‘Are you looking forward to it?’ The slender guy beckoning the queue forward asks when I finally reach the head of the line. I’m looking forward to a good laugh, I think to myself; ‘Yes’, I reply instead. Luckily, when I get to the Serpentine Gallery, where Marina Abramović is performing, the queue is surprisingly short for British standards. There, in a sunlit corner of Kensington Gardens, I encounter the usual suspects: the arty bunch who look like they are deliberating the deepest of thoughts, the alternative-looking hipsters probably feeling compelled to go, in keeping up with their image, a mix of students who probably saw the venue and decided to go for it, and myself, who I admit, was partly driven by curiosity and partly by my wish to mock the pretence of the visitors. With zilch prior experience regarding performance art, apart from some videos of Marina Abramović I’d previously watched on YouTube with a bunch of friends, I tread into the Gallery not really knowing what to expect.
Before we’re allowed through to the chamber of secrets, another guy shortly briefs us: visitors may stay as long as they like and leave whenever they choose. If you wish to go to the washroom, you are advised to do so now or else you’ll have to re-queue. Visitors must ‘literally and metaphorically’ leave their baggage at the entrance – in what I perceive to be an attempt to accomplish a ‘decontaminated’ environment. Bags, watches, electronic equipment and so on have to be placed in a locker before entering the main area and taking part in the performance. I wonder, is this how addicts feel a few moments before they check into rehab?
I walk into a locker room, which is connected to the main areas where the performance is taking place, alas, absolute silence. I ditch my bag into a locker, anxious that the sound of the key turning will disrupt the stillness. There’s something about absolute silence that terrifies me, and I begin to feel slightly nervous.
As I enter, hesitantly, I am faced with a manifestation of mass obedience. In the center of the main room is a low platform upon which a bunch of female visitors stand motionless, some holding hands, others simply standing while holding their palms out, in a symbolic position of surrender. Some have their eyes shut, while others stare with a blank gaze into oblivion (in this case, the wall). My first thought prompts me to a religious cult; they all look as if they just stepped out of Dan Brown’s ‘Angels & Demons’, although they’re missing the hoods. My almost immediate next thought is that they are all probably high on something.
Other visitors are sat on or standing by several chairs on each side of the platform, wearing, what I initially perceive as headphones. I take a stroll around the area, heading towards the second room. A bunch of visitors are cautiously standing around the entrance observing inside; they too look high. I pop my head in to be met by the Walking Dead crew, which really is just another mixture of visitors being led softly by the hand towards the wall, by Marina Abramović’s assistants. I spot Marina Abramović herself; she is wearing her long, dark hair in a ponytail, falling gracefully down her black coat. She is extremely pale with a disturbingly calm composition. Walking agonizingly slowly, almost like a zombie, Marina Abramović is holding an elderly woman by the hand, while whispering charismatically to her. The, now, enchanted woman is subsequently positioned, facing the wall, almost like a child facing punishment, and left to remain. The quieter the room, the more your ears adapt and you eventually begin hearing your own body. I can hear my stomach growling. I’m hungry.
I begin to observe people’s reactions. Some look extremely concentrated, others weary but delighted, and some are crying! And I’m just sat there, wearing a pair of what turn out to be sound insulation earmuffs (which was quite unfortunate, I was expecting some music), staring at them, experiencing a form of social anxiety about how to behave. I wonder how long I should stand there pretending to feel something, whether I should laugh, pierce the silence or simply stand up and leave. While I do admire those who manage to stand still, looking into the void of a wall, there’s only so much standing still in silence I can take before losing my sanity. I now begin to question my own intelligence and cultural awareness. What am I missing? Is this a divine masterpiece of art or simply a bunch of loonies pretending to be in awe?
Marina Abramović is arguably the most famous performance artist at work today. Her work includes several renowned exhibitions around the world: in 1997 the Imponderabilia consisted of Abramović and a collaborator facing one another naked and at close proximity whilst visitors were invited to squeeze between them. More than a decade later, in 2010 The Artist is Present invited the members of the public to sit opposite the artist and engage in ‘mutual gazing’. Some believe her exhibitions offered a transcendent interpretation of the modern physical world that cannot possibly be explained with traditional media.
The symbolism behind 512 hours, as I perceive it, is quite clear: its anti-materialism character suggests that in the fast-paced world we live, luxurious and marketable objects govern our lifestyle. Through her scriptless and interactive performance, Marina Abramović encourages her visitors to move beyond materialism and every once in a while, step back, breathe and re-evaluate their life, hoping that this ‘de-objectification’ will intensify their social awareness, motivating them to look introspectively.
This did not happen to me. I am, of course, by no means intending to join the Marina Abramović Retirement Fund of America, and I do realize that the ultimate value of 512 Hours or any other performance art exhibition depends upon each visitor. In an attempt to avoid the old ‘you just don’t understand art’ speech, let me be clear: I’ve wept when I’ve had someone play the piano for me, I’ve sobbed uncontrollably reading a good literature book and poem, and I’ve most definitely been shaken to the core by a good theater play and musical. That performance had little aesthetic appeal to me, and it didn’t stimulate or challenge me intellectually – and by that I’m not implying the exhibition is unable to stimulate or challenge intellectually in general. I can barely deny its possible impact, had I been high.
I walk out. Light; cars roaring by behind the gallery, sirens wailing in the background, I’m holding onto my phone, people are pacing down the road, racing for the bus, or they’re simply chatting, laughing. Social anxiety subsides.