It’s difficult to put pen to paper when writing about a meditative or an asomatous experience without sounding slightly unhinged.
It’s always hard to string together the right words to describe these kinds of experiences when the best way would be to experience it yourself. In light of this, I had in mind to write a review, but instead I think it is more effective to provide a sort of personal retrospective of my interaction with the artist and to document my thought processes throughout the performance piece. Seeing an artist I’ve admired for years in the flesh was one thing, participating and collaborating directly with Marina Abramović herself is quite simply on a whole other level – and her ‘512 Hours’ provided me with a stunning few hours.
Walking into The Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, I was filled with anticipation. I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve admired Abramović for a few years now, and it was the first major performance she has done since the critically acclaimed ‘The Artist is Present’ at the MoMA in New York back in 2010.
Whilst reading the guidelines about how you should be silent, have no belongings or electrical equipment, it made an article I read in The Guardian pop into my head. A report from psychologists at Harvard University did several studies showing that people hated being left to think. The participants had a choice to think in a room for hours on end or receive an electric shock and in one study, 12 of the 18 participants chose an electric shock. What is it about our own mind that makes us recoil from our own thoughts? I kept this in mind as I cautiously stepped into Abramović’s space.
It took a while to become accustomed to the silent environment – and within a few minutes, Abramović came over to me immediately. I felt stranded. My phone is (embarrassingly) never far from my hand – and I was stripped of that, along with my other belongings, my grasp on time, the space, my awareness of the people surrounding me– it was all left at the door. In those moments you both embrace it and lose your control over the situation, or you simply leave the exhibition. I spend most of my life painstakingly attempting to mentally control situations I find myself in – and letting go of those constraints was unfamiliar but a welcome change. Perhaps then, the physical action of leaving ‘one’s baggage’ at the door became a metaphoric reality for Abramović’s participants.
The atmosphere was strange yet peaceful. There is social anxiety about how to behave, whether to walk around, stand still, comply with Abramović’s instructions, break the silence or simply leave. The performance ultimately constitutes to something other-worldly in this orchestrated calm chaos. I complied and had several interactions with the artist that day: firstly, she gently encouraged me to sit down and close my eyes. ‘Breathe and relax’, she insists in her treacle-like accent. Your eyes are shut, your ears closed, your thoughts racing miles per minute – but in those intense situations you find peace.
After sitting down in the breathing room, Abramović brought me over to the next room where there were rows of people sleeping in beds. Images of hospitals sprung to mind – maybe it was a healing process, helping those who are slaves to thought. The artist led me to a bed and tucked me in like a caring mother. I felt child-like. I felt her presence for a while at the bed and without realising I fell asleep. Yep, I fell asleep, midday in the middle of central London, in an art exhibition full of strangers.
In the walking room, participants would take measured footsteps. I held hands with a stranger and walked in unison with Marina – which surprisingly required a lot of concentration, discipline and control. Then I moved to the main room once more and Abramović walked over to me straight away. She took my hand, interlocking our fingers and led me like a child until she found a spot in the room. For a few moments with her hand on my back, we breathe in unison and welcome the platonic connection between audience and artist, subject and object.
From being a direct participant as well as an observer, it seems that the value of the exhibition depends wholly on the individual. Nothing happens much, yet there’s so much to behold. The only way to describe the exhibition is that it was very cathartic. I also try to think of ways to describe the artist – and the only thing I think is even slightly suitable is that Marina Abramović is simply a poem with feet. She also gives fantastic hugs. Whether you recline or burst outwards in these situations: ‘512 Hours’ is a triumph. Art is supposed to make you feel something, otherwise what’s the point?