New York Photo Review
Volume 1 Issue 9 March 24 -30, 2010

Mamihlapinatapai
Marina Abramovic
The Artist is Present
Vicente Revilla
 by Vicente Revilla.
Vicente Revilla

This past fall, I published an article titled Mamihlapinatapai : A Librarian’s Perspective on a Word not yet Found in an English or Spanish Dictionary. Mamihlapinatapai basically describes the unknown quandary implied when two people stare at each other. What is the message being conveyed?

To my amazement I discovered that the Museum of Modern Art in New York City had a performance piece (March 14—May 31st ) in the Marron Atrium; a performance by Marina Abramovic, a Yugoslavian/Serb artist who describes herself as “the grandmother of performance art.” Marina was staring at whomever sat in front of her.

I photographed Marina and the woman she was staring at, I studied the image. The word “punctum” came to mind. In Roland Barthe’s’ thinking the punctum is the accidental quality possessed by each photograph. It is something that is missing but yet, it is there. It is the ultimate reality an image possesses and, hard to conceptualize with words.

As I looked at the image of Marina Abramovic’s performance, I thought about the punctum in the image. Where was it? Was it the stare itself? The lack of sensory touch? The space created between the two of them? Is it invisible sculpture? Was the punctum their closeness at the table and, yet the distance between them? Or the total silence of the performance?

 by Vicente Revilla .
Vicente Revilla

A fellow photographer once went looking for the punctum in one of my images. The photograph showed a number of pilgrims kneeling/praying in front of a cross on a mountain in Peru. His comment was “you don’t see the punctum…but it is there. It is the encounter of the physical world and the spiritual”

In my photograph of Marina Abramovic’s performance the punctum is the encounter of the two people staring at each other; that “thing” transpiring between the two stares. On the table is a collision of thoughts and ideas each person had accumulated throughout their lives. Each sees/stares based on their own assumptions and knowledge. But again, one wonders, what kind of thoughts and ideas are in collision. That, I am sure, we will never know.

At the exhibit I asked a viewer if she could think of a word that describes this moment depicted in the performance. If not, could she make one up. She looked at me, smiled and explained that the performance was beyond words. It inferred that things existed totally beyond language and linguistics. I asked another woman, who was in line, to stare at Marina.” Why are you here?” She replied. “it is a mystical experience; You become a different person. “

I realize my photograph of Marina highlights the theatricality of her performance. This allowed me to search for other meanings for the performance and their implications. The staging of the performance is disturbing in a world where “real stares” are imbued with many different meanings. Yet, the staging of the performance does not detract from the validity of the message. It didn’t when Dorothea Lange created her powerful photograph titled “Migrant Mother.” Photographer Robert Capa staged his famous image Loyalist militiaman apparently showing a soldier at the moment shot, falling death to the ground. These are staged images demanding that we confront them.

The performance by Marina Abramovic brings me back to my original premise which concerns language. There is a word from the Yaghan language which is spoken in the southern most part of South America. The word is mamihlapinatapai. A word describing two people staring at each other while trying to say something, but unable to. No one knows who will initiate the conversation. Mamihlapinatapai is a word defined as two people looking at each other who seem lost in their own thoughts, a word about two people trying to make sense of the stare, a word that describes the absurd. In a way, It is similar to the absurdity of the characters in Borges Library of Babel who look for a book that contains all the answers knowing is written in an unknown language. Even so, they still continue to search for the book. Looking at the image of Marina Abramovic staring at another person, I see the point. My thoughts dwell on it and I search for a meaning in a Yaghan word.

The Artist is Present by Vicente Revilla

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