“Human beings are afraid of very simple things: we fear suffering, we fear mortality. What I was doing in Rhythm 0 was staging these fears for the audience.” -Marina Abramović
“I understand that you can bring out the worst in people and the best. And I found out how I can turn that into love. My whole idea [with “The Artist is Present”] was to give out unconditional love to every stranger…” -Marina Abramović
“Then [my mother] picked up a heavy glass ashtray from the dining room table. ‘I gave you life, and now I will take it away!’ she yelled.” -Marina Abramović describing her childhood in Walk Through Walls
I interact with art in three different ways. (Well, at least three different ways). Sometimes it’s a surrogate experience; it’s a moment or a movement that I haven’t personally lived through, but that becomes vicariously mine. Sometimes art gives me a narrative through which I can arrange, explain, and understand my experiences. Sometimes art is a stage on which I can go deeper into my own experiences.
Let’s take an example: I care about my students. I believe in them. When I see one who doesn’t see her own worth (or the worth of what she can give to the world), it hurts. I want to support her in realizing that her hands are powerful, her hands are gentle, and the world needs her work. Sometimes, instead, I want to make her realize that.
If art is surrogate experience, than I could read a book where another teacher (or mother, or brother; or maybe an elderly wombat) struggles to support young wombats (there they go, breaking out from the parentheses). I could watch the approaches this wombat tries. I could get more examples, more data. That’s the first approach.
Here’s the second. Abramović’s mother’s line, the one right before she throws a very heavy something at her daughter’s head, is actually a direct quote from Gogol. (Abramović noticed that, not me; apparently, in the moment the thing flew through the air, that was one of her two realizations). In the book, presumably, a parent felt angrier and angrier until they screamed to their child: “I gave you life, and now I will take it away!” Faced by her own struggle, Abramović’s mother organizes her life along the lines of the art she’s seen. (The moment becomes a scene). Art offers a narrative into which we can fit our experience: a story isn’t simply more moments, but rather a pattern by which we can arrange and understand our moments. We want these narratives: that’s why people say “I’m a teacher,” or “I’m a lawyer,” or “I’m an American.” We want to understand who we are and what we’re working toward and where we’re going. To do that, we squish our experience into a story.
If I look at my wombats this way, then I don’t just see what they did: I start to understand that (perhaps) I’ve been trying to force my students to learn, instead of supporting them in learning. I get to name the self-hate I tend to feel when I see a student struggling (‘if I were smarter, if I worked harder, if I were better,’ I tell myself, ‘Then I could help them’). Art as a narrative of life is useful–and, of course, if you choose a violent or prejudiced narrative, it can be dangerous.
One, two, three. The last step is the step Abramović shows me. Her art doesn’t give us more experience, and it doesn’t give us a narrative with which we can understand our experience. She asks us to feel deeply. She asks us to go into our real fear, to shout out our anger. To breath this breath, fully, wholly. To touch this knife, this flame, this ice, this friend. How much of your experience is truly, fully real to you?
If I look at my wombats this way–well, there aren’t any wombats. There are no new examples, and no stories through which to explain my experience. Instead, Abramović leads me toward truly feeling the hurt, the sadness, and the confusion that comes up when I think about this student. Within that–now that I have a stage–I find love: the love that helps me see other people for who they are, not who I want them to be. I find the pride that was inside my self-hate (I can only blame myself if I have the power to control them), I find the trust in others that is more important to me than pride or anger. I find other things, too. I’m still finding.
I have a friend who meditates a lot. I once was sitting with him, focusing on my breath, and afterward I proudly explained to him that I’d imagined my breath as a sphere of light moving up and down inside my chest. He listened, carefully. He said: “There’s a difference between the idea of your breath and your breath.” Ideas are good. Ideas are useful. But trees need soil, houses need solid wood or stone, lungs need real air. Until we are here, our gardens are half abstract, the roots slipping away into generalizations. Until we are here, we fight for what we never needed. Abramović doesn’t give us new experience, and she doesn’t tell us how to think of our experience: she leads us into the fullness of where and who we are.
And there, it seems, she’s learned that we can find unconditional love.