In those first moments, like the rest, I admit to being unsure how to approach you. Where to glance first, how to take it in: there in the atrium, there was not one way to do it. At first I reasoned that there was no point in looking at you, for there was you and there was the idea of the piece, which I could reflect on without looking at you. So I drank up the atmosphere and listened to the crowd, thinking about the borders of the piece and the technology that also made itself present. But I noticed that I was looking more at the cameras looking at you then I was looking at you. I realized that my first momentary reasoning betrayed the kind of shame of perceiving the artist so directly—a feeling you perhaps wished to conjure. Was I supposed to look at you looking at the other person, or the two of you together? Or the two of you looking at each other with the backdrop of the audience looking at the two of you? I knew that if I was to understand this piece, I would have to look at that which embarrassed me most: you.
It did not frighten me to look at those who sat down opposite you; in fact, I could look at them for a very long time and not feel a thing. Finally, I stood on the other side of the person you were staring at, as close as possible to you as I could get. You were still looking at the person opposite you, but behind him was me, as though, if you lifted your eyes just slightly, you would be able to see me. I feared momentarily—professional though I knew you were—that my presence would shock you out of your mission to stare at the person sitting in the other chair, as though my gaze carried so much weight (doesn’t it?) as to force you to notice it. The feeling was fear because: A. I didn’t want you to notice me since you were the artist and your presence carried a mythic proportion, kind of like the feeling someone feels in the presence of a celebrity; instead I wanted to remain anonymous, while still pushing toward the boundaries that my embarrassment constructed; and B. I feared that if my presence, as I assumed in an instant, was as compelling as to force you to stop staring at the person in front of you, then I shouldn’t be there, for if your job as artist was to stare at the person in the other chair, and you did look at me, then the spell would be broken, then I would have been the sole cause of the ruin of the piece. In a way, it was a bit like fearing that I would trip and tip over a Faberge egg, which would then fall to the ground and break.
All around me I could hear children shouting to their mothers, “Look mama! She blinked! Did you see?” And suddenly I realized how simple a piece as this broke down the boundaries of art, so that peoples’ conception of it, their immediate reactions were obvious. Some of them would wonder aloud what was going on: “Are they trying not to blink?” and they realized that their theories were disproved once they saw one or both of you blink. Others discussed which one was the artist in the piece: was it you or the person opposite you or both? A father of a family that passed through the atrium, without stopping to examine you, explained to his children—with the kind of fatherly wisdom one wants his children to believe him to possess—“Look how still he is,” referring to the man sitting opposite you at the time. And this simple misunderstanding made me want to yell at the father and say, “No, fool! The one who deserves the attention is Marina!” The simple misinterpretation hurt me personally because whereas, normally, standing in front of art works, the artist isn’t present, here you were, and they were speaking of you ignorantly in the same room as you! And what’s more, I had been there with you for a long time by now, had started to wonder what kind of emotions, or lack thereof, were going through your head. I wanted to tell this father how he had passed down a lie to his children: the one who deserves the attention is not the man; it’s the woman in the blue robe. She is still, even stiller than him and she has been here all day and will be here all day for the next two months!
Others did not linger as I did in front of you, and they would shrug their shoulders, dismiss it as a “staring contest,” or say simply, “It’s art.” As though they were resigned to the fact that art encompassed something that they could not understand. As though there was nothing to be said of examining art and pinpointing what one didn’t understand about it, how it made one feel, perceiving what made one not want to stay too long looking at it. As though “art” had one meaning that could be summarized in a few sentences, and, lacking an education in the subject, one did not have access to those kinds of sentences.
Suddenly, hearing all these quick hypotheses, explanations, musings, I felt that I was protective of you. I wanted to present myself to the audience as a docent, to put on a red frock coat, something that would distinguish me as “Explainer,” “Interpreter,” “Educator,” one who had answers, not all of them, but at least some, that would shed some light on this troubling piece of art. It was suddenly important to me that they at least somewhat understand what was going on here. And that was when I realized that I was falling in love with you.
Maybe in the way that a brother looks after a younger sister, explains her nuances, interprets her idiosyncrasies to a public that would otherwise mock her because of them. And my position in all of this was woeful, yet necessary. For in an ideal world, I myself admit, the public would accept you with open arms and let yourself be the artist. But in this world, there is you: the artist, silent, acting your art without a means of speaking to the public (even though there you were in the same room as us); there is the public: who can understand or not understand your work in any way they choose; and there is the mediator: me, who knows at the very least histories, if not an acceptable method for examining the art work, explaining its purpose to the viewer, to the artist and within the context of everyday life. However, a mediator generally sees his duty necessary for reasons having to do with the general education of a public, whereas in this case, it was my burgeoning love for you that made me to want to explain.
