On a fine, windy Summer day in 2008 Swedish artist Tobias Karlsson invited me to sit with him in one of the three cubicles, mentioned “Untitled”, which he presented as part of his graduation show at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Karlsson had emptied a huge classroom at the top floor of the academy building. The cubicles were placed just in front of the windows, and they were made of white-washed wood. Each cubicle was so close to the window, one had to squeeze oneself between the wooden panel and the window frame in order to gain access. Each cubicle was empty, except for two chairs placed next to each other, facing the window.
Karlsson sat down on one of the chairs and asked me to sit on the chair next to him. In the small space the chairs were so close that we were sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. We were cut off from the graduation buzz. There was a self-evident intimacy, which had an inviting impact, either to talk, or to be silent and just watch the sky above Amsterdam. We did talk a lot. About his work, about my work, about his life and plans, and about mine. Our positions and roles were different, remained different: he a graduating student, I an external examinator. Yet, then and there, we were on the same level, physically attached, shoulder-to-shoulder. What we were there for, the graduation, didn’t matter anymore. Once in a while we did look at each other. Our eyes did meet, but they didn’t have to meet. Most of the time we both looked towards the windows, watching the passing clouds against the blue sky. On exchanging our thoughts, we gazed outside too. Not for a moment I had the feeling to ‘participate’ in an art work, rather the opposite. Far behind was the world of art, to which we literally had turned our backs. It was the outside world, which was present in our gaze. As if to remind us not to close ourselves off, not to put down the shutters. After having stepped out of the cubicle, I noticed I had to make an effort to step back into the world of the art academy, to adjust to my role of external examinator again, this person presumed to focus on the art works, judging them as proofs of the artists’ competencies. This world full of expectations and judgements suddenly seemed superfluous.
My encounter with Tobias Karlsson popped back into my mind when I recently came across an article by art philosopher Arthur Danto in the Opinionator of the New York Times, titled “Sitting with Marina”. Danto describes his experience of a performance piece by artist Marina Abramović, which formed part of her retrospective “The Artist is Present” from March through May 2010 in the MoMa in New York. This piece was enacted daily by the artist herself and visitors of the museum. As Danto describes, the work consisted of Abramović seated in a chair placed on the floor of the museum’s atrium, across from an empty chair, in which anyone could sit for any length of time. Each day Abramović took her place just before the museum would open, and she would only leave well after the museum closing time. During the day hundreds of people lined up to sit across from Abramović. Some visitors chose to sit across from Marina for hours, others chose to return to sit multiple times. Visitors sat for an average of 20 minutes. Each sitting visitor was portrayed by a photographer. People who sat long enough, approximately 10 minutes or more, were interviewed after their session by a film crew. The work proved to be “a succès fou”, as Danto states. “The possibility of sitting with Marina ignited in the public imagination the idea that one can do more than passively experience works of art, that one can be part of a work of art for as long as one is willing or able”. Danto himself also took the opportunity and sat across from the artist for some ten minutes. Poetically he describes his experience of “becoming part of a work of art”. Abramović kept silent. It was “a dialogue de sourds – a dialogue of the deaf”. Danto writes how she had gone into her “performance mode”, entering “another state”, “a shamanic trance”, which he values as one of her gifts as a performer. Acknowledging the fact that each visitor who “sat with Marina” must have a had a unique experience, different from the experiences of all the other visitors, Danto concludes that in the end for all it was magic, that Abramović and MoMA “have brought back into art”.
Comparing both pieces, Abramović’s and Karlsson’s, the participation of both the visitor and the artist is required. The piece can’t be ‘present’ without these two persons. Both pieces also are reciprocally structured. Both create an intimacy between visitor and artist. And in both cases this is happening within an art institution. There are also differences, which spring into the eye. The intimacy between Abramović and her sitting visitor is being watched by hundreds of people, the intimacy between Karlsson and his visitors is closed off from sight. And, indeed, big is the difference between sitting across from the other one, or sitting shoulder-to-shouder!
Most striking is the fundamental difference between the two pieces which can’t be made visible, but can be deducted from their ‘appearance’. Abramović took on her ‘performance mode’. “Her face took on the translucence of fine porcelain”, Arthur Danto writes. She, the artist, is the one who plays her shamanic role, who raises expectations of magic, in which the visitor, sitting across from her, might partake. “Sitting with Marina” testifies of the urge of Danto and so many visitors of the MoMa to become part of art, to experience something ‘magical’, whatever that may be. Karlsson’s piece also testifies of a longing, but of a different orientation. Karlsson’s “Untitled” testifies of a longing for less magic, for a casting off of roles, for an intimacy which is there already but covered under the dust of expectations. This intimacy is not the outcome of an effort to become part of art. Karlsson created a niche within the art institution, an inside balcony, from which to orientate towards the world outside together.