In one of our recent episodes, while trying to figure out what’s so special about the face-to-face encounter in the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, Seth mentioned the work of performance artist Marina Abramović. In 2010, the self-dubbed “grandmother of performance art” performed a piece entitled The Artist Is Present, which crowned her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and in 2012 a documentary with the same name was released. As Seth was suggesting, The Artist Is Present might shed some light on Levinas’s “face à face” and its ethical significance.
In her performance, Abramović simply sat at a table, immobile and in complete silence, gazing into the eyes of whoever chose to sit across from her. She did so for hours on end without eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. She sat on the same chair for three months, every day, eight or ten hours at a time, looking into the eyes of stranger after stranger without saying a word, fixing her gaze on the other person as if they were the only other human being on earth.
The performance was an enormous success, with over 750,000 visitors and almost 1,600 people actually having had the chance to sit across from Marina. The public’s reactions were themselves nothing short of spectacular. The 1,566 portraits taken during the 750-hour-long performance captured expressions of joy, love, diffidence, wonder, and above all, sadness. Enough tears were shed during the performance to justify “Marina Abramović made me cry" as the title of a viral blog.
When asked why she thinks the public became so emotional, Abramović mentioned individuality and vulnerability. “We always perceive the audience as a group, but a group consists of many individuals,” she said. “In this piece I deal with individuals of that group and it’s just a one-to-one relationship.” From Mother Teresa’s famous statement "If I look at the mass I will never act," to recent research in neuroscience and empathy, the ethical value of recognizing the other as a particular individual is inestimable. But in addition to this there is an element of pure vulnerability, a frailty so raw that it escapes knowledge and theorizing, which Levinas mentioned and I think the performance piece embodied.
For Levinas, the face of the Other is an expression of pure vulnerability together with an ethical command to protect it. In the face of the Other lies the reflection of our ability to harm them, and an interdiction that prohibits us from ever doing so. The mortality we recognize in the Other brings with it a responsibility that we bear for their impending finitude. Moreover, the Other presents themselves to us in their uniqueness and irreducible particularity, and does so in a state of pre-reflective consciousness, a moment where our attempt to grasp the Other through knowledge is doomed to fail.
The face of the Other shows itself to us before any thought or intention is formed, in a preconscious duration of time. Before we infringe our "right to be" (which, as we have seen, is already an act of violence), and with it, our right to know, there is a period of “non-intervention,” of “being that dare not speak its name, being that dare not be” (1989, p. 81). This moment in time is a pure instant, as it were, an instant “without the insistence of the ego.” Here the ego cannot, and does not even try, to know. Knowledge is appropriation of the Other, it is reducing its particularity to something we can understand.
Abramović's choice to sit in silence, without moving, for hours on end could be seen as a desire to recreate a time before and devoid of all knowledge. In the actual "face to face," the gallery visitor knows there is no room for anything else apart from looking at each other. The mind is freed from any other intention. The space is white, luminous, with no other objects apart from a table and the two chairs. There is no touching, no moving, no distractions or other communicative gestures apart from the gaze. In the artist’s words, reaching a “non-thinking state” makes communication with the other so much easier, as “you are able to see him as he is, not through the way of your thinking.”
Levinas describes knowledge as “re-presentation” (p. 77). It is a “return to presence” or reenactment of the present that contains and entraps things in such a way that nothing can escape understanding. In knowledge as re-presentation, “nothing may remain other to it.” But what Abramović did in her performance was remove the “re” in “re-present,” as the artistic act consisted of presence in its purest form. This was suggested by the title The Artist Is Present as it is by the very nature of performance art, which is all in the moment. There is no delay in time that would allow for the experience to be replicated, kept, or dissected through understanding.
In such a nonthinking space of pure presence, the Other’s face exposes its vulnerability and demands that we care for them. “Prior to any particular expression” Levinas writes, “…there is the nakedness and destitution of the expression as such, that is to say extreme exposure, defenselessness, vulnerability itself” (p. 83). This extreme exposure is “prior to any human aim” and demands that we become aware of the most fundamental ethical point: the other’s right to exist.
For Levinas, the face of the other awakens a feeling of infinite ethical responsibility, while for Abramović it triggers a mixture of selflessness and unconditional love. In one interview, she confesses:
Unconditional love with someone you've never met is a straightforward feeling that is so overwhelming and fulfilling. It's not easy to do. I was trying to set up a zone where I was really empty. I am receiver and sender at the same time. Then I can open myself and be vulnerable and this other person can actually feel comfortable to let it go, all of his pain and wandering, and feel that I am unconditionally in love and I don't want anything out of this.
Of course a gaze can be devouring and rapacious, but in the right state of mind we can counter its possessive tendencies. In Totality and Infinity (1979), Levinas speaks of a “world” each of us possesses and how we can choose to bestow it on the Other as a gift. The only way to do this is through pure “presence before a face” (p. 50). It is only through presence and one’s “orientation toward the other” that the avidity of the gaze can be overcome and transformed into generosity. Through presence we can see the Other “the way in which the other presents himself”—not just as “a theme under my gaze” but in a way that exceeds my “idea of the other in me” (Id.).
By fasting and training herself to sit still and "empty" for hours, Abramović might have reached the Levinasian state of presence. Echoing his pre-reflective consciousness, after her performance at the MoMA she said: “The hardest thing is actually to do something that is close to nothing.” Indeed, if in that "nothing" lies our most fundamental ethical command, bringing us closer to it might be the most valuable experience an artist could ever give us.
Ana Sandoiu is a writer and researcher living in Brighton, UK. You can follow her on Twitter @annasandoiu.