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Seeing Is Believing

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TRUE STORIES

Seeing Is Believing

One man’s infatuation with a sculpture that looked back.

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.  

I felt almost embarrassed to be clothed, at an unfair advantage.

I did not even let myself fantasize that she might be anything like as aroused as I was.  I worried that she might be bemused or condescending at the depth of my involvement with what was, after all, just art. On the other hand, she wasn’t looking away either. And I did notice that she never looked at any of the other onlookers in the room, not even the ones who approached as closely as I had. I felt a childish thrill of sibling-rivalry triumph: She likes me best.  

In one sense the performer of this piece renders herself utterly vulnerable–naked and splayed as if for vivisection, the light sparing nothing. But of course submission and dominance both contain an element of the other, and in another sense she was the one in power. The fact that she had voluntarily offered herself up for this purpose was an intimidating act of will—coolly fearless, brazen, awesome. Her unwavering reciprocal gaze denied me the cozy invisible omniscience of museums, TV, or the internet, asserting herself as another person in the world, and reminding me that I was there to be seen as well. Luminosity is a female riposte to 30,000 years of nudes from Willendorf to Avignon: Okay, here’s a naked lady; look all you want. She’s looking back, though.

I felt almost embarrassed to be clothed, at an unfair advantage; if I hadn’t been on the real-world side of that white line, still subject to its rules, it would’ve been only common courtesy to undress. As the minutes passed, I shifted my posture in awkward increments, turning to face her fully, unclasping the book I’d been holding in front of me like a fig leaf and lowering my hands to my sides, surrendering to a more open pose. Something about the enforced separation between us, the boundary imposed by that white line, freed me to let down my defenses, the way we’ll spill our secrets to a stranger on a train, or fall in love with someone safely unattainable.  

I did not even let myself imagine that she might be as aroused as I was.

 Also, bear in mind that she was literally above me, exalted like the image of a saint or an angel, and the old iconic power of the configuration had its effect; I felt almost unworthy in her presence, a supplicant. Standing there, I remembered the Creature from the Black Lagoon gazing up with primordial wonder at the girl in the white one-piece, suspended high overhead in her rippling aurora of light. 

But I was also uncomfortably aware that her experience of this exchange might bear no resemblance to my own. I wasn’t even sure how clearly she could see me with that spotlight in her face. I was wearing glasses—could she even see my eyes, or only a glinting far below? I knew, too, that her attention must be far more divided than mine—she had to concentrate on maintaining her balance and following the prescribed motions of the piece, moving her outstretched arms by excruciatingly infinitesimal degrees out to either side, and then upward over her head again. I was also conscious that, for her, this was a job. She might have this same experience with several different people every day. How personally invested was she in this act? Was it really her I was seeing, or a professional persona? Maybe her mind was elsewhere—doing the crossword, trying to ignore her aching coccyx, already looking forward to happy hour. Even the most exhibitionistic actors or confessional writers are calculating in what they give away, and always withhold something more essential than what they reveal.

We broke eye contact when her shift came to an end. In my peripheral vision I could see the next performer rolling a stepladder out to the center of the wall. I thought, or imagined, that I saw the woman’s expression shift as she acknowledged the end of our interlude—a slight softening, the touch of a sad smile, like a benediction. Then she looked away. Almost involuntarily, I pressed a hand over my heart. I must’ve looked like a school kid pledging allegiance to the flag. But the impulse I resisted was even stranger—I felt I should genuflect, kneel briefly before departing as you would on taking leave of a queen. Instead I just slunk off.  

Afterward, I was sitting on a cushioned bench in the next room, collecting myself, when a woman approached me and asked me whether I had been part of the performance. “No,” I said. “You were standing there for at least twenty minutes,” she told me, “totally motionless.” Several people had asked the security guard whether I was part of the exhibit. I could see how they might have thought so—I was the visual opposite of the woman on the wall, overdressed in a double-breasted suit with a pocket handkerchief and glasses. Imagine it: a woman spread naked on the wall, me standing fully dressed on the other side of the boundary, two figures separated by twenty feet of empty space, eyes locked, like an allegory for the impossibility and mystery of human contact. 

In a way, it had been more intimate than whole months-long relationships I’ve had.

I’d averted my eyes as she’d descended the ladder and been covered in a white coat. It felt oddly wrong to look at her nakedness now that she was off the clock. We might have exchanged a brief, awkward glance as a guard escorted her from the room. Maybe I imagined it. No, I didn’t. But I don’t think either of us wanted to sully the moment with any interaction on the real-world side of the line. To approach her in any way would’ve ruined—worse, missed the point of—that intrinsically bounded, ephemeral connection. I knew I’d probably never see her again, and that I was doomed to remember her for the rest of my life. In a way, it had been more intimate and intense – more real – than whole months-long relationships I’ve had. 

Okay look: I know I sound like one of those pathetic schlubs who doesn’t realize (or chooses to ignore) that it’s part of the barmaid’s job to pretend to like him. Or a lonely, overinvested reader who thinks that, because a book seems to speak his own thoughts, he and the author are friends. I understand that it was – in the end – a performance. But I also have to believe that Luminosity takes at least some of its power from the charge of an authentic human connection. The name of the show, after all, was The Artist Is Present. (This, perhaps, is why that postmodern doctrine – the author does not exist – has always been so repellent to me; it’s so desolate, so lonely.) And, as a former barista friend of mine confirms, sometimes your server really does have a crush on you. 

Let me also point out, as gently as possible, that everyone is a performer; spouses and lovers might be the most subtle and polished of all. The head resting on the pillow next to yours is ultimately remote and unknowable as life on other worlds. We can’t know for certain what’s behind anyone else’s eyes, or what they’re seeing when they look at us. We never truly touch; all we can ever feel is that spark that leaps across the gap between us. Every time we talk to a friend or look into a loved one’s eyes it’s a gesture of faith, like astronomers beaming signals into interstellar space: we have to believe that someone is out there across the emptiness in the cold glare, someone like ourselves, looking back. 

Tim Kreider's essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Comics Journal, and Film Quarterly. His cartoon, "The Pain–When Will It End?" ran for twelve years in the Baltimore City Paper and online at www.thepaincomics.com, and is collected in two books by Fantagraphics.