I lay down and it felt like my heart was in my ears. I used its tempo to even my breathing. I closed my eyes and relaxed under the blue sheet.
I finally made it to the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park to see Montenegrin performance artist Marina Abramovic. I heard about it from two co-workers and I decided to look it up. She’s done a couple ground breaking shows in New York and I’m pretty sure there is an episode of Sex and the City centred around her. You know, the one in the last season where Carrie starts dating The Russian, Aleksandr Petrovsky (Mikhail Baryshnikov), and he takes her to a gallery at midnight to see the woman in a box? Yes, that one. That’s the kind of work Abramovic does and she’s pretty famous for it.
It rained on Sunday, so Tom and I expected that the lines would be shorter. More than 60,000 people have been to the show since it opened in June and you can expect to wait at least half an hour during peak times. When we got inside, we had to place all of our belongings in lockers and were given noise cancelling headphones. When I entered the gallery, I was taken by the hand by one of Abramovic’s assistants, seated and softly told to close my eyes.
After a couple minutes I opened them. I didn’t know why I was closing them and wasn’t there a performance happening in front of me?
People were standing on a platform, holding hands with their eyes closed. Some people up there looked like they were having major spiritual experiences. One woman swayed left to right, lost the tension in her knees. Her eyes were closed but she looked awfully emotional.
I had to hold back my laughter. I like to think I’m refined and cultured, but I’m really not. I wasn’t laughing at them, but at myself – my inability to take this seriously. I looked over at Tom. He was still sitting with his eyes closed.
I got up and went to the next room. It was there that I was finally able to relax. At first, I did have to stifle a laugh (though the smile was still there) when a stranger tucked me into a cot, but eventually the silence and internal isolation caught up with me. I tried to meditate and clear my mind. I listened to my heart beat and then I fell asleep.
Looking back with two days of distance, I must say: I’m pretty sure I did this all wrong.
When I came to, I got up and went back into the main room. Tom was still sitting there with his eyes closed. He has serious focus.
I made my way to the next room, which seemed like a miniature Abramovic Institute. I decided to sit at a desk and do the task. But I got sick of it and started making pictures instead. When I came out, Tom was still sitting with his eyes closed. I was impressed. He did eventually get up, at which point I asked for the key to get my stuff.
Admittedly, I didn’t really do this “right”. But it’s art and there is no right or wrong. The noise-cancelling headphones, the mundane tasks, closing the eyes… it was all to heighten awareness and get people living in the moment. I get it. And I’ll tell you, by the end of it my senses were heightened: I could smell people’s lunches and perfumes from many feet away.
After a while, I think people started to feel safe in there. Safe to reflect, relax, lie down, cry… I liked that. I could observe people in a comfortable setting, which I did.
I think it’s also about questioning what is perceived as art. Most people in there did what they were told. Thinking about it now, I found it surprising that Tom sat there most of the time – he never does things without asking “Why?” or coming up with a series of counter-arguments, even if he agrees (Yes, it is challenging/annoying 🙂 ).
It brings to light that coercion and compliance can happen where there is a lack of information. In this case silence (lack of information) being coupled with gentle guidance (coercion).
Maybe what we’re supposed to take away is that we should always ask Why? instead of doing things because we think we’re supposed to.
512 Hours closes on August 25. The Serpentine Gallery is located in Hyde Park. Last entry is at 5:30 daily, but get there earlier as there is a limited capacity inside.
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