Psychotherapy as Art

Recently, I watched a documentary about the performance artist Marina Abramovic which followed the process of putting together an exhibition of her work at MoMA in New York. At the heart of her exhibition was a new piece of work entitled ‘The Artist is present’. In this installation there were two chairs facing each other and a table in between. In one chair sat Marina whilst visitors queued to sit in the chair opposite. Once they had settled themselves Marina raised her head and established eye contact for the duration of their sitting. The rules were simple, no talking, no physical contact just eye contact. They could sit for as long as they wished and she remained present for the entire three months of the exhibition.

The effect of this pure and still presence attracted huge attention with some visitors queuing day and night to sit opposite her. She later described how she observed the emotional states that many sitters brought, from simple curiosity to anger and sadness to love and pain. For many there was a sense of being seen for the very first time and in this encounter deep emotions were stirred.

What was it about this simple performance that affected so many people?

In our society we have created little room for just being and as a result many of us are constantly on the move in a never ending cycle of action and reaction. Here, in the center of one of the busiest cities in the world an artist sat as the art itself and observed the observers. In that inaction she brought the visitor into the present moment with her.

Later, Marina decided to have the table removed. Now the dynamic of the piece resembled the same composition as in the psychotherapy session between therapist and client. However, in therapy there is the boundary of time where words are exchanged.

Can that pure still presence manifest in the container of a 50 minute therapy session where words and language are ever present?

I believe it can and does ..

The essence of that piece and the intention of pure presence reminded me of what we attempt to do as psychotherapists and often fail through words, interventions, solutions and opinions. We know we shouldn’t but they leak out through our mouths and our body language. The piece reminded me of what I’ve experienced as most trans-formative, both as a client and with my clients as a therapist. That of being fully present with what is happening in the room and witnessing from a place of empathic regard.

I’m always amazed, as I sometimes find myself hurtling across London, at how the troubles of my day dissolved when I’m able to bring myself fully present with my clients. Sometimes that can be challenging when the troubles of the day are great but as I listened to Marina describe the pain she often experienced through sitting for long hours and observing her visitors. In this I was again reminded of how we learn to look out from beyond ourselves into the lives of our clients and sometimes it’s just about being there as fully as we can be.


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