11 Jun 2014 to 25 Aug 2014
The public is the performing body, participating in the delivery of an unprecedented moment in the history of performance art.
Marina Abramović is almost halfway through her 512-hour performance at the Serpentine Gallery. Her video diary tells us it is getting harder by the day.
At its opening , the queue stretched across the park. The atmosphere in the gallery was expectant and electric. No one knew just what she'd do, or how her residency might develop. To date, almost 60,000 people have visited. Some stay hours or even all day, recording their experiences on Tumblr. Many return, more than once.
This week, I came back too. But instead of mindfulness and calm, attention to the moment, the subjective feeling of the self slowing down and time speeding up that many record, I got the oojahs, the collywobbles, and an almost instant sense of alienation.
It began with the headphones. They're being handed out in the room where we have to relieve ourselves of our bags, phones and watches, just before entry. Ah, I thought, will there be music? Something by Jay-Z or Lady Gaga, Antony Hegarty (who appeared alongside the artist in Robert Wilson's The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic at the Manchester international festival three years ago), or Rufus Wainwright? Maybe I'll hear Marina herself, wooing us with a lullaby about how to kill rats in the Balkans. But no. Dead silence, sudden impenetrable deafness. The headphones cut out all sound: they are the ultimate acoustiguide.
Beyond, in the galleries, the people come and go, thinking (doubtless) of Marina. On my first visit she and her helpers took us, one by one, to stand in front of the walls and windows, where we stood, eyes closed, to think about the present, or whatever it is we think about when we are standing, waiting for nothing. There is never nothing, always something. Thoughts of bills to pay and world peace. Sexual fantasy, should I try Botox, and did I leave the iron on? It is hard to be in the moment. Harder to leave the self behind.
Some here are clearly in a zone beyond the Serpentine. But not me and not today. People are standing on the low plinth of shallow, polished wooden boxes (now in the form of a large cross) in the north gallery like a flashmob of crowdsourced statues. Some teeter a bit. There are chairs, where we can sit and watch, betting on who will last longest.
What are we meant to think about when we are meant to be thinking about nothing more than being here? Not thinking, just being. People spend years at this, up mountains, in ashrams, in community-centre workshops, all following "the way", whatever way you choose. But not me; I'm not your man.
At least in psychotherapy, there's always someone to talk to. Here, no one can hear you scream. John Cage's silence was never so silent as this, apart from the gurgling in my sinuses and the sensation – it is a hot, humid day – that my headphones are filling up with sweat. It is hard not to tear the damn things off. They amplify the voices in your head. You do hear voices, don't you?
Feeling both present and strangely cut off, I am more spectator than actor. It is as though I am on drugs, but not in a fun, "Walter Benjamin on hashish in Marseille" way. This is where my paranoia kicks in. If I open my eyes, will I find Alain de Botton standing before me, making lewd gestures and grimaces? So I keep moving, avoiding eye contact. I don't want the artist or one of her assistants on my case. But I am not moving so slowly as the people in the west gallery, making their way from one end of the space to the other, just like the dawdling tourists and amateur pedestrians I wove between on my way here.
Something disturbing is happening in the last room, where rows of people sit at little desks, head down, as if they were in a school exam. Pacing unheard behind these bowed heads, peering over their shoulders, I become an inadvertent invigilator. On each desk is a sheet of paper, and little piles of grains of dry, white rice and green lentils.
Everyone has a nice sharp pencil, with a little rubber at the blunt end. People are sorting and counting grains and pulses, separating the green from the white, and making little notes on the paper. One or two have gone off piste, drawing round the grains and making weird drawings, or forming the grains into crosses and spirals. I quite expect some poor soul to stick a pencil up their nose, as a sign of resistance. But most are doing their diligent best with the rice grain and lentil bookkeeping.
The whole room looks like some futile punishment, equivalent to writing lines in detention, or a Scientology course you'd pay thousands to take. It reminds me of the misery of production line work. Once, I had a job in a light engineering factory, filing lugs off little plastic grommets, and sorting the tiny discs on trays. It was never anything other than excruciating. I could neither go with the flow nor lose myself in the unvarying tempo and repetition, and lasted less than a week.
One of Marina's helpers gestures to an empty chair, and I make a silent pantomime of an invisible knife slitting at my throat, along with hammy eye bulging and tongue lolling. I exit, pursued by no one.
Outside the gallery there are some serious guards. If anyone were to make a disruptive scene, Marina's muscle moves in. There are always the Abramović stalkers and celebrity watchers, along with the Serpentine's regular clientele of the lonely, the lost and the mildly disturbed. Every gallery has them, and not just at the press openings. Because no cameras are allowed here, there have so far been few "artistic" interventions, because there is nothing much to attack except other people. The work can incorporate the odd showdown or tearful encounter.
Every day here is different, as Abramović records in her video diaries. From Saturday, too, films of visitors' reactions will also be online. Today, I encounter my own resistance. Is it me, the art, the atmosphere? Too much the critic, you say, not enough rice counting. But it just isn't going to happen.
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