I am dispersing with the usual third person format in summarising Marina Abramović’s residence at the Serpentine, this being an ‘experience’ not an exhibition, and entirely subjective to each individual’s impression of it, bound to change immeasurably from person to person. Press and public alike cannot but refer to this new piece without needing to contextualise it by her preceding works, because 512 hours primarily uses the ‘material’ (for want of a better word) of nothing; it’s easier to describe previous instances of actual ‘performance’, where Abramović slices the star of David into her stomach for example, than to try and encapsulate this specified stretch of time in which it is difficult to locate the actual presence of the ‘art’. I’ve never seen such a short ‘catalogue’. I call it an experience, then, because the piece depends on our participation; we are the work, rather than passive recipients of the visual stimulation of an object on a gallery wall. The rooms are empty, but populated by visitors manipulated by Abramović and her team into various positions: facing the wall, lying on the floor. Thus the artwork exists within yourself and within the collective experience endured during your length of time in the gallery, and therefore entirely subjective to chance and personal outlook. It just so happens that my impression of it is one of profound staggered disbelief, where others have probably experienced elation and enlightenment.
The issues stem from several areas. When I visit a gallery, I want to roam free to absorb at the pace I want, to look at the sequence of items in an order I find best enables me to understand the curators’ ideals. Upon entry, about two minutes passed before I was approached by a kindly looking assistant who took my hand, stopping short my freedom by walking me slowly to face out the window. She whispered to close my eyes, before grasping my shoulders and commanding me to breathe slowly, then after two minutes leaving me to face the window. Art is nothing without eyes to see it; part of the joy even of immersive performance pieces is the collective response of viewers, witnessing each other’s reactions as integral to the works’ reception. It was doubly annoying then that not only was my enjoyment of watching other peoples’ experiences cut short (the chap receiving the breathing exercise in the middle part of the room looked to be having a great time), but that my field of vision was then restricted facing out of the gallery.
In thus manipulating the audience, Abramović speaks of channelling participants’ energy, and perhaps this elusive energy to be conjured is the source of the ‘art’ within her show. I couldn’t help but think that if I wanted to channel my energy with the breathing exercises and the deliberate slowing down and controlling of movement I could have just gone to group meditation or (whisper it) some kind of yoga class. Yet there was indeed a curious and palpable feeling present; in manipulating each person there was made a very real and heavy collective atmosphere, one that I felt I was not part of, not least because I was so restricted in my freedom to move around and look wherever I wanted, and my mental stubbornness to humour it. Recently after the press viewing a critic related how when Abramović led him by the hand to the wall, she noted that usually in the actual piece, they would be walking much more slowly. It strikes me that such measures were necessary to imbue the piece with the gravity it needed, and were I to walk through the gallery at my normal brisk pace (“Why am I walking slowly, this is thoroughly silly”) I would break the effect. When one thinks of ‘nothing’, one thinks of freedom. This piece was anything but free in so constraining and manipulating each person, although I admit I was probably harder to convince than most in failing to reach the evident euphoria other people were having. “Maybe yoga would be nice”: probably not the sort of response I want from a seriously avant-garde show.
Indeed, it is restrictive even against Abramović’s intentions: she continually says of her show “I don’t know what will happen”, suggesting anything could happen. Yet in that atmosphere one felt put into a very defined mental space, countering possibility of this. A friend said afterwards that maybe I should have just got naked if it was so free and the meditative energy was so powerful. I suspect that, like Gormley’s Fourth Plinth in that anyone could do anything, the chap who removes his clothes will swiftly be escorted from the artwork. For all the lack of definition, this is in actuality a seriously constrained and restrictive show. Where her 1974 work ‘Rhythm 0’ gave the audience a rose and a gun, ending up with a participant sticking thorns into Abramović’s stomach, for all the energy here there is no latent power. The whole thing is curiously inert.
What I expect from art is for it to make me think, and the best examples stick with me, challenging and changing the way I think. This presented to me not an idea to mull over, but a memory of a physical experience: it seems useless to try an intellectualise it. Abramović in interviews does not offer any interpretations and answers, suggesting these are not what we should be looking for. It is an inclusive and accessible show, available for anyone and everyone to experience, yet what can we take away from it? Is the state of art now not something that we wrestle with, but something that simply happens to us? For me, art informs, questions and reveals life to us; this was a purely physical experience which was over as soon as I left. I hugely admire Abramović and body of work, and regard this work as an experiment which – successful or not – is a vital and necessary chapter in her repertoire that had to be done; this alone justifies its existence, and is reason enough why you should go. For all the points above, positive or negative, 512 Hours nonetheless is an important milestone in performance art; one that requires your participation.
Words: Olivia McEwan Photo: Left Courtesy Serpentine Gallery Right Olivia McEwan
The Performance ‘512 Hours’ runs through 25th August Serpentine Gallery London