- The Eternal Present: Slow Knowledge and the Renewal of Time
A woman is seated in a chair at the center of a large, light-filled atrium. Across from her sits an adolescent girl, Asian or Asian-American, maybe thirteen years old. They are both perfectly still. They look intently at each other. That is all. Minute after minute passes. Neither of them moves. I look more closely. Utter stillness. Not quite repose, for there is a sense of intentionality to their engagement with each other, but deep stillness and calm. I look around the room and see a hundred or so persons also taking in the scene. Everyone is silent, though there are occasional sounds—shoes shuffling on the floor, a cough, a sigh. It takes me a few minutes to understand what is going on, what I am seeing. I feel my own anxiety to place myself somehow in this scene, to find the appropriate categories for grasping what is unfolding before me. I ask a person nearby; he tells me: it’s Marina Abramovic. She is performing “The Artist Is Present,” part of a retrospective of her work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.1 “Oh,” I say, “thanks.” It’s performance art. Got it. But knowing this only helps a little. What are they doing? What is going on here? What is my part, if any, in what is happening? My mind, as usual, is racing ahead trying to figure it out. Which in this moment I cannot do. So, I pause (inwardly), take a step back and try to reorient myself. I take a breath, then another. I look again at the two figures.
Their stillness is uncanny. This is part of what is making me anxious, I think. They are absorbed completely in the simple act of gazing at each other. I smile, thinking at first of the “stare-downs” I used to have with my brother when we were kids. Who would flinch (and fall into uncontrollable laughter) first? It was a game of chicken. With the eyes. Usually it was of short duration, and someone had to lose. This is different. The quality of attention, in particular, feels utterly different. These two are not trying to knock each other off their chairs. No one is trying to “win” at anything. They are, it seems, simply giving themselves to the work of beholding and being beheld. Extraordinary. I am not sitting in the chair. But I feel a jolt run through my body as I begin to feel the depth and power of this moment. The sense of nakedness, of naked abandon, of vulnerability. What else? Tenderness. Yes, I sense a certain tenderness passing between these two figures. And not just between them. Also touching those of us gathered in the room watching them. How is that possible? We are all [End Page 13] strangers to one another after all. And yet within this space, for these few moments there is a remarkable and palpable sense of intimacy.
I am not sure at how long I stand there. But after a while, I feel the need to move, to get some relief from the intensity of this exchange. I leave the room where the artist and her companion are sitting and walk into a nearby gallery. (Later I learn that anyone visiting the museum can occupy the chair opposite the artist and that over the course of the exhibit many, many people do just that.) I am not ready to look at anything else, not yet. I have to gather myself a little first.
Eventually, I do begin to take in some of the other art in the museum. But my mind keeps returning to that room and to those two seated figures. During the next couple of hours, I return to the atrium several more times. Each time I do, I am struck by how still these two figures are, how alive. Also how still and alive I feel entering into that space. Those of us beholding the scene are respectful and quiet but also animated, exchanging brief whispers, glances, smiles. We are captivated, enthralled.