Read “Be Here Now” by Hari Kunzru

Be Here Now

By Hari Kunzru

On March 14, 2010, the artist Marina Abramovic sat down at a small table in the center of a gallery in the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. Visitors were invited to take a seat opposite her and meet her gaze. She remained there for seven hours each day until May 31, a total of seven hundred hours, during which time she silently interacted with more than 1,500 people. In an interview, Abramovic said she was trying to induce an “experience of the here and now.” The piece was called The Artist Is Present.

During a private viewing one evening before the show opened, the scene had something of the royal pageantry of early modern Europe. Here was the queen holding court in her presence chamber, lording it over her art-world supplicants. New York’s cultural notables were being blessed or knighted, infused with the divine mana of creativity. In the following weeks, Abramovic’s performance became an event, arguably the last great art spectacle of the pre-Instagram era. The social-media app was launched months later, in October 2010, and within a few years would force global visual culture into the straitjacket of its thumbnail grid. Abramovic’s performance had a graphic aesthetic—a long gown, a big gray space—and offered the opportunity for observers to become participants, to “have a moment.” We now recognize both these qualities as drivers of the new attention economy, and in retrospect, The Artist Is Present feels like a harbinger of what was going to happen to the art world—and to the culture more generally. “Have you sat?” was a question people asked each other. Celebrities sat. Other famous artists sat. People began to camp out in front of the museum. A blog called Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry helped to distill the idea that the right way to respond to the piece was to be moved to tears. Abramovic’s performance promised direct contact with the artist and the creative or existential authenticity she represented. For many people, this was (or at least appeared to be) an experience of profound, even shattering intensity.

I never sat. I wish I had, but at the time I was more interested in the spectacle than in the possibility of communion—or, at least, not interested enough to want to spend an uncomfortable night on a Midtown sidewalk. On its last evening, I returned to find that the scene inside the museum had mutated from royal court into a chaotic festival or perhaps a pilgrimage site. The Artist Is Present had generated its own culture. There were regular sitters, like a makeup artist who took twenty-one turns. There was a self-proclaimed leader, who had apparently spent days at the museum disputing protocol with the guards. As we angled for a view of Abramovic, an older woman asked a girl in a spandex skeleton suit to sit down because she was blocking her view. The girl retorted scornfully that she was “looking for her camp.” “Some of us,” she said, had “been here for forty-eight hours.” Read the full piece at Harper’s Magazine.

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