The Artist is Present

Presence has become a management concept. Otto Scharmer’s Theory-U, otherwise known as Presencing, has grown into a small and vital industry, training organizational practitioners worldwide. The U can be mapped onto the Hero’s Journey – take a look at Ginger Grant’s book, Finding Your Creative Core, to understand more fully what this means.

The psyche of organizational culture is action-oriented. This means doing. Meeting, talking, getting results, reporting, achieving the objective. Too, we think of the Hero’s Journey as a myth, ultimately, of doing: questing, and reaching the objective of the quest, by whatever expected or unexpected means.

But what does it mean have presence? To, simply, be present?

As part of her recent retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the performance artist Marina Abramović sat, each day for the duration, with any visitor who wished, for as long as they wished. The encounters were silent. They lasted as little as about one minute and as long as twenty or more. Each encounter was documented with a single photograph of the visitor’s face, and occasional photographs of the artist’s. These photographic documents are available to view on MoMa’s flickr page, and on the artist’s page. Please visit them (links below). If you choose to look, the photographs reveal a great deal about presence.

Looking at the photographs closely is a way of being present in itself. There are nearly 2,000 images, showing a moment of presence on the part of individuals of all ages and races. You will recognize a few faces, of Lou Reed, Björk, Viggo Mortensen, and these are rather startlingly free of makeup and revealing of wrinkles and natural flaws. One dark-eyed man shows up, again and again. Nearly all the rest are anonymous. Some are tearful. Some seem impassive. Some heads are tilted backward, some forward. Jaws jut or are drawn inward. Lips are relaxed, or compressed, or upturned slightly into a  Mona Lisa smile. Eyes are shining, dull, wide, narrowed, or focused with what seems like perplexity. All mesmerizing. So much information in a collection of moments.

None of these expressions will be unfamiliar. Our brains are exquisitely wired to perceive facial signs. And, these are the kinds of things one can only experience consciously, actually see, when simply looking, closely, for an extended moment. Uninterrupted. Just being there. Just being present.

One may say that the museum is a far safer place for presencing than the workplace. Even sitting in the presence of a recognized master, witnessed by other strangers waiting behind a rope, penetrated by a democratically unforgiving illumination, and risking being revealed in a close-up photograph that will become a public document.

Pause for thought.

MoMa flickr page (selections from the photo documents)

Marina Abramović The Artist is Present (the document in its entirety, showing the length of each sitting)

Feature film, “The Artist is Present,” to be released June 1

2 thoughts on “The Artist is Present

  1. So few smiles or joy on any of the faces? Are these visitors reflecting the artist who doesn’t smile or appear to enjoy the present? (nearly 2000 moments of presence) Or do they leave their smile and joy at the door/rope because they are engaged in what they perceive as a “serious” moment?

    1. Great observation and great question, and you’re making me ponder. Surely the perception of ‘seriousness’ is indeed behind a lot of those faces, and the rope and the hype would have that effect. At the same time, I see smiles and joy in some, and if I’m not mistaken, Abramović’s face shows at least a slight smile from time to time as well as tears at others. The few times I’ve looked into the face of a person I don’t know well who is looking back for longer than a glance has felt like a serious undertaking — there’s really someone there, that I’ve perceived on a completely different level that feels, for lack of a better word, spiritual. My mythologist/depth psychologist word would be ‘numinous.’

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