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Art About Waiting — and What It Takes to Endure

“It’s not: Try to make it more difficult,” he said of the works. “I tried to make it more clear.” He wanted to pass time, to live inside of it. “Already, life, for everybody, it’s not easy,” he said. He hopped up and held his finger aloft. “One nail, right? If your body touched that, it’d be very painful.” He glided his hand along the stone beneath him. “But if this is like a bed, a nail bed, I lay down, then you don’t feel much pressure. You can stay longer. My work is more like a nail bed in that way.”

It’s no wonder that art about waiting seems to emerge in periods of trauma and crisis, whether personal or societal. At the very least, it becomes newly resonant at such times. And we have all been doing a lot of waiting these past months — for businesses and public spaces to reopen, for daily infections and death rates to tick downward, for an unemployment check to arrive, for a vaccine to be developed, for the opportunity to touch each other again.

Performance that focused on endurance first emerged as a dominant style in contemporary art in the late 1960s and early ’70s, during the ascendancy of both Pop’s sleek cynicism and the cerebral, deadpan humor of conceptual art. Durational art was a coalescing of radical protest, gaudy showmanship and absurdist action. One of the great early examples of the genre happened in 1974, when the Vietnam War was in its dark last days. It was then that the German artist — a former Luftwaffe pilot and pacifist — Joseph Beuys landed in New York from Düsseldorf, was wrapped in felt and taken by ambulance and then a stretcher into a SoHo gallery for his work “I Like America and America Likes Me.” He spent three days, for eight hours a day, locked in a room with a coyote, before returning home by the same means.

Part of the reason waiting is such a powerful artistic practice is because the act itself is so intensely human, how it often involves the artist losing control — of time, of agency — or intentionally giving it up. The slowdowns, delays, closures and unexpected conclusions that transpire invite reflection both about institutional commitments, as well as about what we owe one another. This kind of art is both a confrontation and a provocation. Abramovic has spent nearly half a century in uncomfortable limbo states, in which waiting becomes a matter of extended drama and aching split-second decisions. In a gallery in Naples, Italy, in 1974, for her piece “Rhythm 0,” she stood for six hours in front of a table bearing dozens of items — among them a knife, a feather, a bullet and a gun — and waited for visitors to do what they wanted to her. Some cut off her clothes, but one person loaded the firearm, placed it in the artist’s hand and raised it to her head — before another stepped in, pulling it away.

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