Marina Abramovic celebrates art of doing nothing in her latest performance 512 Hours
Chris Blackhurst thought he would leave the Serpentine Gallery quickly, hooting with derision at the sheer madness of it all. In fact, he was in a meditative state, akin to being hypnotised
They were queuing at 2am at the Serpentine Gallery in London's Kensington Gardens yesterday. They were still forming an orderly line in the middle of the afternoon, shuffling forward every so often, to have their hand stamped and be admitted inside.
For what, exactly? For the opportunity to take part in the latest work by the performance artist Marina Abramovic . That entails leaving your mobile and other belongings behind in a locker, joining 159 other people and entering a bare, white-walled room.
What you do after that is up to you. Or up to Abramovic and her black-clad assistants. You can stand, sit, or lie down. You can keep your eyes open or closed. What you tend not to do is to talk, shout or act the goat – peer pressure and the silent artist see to that.
There are two rooms off the main room, and you can walk around. There are some plain, wooden folding chairs and that's it. Every so often, Abramovic or one of her staff will go up to someone, hold out a hand in an invitation to join them. They take them over to a wall, murmur an instruction, and leave them. There they might remain, staring at the wall, for as long as they like.
In my case, I was led to the middle of a side room. I was told to close my eyes and listen to my breathing and the sounds around me. It was a profoundly relaxing, reductive experience. Trance-like. In the middle of London on a weekday afternoon.
Everybody moved around quietly. Eyes were met and averted. There was the intimacy of the party, the train carriage, of souls knowing each other but not knowing each other. There was submission, too. Nobody refused the request of Abramovic or her team.
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I admit, I found myself thinking that this is how it will end: in a home; sitting and staring, but not looking; abandoned in my thoughts; folk coming and going; occasionally being walked by a nurse.
Blinds were pulled down at all the windows, except one. There, people on the outside were gazing in, adding to the sense of exhibition and separation, of us being confined but lost in our own space. Abramovic might add some objects or remove the chairs. She might guide the crowd to do different things. She might dance, scream. It's up to her.
Abramovic was born in Belgrade in 1946. As a young artist, she began exploring the relationship between artist and audience. She developed the "Abramovic Method", a series of simple exercises, such as separating seeds from a pile of rice, to increase physical and mental awareness. She stayed in Eastern Europe until she met the German artist Ulay. They lived and worked together – they once walked from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, meeting in the middle. Since 1989, she's performed solo, basing herself first in Amsterdam and then, from 2001, in New York.
Now she concentrates on pushing the limits of her being. And of her audience – it was strangely exhausting, doing nothing.
Waiting patiently: Chris Blackhurst in the queue outside the Serpentine Gallery (Justin Sutcliffe)
I'd arrived, I confess, supposing that I would leave quickly, hooting with derision at the sheer madness of standing in a room with my eyes closed or focusing on a wall for hours on end in the company of strangers who would all be doing something similar. In fact, I was in a meditative state, akin to being hypnotised (the feeling afterwards was uncannily similar) or deep in contemplation.
When I looked around the room, at the 159 other people, I was reminded of Antony Gormley's figures. That was my impression; others will have had their own.
This is the first time that Abramovic has staged a "durational" performance at a UK public gallery. Called 512 Hours, it lasts just that: from 10am to 6pm for 64 days. It's also her first major performance since her piece The Artist is Present at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, in 2010. Then, visitors were invited to sit in silence opposite her and gaze into her eyes for an unspecified length of time. She did this every day for three months.
The work was a sensation, with some people breaking down in tears, others proclaiming their elation, still others maintaining it was rubbish. Some went repeatedly, day after day, and a club was even formed for Marina Abramovic regulars. That, though, was formulaic.
The Serpentine installation is entirely unstructured and simple, with no rules, no formula. All that's guaranteed is that Abramovic will be there the whole time.
The voice of her assistant had whispered in my ear that I could stand with my eyes shut for as long as I wanted. That in itself was a challenge to our sensibilities. Was that five minutes or 10? Or an hour or more? What if I stayed all afternoon, until 6pm?
When I opened my eyes, after about 20 minutes or so, my fellow audience had changed. The woman who was lying flat out on the floor had gone. Two people who hadn't been there before were in front of me, facing the wall. A different man was sitting on a chair, his eyes closed.
As I left, those in the queue were standing patiently, waiting their turn. They appeared exactly like the people I'd left behind.
'Marina Abramovic : 512 Hours' is at the Serpentine Gallery until 25 August. Serpentinegalleries.org
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