; it was fully alive, alert to itself and the light and the still drama of the occasion. She did not do much more than gaze, allowing very little variation in the intensity of the look. Sometimes she blinked. That was all. I watched from a distance and waited.
And then it was my turn. I had been told by one of the guards to let ten seconds or so pass before I approached. During this time, Abramović put her head down once more and closed her eyes. I had been seated for something like half a minute when she lifted her head and looked at me. The gaze now, from this closer perspective, was more sorrowful, but it was also oddly noble and grand. And it was concentrated. She was looking at me and at me only.
I knew not to speak or move or make any gesture. I tried to soften my own gaze, which had been too concentrated and sharp to begin with, and I was curious to know if she would notice this, or do anything with her own gaze in return, but she did not. The lights caught her left eye in two points, but later only in one point, which means she must have moved her head slightly, but I did not see her doing this. The other eye seemed dead, or deadened in comparison. Her nose was strong, her lips full.
It was important, I thought, to do the gazing as intelligently as possible. I knew that she would not smile, or descend into shyness. She would only look. And I had permission to look at her looking all day if I liked. Despite the line of people waiting, there was no time limit on how long I could stay in this chair.
It was like being brought into a room in Enniscorthy when I was a child on the day after a neighbour had died and being allowed to look at the corpse’s face. You studied Abramović’s face with the same mystified intensity, as though it would yield something—not come alive exactly, but in its very stillness offer something, an image maybe, that you should know and remember.
The gazing came in waves. Sometimes it was easy to relax and just look, and blink when you had to, and then look harder. She was always looking directly at your eyes. Her face was not like a mask. Just as the face of someone who has recently died can seem to flicker or move, so too her face seemed at times infinitely suggestive and vulnerable. But it was also sexual, sensuous, spiritual, and that made me both fascinated and uncomfortable. It made me feel that I could spend the day there opposite her, and maybe the next day too, and it also made me want to go, it made me consider at what point I would leave.
As soon as I began to think over my options, I forced myself to look at her more closely. I had no clear idea what she was thinking but she was doing a good imitation of someone gazing in the most serious way at someone else, like a painter might gaze in that second before applying the brush to the canvas, or like the sitter in turn might gaze at the painter. Or like we should look at paintings ourselves, or at things we believe in. Whatever she was doing, Abramović was causing a line of energy that made laughter, mockery, irony into matters that were beside the point.
This was serious, too serious maybe, too intimate, too searching. It was either, I felt, what I should do all the time, or what I should never do. I wondered if I should go. I tried to look at her harder, I tried to get more from my gaze and from hers. She did not change. Eventually, I bowed to her and turned away from her. She put her head down again and closed her eyes and awaited her next visitor. My stay had lasted twenty minutes.
Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is on view until May 31 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.