For three months in 2010, performance artist Marina Abramovic sat in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art and invited spectators to sit across from her, in total silence. The idea behind the piece, entitled The Artist is Present, was that the human spirit can connect through close proximity, the eyes, and complete silence. The image of Abramovic, draped in a red gown, sitting and connecting with hundreds of strangers is both powerful and unsettling. She was visited by everyone from her former lover to Lady GaGa. Some of the participants smiled. Some cried. Most just sat.
Recently, Rutgers undergraduate, Maureen Maximos recreated Abramovic’s moving piece in the Paul Robeson gallery. Retitled, Diversity is Present, Maximos wanted to discover what impact The Artist is Present might have here in Newark. For four days, Maximos sat in the Robeson gallery for two hours at a time, and waited for members of the Rutgers community to sit opposite her.
On Thursday, the last day of the performance, I ventured to the gallery to witness the world renowned performance piece in its new incarnation, an experiment in the diversity of Rutgers Newark. I was one of the first people to arrive. I watched Maximos sit in silence, wearing all black, with her eyes on the ground. After a few moments, I bravely walked to the empty chair in front of her and sat down. She slowly lifted her head and our eyes met.
It was a truly intense experience. My mind raced with so many thoughts. Had I seen Maximos before? What was she thinking about me? Why was I so uncomfortable? Once I began to calm down, I wondered how many people I had passed daily on campus, and never looked in the eyes. This is what lies at the heart of Maximos’ performance, the subject of her Honors College thesis. When I was finished, I arose and returned to the spectators’ area. I asked the woman operating the camera, a close friend of Maximos, how long I had been sitting there. Eight minutes, she told me. I honestly had no idea how much time had passed. It didn’t feel that long.
Once the two hours were over, I returned to talk to Maximos about the inspiration behind her project. I was shocked to discover that she is not a performer, or even a student of art. Maximos is a biology major and aspiring dentist. Last year, while planning her undergraduate thesis, she approached Nick Klein, assistant professor of photography, with an idea. She wanted to do something different; something related to art and performance that engaged the diversity of the campus. “I’m Egyptian and all of my friends are Egyptian,” Maximos stated. She explained that she didn’t want to leave Rutgers without experiencing its diverse community. After viewing a video of The Artist is Present, Klein suggested that she recreate the piece on campus and produce a documentary about her experience.
Maximos took the challenge. She began last fall by adapting the piece for performance in classrooms. By the time the exhibit premiered on Monday in the Robeson gallery, Maximos looked like a seasoned performer. As I looked into her eyes from my place in the chair across from her, it was the one thing I never questioned.
By Thursday, Maximos estimated that she had seen roughly 20 to 25 new people, not including her friends who came to show their support by watching and participating. She was also visited by student publications, who wanted to photograph and interview her. But Maximos has no time to think about the popularity her project has received. She has eight hours of footage to view and edit. That, coupled with her daily reflections, will become her final project which will be archived by the honors college. Maximos stated that the project was more for her than anything. “You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate art,” she exclaimed. More than that, the biology student turned artist brought a little bit of MOMA to Rutgers Newark. She gave me, and many others I am sure, a once in a lifetime experience that will not be forgotten.