512 Hours at the Serpentine is notorious already, for two reasons: first, for the fact that the show contains no artwork whatsoever, and second, for the way in which it's inspired hysterical, snaking queues outside the gallery—queues of the kind more typically associated with the stadium gigs of her erstwhile pop-star associates Jay-Z and Lady Gaga. Marina Abramovic's medium is nothing, and as such, her critics would argue that her art is nothing, too. Conversely, her many defenders insist that to miss the object is to miss the objective—Marina is the medium, in both senses of the word, and the work is both art-performance and séance in one whole.
What the faithful are waiting in line for is this: a-hundred-and-sixty participants will enter the gallery at a time for each scheduled performance. They leave behind, in Serpentine-issue lockers, their electronic lifelines, their clocks and their Candy-Crush-boasting comforters, and once inside they're invited to walk around the space in absolute silence. One by one, the performance artist will take them by the hand, and leave them facing the gallery wall for a brief, ten-minute period of meditation. It's an odder experience to queue for than the Artpop tour, I imagine, but people were going wacko over it—interviews I read later with those who had taken part in this slow, strange dance were something akin to testimonials from religious converts.
The aim is for the visitor to do exactly nothing, and yet I felt paralyzed with the kind of fear that I get from—horror of horrors—immersive theatre. Those who rely on audience participation are invariably skillful enough to smell my anxiety from a mile away, the way that a shark might smell a graze on the knee of a swimming child. At one point, I believed that Marina was reaching out for my hand, only to realize that its intended target was The Guardian's Adrian Searle, a humbling moment which I later came to recognize as a metaphor for my own career. When it came to the crunch, my given instruction was to “listen to the sound of the silence,” a mantra which succeeded in immediately stirring up a feeling of vague irritation, in lieu of zen: I found myself unable to access anything meaningful during my meditation, for the most part, and as a result, proved a lacklustre collaborator for the artist.
“The British,” Abramovic has reportedly said, “you are so cynical...So for me the only way that I can win this British public is to be extremely vulnerable and humble.”
I suppose this is where my real frustration with the artist and her artwork lies, to be confessional—it forces me to reconsider my own misanthropy, and its usefulness when I am interacting with the world. A cynic may look at a Magritte, and say simply: “well, yes, c'est clearly une fucking pipe.” For the cynic, the silence is just silence, and an artwork cannot simply be an energy. For the same reason that I could never be rendered a non-smoker via hypnosis, no number of trips to 512 Hours would allow me to hear Marina's silence—a silence which, one might imagine, is fuller and somehow more real. I will concede, though, that after five minutes or so, I did begin to feel woozy. Nothing core-shaking, but I did feel as though I'd taken some rather pleasant painkillers.
On the exhibition card, still dazed, I wrote: “As expected; almost mind-bendingly soporific,” a review which for any other show might have passed as an insult. Make no mistake—I would never say that Abramovic has not been successful in her aim of creating a zero-structure energy artwork. I only wish that I, the doubter, had a greater capacity to appreciate it.
(All images: from http://512hours.tumblr.com/)