To have the fortitude to gaze into someone, in silence, and then to have your gaze returned to you without judgment, soul to soul: this may just be the essence of a healthy ethic of spiritual direction. After all, as we're told in Mark: before Jesus gave advice to the man who had so precisely followed the commandments, yet still yearned for eternal life, it was that "Jesus, looking at him, loved him." And then he spoke.
There is someone who's intensely interested in this business of looking, and of the volumes of communication occurring nonverbally - or, at the very least, of sharing the same space in silence. She is the performance artist Marina Abramovic, and her three-month meditation "The Artist Is Present," which finished on May 31st, took place in a very public space marked out for just such vulnerable moments.
Abramovic is a giant among today's performance artists, one whose past pieces have dealt with themes of violence, danger, and silence. Last May she wrote to her curator:
I decided that I want to have a work that connects me more with the public, that concentrates … on the interaction between me and the audience.
I want to have a simple table, installed in the center of the atrium, with two chairs on the sides. I will sit on one chair and a square of light from the ceiling will separate me from the public.
Anyone will be free to sit on the other side of the table [the table was eventually withdrawn], on the second chair, staying as long as he/she wants, being fully and uniquely part of the Performance.
I think this work [will] draw a line of continuity in my career.
It was decided that New York's Museum of Modern Art would host the work: artist, chairs, and blank space to be filled with as many people as time and human will might permit over the weeks, and nothing but time in which to make what Abramovic has called "charismatic space."
To describe this simple premise and the emotional effort it took to bring it off as having been successful, or having tapped a raw nerve, is to describe Fred Astaire as someone with an interest in dance. And sensing a hit, MoMA reps were on hand to milk - er, archive! - the event as thoroughly as possible. The museum extended the exhibit virtually by posting the faces of each and every chair-mate who came to sit with Abramovic. Flip through these photos for yourself on Flickr, and you'll see the proverbial Kingdom of Heaven - an assemblage of art-lovers and rubber-neckers in every shade of skin, many of them crying, touched, transfixed in gazes for which any Sunday preacher would gladly turn over an arm or leg. Accompanying them, you'll find the times they stayed in the chair:
Some sat for three, four, five hours at a time. Abramovic herself sat for 716.5 hours, across from 1,545 people. Many came and stood in line and never reached her; others simply showed up at the museum and watched from afar as she watched from up close.
Certainly if Abramovic's reputation as a performance artist hadn't preceded her, she would not have been so received; if people didn't have an innate need to be a part of a crowd, the museum would have taken a pass; if she had merely set up a chair in Times Square and stared at people as they passed, she'd have been scooted down 7th Avenue. But that's not what happened.
Instead, Abramovic pointed to a gaping hole in the fabric of our postmodern story. She revealed just how hungry we are for human contact - how ravenous we are to look out at someone who will see us and not launch into us, try to change or persuade us, sell us something, or just sit there and quietly judge us.
Which brings us back to Jesus, looking at, and loving, a well-intentioned man before telling him to go and sell everything and have treasures in heaven. "Then come," Jesus said, "follow me."