In the past month, three different friends have reached out to me about the artist Maria Abramović. Each stated how they thought of me while watching her documentary, The Artist is Present. “It’s eerie how much of you I see in her.” At first and even now, these comments are quite curious to me. I am not an artist nor do I consider myself ANYTHING close to a lover of contemporary art. I am not that deep. Not that touchy-feely. Not that abstract. Just this week, I spent the morning forcing myself through the SFMOMA only to roll my eyes about a hundred times at blank canvases and porcelain toilets. (Please, the next time we see each other, I do not want to argue about Duchamp. Let’s just agree to disagree). I’ve had Abramović’s TED Talk, The art made of trust, vulnerability and connection queued for quite some time. I watched it and then watched it again. I sat through the documentary thrice times in a row. After three days of watching her, obsessing over her work, enraptured by her thoughts and actions, contemplating what my friends could possibly correlate between her and I, I truly and fantastically gave up.
But during my research and subsequent contemplation, after hours of attempts for meaning from this method of artistic expression, I gathered something quite incredible from Abramović – the idea of vulnerability and connection. And furthermore, where we actually practice vulnerability and how we find connections.
But what does this have to do with travel? Everything. If we let it.
One of the loveliest, thrilling but sometimes painful events of my life have been the connections made with strangers during my travels – whether it’s been a momentary meeting on a busy street that resulted in intrinsically modifying who I am as an individual or a doomed transcontinental romance gone bad.
I love to meet people because of the manner in which we as a global society can connect and communicate. I love stories and histories more than anything, I am always in search for more meaningful, bonded connections. This doesn’t mean I am good at it or at being vulnerable, which Abramović suggests is the most vital element to making a connection with another individual. I try, as much as possible, to be open when I travel – to take people in, to keep my heart and mind open, adjusting to the culture I am partaking in. But vulnerability is something I have, in the past, gravely avoided. To be internally vulnerable is to be open to rejection and be perceived as weak, and I fear weakness as if it was the Black Plague.
That all changed for me during my Spring stay in Italy. I embraced those qualities I was most afraid of. I failed. Gloriously. Miserably. But I did them and although I am still struggling with the sheer terror of my own vulnerability and on top of that a catastrophic failure – I am now able to see with clarity all the failures, all the times I missed opportunities for connection during my travels. And therefore, I am practicing art, vulnerability and openness in a space that feels somewhat safer to fail in. San Francisco.
I recently experienced this during a dinner party where I was seated next to a striking Serbian gentleman. After a pleasant introduction and my side eye of disdain that I had to sit next to this foreigner for a full dinner when I wasn’t feeling particular social or even sane, I walked away still thinking about that evening quite frequently. (And this is not to say it was romantic, although he was drop dead gorgeous.)
The evening turned into he and I huddled on one side of the table – debating life, religion, art, politics, love and what exactly a connection is and how people reach it. I believe it to be circumstance, willingness, the force of the universe, and chemistry. It happens or it doesn’t. He believed connections were built over long term interactions and trust. Nay. I disagreed and discussed Abramović’s platform. The next day I was pleasantly surprised to see a text come in from Serb stating, “You are a fascinating girl. I’m convinced. Connections can be instantaneous.” I, most likely, will never see this person again. It was a fleeting connection that served for the evening. I am better than I was when I arrived to the dinner party.
Since I have been home I have grasped every opportunity I can to explore connections when I feel strong enough to do so. Some come in the form of kindness towards strangers. Some are just nurturing connections I already have with people I trust and admire. I am exploring people and places, attempting to make connections with not only others but the landscape.
I am hopping on bikes, whipping through the urban streets of San Francisco with an ever-handsome companion. Swinging our tires through graffitied alleys and stopping for snacks and a quick drink. I am setting off in the dawn hours tucked into the passenger seat of a friend’s car as a medley of 90’s hip-hop songs vibrate the hot cup of coffee in my hand. We wind through coastal forests – I screech for my friend to pull over on a deserted patch so I can run into the misty trees which sprinkle their drops across my face as I laugh and cry like a mad person. In that moment, I am happy and I am tormented and I am alive.
I am willing my legs to pace faster as the sparkling San Francisco night engulfs my small body, passing loud bars with hip groups of beautiful people, arriving on the street corner to embrace my evening’s companion. We sit across from one another, myself attempting to forget the past, my companion trying to predict the future, as we laugh into the night. We make friends with fellow patrons and end the evening atop Coit Tower after I call in a favor and get the locked door opened for us at 1 in the morning. We wind our way to the top, laughing at the comfort of each other’s company, passing murals executed by Diego Rivera’s students until we reach the highest point. It is windy and the fog tickles our noses. The lights of the city appear and disappear as the fog horns bellow across the Bay. I am saying to my companion how every time I see her, I see someone new. My companion responds, “Because every time you return here, you are new.” I swallow the cold night air, hide my face in a shadow and wipe away a small tear from my cheek.
No matter where in the world you are, no matter how rural or how urban an area may be, there is always something new to see. Someone new to be. Someone new to meet. Because every time you look, you look through new eyes. And the bulk of this new person is the other people you have met along your way, the connections you let yourself experience. Maybe that new you is love and maybe it is pain or loss but you see the people and places before you modified, adapted into what you need in that moment.
Travel is the only thing we spend money on that is guaranteed to make us richer. We all know that life cannot be measured in monetary value. Life is only to be measured in the goodness in our hearts, the people we were honest with and the talents we utilize to make other’s experience on earth more bearable.
And while I still wholeheartedly do not understand modern art, contemporary media and a porcelain toilet sitting on a pedestal on the gallery floor, I have been able to understand the value in its idea. Thank you, Marina.