Quality is the first norm for art, but its final norm is love and truth, the enriching of human life, the deepening of our vision.

Marina Abramović – Carrying the Milk

ArtWay Visual Meditation 28 April 2024
Marina Abramović – The Kitchen V: Carrying the Milk
by Stefan Belderbos
In front of a large white window in a light, dilapidated kitchen stands a woman dressed in a long black dress. The dress leaves only her hands and head uncovered. The woman keeps her eyes fixed on the bowl in her hand, a bowl filled to the brim with milk. She stands still. Only the panels of her dress move and her hands sometimes tremble a little. A few drops of milk spill over the edge. You can see and feel that the woman goes to great lengths to keep the bowl as still as possible. She stands like this for ten minutes, almost motionless. But then fatigue sets in for a moment. She changes her posture a little to relieve her cramped muscles. As a result, the milk flows irrevocably over the rim of the bowl onto her dress.
This is the performance The Kitchen: Carrying the Milk from 2009 by Marina Abramović. It is a video performance, recorded without an audience in an abandoned Carthusian nunnery in Gijón, (Asturias, Spain). The performance is an ode to the mystic Teresa of Ávila who described how she was lifted up by God's hand while she was working in the kitchen. Abramović  recorded a series of videos in the monastery, of which this is one of the most tranquil. Because of her clothing and hairstyle, she herself looks like one of the nuns who used to populate the convent. In the twelve minutes that the film lasts little happens.
If someone would briefly tell me the story of this work and mention the length of the film, I would not have thought I'd watch it to the end. Yet I did - effortlessly. And that is because the video also has a less easy-to-describe layer. What you see is that the artist concentrates to the utmost on the act of not moving. And I could feel that concentration as I watched; that concentration meant that I sympathised with her.
The performance reminded me of Zen Buddhist meditation, where the meditators try to clear the mind of thought. They focus their attention entirely on breathing and sitting, because it is precisely in this silence and tranquility that one can experience transcendence: unity and connection with oneself and the Other. This turning inward is in line with the Christian practice of fasting – particularly during the season of Lent – where we try to search in prayer and meditation for what really matters in relation to ourselves, others, and God. However, this is not easy. It soon becomes clear that the stream of thoughts in our head is carrying us along. Very quickly we are thinking about what happened yesterday and what we want to do tomorrow. I saw the bowl of milk, with an almost smooth, wrinkle-free surface, as a beautiful symbol for the calmed flow of thought. But the ripples and flooding show how difficult this is.
Just as it is almost impossible to keep your arms and hands still for long periods of time without any aid, so it is for the mind. When you live, you move. In the end it doesn't matter how experienced you are, how much you meditate. This very simple task, keeping your attention completely in the here and now, remains incredibly difficult. Even for an artist and modern mystic like Abramović, for whom meditation and 'sitting still' have become an inseparable part of her life and work.
In 2010, at the MoMA in New York, she showed that for three months, six days a week, she could concentrate motionless on the visitors who sat down in front of her, one by one. With Carrying the Milk she shows how difficult this effort actually is and makes this spiritual process visible. As a spectator, you also experience how difficult it is to keep your attention focused on the bowl of milk and the artist for ten minutes. In this way, this work is an invitation to experience the connection with yourself and the Other in the here and now.
Marina Abramović, The Kitchen V: Carrying the Milk, 2009, video performance, 12'42''.
Marina Abramović  (born 1946) is a Serbian performance artist. She started her career in the 1970s. In her work, she explores the relationship between the performer and the audience, the limits of the body and the abilities of the mind. In March – May 2010, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held the biggest exhibition of performance in its history entitled The Artist is Present. Abramović sat immobile in the museum's atrium for a total of 736-hours and 30-minutes while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.
Stefan Belderbos is a Dutch visual artist based in Friesland, NL. His work consists of photography, installations, video, and performance art. He has also written and directed a number of plays at the interface of theatre and performance. In 2010 he obtained his PhD at Leiden University with a thesis on performance art, liturgy, and religious experience.
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