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Nothing new? The row over Marina Abramović’s new show

Marina Abramović intends to do nothing at the Serpentine Galleries this summer. But nothing has been done before...

Artist Marina Abramovic performs during the 'Marina Abramovic: The Artist is Present' exhibition opening night party at The Museum of Modern Art. (9 March, 2010, New York City). Photo by Andrew H. Walker/Getty Images

A group of art historians and curators have written to Hans Ulrich Obrist to express concern about Marina Abramović’s upcoming show at London’s Serpentine Galleries. Abramović is expected to do nothing, 10am–6pm, six days a week. But Nothing has been done before, by New York-based artist Mary Ellen Carroll, and the group argues that this precedent ought to be acknowledged.

Cue gleeful headlines. Nothing will come of nothing. Much ado about nothing. Nothing really matters. And does it matter? Forgetting for a moment the subject of the work (or its lack of one), issues of provenance and plagiarism are important ones to a generation of arts professionals raised with a taste for the ‘original idea’ but having to work with the revelation that there aren’t any. Nothing’s new. Not even nothing is new.

The Serpentine addressed questions surrounding originality and ownership head on when it invited Sturtevant to exhibit last year. Sturtevant, who died last month, made copies or ‘repetitions’ of other famous artworks, pieces that so brazenly announced their provenance – some might say their plagiarism – as to effectively negate the concept.

I would have liked to see Sturtevant copying nothing. In contrast, ‘art star’ Marina Abramović’s grand claims for her project – ‘I’ve never done anything as radical as this. This is as immaterial as you can go’ – certainly risk overlooking and overshadowing the artists (and there are many more beside Mary Ellen Carroll) who have worked effectively with ‘nothing’ before. But ‘nothing’ itself belongs to no-one, and we don’t know exactly what the performance artist intends to do with the concept yet. Isn’t this letter a bit premature?

Besides, Abramović may claim that ‘I wanted to prove that you can actually make art with nothing’, but I’d question whether that’s exactly what she means, or what she’ll achieve. It sounds like she’ll be doing what she does best, and making art out of herself; using her personality and her person to encourage direct human encounters. Marina Abramović plus nothing still equals Marina Abramović in a room, and that’s what the London art crowds will come to see.

Whether her performance will be enough to make visitors ponder the value of nothing (when I suspect at least some will arrive with the more material aim of being in close proximity to an art-world celebrity) remains to be seen. If that is her aim, I’d venture it would be far more radical, at the height of her fame, for Abramović to stage an exhibition in which the artist isn’t present. Maybe the Serpentine should also open on Mondays, the one day of the week Abramović will not perform, to see how visitors react to her temporary absence. Now that would be something.

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