Oh man. I just watched this video of the artists Marina Abramovic and Ulay meeting again after years apart and it has me in a tailspin. But before I get into that, some background on the artists: they began collaborating in 1976, creating “a collective being called “the other” … as parts of a “two-headed body”. They dressed and behaved like twins,” according to Wikipedia. In a piece called Breathing In/Breathing Out, “the two artists … connected their mouths and took in each other’s exhaled breaths until they had used up all of the available oxygen. Seventeen minutes after the beginning of the performance they both fell to the floor unconscious, their lungs having filled with carbon dioxide.” That gives you a sense of the intense intimacy these two shared. (Several sources describe them as lovers as well as collaborators.) In 1988, the artists decided it was time to go their separate ways and each walked from one end of The Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle for a final and dramatic goodbye. (Definitely read more about their bizarre and boundary-pushing works here.)
In 2010, Abramovic was doing this thing at the MOMA where she sat with strangers for a minute each. I’m pretty sure all the encounters were silent, and the participants were just supposed to take in her energy, and she theirs. It was one of those art world things that had a lot of people talking, both praising and mocking the experience. I remember the buzz around the event but I didn’t go, and I had never seen anything about it really until today when the Australian website Zen Garage shared this video in a blog post. Watch what happens when Ulay surprises Abramovic and then let’s talk:
Let’s just break their interaction down, shall we? First of all, I love how nervous Ulay is to do this, to have this meeting with this woman he loved. He fixes his collar as he walks up to her, he’s adjusting his neck. He can’t get his legs right, he’s kicking them out trying to land those Chucks in just the right spot. She opens her eyes and this sense of wonder washes over her face, like she’s seeing the person she’s been secretly hoping she’d see again one day, but only at the right place and the right time when they can finally really let each other go. Or heal the wound and make everything perfect, she doesn’t know, she just has to wait for that magical confrontation to happen. And this is it. She humbles herself to the moment by closing her eyes. She smiles. She knew it. She knew this day would come. But she also can’t believe it came. It’s happening now.
He shakes his head. “I know,” he says with his chin. But he can’t believe it either and he doesn’t know what to expect so he adjusts his face and body because shit is about to get real. She opens her mouth, she juts out her chin. She wants him but she’s moved on. He says, “Okay, yeah, well, wow,” and opens his eyes up wide, blowing off some steam in relief, realizing he’s a fully middle-aged man now (who still wears Chucks). He shakes his head again, laughing at himself and the absurdity of the whole thing.
The camera pulls away and he shakes his head yes. Yes, let’s do this. Let’s fucking do this. We’re in it already. We are in it. The people are watching us, we are watching us, we are in control and fighting to be in control and not in control at all. So she cries, because DUH OF COURSE SHE CRIES. They WALKED THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA together, separate but together, like we all are, like the pull to love and be loved but the constant cry for freedom always reminds us. He blinks at her as if to say he’s sorry, but he casts his eyes downward to truly show his regrets. She realizes things will never be the same, could never be the same, are not the same. That’s life. She’s devastated by that fact, but she resigns herself to it. Her dignity won’t allow her to be foolish here. He nods again and says he understands. She reaches out to him, and he laughs, and takes her hands, and everyone applauds, because this is what we all want. We all want it to work out even when it can’t, it hasn’t. We want to make it all right. We want to come back together as one, like before the origin of love.
And then Ulay’s time is up, and he walks away. And Abramovic carries on with the next participant.
And that’s what love is. That’s what being human is.
When it comes to lost love, you can keep waiting for this moment, longing for it, pining for it, or you can recognize that even if this moment came to you – the chance for reuniting, for healing, for closure – in the end, your only real choice is to carry on with the next participant.