The body acts as a mirror for reflection, or canvas for projection, and when the distance between artist and viewer is collapsed as it is in a performance, the spectator becomes active in their role, attaching their own connection and experiences to the work. So even when holding the most passive of roles, the audience interacts with the meaning through their own emotional response and societal connotations.
Marina Abramović’s work for her 2010 retrospective at MOMA, The Artist Is Present, saw her sit silently for a period of 3 months opposite members of the public inside a large square, lit up in all directions with stage lighting, surrounded by an audience, where she stipulated “open-ended commitment from the viewer” (Abramović and Biesenbach, 2010). The audience was vital to this work, some people cried, many smiled, and a few attempted to create their own performances out of it, showing just how powerful an encounter with the audience can be. This plethora of reactions shows that for each person this piece was different, it held an individual meaning. Abramović became a mirror of them, allowing them to project their own emotions and experiences onto her.
When an artist presents their own body, as Abramovic does, the audience is engulfed into the piece; Catherine Elwes speaks of the artist as “both signifier and that which is signified. Nothing stands between spectator and performer” (1985, quoted in Jones, 1998). The viewer sees both the conceptual and physical aspects amalgamated, seemingly dissolving any distance then between audience and artist. The mind of the performer and viewer is where it is possible for that complete unity.
However, the viewer interacts with the body of the artist even if not physically, the integration is interfered with by the individual, and so the work becomes separate and exclusive for each body, spectator or participant – the audience experiences their own art. This interference relies not only on the interpretation of the individual viewer, but also on that of the combined and general contextualisation of the work.
"when the distance between artist and viewer is collapsed... the spectator becomes active in their role"
“The viewer is the co-creator of every work of art” (Graham, 2002) and although many artists do not ask the audience to directly participate as Abramovic does, they ask them to gaze upon the work and share an experience. Although the actual emotions felt by the artist cannot be shared directly, it’s effects can be felt by others, there are mutual emotions and the work calls for empathy; to be able to understand and share the feelings with the artist, to feel a certain amount of what they felt.
That encounter is so important to the success of art.
Holly Daizy Broughton
She Performs Curator