“Am I a member of the same species as these people?” I wondered when visiting Marina Abramović’s ‘512 Hours‘ at The Serpentine Gallery today, because they seemed to exist in an alternative state to me.
On arriving at the Gallery in Kensington Gardens on this sunny August morning I joined the long queue, philosophically resigning myself to the wait, it was a price I was prepared to pay. After two hours my feet and legs were aching and, as the sun had gone in some time before, feeling rather cold. In retrospect I wondered if this was an essential and planned part of the softening-up process? To keep someone waiting is to assert power over them.
When I was allowed access to the pretty, brick building I was hand-stamped and told, through mime, not to make a sound, whilst being handed headphones – were these to block out sound or to highlight our innate internal head noise, or had the most subtle whooshing noises been put there on purpose?
In the first room the people were standing or sitting against the outer edges of the walls facing a small dais upon which gallery assistants had encouraged their chosen ones to stand, and again mimed-at to close their eyes. The desire not to be called to the centre was enough for me to decide not to make any sudden movements, or look interesting or different in any way, not to smile or diverge from the atmosphere of serious concentration and slow, purposeful movements already created there. Created by whom, the assistants, the occupants, Abramović, or was this reverence only presumed to be appropriate? But I was too interested in what the occupants were doing, I really tried to clear my mind and concentrate like I was in church or a yoga session, but a thought kept creeping into my head, was this what Abramović wanted or was she just observing what we had decided to do? I pondered whether she would have been equally happy if we all smiled at one another and embraced each other. But I wasn’t sure and the gallery guards looked intimidating so that I conformed, looked serious and watched a fat man without shoes doing exercises and an oldish woman wrap her scarf around her eyes, cover herself up with a blanket and settle down for something to happen, to experience or for a nap?.
On walking slowly into the second room I realised we were meant to sit on the chairs provided and look at the white blinds that hung in front of windows – so far so meditative. But then I spotted a buff looking bald man in a trance with his hands splayed out, palm upwards, and then all the other people in the room who were sitting, silently, seriously watching white and shadow and light play out in front of them. I compared this experience with the Mark Rothko chapel filled with his colour-field paintings, was this similarly uplifting?
I walked a little faster, rebelliously, to the third room passing a body laid out prone in the corner. Room three was a slightly longer and thinner room and people had either autonomously decided or were told (probably through mime, but how do you mine that?) to walk slowly up one side, turn around and slowly walk back. But I am afraid I was then totally undone by the sight of a man standing with his face to the wall. Why had he decided to do this, and how could he carry this out with such a straight face and stay at his punishment wall for so long? I could not maintain my impassive expression, I laughed out loud and betook my smiling face out of there as quickly as I could before disturbing the delicate ambience. Why didn’t anyone else find this as hilarious as I did?
Walking home along Old and New Bond Streets this installation was still on my mind. My first thought was why in this secular age of ours did people seem so desperate for an experience, for enlightenment, for a kind of existential moment? You never see such reverent people in churches anymore and no one dares to enforce silence in those places. Then I couldn’t help but notice the Gucci, Prada, and Dolce & Gabana shops I was passing, displaying their high-priced goods and I realised that we buy luxury goods like this because we are told that these are the must-have labels and we confirm to expectation – wasn’t that a bit like what Marina Abramović had exposed in her show?
My turbulent mind returned to churches and how we project onto paintings and statues in church and it made an inexplicable leap to the work of Magdalena Abakanovicz’s seminal sculpture ‘Backs’ – was that because they are both East European (Polish and Serbian) or because their names are a little similar with the same initials A M – and how it achieves a truly spiritual experience by giving our eyes and minds those poignant, serried ranks of headless, limbless, burlap backs to focus on.
As an artist myself I suppose I do like to have something to feast my eyes on, to fix upon and to project onto, and that is why I could not really take this NOTHING seriously. The visible has been and still remains the principle human source of information about the world. Even perceptions coming from other senses are translated into visual terms, when we say “I see” we really mean “I understand” and I missed seeing something made by the artist. Unfortunately I came away with the feeling that I was the little boy who saw the naked King and knew no better than to shout out that the King didn’t have any new clothes at all.