Silence is a source of great strength.
When I studied photography back in university, we were introduced to the idea of using photographic imagery to reveal the beautiful in the mundane. Street photography tends to embrace this concept regularly, as photographers take urban subject matters generally regarded by the public as ugly or, worse, banal, and turn them into objects of beauty. This is one of the reasons I love photography so much: its ability to bring out the beauty in any situation, especially those we discount during our everyday lives, inspires me to always keep looking.
From this idea of exploring the sublime in the banal, I was stirred to start a series on art pieces and cultural creations that reveal the magnificent side of everyday, mundane subjects. Today’s focus is on a performance artist whose piece on silence shook my world when I saw a video of it; hopefully it will affect your heart, too. This awe-inspiring woman takes the boring task of sitting in silence for days on end and turns it into a meditation on the essence of human relationships.
Marina Abramović is a prolific, groundbreaking performance artist who has pushed the boundaries further than most when it comes to making art. From cutting herself during her performances to playing with fire―and subsequently falling unconscious during a live performance―she goes beyond the expected to stretch herself as both a person and artist in an attempt to reveal larger truths about humanity.
Perhaps tellingly, one of her most courageous pieces has nothing to do with exploring physical limitations, but rather emotional barriers. In 2010, MOMA held a retrospective of Abramović’s work, and it is here where the artist performed one of her most memorable pieces, The Artist is Present. During over 700 hours of silence, she sat at a single table in the middle of a large room, and had strangers come and sit down across from her and stare silently into her eyes.
The performance’s audacious emotional intensity garnered attention from the press, particularly when one of Abramović’s former lovers and collaborators, the German artist Ulay, surprised her by sitting down across from her at the lone table of silence. A bit of background research quickly tells us that these two had an incredibly powerful, decade-long partnership that ended in an equally dramatic conclusion when the pair decided to walk the Great Wall of China from opposite ends, and meet in the middle to say their final, parting goodbyes. More than 20 years later, when Ulay unexpectedly takes a seat across from the usually unshakable Abramović, the resulting silence speaks volumes about their shared connection.
A true moment of humanity and beauty, brought to light by the power of art.
Abramović’s performance piece is much more than merely a triumph for the art-world; it teaches us the power of silence in revealing our emotional truth. This exploration demands courage, and a willingness to explore a deeper part of ourselves. While uncomfortable feelings such as pain, sadness, and fear may occur in the midst of this stillness, listening to ourselves in this way also enables us to listen to others with the same bravery and depth. Imagine asking your partner, best friend, or daughter to sit across from you in silence, gazing into one another’s eyes. Envision what truths you might just discover in this quiet world that would likely never have the opportunity to emerge otherwise.
In human intercourse the tragedy begins, not when there is misunderstanding about words, but when silence is not understood.
Language is a prison
Often our deepest emotional truths and energetic subtleties cannot be heard through the oral language. I think often about Simone Weil‘s quote, “a mind enclosed in language is in prison.” In a bit of irony, her statement exemplifies how I often feel when trying to express myself through words, whether oral or written. In John Wyndham’s sci-fiction book, The Chrysalids, some of the characters communicate through thought-bubbles (or, telepathy), rather than through cumbersome speech. These characters are able to communicate on a more profound, emotive level, because the barrier of language is not in the way; their feelings are related to others in a purer form.
In my view, Abramović’s piece on silence is an example of how we can come closer to experiencing this profound level of insight through our communication with each other. We’ve all experienced difficulty at some point with sharing our feelings through words: awkwardly stringing together sentences in attempt to explain something that could never be fully expressed through words in the first place is a frustrating, albeit quite human, place to be. At the same time, the inadequacy of oral communication as a means of expressing the many layers of our ‘self’ opens up opportunities to discover new ways of connecting.
The eyes are the window to the soul
Looking into another person’s eyes in silence can reveal so much that it can be an overwhelming experience if we aren’t used to it, ready for it, or have the inner emotional resources with which to absorb another person’s feelings while maintaining our own personal boundaries. And yet, if we are capable of taking in this influx of feeling, the results know no bounds. The re-uniting of Abramović and Ulay speaks volumes about this truth. By nature, significant relationships are incredibly complex and full of surprises. Isn’t it amazing how it is possible to not speak with, or see, another person for years and years, but still think about them on a daily basis? A person can exist fully in our hearts, even without any physical sensory connection, such as speech, sight, or sound.
Past memories and future thoughts meet together with the present to create the reality of our emotional lives. When re-presented to one another, Marina and Ulay did not need to speak to one another in order to learn, understand, and share everything they needed. In fact, adding words might have very well removed some of the depth from their emotional re-connection. From the simple truth exchanged between their eyes, they were able to silently honor their mutual past and respective futures, with loving grace.
This is the magic that humans, through art, are capable of creating. I challenge us all to summon the emotional courage like that which Abramović has, and sit in silence with, firstly, ourselves. Let us open to the authenticity we see in our eyes, feel in our hearts, and to the truth we hear in our silence. We can then move forward to try this bonding ritual with someone in our life with whom we already share a deep connection. Through exploring the communication that occurs when words are removed, we can experience a more profound expression of our emotions and souls.
If water can communicate with all forms of life without the use of spoken words, just imagine the world of possibilities that exist when we open ourselves to the magic of silence.
The silence of dance
The closest experience I’ve had to Marina’s epic exercise in silence is my participation in Biodanza classes in Chiang Mai. In Biodanza, we express our emotions through dance, and through our physical connections with other members in the group. The only rule is that we do not speak during the class, from start to finish; no exceptions! This allows us to let go of our usual means of communication and open ourselves to expressing our feelings through body language and innate physical nature. Deep eye-contact is a fundamental part of creating sincere connection with our fellow dancers.
I have very fond memories of moving my body freely to the upbeat South American music playing from the stereo, while looking into my fellow dancers’ eyes. Even though I usually only knew one or two people in the class, I was able to create special bonds with everyone I danced with. Because our communication was limited to silence and eye-contact, I genuinely felt more connected to my Biodanza peers than I did to many of the friends I knew from work, or social events. I learned that the amount of biographical facts I might know about someone’s life doesn’t necessarily relate to the depth of our personal connection. If we’ve never stared into each other’s eyes before, then I really don’t know you well at all. And that’s my truth.
The wisdom in silence
The amount of wisdom that can be gained from the simple, mundane idea of sitting in silence is incredible. When we’re able to discover grace and dignity in something that we typically overlook in our everyday lives, or dismiss as boring, we’re given the opportunity to illuminate parts of ourselves, and others, that were previously left in the dark. I admire Abramović for her courage to share with us her emotive performance in praise of silence. By extending her own truth to others, she helps enlighten us all to the sublime beauty in silence.
Learn to get in touch with the silence within yourself, and know that everything in life has purpose. There are no mistakes, no coincidences, all events are blessings given to us to learn from.