"Birthdays are important to Marina Abramović," starts the New Yorker profile of the performing artist currently finishing her three-months retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Abramovic believes that "birthdays mark the moment that the performance of living officially begins." With those words fresh in my mind, I decided that on the morning of my 29th year on earth, May 7th, I, Yazmany Arboleda, a fellow artist and fan, would bring her flowers.
The idea came to me while attending a talk on how to grow love as a path to your own destiny a few months ago. I was surprised to see that the majority of the attendees to the event, mostly followers of Tibetan mysticism, had brought the visiting lecturer flowers. I learned that offering flowers to your Lama (Tibetan for teacher of the Dharma) is a way of honoring the highest part of one's own intellect, for the Lama is a mirror of one's highest or most aware self. The ephemeral nature of flowers reminds us of the Buddha's teaching that all things are impermanent, and we should value what we have now, and live in the present. I would present Marina with flowers before going around Manhattan to give my dearest and nearest friends--my Lamas--multi-colored roses, honoring them for the many things that they have taught me thus far.
Before the current MoMA exhibition, I knew relatively little about Abramovic's work, although I had heard some refer to her as the "mother of performance art." Walking through the museum's sixth floor, displaying a very thorough history of her work over the past 40 years, and a range of "re-performances," I was incredibly inspired: Here is a woman who devoted her entire life to the exploration of her body and mind as art, to brilliant results.
I figured bringing her flowers, symbolically, by sitting with her while wearing a flower print Paul Smith button down shirt, on her 51st day of sitting for eight to ten hours a day in silence, would be a duly extraordinary and joyous thing to do for my birthday. Moreover, I felt as though the majority of people who had sat with her by that point had all seemed so serious and demure, sad even, some of them brought to tears. I hoped to come before her with a smile, infusing her with positive energy, corroborated by joyful strength to continue with this grueling performance. A smile never hurt anyone.
I woke up earlier than usual that Friday morning, May 7, to a clear blue sky and a cool breeze. I arrived at the museum around 8:30AM, aware that they would open the doors to the lobby space at 9:30am, and would allow people into the main atrium where Marina sits an hour after that. I had come at that time two days before, to scope how the line was handled by the museum staff. It was interesting to see the dynamics of people in pursuit of a seat in the chosen few. Morning after morning, the ultimate musical chairs competition. I talked with Luis, a museum security staffer, tasked with the organization and safety of The Artist is Present. He provided some key pointers: wait on the 53rd street entrance, once in the lobby, make sure you are right next to the stairs, and when they allow you to go up, they will tell you not to run, so make sure to walk as fast as possible. I left a few minutes after that conversation, feeling confident about my plan.
On May 7, outside the museum, I see that three people in their early twenties are already waiting to get in. They are Dutch students from the University of Amsterdam, majoring in art history. They thought it would it important to sit with Marina as part of their school trip to New York. We talk about our motivation. I tell them about my birthday and the flowers. They ask how long I plan to sit with Marina, clearly hoping I would not be one of those people who would sit for endless hours, like the woman who sat with her for an entire day. Although I promise not to sit for long, they seem skeptical, as if no one is to be trusted in this situation. We stand by the entrance glass doors patiently waiting for the guards to unlock them. By the time they allow people in, a bit of a crowd has formed outside the museum, and we are all anxious to get inside.
We all run towards the center of the space where two lines form in the middle of the lobby, facing the sculpture garden. I am the first in line on one of the two queues. The Dutch kids are the first three people on the other one. Here I meet Carolina, a Colombian lawyer/artist. We talk about our hopes and dreams, the similarities between our art projects, how she had just moved to New York and is looking forward to pursuing her art in the big city. At the 10:30am sharp, they let us pass the stanchions. Guards try to slow down the masses as we all walk as fast as we can to get to the entrance of Marina's square, the space around her that is delineated with white tape inside of the atrium. As we had expected, there were a few museum VIPs already standing in line. There were three of them, and a woman who had just been brought up in her wheelchair.
Once our sitters-to-be order is confirmed, we relax and chat, learning from each other about what has brought us to be a part of this moment. Robyn, due to sit right after me, tells me how all of her family and friends back home are waiting to see her online via MoMA's live video feed.
I have a similar crew of about 15 people following online, blogging riotously as the anticipation builds up. I feel like my friends are all sitting around the perimeter of the square witnessing the thing happen and cheering me on, passing energy onto me that I could pass onto her. Finally, I announce via email that I am next. The next reply-all is a very loud: "HOOORAY!!! I've been keeping everyone in my office updated." Next thing I know, the security guard brings a woman over and tells me that she is an employee of the MoMA. He asks me if I wouldn't mind letting her sit with Marina before me. She looked at me with pleading eyes and told me that she would not sit for long. Fine by me. At that point I realize I will be seventh to sit with Marina on the seventh of May. Later I would find out that I would be sitting with Marina, in a purely organic happening, for seventy minutes. I have long been convinced that everything in the world is perfectly synchronized, and this happenstance was a flawless example of it.
While sitting there I wonder if Ms. Abramovic has practiced Vipassana meditation while preparing for "The Artist is Present." Vipassana (which means to see things as they really are) is one of India's most ancient techniques of meditation. Fundamentally, it is just sitting. Vipassana meditation is the practice of pure regarding, witnessing your mind, and offering your complete consideration to your thought patterns, without moving your body, at all, no matter how severe your discomfort.
