A woman dressed like a Greek oracle sits in an unremarkable dining chair. Her head tilts downward, her eyes closed in a concentrated inward gaze. Six feet away across from her in an identical chair, the supplicant seats himself and fidgets in anticipation. After an extended pause, the woman raises her chin, and their eyes lock momentarily. Embarrassed, he glances away, but soon he soon finds himself co-creating a performance. Though talking is forbidden, everything is communicated. His body finally settles and tears stream down his cheeks, pooling in reservoirs framed by his glasses. After a few moments, the sitter rises to make his exit; she bows her head in solemn and weary acknowledgment and awaits the next visitor.
This isn’t Delphi. It’s the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art, and the woman is the Serbian performance artist, Marina Abromavić. It’s 2010, but this scene, replicated 1,545 times over the course of three months, is ever-present to me in 2020, a year in which the span of six feet, the chronometer, now persistently measures the physical and emotional distance between us. In an austere rectangular performance space demarcated by nothing more than tape on the floor, Abromavić offered her body as a tool for the scarcest of commodities, both then and now: undiluted intimacy. For the 736 hours that she sat in absolute silence, the entire duration of MOMA’s retrospective of her work, The Artist is Present, physical distance became something else: a tool for social recognition.
As I stand in line at the grocery on one of those infinite pandemic X’s that visually designate every variety of our alienation, I often think of Abromavić’s performative miracle. Within that bland rectangle, she transfigured six feet of separation into a curated receptacle for each sitter’s loneliness and insecurity. Today at the market in masked invisibility, I imagine Abromavić standing on the X in front of me; my face flushes. I step forward, lift my gaze, smile, and say “good morning” to the cashier.
Brandon Cleworth is an essayist. He serves on the Art and Humanities faculty at Glendale Community College in Phoenix, Arizona.
Marina Abromavić is a Serbian performance artist born in Belgrade in 1946. She was awarded the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale. She founded the Marina AbromavićInstitute which is a non-profit organization for the performing arts.