Marina Abramovic: 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery

Marina Abramovic’s 512 Hours opened at the Serpentine main gallery this week after months of anticipation. However, much of the coverage in the lead up to the show has been focused on the Queen of Performance’s so-called desire for this to be a show of “nothingness” – a judgment that could quite easily flatten mounding excitement about what the notorious artist would do next. Not that it did entirely undo the work of her reputation as a leading figure in the exploration of the unchartered territories of contemporary art, because the idea of nothingness actually provoked outrage amongst some art writers, who said she’d stolen the idea, because it – ludicrously – belonged to someone else [Mary Ellen Carroll]. All this hype and suspicion was beginning to taint my perception of the exhibition, and at this point, I knew I had to go.


Led to believe 512 Hours is a marathon of nothing, I find that I’ve arrived with a generalisation that is completely misleading. Firstly, it’s a factually incorrect statement – things happen inside those four walls (exactly what I’ll come back to); and secondly, it makes it sound like Marina’s least exiting work yet when in fact, the Queen of Performance has implied this is her most ambitious work to date. This is something that the Serpentine’s introduction to 512 Hours is keen to make clear. A work that is just about the interaction of the artist and the audience – where there is nothing between them to direct or define the work – is the bravest thing she has done.


What writers meant to say is Marina does minimal. (This is, when I think about it Marina, a wise idea.) Here is a performance artist whose work has for some time now, been in danger of being ruined by audiences gripped by Marina-mania. Up until this point the thing that has driven people to view and partake in the work has been the cult she has fostered by making herself the crux of her work. The work has been the artist’s public exploration of herself.


Moreover, Marina isn’t the only ‘leader’ in this performance. She has around 10 assistants who are as pro-active as she is. (The only difference between them and her is that her grip seems to be a bit tighter as she locks your fingers around hers.)


As much as you are led into action by one of Marina’s gang, instruction is minimal, and yet the results are still uniform. Once you have acclimatised yourself to the space, one of the aids in black approaches and gently but silently invites you to take their hand. From there you are walked to either a wall or an open space, stopped, and asked to either close your eyes (as I was), or walk very slowly across the room. The guide stays by your side.


In the main room, around 4 or 5 people sit on chairs facing the walls, counting lentils and grains of rice. Each do so differently but in an orderly fashion. Some reproduce patterns they have been given, others only count. They’re industrious, all sit in a similar posture, all work at a consistent pace. I was kidded into thinking they were actors at first. None break, none look around distracted, all are focused. None are confused or troubled by the task, all are patiently and willfully doing. Each participant appears to enjoy their task with a great deal of peace.


What allows for the quietening of the mind and the so-called nothingness is the distraction-less environment. Plain walls, plain clothed people; silence (the surprising absence even of shoes that sound); no phones, no watches; no attention drawn to one participant ending their session as a sleeping statue, and the next being installed. There is plenty to see and do, but there is no central performer, no climax in the presentation, no known moment to wait around for, just the same actions consistently ongoing.


Every activity in the gallery is designed to generate meditation. The performance takes place within the individual. With my eyes closed, and my body stabalised by my aid’s hand on my back, I notice which is my longer limb (and as the artist hopes, I become aware of my body), and I notice how white the walls of the Serpentine are, as the brightness of the room impresses on my closed eyes. 512 Hours succeeds because the audience is willing to play the part of the performer, doing tasks that might normally seem arduous, pointless or dull, with satisfaction. I must say – I was more impressed and engaged than I thought I was going to be.


Marina Abramovic: 512 Hours is on at the Serpentine Gallery until 25th August:

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