Photo property of the MFA
With only about three and a half hours left, I’m seated on the floor of the Museum of Fine Art scrawling words on page. I hadn’t planned to do my assignment so early. I didn’t even have anything planned originally. The MFA sports a price tag of “optional donation” on Wednesdays and my boyfriend’s only in town for a week, so off to the museum we went. What I didn’t expect to find here was my story.
The MFA currently has a performance art piece in session in the middle of the contemporary art section. Marilyn Arsem presents “100 Ways to Consider Time.” It’s a performance art piece in which the artist, Marilyn, sits in a stark white room for 6 hours a day for one hundred days straight. The MFA’s website explain performance art stating “Like time itself, performance art is ephemeral. All that remains following a performance is how it is subsequently recalled through memory and retellings.” So here is my retelling of experiencing “100 Ways to Consider Time.”
Marilyn sits in a chair across from and to the left of the entrance. The room has also white benches lining two of the four walls. There is a desk in the corner adjacent to the entrance. Another chair sits next to her, empty except for a black cloth that I assumed was for cushioning. The only other fixations in the room are a rock (centered) and an odd clock, and Marilyn herself.
2/17/2016 – Day 98 – Room Layout
For the past ninety eight days the artist has spent six hours a day in this bleak room. The performance is meant to explore time. It’s meant to make the audience personally consider time and how they spend their own time. The description outside the room makes clear that the piece is not meant to answer any questions, but it certainly raises a lot. Why is she doing this? What is she thinking? What has she been thinking for all this time? Does she hear the tick and the tock of every second? Does she hear anything at all or is her conscious contained within her own head? Is she glad it’s day ninety eight? The description outside the room is similarly ambiguous and question raising. It touches upon how audience and artist can interact to create and morph the art. Does she speak? Can you speak to her? It’s unclear; the description doesn’t clarify. But she sits with an empty seat next to her. This raises even more questions for me.
People fill the benches, so I sit down on the floor in the corner. I wonder if she meant for this silence to shroud her show. I wonder if she had hoped someone would sit next to her. I wondered what she did with the other eighteen hours of her day. She had a ring on; I supposed maybe she went home to her husband and lived a normal life for the rest of her day. Looking at her drawn, somber face I doubted that her non-museum hours were particularly pleasant either. People go to work for much longer than six hours a day. I wondered if the piece was also a commentary on how people spend much of their time working.
The description was correct and clear in one regard: none of my questions seemed to have any answers. Questions in mind with no answers on hand, I went to find my boyfriend.
Reunited, I asked him what he’d seen and he asked me the same. I told him that I’d been in the performance art room. He had seen the piece from outside the room, and he immediately brought up some of my same questions.
“Can you sit by her? Can you talk to her?”
The ambiguity of the board, intentional or unintentional, lead to our selective reading that we weren’t explicitly not allowed to sit with her. The board read
Marilyn Arsem: 100 Ways to Consider Time debuts a new performance by Boston-based artist Marilyn Arsem (American, born in 1951). For six hours a day, every day, for 100 days, Arsem will be present here in the Towles Gallery, inserting her living presence into the Museum. Her performance is an invitation to pause and experience the present moment together, providing a temporary respite to the frenetic pace of our modern lives.
Arsem has dedicated her career to exploring the unique characteristics of performance art. These include the unpredictability of its final form and its ability to encompass all the sense—sight, touch, taste, sound, and smell. The medium blurs traditional boundaries between audience and artist, and we encourage you to spend time in the gallery with Arsem. When she is not present, you will hear an audio recording of Arsem made following the end of the previous day’s performance.
