In 2010, the performance artist Marina Abramović performed a silent piece at the New York Museum of Modern Art titled “The Artist Is Present.” For seven hours a day, Abramović wore a simple red gown and sat in a wooden chair at a wooden table with an empty chair across from her. Visitors were welcomed to sit across from her during a moment of silence that lasted however long the visitor needed it to last.
On opening night, one visitor overwhelmed the artist — her ex-lover and former performance art partner Uwe Laysiepen, known as “Ulay,” sat in the empty seat. Abramović wasn’t looking up at first. So, Ulay waved his feet around under the table to draw her attention. When Abramović looked up, she was immediately shocked.
Abramović and Ulay had worked together for 12 years. Their relationship ended after the realization that they were heading in different directions with their art. The last time they saw each other before that year had been in 1988 when they did one last performance in China: They each walked from one end of the Great Wall of China until they met in the middle and held one another.
At the MoMA installation, Abramović began to cry. She stopped her performance for a moment to reach across the table and take Ulay’s hands in her own. He spoke to her for a bit while she listened. A few seconds later, she pulled back to return to her position and he walked away.