There’s nothing much to see at Marina Abramović’s durational performance piece at the Serpentine Galleries. It consists of the artist in a smallish, empty room filled with one or two simple objects, and members of the public who are permitted to stay with her as long as they want. She will inhabit the space, reliving the same simple experiences, six days a week for over two months.
For her audience, expectation is more important than visual stimuli, and judgment is strongly coloured by knowledge of the confrontational work from Abramović’s past such as The Artist is Present of 2010 (in which members of the public were invited to sit opposite the artist to engage in ‘mutual gazing’), and Imponderabilia of 1997 (consisting of Abramović and a collaborator facing one another naked and at close proximity whilst visitors were invited to squeeze between them). When you enter 512 Hours you are not quite sure of the consequences.
Mobile phones, watches and any other electronic equipment are forbidden within 512 Hours. Abramović clearly wants this to be a purified environment, stripped of all the amenities that might console the idle mind. At the end of the long queue for entry we were ushered into a small, swimming-pool style locker room to store our time-recording (and time-killing) devices.
Whenever ready we could cross the threshold to the main room of the gallery. This was a cuboid space with a small, raised square dais at its centre and four lines of four chairs, facing towards each of the dias’s corners. Members of the public stood and sat in silence around the room, some occasionally being directed by Abramović and her small team of helpers into position either sitting on the chairs or to pose on the stage like living sculpture.
We, the audience, became the artwork, submissively waiting for the shamanistic Abramović to move us like chessmen around a board. Not long before entering I was ushered into a chair by one of Abramović’s helpers, given a pair of ear defenders and told “Put these on and close your eyes; concentrate on your breathing. Stay as long as you want.”
I sat for about twenty minutes, focusing on my breathing and eventually entered a wonderfully serene, almost entranced state of mind. At last I re-engaged with the real world, moving slowly around the space and allowing myself to be repositioned by Abramović’s helpers more than once.
The piece provides two different emotional modes for the audience member. The first was the thrilling, but short-lived, frisson of witnessing the disintegration of the boundary between artist, artwork and audience. The second was the therapeutic period of sense deprivation where ear-defenders are worn. Once you have decided how much of each of these experiences you required, you’re free to walk out, deflated, perhaps, by a performance that is relatively benign when compared with the rest of Abramović’s oeuvre.
To retrieve your belongings from a locker, check how much time you’d expended, and leave a building feeling refreshed and emptied is not a customary way to depart an exhibition. It felt more like a workout, or a visit to a therapist in the sense that I was revitalised but had learned nothing and that nothing meaningful had moved me. If you visit, come prepared to see something grand in the nothingness, or the nothing will seem very blank indeed.
Marina Abramović: 512 Hours, until 25 August, Serpentine Galleries, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA. For more information visit www.serpentinegalleries.org.
1. Marina Abramović, Black and white photo, Marina conducting rehearsal for Bolero Portrait © Rahi Rezvani, Paris, 2013.
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