The Talented Audience
by Wendy Richmond
When I attend a performance, I like to arrive early so I can watch the show before the show—that is, the audience. At a recent dance concert at the Joyce Theater in New York City, I spotted, just a few rows in front of me, Mikhail Baryshnikov. After the initial shock of being star-struck, I looked around and realized that the audience was, most likely, filled with an abundance of talent: Dancers coming to see dancers, not only to hone their craft and to observe the hottest new choreography, but also to share, as a group, the sheer love of dance.
As I continued to take in the crowd, I imagined all the other kinds of artists that must be there—musicians, writers, visual artists, actors. I felt a surge of pride: I am a member of this talented audience! But the talent I’m referring to is not that of single individuals who, one by one, have a particular gift or genius. Instead, I am talking about a talented body of many interdependent parts, like a complex organism that inherently knows that each cell contributes to the mutual support that makes it a gifted entity. We were all there with the common hope and expectation of being nourished and stimulated. It's not just what I see on the stage that makes me feel so... well... that makes me feel, period. It’s being in a community of strangers that also shares this passion. It’s as simple as, “Me, too.”
The New York Public Library has a series called “Live from the NYPL,” which is described as having “provocative conversations, real debates, irresistible performances, original ideas.” Last June, I attended “Lena Herzog in conversation with Lawrence Weschler.” The subject was Herzog’s recently published monograph Lost Souls, a photographic investigation of the cabinets of wonder and curiosities (Kunstkammern and Wunderkammern) that include the world’s earliest medical museums.
The dialogue was about an artist’s journey of creating tender and unsettling photographs, but it was also about philosophy, history, poetry, religion, science, immortality and fear. The conversation itself was a performance: The repartee between Weschler, a brilliant and prolific author of creative nonfiction, and Herzog, a broadly educated and inspired artist, was scintillating, with both of them zinging historical references or reciting animated excerpts from Nabokov, Szymborska and Sartre. There was no way to know if the audience was keeping up, but I noticed that many were doing the same thing I was, frantically scribbling notes to Google later. While there was no literal audience participation, I feel it is fair to say that the energy and empathy in the room were palpable.
After the event, which lasted over two hours, plus another half hour for book purchasing and signing, we were all invited to attend a reception at the International Center of Photography (a two-minute walk from the library), where Herzog’s photographs were being exhibited. As we traveled en masse from Fifth Avenue to Sixth, I was pleased to be in the company of others, carrying the same heavy books and going in together for another round.
This all got me thinking about other talented audiences. At the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibit The Artist is Present, performance artist Marina Abramović sat all day, silent and barely moving, throughout the duration of the show (over 700 hours total). On a first-come-first-served basis, museum visitors sat, also silently, in a chair facing her. According to the New York Times, “The chair has rarely, if ever, been empty. Close to 1,400 people have occupied it, some for only a minute or two, a few for an entire day.”
During the show, the photographer Marco Anelli took portraits of every visitor who participated in the piece. The portraits are on MOMA’s Web site, and going through them, you see the visceral reaction of each person experiencing intense, private moments in a most public place. I often checked into the site, and as the weeks passed, it was clear that although Abramović’s endurance was riveting, it was the members of the audience that made that particular exhibit so compelling. Each person has made the same choice and shared the same act—confronting Abramović's unwavering stare, all without movement, sound or comment.
Although I did go to the museum, I did not occupy the chair. I saw this piece only from the sidelines, because I was too impatient to wait in the long line. And all those faces? I saw them on Flickr. And so, I am sorry to say I was not a member of the talented audience, and I am the poorer for it.
The word “audience” implies a passive, inactive body. Its antonym is “participant.” But a talented audience is always participating. Even when it is completely silent and still. CA
© 2010 W. Richmond
Editor’s note: Wendy's new book Art Without Compromise* is published by Allworth Press.