I recently, whilst out in London, stopped by the Serpentine Gallery to witness 512 Hours, the Marina Abramović Exhibition. As the exhibition comes to a close, I wanted to collect and share my thoughts on the experience.
I would have taken photos for this blog, but any sort of recording material or technology was not permitted inside. I had to leave my bag, belongings and coat in a locker before entering. When I turned up it was about 4pm on a week day and yet there was still a queue of about 40 people waiting outside the building by the time we arrived. The gallery was first come, first serve and there was no limit to how much time you could spend there within the venue opening hours. You could literally stay from when the doors opened until they closed. This made an interesting sense of uncertainty: would we get in? How long would the wait be? We didn't know what we would see or experience once we were in. The information that we had been given was minimal. I was familiar with some of Abramović's previous work so I had a vague idea: I assumed that there would be a performance space, there may be random items and we, the exhibition-goers, would have the option to participate somehow. My assumptions proved to be correct. Our hands were stamped and we were sent in. Our possessions were put away in a locker and we were handed a heavy pair of headphones that cancelled out the noise around us. Then, we entered...
The first/central room had a few platforms, upon which people were standing, huddled silently in clusters. Some held hands, some closed their eyes, it was like a joint prayer. Some were facing the other people, some faced the walls. Some people took the opportunity to position themselves, others were lead. Marina herself directed some people through the building, leading them. It was thrilling to see Marina in the flesh. I had somewhat hoped to have the opportunity to be lead and directed by her. Marina and some of the exhibition assistants would lead you around to new spots, perhaps coaxing you out of your shell if you'd been standing awkwardly to the side, figuring out what to do. To the left, there was another room. This was the room that I spent the least time in. People appeared to start walking from one side of the room to the other, but those who were walking moved so slowly that it almost appeared as if they were not moving at all. The third and final room was the most interesting and definitely the most stimulating. I spent the most time here. The room was filled with little camper beds with brightly coloured blankets and also tiny, wooden school style chairs and desks. Some people were in the beds in a sleep-like state of relaxation. Upon the desks was a sheet of paper, a pencil and a pile of rice and green lentils. Some were laid back in the beds, eyes closed. Some took to the little desks, sitting down and fashioning something out of the items on the desk. Many stood in the doorway, watching, or just unsure of what to do. I had a lot of respect for those in the beds. To be laid back in a bed in a seemingly relaxed state seems quite an intimate thing so when you've got about thirty people watching you 'sleep' I can imagine that it would feel strange, almost intrusive and unsettling. I wasn't brave enough to put myself into a little bed.
In this little room, all full of beds and desks, I felt so awkward just standing there as a spectator. Eventually, when a desk became vacant, I sat down and got to work fashioning a crude image of my home. I sat there for a while before settling on the image of my house. Something about the little desk made me think of being a little girl at school all over again so my house seemed like a familiar thing to draw. As soon as I was sat in a chair, a definite part of the experience, I felt more comfortable and less self conscious somehow. I was an artist. I was creating something. I could feel people watching me creating an image that was privilege to my mind alone, the meaning of it entirely mine, and I knew they probably felt just as uncomfortable as I had. I spent a good ten minutes or so creating clear cut lines of rice against the lentils. My idea was that nothing could be mixed, the lines had to be clear. I created the image of the house upon the piece of paper so that it felt more rooted, solid like a house. With the remaining rice and lentils, I mixed them and made a heart shape off of the paper in some crude 'home is where the heart is' sort of image. I knew, from having seen it happen before, that once I vacated my seat one of the exhibition assistants would dismantle my work, resetting everything to a single piece of paper, the pencils and a mixed pile of rice and lentils. All my work to create those clear-cut lines would be ruined. There was something therapeutic in making some sort of art you knew would be instantly destroyed. Whilst I was sat there, creating crude and simple images, I felt viewed and that gave me a strange sense of purpose whilst I was there. I was participating. I was very much a part of this experience and I was somehow contributing more than I would be by just standing there.
The event had something interesting to say about obedience. If we all went in, no one taking part or listening to direction from Marina or the gallery assistants, nothing would happen. It relied on participation or obedience. Those of us who are socially anxious may enter without knowing what to do. We're aware that it's an art exhibition. Most of us will, when approaching art, try hard-handedly to find the meaning as if it is a problem to be solved. If there is ever a meaning, it is personal. It is derived from what you do within the gallery walls. If you stand on the sidelines it'll be about what you see. If you get involved it will be more about what you think, feel and experience. What I found most interesting about the experience was how it almost instantly separated people: are you the kind of person who watches on the sidelines or are you someone who gets involved? People seemed to relate to and appreciate different rooms differently. Abramović created this wonderful artistic void within 512 Hours where participation was crucial and she really took a back seat so that we became arguably the biggest part of the performance. I personally found it to be a very calming experience and wish I could have gone back again to see if I felt differently, to see how others fared, and if people responded differently. I truly hope that this has inspired people to seek out and respect performance art or to create art of their own.