The Art of Silence

Why are photographs of museum visitors—including Sharon Stone and Christiane Amanpour—sitting in quiet communion with performance artist Marina Abramovic so hypnotic?

Every day for the past seven weeks, Marina Abramovic, the majestic Serbian performance artist, has sat in the brightly lit center of her exhibit at MoMA, as dozens of visitors wait for the privilege of communing with her in silence. The hours-long performance is part of Abramovic’s “ordealism” ethos, and in addition to a live cam broadcasting the scene during museum hours, the museum also has a staff photographer capturing each of the attendees who take part.

Click Image Below to View Our Gallery of Marina Abramovic “The Artist is Present” Portraits

Viewing the Flickr account cataloguing the more than 800 faces who have sat down—including Sharon Stone, Rufus Wainwright, Christiane Amanpour, and Lou Reed—is a hypnotic experience, and it’s easy to understand why the site has gone viral and created Flickr mini-celebrities.

Walking in to The Artist Is Present last week, I immediately spotted Paco, one of the more familiar faces among the Abramovic portraits. A soft-spoken make-up artist from Mexico City, he was standing at the head of the line. He was hoping that today he would be able to sit with Abramovic for the 14th time. He is captivated by her, he tells me, returning again and again. “I love her energy,” Paco says. “When I connect with her, I feel I am with humanity. . . .Her intuition and perception are very heightened. Not that she knows what I’m thinking, but we’re on the same channel, we’re in the same place.”

The photographs displayed on Flickr become an endless exercise in projection—a still-life ChatRoulette.

Last week, I lost hours of my own life to the Flickr stream, after I clicked an innocuous looking link in an email and found myself face-to-face with my old friend Dave. He stared ahead, tranced out, mouth open, tongue visible. It felt obscene to witness him like this, wrapped up in his own private Abramovic moment. Under the photo, the caption read, simply, “20 minutes.” The information struck me as intensely personal. My friend Dave is a 20-minute kind of guy. I never knew that about him.

Abramovic’s photos tap into the basic fascination we have with other human beings—the desire to stare, compare, assess, decode, and assume. In a sense, the Flickr stream is an extension of the Rorschach nature of the exhibit. Abramovic says nothing. She puts no boundaries on how long each visit will last. She offers little movement and very few expressions, though sometimes, her eyes well with tears. Across from her, people’s reactions have been unpredictable, and many walk away from the encounter with their own understanding of what went on. “Every emotional response I had to her was totally invented,” Dave says. “I certainly wouldn’t trust my own experience as a reflection of her experience.”

So too, the photographs displayed on Flickr become an endless exercise in projection—a still-life ChatRoulette. The inclusion of the time spent with the artist only increases the impulse to invent a narrative; the information becomes a crucial detail in imagining not only what transpired between this person and Abramovic, but exactly what kind of person this is that we’re looking at.

Paging through the photos, I am caught up in the fantasy of understanding. I’m enraged when I see this man sitting in his sunglasses as though he’s at a poker table. The gesture strikes me as hostile, and vaguely chauvinistic; how pathetic, I think, that his impulse is one-upmanship. On the other hand, he might have been on his way home from Lasik surgery.

I am riveted and frightened when I see the man I call Fang. The detail of his one-minute session seems particularly revealing, when one thinks about how long it must have taken him to put on his costume and make-up.

Clicking through the stream, I imagine that I’m tracing an arc. In the very beginning, most visitors were tentative and polite, sitting with Abramovic for only a few minutes at a time. Then this woman came along on Day 2 and stayed for a radical 73 minutes. Some visitors have lasted more than two hours.

The early days of portraits are also striking in their display of smiling faces. By Day 40, smiles are rare, and when they occur, they seem off-key. What’s going on here? Is this merely a change in the photographer’s choices? Or has something in the atmosphere shifted? Have visitors grown concerned for the 63-year-old artist, nervous about the toll this ordeal is taking on her? Do they feel guilty for sucking her dry?

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Lately, beneath the lights, Abramovic looks clammy and bloodless. Between visitors, she often closes her eyes and collapses her head into her hand. Dave tells me that he had gotten up after 20 minutes because he had the overwhelming sensation that she needed a break. He’d gotten worried when, 15 minutes in, her eyes had flickered away from his, and she had leaned forward in her seat.

In such a minimalist exchange, every detail is crucial. What does it mean that Abramovic’s robe was blue, then red, and now white? I was even more unsettled when, one day, out of nowhere, the wooden table between the two chairs was gone; it felt like the museum had been robbed overnight and was now forced to make do in comically reduced circumstances.

And while the Flickr stream provides windows to all of these souls, Abramovic herself, after more than 500 hours in the chair, remains ultimately unknowable. She is like the iconic psychoanalyst, sitting silently, revealing nothing, as she gives her patients the opportunity to invent her for themselves.

Plus: Check out Art Beast, for galleries, interviews with artists, and photos from the hottest parties.

Casey Schwartz is a graduate of Brown University and has a master's degree in psychodynamic neuroscience from University College London. She has previously written for The New York Sun and ABC News. She's working on a book about the brain world.