A stimulator of the human soul – 512 Hours of Marina Abramović

It has been roughly 3 hours since I left Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours show at the Serpentine Gallery in London and I am still out of breath. The experience was incredibly surreal and everyone will have varying responses, evidenced by the exhibition’s Participant Chronicles on Tumblr.

I went with a friend from university, Maria, and we were delighted to find a short queue early in the afternoon. Feeling rather parched we conversed inside the Serpentine Pavilion with a latte and a bottle of water from the café that resides within. The 2014 Serpentine Pavilion was designed by Chilean architect Smiljan Radić and resembles a cocoon-like structure resting on several large pieces of stone. My friend compared it to a doughnut.

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The 2014 Serpentine Pavilion designed by Smiljan Radić.

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Interior of the 2014 Serpentine Pavilion.

After queuing for under ten minutes and conversing with a woman behind us and delivering our expertise about the artist, we were soon led through a set of white doors with notes saying “QUIET PLEASE” and into the locker room. Once stripped of our belongings we were given a set of noise-cancelling headphones to wear inside.

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“If you want to go to the toilets, now is the time to go.”

Here’s what we thought of the performance:

As described in the video, there were three rooms: a brightly-lit central hall with two smaller rectangular rooms branching out on either side. In the middle of the central room was a wooden, square platform. Three smaller platforms surrounded it. Between each of these platforms were two rows of chairs. Participants in this wooden were either chosen to sit in these chairs or stand on the platforms. With all of these, we had to close our eyes, even for those who quietly observed from the walls of the room, such as myself when Abramović’s assistant and choreographer Lynsey Peisinger approached me. Roughly eight people stood on the central platform. At one point a young man and woman stood opposite each other, about half a metre apart, eyes closed, and surrounded by other participants as if part of a ritual. Two surrounding platforms held up to two people, also converging towards the centre. Maria managed to make it on to one of these platforms. As for the final platform, it was possible to hold up to four people, where Maria became part of a circle of four and appeared as if she were a Vestal Virgin. This room was always very serene and ritualistic. To most, including myself, it felt like a haven for meditation, which many people did. I found myself consistently raising my head up to the ceiling when I closed my eyes, as if I were reaching out to some higher being.

In one of the side rooms, participants engaged in a slow-walking exercise from one end of the room to the other. Some walked with their eyes open, most walked with theirs closed. The whole procession reminded me of people doing t’ai chi in public parks and rooftops. I was picked to partake in this act, guided by the hand of a volunteer – a tall, young man with blue highlights in his hair – who walked one length with me before telling me by hand that I should walk back and forth six times. I found this exercise extremely difficult. Naturally, I am a very fast walker, often receiving complaints from my friends for walking too fast. I found it incredibly difficult to slow down my steps to match that of the volunteer’s. When left to my own devices, my stability was only possible by staring at the floor. I tried to close my eyes but I was always close to toppling over. My instability was also due to my inward-facing feet or ‘pigeon toes’, caused by a condition called in-toeing, and I became more aware of this when I had my eyes closed. Though irrelevant, I began to question my own problems, past and present, leading to a conflicting mental dialogue that was as difficult as trying to balance and slow-walk with my eyes closed. I also noticed the ways my feet interacted with each other with each step. Before one had already been placed firmly on the ground, the other would already have been halfway through leaving the ground. This frustrated me immensely. It reminded me of my compulsion to anticipate every scenario of my life – I’ve always been known to over-prepare and run countless interactions in my head, both retrospective and prospective. I analogised the movement of my feet to that of my persistent need to anticipate every step (no pun intended) of my life. It make me realised that I was too forward-thinking, and that living in the present was always going to be a challenge for me. Recalling this, I now realise that I’ve only ever felt free when I’ve been travelling, when I’ve actually had the chance to slow down at my own pace and take in my surroundings. Those were really the only times when I’ve been out walking on my own, in the daytime or in the evening, living in the present without worrying or anticipation – at the least, keeping them to a minimum. It was a revelation that I failed to see the darker side of. And for that reason it caused me great distress.

The final room consisted of a number of beds (probably about ten) arranged somewhat randomly. Participants are encouraged to take off their shoes and rest on them. Personally, though everyone appeared calm, I couldn’t help associating them with hospital patients. Anyway, I was one of those people and the volunteer who led me basically tucked me in, placing a thin blue blanket over my body, and smiling in the process as if she were a mother – perhaps she is mother. In keeping with the general etiquette, I closed my eyes. I assume the idea was one of meditation, just like the middle room. However, I failed to do so. I found it very difficult to become comfortable, even though I was lying down, relatively warm and in a position that would otherwise be comfortable at home. I attributed this problem to the feeling of being watched. Especially in this case, when there is a definite audience and the participants are hand-picked from the same crowd. Going from being a voyeur to being the subject of voyeurism was incredibly uncomfortable for me. I could feel the gaze of each person that walked into the room. Rather than feeling calm, I felt anxious. I couldn’t ignore the people around me and I felt as if my personal space had been intruded upon mentally. In a resting position I felt great unrest and it was incredibly strange.

I spent most of my time in the central room, sitting against the wall, trying to meditate and feel at ease. But I couldn’t. I stared at the floor many times and I became more and more distressed over time. I even curled up into a ball at some point. The only time I actually smiled was when Marina Abramović walked into the room – she goes in and out every now and then. As she walked between each room, leading willing individuals to participate in her work, I could feel a certain aura that resonated and distinguished her from everyone else who worked there. It was one of confidence and stature, of a life lived and earned and certainly cherished – I still remember her reaction to Ulay’s surprise appearance at her MoMA show The Artist is Present in 2010. This was a woman who knew exactly what she wanted and the audience certainly knew and felt it. Though some may consider this comment blasphemous, it wouldn’t be too out of the ordinary to think of the entire show as a meeting area for a cult of Abramović followers. The meditative atmosphere of the performance is entirely her own, therefore it is based on her own philosophy. And it’s a philosophy that I wouldn’t mind being a part of – my introverted nature naturally draws me to scenarios and places where I can have some peace and quiet. But this show failed to do it for me. Rather, it invoked my personal insecurities and tested my limits.

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512 Hours is a fabulous show and I strongly urge anyone to experience it at least once – hopefully not with my experience of it. I might not have had the most peaceful of experiences but I definitely had a more profound awareness of my own flaws. It was a revelation, in fact. For me, it fluttered between a feeling of solitude and one of claustrophobia. The most distressing part was that I had to feel them simultaneously – a bit like being hot and cold at the same time but mentally. Despite being in a setting intended for meditation and personal reflection, it managed to attack my sense of calm. The presence of the audience greatly disturbed me, or at least my mind refused to let me forget they were there. This made me question my perceptive abilities and it certainly put me out of my comfort zone. Yet, in light of all this, I found it an enlightening experience, one that I’m very tempted to revisit. The beauty of this show, however, is in the concept:

“From nothing, something may or may not happen.”

The art of human interaction is the art itself.

Marina Abramović is not just a performance artist. She is a stimulator of the human soul. And for this reason alone, she is worthy of public and personal interest. A truly marvellous and engaging show.

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Marina Abramović: 512 Hours runs until 25th August 2014 at the Serpentine Gallery, London, www.serpentinegalleries.org.

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