07/18/2012 04:55 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2012

The Artist Is Present

Readers of The Buddha Diaries will be as moved and inspired as I was by the HBO documentary, Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present.  It's the story of the preparation and installation for the artist's 20120 retrospective exhibition of the same title at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, with its new performance designed especially for the occasion: "The Artist Is Present."

And is she ever.  Abramovic is known for performances that explore the breadth and depth of her humanity, sometimes in its most vulnerable aspects.  She is willing to expose both body and soul to the scrutiny of observers in order to share those human qualities that many others seek to hide, repress or deny.  In telling us most intimately about herself, she offers us the opportunity to learn more about who we are.  It is often a challenging, sometimes even a painful experience--for the artist, as well as for her audience.  But she shrinks from nothing, it would seem, to achieve this goal.

I tend to recoil from performance work that smacks of exhibitionism, but even when naked this artist manages to banish the ego from the work at hand.  It's not "Marina's body" so much as "human body" that we see; it's not "Marina's story" that we're told, so much as our own.  It's the story of our own vulnerability, our own fear, the pain we experience in our own lives.

"The Artist Is Present" could not be simpler in design: two chairs are set up at the center of a large, white gallery space, with a table in between.  Simply robed in red, white or black, the artist occupies one of the chairs.  She invites any person who might so wish to occupy the other for a long enough period to receive her gaze and to gaze, in turn, into her face.  No words are exchanged, no gestures, and no touch.  There is barely anything that could be described as an "expression" on her face.  In this way, the artist is able to become the mirror for each participant, reflecting back to them everything that comes to the surface in their face: their pain, their fear, their grief... sometimes, their joy.

The "performance"--I hesitate to call it that, because this is as "real" as it gets--is profoundly moving.  It required immense physical discipline and stamina of the artist, who sat virtually immobile for hours on end each day of the exhibition's three-month run in what she called her "square of light" in the museum's atrium.  It required the same measure of emotional discipline and stamina, and an immense resource of compassion.  The full range and depth of her personal emotional well was plumbed each day, as visitors received their share of her and offered their own emotional life for her to absorb and, in some way, to heal.

It was an exemplary performance, a tour de force that most of us would lack the strength and fortitude to contemplate.  Compassion at its best is the ability to empathize fully with the suffering of others, but without taking it on board and making it our own.  Abramaovic reminds us of the commonality of simply being human, and offers us the comfort for knowing that it's shared.  I wish now that I had been smart enough to take a flight to New York a couple of years ago to be present myself for "The Artist Is Present."  Failing that, I'm glad to have seen the documentary.  Don't miss the opportunity to see it for yourself.