Still, I kept quiet and fixed my eyes on you, your body, your flowing robes, watched as you bowed your head when one person decided she or he had had enough, and noticed how you stretched ever so slightly, perhaps still trying to hide something from the public: a discomfort, a fatigue. I wanted to understand this, as one perhaps wants to understand the puzzling forms in a Dali or Braque painting. This yearning for information in one way could be linked to the quest for knowledge that an art historian seeks—a problematic element of a painting through which one can enter into a discourse—but in another way, now that it had to do with you and your body, it suddenly linked itself to the kind of knowledge I yearn for when I admire a girl in class. In my younger days, for instance, graduating from a boys-only high school and moving on to a college with girls, I would spend quiet moments in class when I had drifted from the lectures thinking about the girls with their backs to me. I would see the outline their bras made and marvel at how their undergarments were so present that I could see them and think about them, and I would wonder what these girls’ histories were, what their parents were like, what worried them when they woke up late at night, what strange figments pierced their dreams.
For the long periods of time that you would stare at the person opposite you, there were blinks, there was a tilted head and there were your hands folded neatly in your lap. But in those moments that the person had had enough and left, when you bowed your head as though genuflecting, these were the moments that my interest was piqued because now finally I could see some strands of an emotion, something that might be akin to fatigue, or stress. Certainly, you had done a fine job so far of maintaining your disposition for about a month now, and you were testing the limits of the body: the limits to stay still, to look without displaying emotion, the limits to control hunger and restlessness and bodily functions. But if there was some place where I was to enter a discourse with myself about how you were a real person and not just an art object, then it was these moments when you shifted slightly in your seat and it made me wonder what else required shifting, what else wanted to stretch a little? How did you start your mornings then? With a cup of coffee? But the caffeine would certainly wane and make you tired not far into the morning, still with hours to go. Also, the coffee would make you want to urinate maybe a few hours later.
In fact, was there anything that you ingested in the morning? Were there any routines at all? Or did you keep your preparation as devoid as the performance that followed? That seemed to me the best method of all, at least for me. When, after I left the museum a few hours later, sitting in a café reading a book before me, I remarked my posture in the wooden seat. I straightened up and glanced down at the book and thought how soon I would certainly, without noticing it at first, slouch, and eventually I might be almost slumped over the book. Then I thought of you and how in the same way that a painting stays with a spectator hours, days, years after one has seen it, you were there in my thoughts. At the same time that you were still sitting straight—no, slightly, almost imperceptibly to the right, with a head tilted just a bit like a shaman’s—I was here miles away re-reperforming, imitating, copying, reinterpreting, reassessing, reembodying your plight as an endurance artist. The few minutes that it would take me to, without noticing at first, slouch, let my mind wander, glance around me, sniff, feel restless, want to leave, abandon my work, shift my legs, listen, scratch myself made me realize how much of an artist you were.
And in this I perceived my, dare I say, “contempt” for the others that sat across from you, because, respectful though they were, none were going through what you were going through. Of course, I understood and appreciated the boundaries that had been broken down by allowing the audience to participate in the art work, but still I felt, as a jealous ex-lover might, that none were worthy of your gaze, of sharing the act with you. Here was a piece that seemed to cast aside so mockingly any presumptuous spectator’s claim who dared say about a modern work of art, “I could do that!” Perhaps by seeking to breakdown the delineations between artist and viewer, you have done the reverse (or did you do this on purpose?). Art is viewed in passing, on the way to work, in newspapers and magazines, on the walls of peoples’ homes, in museums, and there is an idea of spectator and art, but here you were displaying it in a full, vibrant light: in one chair is the artist, who has been sitting there for hours without budging, and in the other chair is the spectator, who is welcome to share the act with the artist, but only for so long, as long as his or her body can withstand. Certainly, it won’t be as long as the artist, has not been yet, and will not be, for in the end she is the artist and you are merely spectator!
And sitting in the café, miles away from you, where you were not present, you still were present, because, as one learns to love fully a significant other only when she has gone missing, I learned of your stature, the power of your presence, while there with you in the room you looked sad, submissive, tired. Away from you, when you were not present, you took on this mightiness that I had not fully perceived in the museum. Suddenly I wanted to share this with you—for a second I thought of going every day to the museum from opening to close, and if I did not fix my gaze on you all this time, at least I would be there with you, experiencing your experience and allowing myself to love it, attentively, acceptingly, calmly, like a good lover would do, even if you did not notice. In fact, your ignorance of my presence would strengthen my resolve to be there with you, to share your duress! In the same way that a secret admirer lavishes anonymous attention on the cause of his desire, I would be there all day! But then I reflected my momentary disdain for the “spectator” upon myself. What made me think that I was, conversely, worthy of your love? For I, too, was spectator
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Posted on Monday, February 11th 2013