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Marina Abramovic, left, and a visitor to the New York Museum of Modern Art perform The Artist is Present on March 15. (Mary Altaffer/Associated Press)

Performance artist Marina Abramovic says her recent work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, The Artist is Present, was the most difficult of her life.

For the last four months, the U.S.-based artist has sat silently in a chair in an atrium of the New York museum, locking eyes with visitors who were invited to sit for as long as they wanted.

The piece is the longest work of performance art in history — at 736 hours and 30 minutes.

But that milestone is secondary to the intense interest in the piece by the public and emotions it evoked in many of the people who participated.

"In our culture, people don't meet with the eyes. People don't sit in silence and connect with themselves," Abramovic said Thursday, in an interview with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

"We are so much busy with everything else and rushing, especially in New York … People don't have time."

Yet museum patrons waited in line for hours for the chance to sit opposite Abramovic in complete silence. More than 700,000 people witnessed the exhibit and online communities have sprung up around the experience.

Abramovic surprised by emotional response

Abramovic herself was surprised at what she saw when she looked into people's eyes.

"So much pain and so much loneliness. People have these incredible emotions and I give them the space to express them," she said.

Many of those who sat opposite her cried. Although the experience took place in a public gallery, with many others watching, "after a while they really meet my gaze and the whole world disappears," she said.

Abramovic herself trained for six months for the work, which required her to sit motionless, and largely expressionless, for seven hours most days, 10 hours on Fridays.

"I had to completely reschedule my metabolism and my system," she said. She became vegetarian and trained herself to go without drinking all day so she would not need a toilet throughout the time she sat.

She used massage, exercise and acupuncture to prepare her body, but the real training was mental. 

"Each match was difficult — the match was really about brain — the thoughts coming and how you can really clean out your brain and get into the silence of the piece," she said.

"My thinking stops. When I am sitting there, I am really looking into their eyes. The eyes are the mirror of the soul. You can see the pain. I can just be there."

Abramovic, who is of Serbian, Montenegran and Yugoslav background, calls herself the "grandmother of performance art."

She's done pieces in which she stabbed herself, taken drugs that knocked her out, and invited visitors to do anything they wanted to her.

Imponderabilia, a piece on display in the same MOMA exhibit that required museum visitors to squeeze between two naked people, initially drew more interest from the press — as well as questions about the nudity, she said.

But The Artist is Present has opened her own eyes to new aspects of performance, she said.

"We always live in past, future, just in present with nothing. It is the reality we should be aware of and we're not."