Wednesday, 20 August 2014

512 Hours - Marina Abramović at The Serpentine

There is a sense that the title of Marina Abramović's performance piece, 512 Hours, might be in expectation of the queue. The artist has the cult-like reputation in fine art, largely through her work at MoMA in 2010, The Artist Is Present. Well, the artist was certainly present at The Serpentine yesterday morning. I wasn't expecting to be greeted personally at the door but then I had expected a queue and, having turned up half an hour before opening, I was fortieth (or so) in line, and consequently part of the first group to enter the gallery. The queue is worth mentioning. As one critic has already pointed out, this is where the work actually begins, with its English self-discipline and mutual respect of a self-imposed order - its courteous community.

I have next to no experience of performance art. I know about the Fluxus movement only by reputation and through a visit to the Serpentine two years ago when I came to see Yoko Ono's To The Light. This was an exhibition of largely new work but it did bring me into contact with Yoko Ono's ideas and previous work: at the time the audience participation had a curious but earnest appeal and the artist herself had none of her fame-by-association with a pop star, let alone the aggregation of her own artistic celebrity. I'm interested in this as, upon entering the space (watch, phone, keys etc.left in a locker and wearing ear-defenders to cut down extraneous noise) I was surprised to see a small group of black-clad assistants standing in the middle of the main room. I was prepared for the dozen or so assistants prior to the entrance, explaining the way the exhibition would work (no talking, leave when you like but re-queue to get back in) but I rather thought we would be on our own in the space.

Well, after 10 minutes or so, the assistants began to walk from the central dais to lead visitors to different areas and extremely basic activities. I was taken by the hand to the second (of three) in which I was invited to lie on a camp bed and close my eyes - just as well, as I found myself looking at that part of the ceiling on which Yoko Ono's 'Yes!' had been installed at that previous exhibition. I stayed tucked in before getting up, of my own volition, and returning 15 mins later. Others had been taken to the central dais to stand, eyes closed. The third room had visitors walking, alone or with guides, at extremely slow pace.

The atmosphere was meditative, pleasantly so. There was very little smiling, that is to say very little acknowledgement of exchanges taking place. There was something vaguely ecclesiastical about the situation. Few challenged being led to 'participate' - we were all participating. I was uncomfortable standing with my eyes closed and gave up early on the two occasions I was led to a spot in the main room. There was, for me, no sense of self-consciousness however. My only brush with this sense was when one smiley visitor looked as if she were trying to get my attention. It was easier to be a participant in the action.

I was keen to see if Abramović herself would appear; whether the arrival of the sage would change the dynamic of the environment. About an hour after we had first come in I first noticed her moving about, whispering to assistants, taking visitors by the hand and moving gesturing for them to assume positions on beds and daises as the others had done. There appeared to be little change in the concentration of the visitors. Everyone continued in a quiet, compliant, reverend manner. I left after an hour hour and a half.

What was the experience? Prosaically, I welcomed the opportunity to have a bit of peace and quiet - even to lie down, having got up a little earlier than usual and hurried across town to be in good time. Part of the quiet was due to the focus of the situation. One was aware of other visitors but never noticed them (with the exception of the one or two for whom standing apart was apparent, even in that all-important queue). One individual stood with palms raised as if in prayer, facing a corner in one of the side rooms, for the entire span of my attendance. My own attitude was one of being open to the experience that was coming to me rather than trying to impose ideas, to offer experiential ignition. The absence of agenda or rubrick was interesting in this respect.

I left the gallery when I felt that I had nothing left to experience. I was under the impression that the action would continue in exactly the same way, in circular motion, allowing the dribbling influx of new visitors to have a similar opportunity to share the same. That I left when the posible content of my experience seemed to have been exhausted (or fulfilled) as judged by me, rather than the predetermination of a curator (sage?!) seems one of the main points of the exercise.

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