The largest mystery surrounding the 2010 MoMA exhibition Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present is finally revealed in the HBO documentary of the same name. During the retrospective, Abramović, the Serbian artist known as the grandmother of performance art, sat in a chair in MoMA’s second floor atrium from museum opening to close, with no breaks or food. Audience members were invited to sit across from her and stare back as long as they liked. While appreciating the piece from many angles—her impressive stamina, the message of communication between artist and audience—you constantly wondered, “How does she go to the bathroom?” The documentary follows Abramović and her team as they set up the show, and the secret is revealed: her chair had a hole in the seat with a hidden compartment containing a removable plastic bin.
During the 2010 retrospective of her works, (and before I worked at Buzzfeed) I made a Tumblr called Marina Abramović Made Me Cry, cataloging photos of participants in the piece who cried while sitting across from her. The blog became a viral hit; even Abramović herself saw it and thought it was funny. With as much objective humility as possible, I believe the popularity of that Tumblr ended up leaving a mark on the legacy of her piece. It was a small minority of people who cried, but the crying aspect continually comes up. Indeed, the first shot of the piece in the documentary is of a woman crying.
The most surreal moment of the film, though, is when, leading up to the retrospective, magician David Blaine visits Abramović, ostensibly to provide advice for the feat of stamina she’s about to undertake. He pitches a ridiculous idea to her for the show, where he pretends to chop her up with an axe. Abramović is interested, but her gallerist advises otherwise “I think it’s a really bad idea,” he says. “I would oppose it with every fiber of my being.” Blaine will have to wait another day for his moment at MoMA. What the gallerist understands is that Abramović’s works contains no artifice or illusion like Blaine’s. The power to make a stranger weep spontaneously just by sitting and staring back isn’t magic.
I happened to work near MoMA while the show was on and visited a number of times on my lunch break. Though I never sat across from Abramović, I did participate in one of her re-performed works, Imponderabilia, where a naked man and woman face each other in a narrow doorway. To walk through the tight space, you’re forced to lightly brush against them. I had read that most people face the woman, so I was determined to face the man as I walked through. I didn’t realize until I stood waiting how viscerally uncomfortable this would be. My heart was pounding, I was sweating profusely. In archival footage from the piece’s initial performances, even participants from the groovy ’70s were rankled by naked people, putting on their best game face, walking quickly but not too fast. Forty years later, I did the exact same thing.