June 16, 2014

Zen and the Art of Being Marina (Abramovich) : 512 Hours at the Serpentine

Photo by Adele

There are several people at the Serpentine standing around either motionless, facing the wall, or just staring out of the window, or slowly walking backwards gazing into a small wooden hand mirror. Others are just sitting on chairs dotted around, saying nothing, doing nothing. This artist has a team of assistants in black who clasp people’s hands and lead them to a space to become part of the ’now’ performance. It is like suddenly finding yourself on the set of Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year in Marienbad, where for a moment the universe is temporarily unhinged in slow motion, going backwards in repeated loops and long shadows stick to people even on an overcast day. 

Marina Abramovic, with her jet-black plaited hair and slightly stooping shoulders is arranging people in groups. She gives spontaneous instructions. Amazingly, everyone just complies. She is mistress of ceremonies here after all and people are eager to see her - the hostess at her own party of nothingness. No watches, mobile phones are allowed in the space.

She zeroes in on me spotting my Ziggy T-shirt from the David Bowie Is  exhibition last year, and grabs me by the hand, eyes on my chest, saying ‘David’ as if that is my name. Then she leads me with her tight, warm, cosy hand that I cannot refuse, and walks me to the next gallery. “It’s very crowded here” she says. She proceeds to act as if she’s known me for years. It seems that way to onlookers, but I have been selected - at random or by calculated choice?- for this assignment.

“What do you think it is about?” she asks me. She, the Marina Abramovic, asking me for my opinion?? If this trick of flattery is to immediately disarm any Great British scepticism and sarcasm through flattery, then it was beginning to work. According to Abramovic, binge drinking is also one of the faults of the Brits - she herself is a tee-totaller and uses fasting as a way of sensitising her experience in the world. Yet she believes that addiction to drink is a defensive mechanism, covering up wounds people would rather not open up to. She might well be right. Yet asking for my view was validating, placing the power in my hands, and not in her as the ‘author’ of the work. This shows complete openness, honesty and trust that whatever I felt, that was ‘it’.

“It seems to be like Zen practices” is my answer. She says nothing. Then I dare to boomerang back and ask her what her view of it is. She says “Simplicity. Being  present …this is what people really need in the world now.” I nod in agreement, judging by the numbers of people around me being present with her, the need is greater than ever. 

We are now in a corner where she positions me near a wall. She is still so close that her mouth is almost nibbling my left ear.  “Just stay here in silence…  don’t move and be in the moment” which I do gladly aware that it is a chance to be mindful. “…But don’t forget to breathe,” she adds mischievously, as though I might just stop breathing for her sake. Apparently, in Japan, she is taken so seriously that people might just do that. Few appear to challenge her instructions, even from her assistants who have none of the magnetism and charisma of this woman. “Take as long as you like and come back many times. We need people to come back,” she chuckles. I ask “Is the idea to empty your mind? Is that what you try to do?”  She nods, sphinx-like, “yes, that’s right, sort of.” But in other interviews online she has said that it’s more about just cutting away things that get in the way of direct, open experience, and  just being with that. It is not so much about labeling them according to any religious ideology, though she is on record as having been inspired by Tibetan monks and their disciplines. Walking meditation is one tool. Just sitting or Zazen meditation is another. Endlessly counting individual rice grains apparently helped Lady Gaga to give up smoking. 

So there is a definite link to practices drawn 
Marina Abramovic
from the contemplative traditions. To bring this into the art world helps to blur the boundaries of art and higher order experiences. Abramovic has collaborated with Tibetan monks and shamans to create a series of exercises to allow people to experience ‘durational art.’ These are what she teaches at her Institute where she instructs people to slow down time and learn the art of being.

She then glides away from me with that enigmatic grin on her face to my friend and grabs her by the hand with the same sideswipe and clamp technique, not letting you slip away.  She gets them to walk slowly - a meditation walk which is to increase awareness of each foot fall from toe to heel.  Her presence is very palpable, and real, not abstract or cold, but earthy and intense. Her touch gives off a radiance, a warmth. When Abramovic puts her hand on your shoulder and presses down into you it goes deep. It is a privilege, like receiving Reiki from a master practitioner. She’s channeling this Shamanic type of energy, and it is like being given a gift of transference.  She feeds off the responses of the public - her public, not in a vampiric way, but because it gives her higher motivation to touch those parts that wouldn’t otherwise be touched, people’s inner selves.

The moments after she has gone, I remain still, and gone, and aware of my toes pressing into my shoes, and of my slowed-down breathing and the hushed silence in the room, broken by a few cars passing from outside, were  personal yet shared. It reminds me of being in a church when it suddenly goes intensely quiet and contemplation is realised.  Relief from excess noise is always welcome. It creates space just as Marina says. I don’t have any trouble being still, but I wonder how many others would find it a major challenge. Abramovic has boiled it down to the essence  which was never better expressed  as in Pascal’s Pensees (1761) where he says “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

This can be scary for some, like approaching that abyss within we tend to run away from with distraction after distraction. She said in the Artist is Present documentary that "the hardest thing to do is something that is close to nothing. It demands all of you because there is not story anymore to tell. There’s no objects to hide behind. You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.”

She operates on many levels. One is just cunning self-promoter, having fun with a bunch of people along for the ride. But see beyond that and another is as strategic conduit of experiences to be shared by everyone, making her a shaman and even high priestess of art. She helps you to create that space inside. You can do it by yourself, no doubt, but by facilitating it, she makes it a shared experience, marked by her presence. Emptiness indeed is all around. The gallery is empty of anything so crude as a physical object. The art ‘work’ she is creating is what the viewers bring to it, carved experientially on the screen of their own minds, but one could call it living sculpture as several people are standing motionless in different directions like statues on a platform when you first walk in.

Abramovic has achieved a near-cult status now by challenging herself at every level. She attempts to fuse artistic concerns with spiritual practices. One of her friends, Laurie Anderson, has noted in Bomb Magazine, that Marina’s work has become ever more personal, direct, and ‘spiritual,’challenging its viewers and participants to confront their own disjointed selves. It is not unconnected that the rise of Mindfulness, as proposed by Kabat-Zinn, has and still is steadily gaining steady mass acceptance in business and the corporate world as well as medicine, education and even the government. The power of mindfulness is that it is deceptively simple.  

Be Quiet! The Artist is Present.
So whether you think it is much ado about nothing, or a chance to trigger a personal epiphany, she’s here in London for the duration of the summer. One day silence another day a scream fest- it could be either or something else. Who knows what she’ll cook up next to challenge us? The queue was not long, but I have a feeling that, while it seems to be easily dismissed as fake, or even a bit daft, it will catch on, and it would not surprise me if, by the end of the summer, people are clamouring to go back again and again to Ms. Abramovic’s house to experience a bit more of this nowness and take away from it what you will.

The exhibition runs until August 25th.

© Kieron Devlin, 2014
all rights reserved



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