Apollo Magazine

Not present: Marina Abramović at the Serpentine

Do you have to visit Abramović in London in order to understand her latest work?

Marina Abramović Photograph © 2014 by Marco Anelli

If Marina Abramović’s current exhibition is all about nothing, then am I − and the rest of the interested public who find themselves unable to make it to London − really missing much?

Let’s review what we know: the exhibition’s title, 512 Hours, refers to the length of time the artist will spend in the gallery over the 64 day duration of the show: from 10am until 6pm, six days a week. What exactly is Abramović doing in the gallery? She is being there, and so are many Londoners –  up to 160 visitors at any one time. Once inside, Abramović and a team of assistants disperse the visitors throughout the space, speaking soft words of encouragement: close your eyes, be present in the moment, breathe. You can stay as long as you like. This is mindfulness as an event.

Many reviews of the work have been positive – some even acknowledging a sly desire to be unimpressed, but enjoying the experience all the same. All refer to the experience of being led by hand – in some cases by Abramović herself – to an area of the gallery that is to be their own, then gently encouraged to let the world fall away.

Present: Catherine Spencer visits Marina Abramović at the Serpentine

So if the point of Abramović’s exhibition is really just to bring visitors to a greater state of awareness and presence in the moment, could the show be experienced off-site? Otherwise, there are many of us who will have to live vicariously through the ‘moments’ of those who have made it to see the show in person. I don’t know about you, but piggybacking on another person’s state of zen seems like a rather inauspicious approach to a higher state of being.

Might the various elements of the exhibition cited in reviews (a plain and empty room; no technology; eyes closed; focus on breathing) be taken as a guide of sorts to achieving some peaceful state? I do not ask this as the performance review equivalent of looking at an abstract painting and saying ‘My kid could do that’. It is a sincere query into whether or not the exhibition famously composed of Nothing actually offers something more – something that might not be so easily replicated outside of the gallery.

Reading between the lines of the reviews, there are other elements at work in 512 Hours. Visitors get one-on-one attention and eye contact with strangers; they touch; and the short exile from one’s own life is conferred legitimacy by its status as part of a significant cultural event. And all of this in the powerful presence of one of the art world’s biggest stars – which no doubt gives it an added frisson. Maybe it’s not just about focusing on your breathing and a break from your mobile phone.

In the lead-up to the show, Abramović stated in an interview that the British are a cynical people, and that she would have to make herself ‘extremely vulnerable and humble’ to penetrate this cynicism. Maybe 512 Hours works not because of her vulnerability but because the artist has created a rare public environment where British people can make themselves vulnerable with minimal fear of derision, in an environment lent gravitas by the artist’s profile and power.

Everyone knows sex can be bought, but what if you just need someone to hold your hand? What comes across from the reviews is that Abramović has turned her shamanic presence to making her visitors feel human – maybe even a bit special. In London. That’s something that might have to be seen to be believed.

‘Marina Abramović: 512 Hours’ is at the Serpentine Gallery until 25 August.

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