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Seeing Is Believing
One man’s infatuation with a sculpture that looked back.
BY TIM KREIDER
“Luminosity” is the name of the piece. It’s a work of performance art originated by Marina Abramoviç in 1997 that was recreated by a troupe of specially trained performers for MoMA’s retrospective this spring. You enter a large, bare room to see, set in the center of the far wall, perhaps eight feet off the floor, a nude and cruciform woman, mounted there like a painting or an altarpiece, illuminated in a brilliant white spotlight.
The first time I saw this piece I walked right up to the white line on the floor that demarcates how close viewers are permitted to approach. I stood looking up at the woman there. She had a dancer’s body, with a superbly molded torso and arms, and powerful thighs. I could see that her weight was partly supported by footrests and a bicycle seat. She must’ve been up there for some time, because the upper half of her body was marble-white, while the lower half was an almost purplish red.
I was looking up at her, studying her like a sculpture, when, to my shock, she looked back at me. I was startled, as if a bronze sculpture at the Met had darted its eyes to fix on me. I hadn’t realized the “exhibits” were interactive, that the art could look back. I broke off eye contact after a few seconds, flustered, and tried to let my eyes drift nonchalantly over her as though she were an object d’art instead of a person, retreating into my preferred role in museums as spectator. I admit it: I chickened out.
I was studying her like a sculpture, when, to my shock, she looked back.
I went back to the Abramoviç show again with a friend. I could see from the room preceding Luminosity that the performer there was the same woman I had seen before. This time I moved like a kid who, having disgraced himself by backing down from the high dive once, is determined not to do it again and plunges in before he has time to quail. I walked straight up to the white line, standing off to one side, and stared into her face. And she looked back at me again. And this time neither of us looked away.
We don’t make a lot of eye contact in our culture these days —especially not in New York City, where I live. It was thrillingly intimate, searing in its intensity. I felt her gaze down to my toes and fingertips. It is the most basic acknowledgement we can give to another human being: Here I am. There you are.
I’m someone who processes his life through language, whose primary means of knowing other people is talk. I’m at a loss in bars where it’s too loud to hear. I talk to my cat. In this intimate, silent engagement with another human being I found myself floundering. It occurred to me that I had no idea whether this woman even spoke English. My brain kept frantically verbalizing, like a falling man trying to run in empty air.
I projected a succession of emotions onto her composed face: hauteur, indifference, contempt, compassion, amusement. At moments I found I had stared fixedly into her eyes for so long that I could barely see her. Stared at long enough, a human face can become as abstract as a word repeated to the point of nonsense. I kept snapping myself out of my mental blanks and tangents by reminding myself that this moment would soon be over, and I would long to be back—but that I was still here right now. To a surprising extent I was able to ignore the anxious chatter of my know-it-all brain, held steady by her gaze, like holding a hand in the dark.
Words can easily blind and distract us; deprived of language, we fall back on older, surer instincts, our animal intuitions. Her eyes were glistening in the bright light, and I wondered if she was tearing up with some emotion or if they were just watering against the glare. Her mouth opened slightly at moments, and I could see a glint of teeth behind the peak of her upturned lips. Sometimes she just perceptibly arched her back, leaning backwards. It was erotic enough to melt lead.