As we all know, art museums are a place to visit and enjoy works of art as a simple viewer. You just would not, nor are you permitted, to touch fine pieces of art. There is no need to anyway, they were not painted or created for you to come along and touch them. They are meant instead to be viewed, serving themselves for your reaction. These are still extremely self-fulfilling moments, when you look at a piece and feel a deep emotional connection.
I specifically remember visting the Indianapolis Museum of Art with my Mom as a kid. She is an art teacher and naturally, became a big influence in my life; teaching me (and my brother) about famous artists and the importance of their work. At the IMA, among the large Georgia O’ Keeffe flowers, Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculpture and a huge Louis Tiffany Comfort stained glass window, there is a permanent Rembrant piece. It is a small self portrait that hangs above a fire place in a dark room built to feel like a library or study. We always visit that piece; my Mom can stand and look at it for 15 minutes at a time, marveling over the intricacies and details. Completed in 1629 (1629 people-that is a LONG time ago in the art world), the piece captures the mood of that particular moment. The lighting so very well portrayed, the expression of his face, even the smallest of brush strokes that accentuates his facial hair. He appears to be wearing a scarf or neck wrap that is highlighted magnificently in the painting. The way my Mom used to talk about this piece, and other such influential pieces shows how much art can touch the spirit. Which brings up the question, what do people think, or better – what do they feel, when they view art?
From experience, I can tell you I have felt happiness, sadness, inspiration, anger, even humiliation and embarrassment. That is one thing that makes art so special; the reaction of the audience. And one reason why some people like Van Gogh, while others really like Picasso. So back to this blog post and the theme of participatory art.
One of the most famous participatory art pieces, found several times through googling, reading articles and blogs, even having conversations with people, is Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present.” Among this artist’s 2010 MOMA exhibition, she herself sat a table, dressed in floor length robes, inviting the audience to sit in the empty chair across from her. Participants could sit, for as long as they wanted, in silence across the table from the artist’s gaze. While not one of my favorite pieces ever made, the thing that intrigues me most are people’s reaction. Some of these folks waited hours, in a long line, for the chance to become active participants. Why, I wonder?
Perhaps it was for the release. I stumbled upon a Tumblr site dedicated to the people who, when they sat at the table, cried. What were they thinking, or feeling, or seeing that compelled them to cry? Some appear as if they have reached complacency, peace, or affirmation. But what about the participants who did not cry? What was their reaction? There is even a sister Tumblr site, Marina Abramovic Hotties that is scrolling pictures of attractive people who sat at her table.
For me, the essence and importance of the project is that the participants are acting “human.” They are entitled to, and portray emotional responses prompted by the artist and the given situation. The artist never faltered or changed her emotion. She simply reacted to her participant by looking at them, while wrapped in total silence.
It is a gentle reminder of what art is meant to be. But this time, it becomes more engaging. And while you are not necessarily invited to touch the artist, you are invited to play an active role. It is played in real time and allows you to exhibit yourself through your outward expression.
I will conclude with this thought. There is no doubt that there is a rising trend in participatory art. It’s becoming popular and changing the museum experience. When I ask myself why I am drawn to participatory pieces, the answer is simple: For the human interaction. For the human experience. For the human response.
Was Marina’s intention the same? I could read her artist statement, listen to her interviews and easily find out. However, since art is tailored to the individual’s own thoughts and reactions, this post is what I felt from her performance piece. She provided the platform and her participants provided the purpose. Two strangers, both left with a new feeling and maybe even – a memory…of pure, truthful, human connection.