[Dixielandjazz] The Silent Opera - Shades of John Cage

Stephen G Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Mon May 31 06:40:33 PDT 2010

Silence is golden. Is it time to try a silent Dixieland performance in  
the name of art? <grin>

Steve Barbone


700-Hour Silent Opera Reaches Finale at MoMA

At 5 p.m. Monday the longest piece of performance art on record, and  
certainly the one with the largest audience, comes to an end. Since  
her retrospective opened at the Museum of Modern Art on March 14, the  
artist Marina Abramovic has been sitting, six days a week, seven hours  
a day in a plain chair, under bright klieg lights, in MoMA’s towering  
atrium. When she leaves that chair Monday for the last time, she will  
have clocked 700 hours of sitting.

During that time her routine seldom varied. Every day she took her  
place just before the museum doors opened and left it after they  
closed. Her wardrobe was consistent: a sort of concert gown with a  
long train, in one of three colors (red, blue and white).

Always her hair, in a braided plait, was pulled forward over her left  
shoulder. Always her skin was an odd pasty white, as if the blood had  
drained away. Her pose rarely changed: her body slightly bent forward,  
she stared silently and intently straight ahead.

There was one variable, a big one: her audience.

Visitors to the museum were invited, first come first served, to sit  
in a chair facing her and silently return her gaze. The chair has  
rarely, if ever, been empty. Close to 1,400 people have occupied it,  
some for only a minute or two, a few for an entire day.

Sitting with Ms. Abramovic has been the hot event of the spring art  
season. Celebrities — Bjork, Marisa Tomei, Isabella Rossellini, Lou  
Reed, Rufus Wainwright — did a stint. Young performance artists seized  
a moment in the limelight. One appeared in his own version of an  
Abramovic gown to propose marriage. Certain repeat sitters became mini- 
celebrities, though long-time waiters on line stared daggers at those  
who sat too long.

Thanks to the Internet many people saw all of this without being  
there. A daily live feed on MoMA’s Web site, moma.org, has had close  
to 800,000 hits. A Flickr site with head shots of every sitter has  
been accessed close to 600,000 times. Yet foot traffic has been heavy.  
By the museum’s estimate, half a million people have visited all or  
part of the Abramovic retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” of which  
the atrium piece is a small part. . . .

One of her lifelong heroes is the opera singer Maria Callas, to whom  
she can bear a striking physical resemblance. Callas was a  
disciplined, risk-oriented musician, made vulnerable by a voice that  
began to disintegrate early. Increasingly, as she aged, every  
performance became an ordeal, an invitation to failure. Her  
willingness to face failure became the prevailing drama of her life.  
It was a drama of survival, and her fans had a part in it: she needed  
them to need her, so they did.

That’s that classic diva dynamic. And what we’re seeing in the MoMA  
atrium is basically a 700-hour silent opera. Ms. Abramovic, with her  
extravagant costume, her bent shoulders and her mournful gaze, is the  
prima donna. Visitors are cast as rapt audience, commenting chorus,  
supporting soloists. Unpredictability is in the air: Will she make it  
through the day? Will she faint from pain? Will she cancel at the last  

When I dropped by last week, one sitter, a repeater, sat across from  
Ms. Abramovic with his hands clasped to his chest, like a tenor about  
to burst into song or a worshiper transported in prayer. Perfect. That  
Ms. Abramovic will be collaborating with Mr. Wilson, a once-radical  
creator of epic experimental works and now best known for his  
ritualistic productions of Puccini and Wagner, is also perfect. . .

I’m not a fan. But the atrium performance works because she is simply,  
persistently, uncomfortably there. As of 5 p.m., she won’t be, though.  
The klieg lights will dim. The audience will move on. Something big  
will be gone, and being gone will be part of the bigness.

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