Monday, 28 July 2014
MARINA ABRAMOVICH 512 HOURS, SERPENTINE LONDON
9th July 2014.
We got to the gallery before opening time at 10 am expecting a big queue but it was fine, only about 20 people ahead. Gallery staff dressed in black walked along the line with leaflets and warned us that watches, phones and bags would have to be stored while we were in the gallery. 'You can stay as long as you like', they said 'but only one admission per day'.
We were met at the entrance by Marina Abramovic who shook hands and said 'Good Morning' to each person who went in. Then we went through the entrance hall to a room with lockers. I removed my jacket but was turned back because I'd left my watch on.
We went into the first room where there was a group of black uniformed young people on a central raised platform, just a step up, and a few chairs round the outside of the room. The staff picked on individual people, held their hands, and took them up onto the platform, whispering instructions into their ears. Each audience member and a uniformed staff member stood together with eyes closed, holding hands for a few minutes, then the staff member left them to it. I watched this for a while, sat down and took some time to get used to the room, everything slowed. The group on the platform was turning into mostly audience. My daughter Lucy had gone on to another room.
I went to the entrance of the second room, a long gallery. Marina Abramovic, in the same black outfit, came up and took my hand and led me to the end of the room. She told me I was to walk as slowly as possible up and down the room seven times. She walked beside me, still holding hands, so that I could slow down enough to be in step with her. 'It is important to complete seven lengths of the room', she said, 'four times will be boring but after that it is bliss'. Then she moved away.
Quite a few people were in the room going up and down, each more or less successful in getting out of the way of oncomers. It seemed a very long time to do one length of the room and turn at the same pace. The floor was tiled in rows I think, certainly there were stripes on the floor. Lucy was already walking her own line. After a while a man in a red monk's habit came and walked beside me on the next row, shoes off, wearing deep red woollen socks. His head was shaved. I was feeling hot in my shoes and stopped at the end of the second round to take them off. I noticed the other walkers, some of them were started off like me by Marina or other staff members. They would walk together with an audience member for a little while. This was a durational performance made by the audience who became the performers. And the task was so simple that they needn't be nervous or worried about exposure or failure. To me it seemed to be an occasion of mindfulness set up for participants out of the simplest means, with Marina and her assistants framing and helping it to run.
It took a long time to finish the seven lengths of the long room, as slowly as possible; it made me aware of my pace and balance, the overall awareness of gait: proprioception. I could see others stopping and starting, avoiding, leaving, speeding and slowing down. There were smiles as I repeatedly met particular people on the way, which was a pleasure. When I had completed the seven lengths I put my shoes on, turned and walked out of the room. Marina came up and put her hands on my shoulders and smiled. 'So you survived it then', she said. I agreed, happily, and went to the next room.
The third room was set up with small individual tables and chairs set in rows, just like an exam hall. I went just inside, looking for Lucy, and a black clothed young woman came up and asked me if I wanted to take part in the activity. I did. She took me to a recently vacated small table with a pile of rice and lentils, a piece of paper and a pencil. 'People are separating the rice and lentils and counting them', she said. So I sat down and made a start. At first I wondered if I could be bothered to do this pointless task, feeling a dupe of the set up, doing something that would be immediately undone. But I started to do it and became quite engrossed in picking out the green lentils which were thicker and thus stood a little proud of the white long grain rice. Like the slow walking it was a good task for someone always plotting and worrying about the next thing -- a good task to establish a mindful present awareness -- the simplicity and lack of strategy in it helped to establish that. I didn't go blank exactly, but I kept my eyes on the rice and lentils, getting them spread out a bit to make the separation easier. Lucy was in the row ahead of me and she finished before me and went out of sight. Some people walked in between the desks looking at those of us who were completing our task. I wondered how long I had been there and if Lucy might be waiting, needing to leave. I decided to just carry on and continue the task until it was finished, it didn't look as if it would take that long. I had a big circle of green lentils and a bigger one of white rice. When I looked at the paper I saw that the previous person had written '500 lentils, 500 rice (estimate)'. I added '(certainly a lot)'. Then I went out to the locker room where Lucy was waiting. We had used just the one locker and I had the key. When I got my watch back I found we had been inside for two and a half hours, fully involved for all that time. I wondered if the red-clothed western buddhist monk was a plant.
Marina Abramovic and her assistants carried out a low key performance that enabled the audience to perform themselves within a framework established by the artist and the management of the venue that commissioned the piece. It put me into a state of mindfulness for two and a half hours, without any religious language or imagery. It massively exceeded my expectations. I had previously read some bad press stories about Abramovic online but this was a good experience.