You just sit there and tell yourself, "There is no reason I need to move at all." If you are feeling pain then you are supposed to meditate on that pain, watching the effect that it has on you. In our real lives, we are constantly moving around to adjust ourselves around discomfort--physical, emotional and psychological--in order to evade the reality of pain. Vipassana meditation teaches that pain is inevitable, but if you can plant yourself in stillness long enough, you will, in time, experience the truth that everything (both painful and lovely), like the splendor of a flower, does eventually pass.
Now it is really my turn to sit with Marina. I am quite nervous and keep walking around the atrium. I do a couple of arm and chest stretches. I feel like a boxer must feel getting ready to go into the ring for a big fight. I am prepared to be still, to be present, there with her. Part of my plan is to focus on my breathing. If need be, to use a mantra. Yoga mantras are based on sounds that reflect the energy of our divine nature. The meditation I am ready to practice is based upon the mantra "so hum," ("I am that") used within the traditions of Tantra and Vedanta. Since "so hum" also indicates the sound of the breath, it is a mantra that repeats itself effortlessly. I like the idea that I am her and she is me and we both have the honor to connect on this higher ground. I am that.
Finally, at about 1:45pm in the afternoon, I walk towards her. At first glance, her white skin appears to be layers of wax holding up her unmistakably rich and soulful eyes. I can feel her strength and her weakness at once. I remain nervous, aware that people are watching. Breath by breath, I increasingly focus my awareness on her eyes more and more. We begin a telepathic conversation. I ask her how she is feeling. She tells me she is a little tired, but happy to be able to be here. We talk about our hopes and dreams, the similarities between our art projects, how far she has come and how much I have ahead of me. From this point forward, I experience waves of consciousness that are intertwined with fascinating--and very unexpected--visions.
Staring into this mirror, I see her many faces--a child, the girl, the young woman, the not-so-young woman--all present still, preserved like fossils or superimposed Photoshop layers. She stares and stares. Look at me, she seems to say, I have lived, what do you have to be afraid of? Her lips slightly apart. I take a deep-down-to-the-bottom-of-my-lungs breath. My feet cease to touch the floor. They curl up wanting to come up on the chair Indian style but the motor-skills required to make this happen seem absent.
I hear the chair I'm sitting on telling me to be still. I think it important to note here that I was not under the influence of any kind of drug or substance that would artificially modify my mind. The only drug I was under, was sitting across from me.
Her hair begins to grow, slowly her silky black braid reaches down to the floor. This is a testament to the fact that while you are sitting with her, time is elusive and irrelevant. In a world in which looking at your watch, your phone, or your computer screen is as regular as breathing, it is rare to have this space where time no longer matters.
Then, I become aware that instead of two seats positioned across from each other, there are many more. Arranged in the shape of a circle, with Marina and me on opposite ends of it. Seated with us were the great art minds of the twentieth century: Picasso (to Marina's left), Warhol (to her right), Rothko, Dali, and Pollack. As I was still looking straight into her eyes it was difficult for me to identify the others. Maybe the others were of the breathing and kicking kind: Koons, Hirst, Murakami, and Prince. The beauty of this moment was not necessarily that I as an artist am sitting among heroes, but rather, I am the collective human, full of potential, the kind of potential embodied by the great thinkers that sat before me. In the same way, they and Marina were all woven with the same needle and fine thread.
My forehead gets itchy right above my left eyebrow. I think about it for a bit, contemplating it in the Vipassana way. Like a train of thoughts, the itch is pulled and pushed away into the distance by other thoughts. No movement, no agitation, just pure regarding. I see her now as a massive cypress tree planted in the center of the atrium. She is large and her roots are extensive, crushing the dark granite floor, spreading across the museum. She is imposing and she is mother to all living things. She is tall and regal, visible from all of the balconies that overlook the atrium up to the sixth floor.
I think about the others who are waiting in line, I feel pressure to get up...to allow the others to have their time with her. I hesitate because this time is intangible and tantalizing and grand. How rare it is to occupy this space where so little matters. Something happens, I realize that all of the people around the square are moving simultaneously in one direction or another and the entire place feels like a terminal at an airport. The overhead announcements are muffled, as if I am hearing them while submerged in room-temperature water. People are moving, they are walking towards and away from their designated gates. Maybe when sitting there, motionless, everyone else's transient state becomes so much more apparent. Even now, thinking about Yoshio Taniguchi's incisive architecture, I can see how my mind transported us to a place where the people are in a complete state of change.
The bone-white museum walls move away from us. And flowers begin to blossom on her white dress. They are the same kind of painterly flowers that have over-grown on my button down shirt. On her dress, they grow sparingly, with plenty of white space between them. They are in their infancy and have a long way to grow. Then I hear her, in a soft warm voice, wishing me a happy birthday. I put my hands together and bow, thanking her. I stand up and turn to walk away. I hug Carolina and some of the others I have just met that day.
Walking around the museum, people on different floors stop to ask me how it felt to sit with her. "How long did you sit for? How was it? How did it feel?" My friend, who had come to document the entire ordeal with her camera, turns to me and exclaims: "It's as if paintings could talk."