I remember the first time I heard the name Marina Abramović. It was during a lecture in my first year of university – I’d opted for a term of performance art workshops, with the intention of throwing myself as far out of my comfort zone as possible (I knew I’d chosen correctly when our tutor’s first instruction to the group was to walk through the university’s campus barefoot and in single file).
As that particular week’s session was coming to a close, our tutor handed us all some additional reading material – a stapled booklet of photocopied excerpts from several articles about the work of Marina Abramović. Later, as I began to skim through the text in the silence of my bedroom, I quickly became engrossed in the story of someone who not only created art work but seemingly lived it out.
Now pegged as a matriarch within the realm of performance art, Marina Abramović has fostered a career spanning the last 40 years. In that time, she has repeatedly challenged her audience as well as her own body, carving out an area within art that requires both physical and mental endurance. Some of her most famous works required Abramović to push her body to its limits, sometimes until she lost consciousness and was unable to continue. A piece, part of her ‘Rhythm Series’ literally left her life in the hands of her viewers: providing a table of objects and implements (which included thorns, a blade and a gun with a single bullet) she resolved to stay passive for 6 hours, while the audience could use what they pleased on her. Despite what might sound confrontational to some, I don’t believe her work revolves around the danger or even the risk but would say that it is rather concerned with the very nature of being alive; of being conscious and present and with the point where you can no longer maintain this state.
It was the 2002 work A House with the Ocean View that I was first reading about – for this piece, Abramović spent 12 days in the Sean Kelly Gallery, consuming nothing but water. Her dwelling place consisted of three raised ‘rooms’ that acted as bedroom, bathroom and living space, each of them open to the public’s gaze. When talking about her desire for the exhibition, Abramović has said that by cleansing her own body through fasting and ritual, she was opening up a space in which anyone who entered would be free of time and purely in the present. By dedicating the gallery in this way, she even hoped to affect the space on an atomic level. I’d never before heard of an artist who confronted their audience so powerfully (and literally) while remaining so vulnerable.
In the hour that I stood awaiting my entrance to the Serpentine Gallery – on the opening day of Abramović’s new exhibition 512 Hours – I could feel the anticipation of the event building. Being in the present; what does that really mean? The question swirled in my mind as I stood with the friend who’d accompanied me, both of us speculating as to what we might be about to experience. I wondered if it would be similar to her 2010 MoMA performance The Artist is Present; a one on one encounter, sat facing the artist herself. I’d heard that that particular work had evoked tears in many of the people who came to sit with her; I wondered if I would cry, if that was what was to happen.
A gallery staff member was moving down the queue, informing all those waiting, of the exhibition guidelines: we were to remain silent and to leave all bags/watches/technological items behind before entering. We edged closer to the front of the queue, excitement sparking as if we were about to be let on to a rollercoaster. When it was our turn to go inside, I felt my heart leap in my chest as we briskly moved through to a locker room. Already the air was different; the assistants gestured in silence, their faces warm and calm. Feeling already naked without the objects I’d come with, my friend and I exchanged an inquisitive glance and quietly crossed into the main gallery space.
People; just people. My eyes darted around the room, searching the space for an understanding of the layout. Standing facing the walls, sat on chairs, drifting in the open – I could not fathom the reasons for the different stances people had assumed. Then, like a sweeping breeze, a hand took hold of my own. I immediately felt safe; open. Leading me gently, this woman and I were gliding through the space, past other linked pairs, past poised figures staring ahead pensively. Another figure began to come into focus – an unmistakable face. Marina Abramović’s long, dark hair swayed in a straight plait as she too guided someone by the hand. Based on my track record of star struck gawking even when in the presence of fairly minor celebrities, I was surprised when I was able to take her in as if with no prior introductions. But her presence was strong and my eyes remained fixed to her until I was led into an adjoining room. How long would this hand be in mine? We come to a thick, white blind hanging across a section of the gallery’s large windows with our faces just centimetres away from its surface. I feel the presence of other people swell and fade away into the distance. A pause and then a whisper: ‘You may keep your eyes open or closed, but stay here for as long as you can. Just breathe.’ She let go of my hand and pressed her palm to my back for only a moment before leaving me there; I felt my breathing slow as the feel of her touch evaporated. I stayed in that spot, my gaze roaming the white light of the linen barrier before me. Just breathe, I thought.
I did eventually move, although I couldn’t say after how long. It was probably about the time I realised I’d not come alone and I’d left my friend in a relatively alien situation. My hand was taken on a second occasion as well, this time the interaction coming to a close when I was seated in one of the wooden chairs dotted throughout the gallery. This second woman placed her I did eventually move, although I couldn’t say after how long. It was probably about the time I realised I’d not come alone and I’d left my friend in a relatively alien situation. My hand was taken on a second occasion as well, this time the interaction coming to a close when I was seated in one of the wooden chairs dotted throughout the gallery. This second woman placed her hands on my shoulders, their weight softening my posture. Now in the main space once again, I was watching the movement of people on a square, raised platform in the room’s centre. For a while, Marina Abramović was leading several people, one by one, onto this slightly elevated stand. I failed to decipher what she whispered to them but many closed their eyes and stood for some time. She moved like a river, gently meandering between people and moving some as she went. It seemed as though energy was being transferred from body to body, like electricity that soothed and quieted those it touched.
We left not knowing how long we’d spent in that space. As the Hyde Park sun filtered across our faces, we both remarked on the state of calm we felt even then. ‘Not like a religious experience,’ my friend commented, ‘but still an energy.’ I wanted to let the encounter sink in; to ponder what this very different gallery experience had been. ‘They are my living material; I am their living material’; Marina Abramović’s words prior to the exhibition’s opening. In that space, I had been the same material as I was now. Maybe I was more aware of myself in that space; someone had given me permission to breathe, to be stood where I was stood. Someone had given me the opportunity to leave my belongings somewhere else; someone had let me be without distraction. Someone had asked me to be present.