If viewers have the time to allow themselves to slow down with me, small details will become visible. The work could be viewed as if it were a minimalist or abstract painting or sculpture. In that respect, it operates similarly as a kind of opaque or seemingly simple surface that reflects back to the viewers the complexity of their own thoughts. This is not a work that offers answers, but rather provides an opportunity to consider one’s own concerns about the passage of time. –Marilyn Arsem
Stuck on phrases like “the unpredictability of its final form,” “the medium blurs traditional boundaries between audience and artist,” and especially “when she is not present, you will hear an audio recording,” I became convinced that we were meant to bridge the gap. I also became more and more excited about her piece. Beyond questioning time, it seemed to question the boundaries of art. It questioned the relationship between the artist and the audience and the bindings that create those roles. Nowhere was a sign that said “Don’t Touch the Art.” Was she simply sitting alone because no one had chosen to enter her sphere? Was it the Bystander Effect but stretched to encompass any interaction at all? We thought about asking some museum representatives outside the room if we were allowed to speak to her, but they were engaged in a passionate conversation and interrupting seemed rude (somehow ruder than potentially interrupting (but potentially adding to) a hundred day long performance piece). Austin and I went in and sat on the benches.
Marilyn remained straight backed and silent in her seat. The clock ticked.
I couldn’t take it. I had to know.
Maybe it was impatience; maybe it was the desire to understand; I couldn’t take the time, and I couldn’t take the questions. Whatever it was, I whispered
“go sit next to her.”
Austin, intensely curious as well, rose to fall in next to her.
As he approached the seat she stood and swept down on him, suddenly large. She abruptly pointed to the bench.
“YOU sit THERE.”
Hands clenched, she began to pace around the rock. Counterclockwise.
Another woman came over to scold him.
I was furious. Didn’t she understand that she was practically asking us these questions? Didn’t she realize that the second empty chair practically begged for someone to fill it so she wouldn’t seem so alone? Her description didn’t forbid it. If anything, it seemed to encourage interaction. Was her scolding of him a part of the art? Were we all meant to experience time in solidarity?
Feeling protective and confused, I angrily imagined punching her in her old gut. I’m not proud of it, but I did. I imagined punching her right in her black sweater sheathed belly. I glared at her. What was she trying to communicate? It seemed like the piece was supposed to be about spending time together. Why was she dressed in all black, neck to toes? Did she think it made her more of an artist? I didn’t understand. I yearned to understand, but I just didn’t. Arsem’s piece was really raising questions, but I didn’t feel like I got it. It was interesting to me in a few ways. I liked the noisy clock. I liked the unyielding symbolism of the rock. I liked how she paced in a circle as if she herself was inside of a clock. But I didn’t understand. I felt on the cusp of understanding, when my boyfriend stood to leave. I stood with him.
“What did she say to you?”
“She told me not to sit there. When I got close I could see that there was some oily substance on the chair next to her.”
Suddenly, everything fell into place.
The chair wasn’t meant to be sat in.
She wasn’t meant to be interacted with.
Every day for 98 days she had sat in silence, markedly alone, for 6 hours a day. She didn’t go home to her husband. Her husband had died. The piece was a performance art piece dealing with time in regards to mourning.
Clothed in all black except for her gray hair and her gold wedding ring, she was the icon of a widow. She spent her time publicly mourning her husband instead of at home alone. And she was intensely aware of the time spent. Similarly brilliant was Arsem’s implicitness. Only with interaction (or nearly interaction) would a person know that the chair was unavailable for sitting in. Only then would a person know that she was certainly, decidedly alone. Only then would a person know that when she paces, she paces to turn back time.
Googling the piece later, I learned a lot. Marilyn’s piece changes each day. I found that she changes the setup of her props each day. Some days she counts aloud. Some days she talks with her audience. Some days she watches ice melt. The Globe touches on a number of ways in which the artist conducts performances dealing with time. The only article I could find about her personal life involved a recent interview. Before starting the piece, Marilyn was interviewed by Jeffrey Byrd. In this interview, she speaks of her husband. He had come to almost all of her showings for 30 years. He died in 2012.
Marilyn’s piece is personal, introspective, and ephemeral. Each day it changes. But each day, she wears all black and she considers time.