It feels so long since I've written what I call a normal blogging post; one that's about stuff I've done and thought about, rather than just about the business. I will write more as I'm leaving my job so let's hope this piece heralds a more productive era. I've missed it.
More than a week ago, but still fresh in my mind, I went to Marina Abramovic's 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery. She's probably been knocking around my awareness for a few years, and having missed an event in which she performed on the South Bank Centre a few years ago, I felt compelled to take a full day off to see this event. I took the dog out fo a very long walk then headed there for opening time, prepared to spend as long as it took.
I was expecting to queue for hours; there is even a Twitter hashtag for those queuing. But, I practically walked in. Maybe it was mid-week, early and not in the school holidays, or maybe I was lucky. My hand was stamped and I went in.
I didn't really know what to expect, apart from what I'd gleamed from Will Gompertz' R4 Zeitgeisters interview, in which she said she was going to do nothing. It transpired that she had put more structure into the event, but fortunately I only read that as I emerged afterwards. I'm glad I didn't have too much idea of what she'd planned.
I went in and saw a kind of square stage in the centre of the room with people on it, and four lines of chairs leading up to the four corners and on each of these chairs were people sitting with headphones on. The people on the stage were mostly standing in a rather meditative state with their eyes closed. There were also some people facing the walls of the room, with heads bowed or at least also with closed eyes. Dotted around were Abramovic's assistants, distinguishable by their black clothes and reverential authority. The grande dame herself was also around, chaperoning people slowly to different places.
I didn't know what was going on in the other rooms but felt rooted to my spot. I didn't know what I was supposed to be doing. I felt I had to be told what to do, and wanted to be taken somewhere by one of the assistants or even the great lady herself, though I was a bit scared of the latter. It was such a familiar feeling of being shy and fearful of shame and at the same time wanting to be included and noticed. I wondered what I'd done wrong to not be noticed and clocked that these feelings were ones I should take note of and maybe that was partly what it was about. Finally, a quite-austere assistant came up to me, took my hand and indicated to me to turn around and face the wall, "Close your eyes," she said, and left me feeling noticed. Somehow my initiation had begun.
I stood, eyes closed, for I'm not sure how long. I wasn't sure if I was going to be relieved of this duty or how one decided when one's time was up. I went through the bored feelings, the physical discomfort of staying in one place, moving my weight from side to side, hands in pockets, loose, frustration, feeling forgotten. I somehow got through the bad patch and felt quite serene and seemingly able to cope without worrying about whether I was doing the right thing, or if I was going to be noticed. So maybe I start off being terribly dependent on the authority of the assitants and the grande dame herself. I registered also how amazingly willingly I'd handed over myself to this experience and these people. It was quite telling.
Eventually I took courage and let myself go, after a few maybe and maybe nots. I opened my eyes and felt brave enough to go to the two rooms. First, I found a room with people all walking around wearing blindfolds. I felt still a little anxious about this so I went to the other one. I knew this was where i wanted to be; lying down in one of the beds. It reminded me of a war hospital, with camp beds lined up along the walls. There were people lying down with headphones on and a coloured sheet covering them. I waited in a sort-of queue and soon was led to on of the beds and invited to lie down, given headphones and, again, told to close my eyes. This assistant was friendlier. I lay down, pondered, and got myself comfortable. I woke up to find I was in the Serpentine Gallery and felt rather refreshed, and relaxed after the mild shock of the realising that I had fallen asleep.
I've done a certain amount of meditation and mindfulness so I practised some of that when I was in these immobile states but decided not to punish myself by perfection and thought it was ok to just day-dream too.
It was easier to take the initiative and get up from my camp bed without expecting anyone to come and rescue me. I felt much more relaxed and went off to the blind-fold room without any trepidation. I suppose I knew what the deal was and maybe I was less dependent on the intervention of the assistants but I noticed my change of attitude. I put the blindfold on, was told to close my eyes and walk slowly around the room and not worry if I bumped into anyone. She was nice and friendly too. I shuffled around the room and gently touched others at times and shifted to what I thought was the other way. It wasn't so empty an experience as standing against a wall or lying in a camp bed, I suppose because you're moving.
After this I came back into the main room. This time I felt breezily confident and was quickly picked by one of the assistants and led to stand on the stage. This felt like some great honour. She held my hand and stood next to me for a few minutes, and then left me there. I stood on the stage, eyes closed for as long as I could, which probably wasn't as long as others.
I wasn't sure what to do next, but didn't feel like leaving. You can stay as long as you want, though they'd probably boot you out when they close. The more time went on the more restful and comfortable it was, even compelling, but in a gentle way. As someone brought up with regular attendance at church I miss that ritual and there was something of a religious experience here. Not in some insight or feeling of God; just a place that deserved a reverence that made me feel altered and peaceful.
It then seemed time to go. I'd left my phone in the locker, as instructed by the rules, so I didn't know I'd been there for two hours. I then read the intro and discovered that the event was about attendees experiencing 'durational performance art' themselves. Maybe due to the controversy surrounding the doing nothing concept, she made it into something more structured. I was glad I hadn't read that as it would have skewed my experience. (Sorry if this is a spoiler..)
I had thought I would be very moved and overwhelmed as some people reported during The Artist is Present. But, that's ok. I wanted to be open to what it was. I'm not sure how I want to qualify how I feel about the event; it was interesting, it was ok. I'm glad I went.