Serbian artist Maria Abramovic is known for her provocative, avant-garde performance pieces exploring the limits of body and mind. Her 1974 piece “Rhythm 5” featured a flaming wooden star. After jumping in and lying down in the middle, she promptly passed out from the fumes and had to be rescued. Another piece, 1977’s “Imponderabilia” had Abramovic and her then-lover Ulay standing naked in a “living doorway,” forcing audience members to squeeze between them and choose whom to face. In 1988, Abramovic and Ulay walked slowly atop the Great Wall of China for 90 days in opposite directions. They met in the middle, looked frankly in each others eyes, then turned around and walked back, announcing their formal separation to the world. More recent works by the “grandmother of extreme art” include Abramovic slowly carrying around a skeleton as a meditation on mortality, Abramovic sitting on a large slick of ice as a giant snake slithers about her head and body, and Abramovic consuming two pounds of honey and four cups of wine before cutting a star onto her stomach – all in slow motion, of course.
I am equal-parts intrigued and repulsed by Abramovic’s meditations on concentration and stillness. But no piece fascinates me more than her 2010 installation at New York’s Museum of Modern Art entitled The Artist is Present. For over three months, the artist sat in a wooden chair across from an empty chair in a large open space. Audience members were invited to sit in the empty chair and stare into Abramovic’s eyes for as long as they would like. Thousands of people waited hours on end for the chance to lock gaze with the artist, who did not move, eat, or go to the bathroom during open museum hours, totaling more than 750 hours in all. Many audience members burst into tears as they stared into the artist’s eyes, utilizing the artist – as she intended – as a “mirror” for their own pains and vulnerabilities.
The installation itself is intriguing, but my curiosity was piqued by the mental and physical fortitude required to sit perfectly still all day, day after day. Turns out, Abramovic followed a strict training regimen tailored by NASA to cultivate her physical and mental endurance. This included becoming a vegetarian with long periods of fasting. Her night routine was to sleep for 45 minutes, followed by waking to hydrate. She repeated this cycle from 10:00 pm until 7:00 each morning. She peed every morning at 8:00 (MOMA opens at 8:30) and then would not move, eat, use the bathroom, or drink water until MOMA closed each night at 10:00 pm.
“I learned that in your body you have so much space and you can actually move inside that. There is space between organs … between bones … between atom and cell … you can actually start training yourself to breathe a kind of air into that space.”
So enamored was she of these mental and physical “spaces,” Abramovic created a training method for other artists. At a recent training in Brazil, participants were asked to don noise-cancelling headphones, then lie perfectly still for thirty minutes with their heads on a crystal pillow, then stand for thirty minutes keeping three crystal spikes aloft at the wall with their bodies. This was followed by thirty minutes of sitting – again, in a crystal chair, and then thirty minutes of slow motion walking. These straightforward tasks asked participants to hone their awareness and investigate their individual mental and physical limits.
Seems to me it was just a very splashy mindfulness exercise.
Must we travel to Brazil and don headphones to truly experience stillness? Sadly, the answer for too many of us is yes. My gut reaction was to think of all my yoga students who willingly lie quietly in shavasana or sit and watch their breath pass with curiosity and detachment. It would seem they are in fact desperate for stillness.
Then I remember those studies where people chose to self-inflict electric shocks rather than sit still in a room by themselves for 15 minutes. Given the choice between sitting with their thoughts and experiencing pain, they chose electric shock.
Noticing the sensations of the body or the thoughts of the mind can be daunting. That study – which included people of all ages, genders, and races – showed that it is very human to seek distraction over stillness. But to what end? Most of us exist in a state of hurry and worry. Stillness is the antidote.
Could we instead choose courage to explore the stillness and compassion to accept whatever arises? There is no sustainable joy or peace outside of ourselves. If we are ever to feel content, we will find it in the eye of our inner tornado. If you need to hold up a crystal spike at the wall, have at it. You could also just close your eyes and lovingly pay attention to your breath.