In June I was out in Detroit to give a presentation about how to resolve any conflict using the Karpman triangle. (You may think you don’t know what I am referring to, but you probably do. It’s when we recognize we are either playing the villain, rescuer or victim in a conflict and with that awareness we free ourselves from being stuck in these roles.) Once I finished the power point I had 3 hours before my flight home, so I secreted myself away to the Detroit Institute of Arts. I started with the Diego Rivera murals of the auto industry, caught some contemporary sculpture of the city skyline made from baseball bats, and made my way through the impressionists. While in the contemporary section I turned a corner and spied a Marina Abramovic video entitled “Spilling the Milk.” Here’s what a cool art publication had to say about it:
“In the Abramovic video, included in her widely acclaimed 2010 MoMA, New York, retrospective, the artist continues her earlier themes but places them within the tradition of seventeenth-century Dutch genre painting. A luminous window lights a glowing kitchen as Abramovic attempts to hold a brim-filled bowl of shimmering milk without spilling it. The video’s scene recalls the visual impression of works such as Vermeer’s The Milkmaid (1657) with its use of everyday subject matter to portray the intersection of sensuality and spirituality at the root of human experience. Yet the concentration and strength necessary to translate this moving image into the ideal, suspended stillness of a Vermeer painting tests the limits of the artist’s fortitude and the audience’s expectations.” — From Artweek.LA
As I studied her, people gathered on the bench opposite, and to either side of the screen. More kept pooling around the piece, illumined by the projection. It was literally a crowd favorite, the growing audience gathering to witness this milk carrying/spilling event. A mother and three children peered on. “Is she actually moving? Or is it freeze framed?” the girl asked. ”I think she’s going to drop it!” one of the boys predicted. “It’s just like that, isn’t it?” the mother confided to me. “Mothering. It takes everything not to drop it all.” Abramovic, the artist, peered into the milk in her bowl, willing herself to hold still, despite the demands of gravity. “Funny you should bring up mothering,” I leaned over and whispered to the woman. “She actually had a very difficult relationship with her mother. She wanted her mother’s attention, and rarely got it.”
We turned back to the video. What made it so compelling? We hoped she wouldn’t drop the bowl. We also wanted to see her drop the bowl! We hoped she would shatter the quietly oppressive domestic scene. This tiny drama pulled us all in for almost 13 minutes. It ended with extra sloshing from the bowl and then a fade out to black. No clear climax or finality. “Is that it?” someone said walking away.
I stayed, watched the piece again, and took this picture. The crowd dispersed and a new cycle of questioning eyes gazed at the screen. Marina Abramovic never won her mother’s approval and attention the way she wanted it as a girl, but she had won the world’s.