One of my closest friends most authentically communicates non-verbally. This can drive me totally nuts. Hours of my own processing or emoting are met with a simple glance. “I just don’t have anything to say,” he offers. “Of course you don’t,” I think.
For the actor, words are our lifeline. Hopes, dreams, fears, loves, insecurities and pains are all expressed through tone, monologue and dialogue. The performing artist in general aims to manifest a rigorous vulnerability through sound. Music, poetry and theatre utilize an auditory medium. Silence signifies two possibilities: a moment of rest between two artistic expressions, or the end.
Visual artists (painters, sculptors, photographers) utilize visual mediums. And contemporary performance artists, like Marina Abramovic, sit somewhere in between: exploring the evocative expression of wordlessness through performance. In Marina’s 2010 piece, The Artist is Present, premiered at the New York Museum of Modern Art, Abramovic sat silently across a table from single spectators, offering her/him one minute of silent presence.
One such spectator was her former lover, performance artist Ulay. Ulay and Marina ended their relationship 20 years prior at The Great Wall of China. Due to relational turmoil, the couple used the pre-planned date and location of their nuptials to part ways, never to speak again. Without Marina’s knowledge, Ulay came to the exhibit and sat counter to the present artist. Faithful to her mission, Marina sat silently present to Ulay for a minute. The result was stunning (Ulay appears at about 1:15):
It occurs to me how much effort goes wasted on cloistering emotion to the particular confines of words. Tirelessly, I search for the appropriate things to say to the other: the perfect words of gratitude, condolence, accolade, comfort, acceptance, remorse or love. The closer the individual, the more rigorous the search. I plan, rehearse, belabor and enact that which I feel so deeply.
There is, then, a lesson in The Artist is Present. When we feel it most necessary to say something, that which is best might be the opposite: to be silently present. Through the eyes, the window to our souls, the individual to whom we are present will be able to see the boundless emotion that would only be limited by words.
Perhaps there is wisdom in the simple glance of a close friend. Silence is not a pause between two expressions, or the signification of an end. Words do not ensure honesty or vulnerability. Rather, silence can be an honest and vulnerable moment in and of itself. A moment for the artist to be present.
Marina Abramovic image courtesy Flickr user Andrew Ruseth