Review: Marina Abramović, 512 Hours

Performance art owes a great deal to Marine Abramović. The self-proclaimed ‘grandmother of performance art’ is both one of its inventors and most influential proponents. The Serbian 60-something began her experimentation with the medium in the 70s, with her series of ‘Rhythms’. The most famous of these was ‘Rhythm 0’ during which she laid out 72 different objects, including a feather, honey, a scalpel and a gun in the gallery and allowed the public to do anything they wished to her with the eclectic array of objects. She remained completely passive for six hours, even when members of the public undressed her, cut her hair and held the loaded gun to her neck.  It was a powerful comment on the ease with which social inhibitions and civility break down.

More recently, during the retrospective of her work in New York’s MOMA, she performed the piece ‘The Artist Is Present’. Sitting in the museum’s atrium for eight hours a day for three months, she invited the spectators to sit opposite her for a short time silently holding eye contact. Many of the museum-goers, among whom appeared James Franco, Alan Rickman and Lady Gaga, were moved to tears, to the extent that a special website was dedicated to their welling up: marinaabramovicmademecry.com. Now the matriarch of performance art has pitched up camp in London’s Serpentine Gallery, displaying her latest piece, ‘512 Hours’, specially conceived for the intimate space.   

‘512 Hours’ is completely unlike normal exhibitions. There is no admission fee and no booking, meaning you could end up at the back of a queue slinking all the way through Kensington Gardens or gain immediate entry, as I was lucky enough to. One hundred and sixty visitors are allowed in at any one time and are encouraged to spend as long as they wish in the exhibition. The public are told, rather pretentiously, to ‘leave their baggage both literally and metaphorically in order to enter the exhibition’. The public’s worldly clobber is stowed in a row of metallic lockers before they proceed into the exhibition. Not only material, but also auditory distractions are removed when one of Marina’s team of forty-five black-clad helpers hands you a pair of soundproof headphones. The only sound is that of one’s own thoughts. 

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The first room, overwhelmingly white, contained nothing but an low platform upon which stood a few of Marina’s helpers, facing one another seemingly in a trance-like state. One of them cam away from the group and led me by the hand into the next room where there were row after row of chairs and desks, on each of which was a piece of paper, a pencil and a little heap of jumbled rice grains and lentils. She sat me down at one of the desks and whispered to me in soothing tones: ‘separate the lentils and rice and count them, use the paper if you need to’.

This was a Sisyphean task – I knew that as soon as I left my seat, one of the helpers would undo my laborious work and re-arrange the jumble. However, the point of this exercise was not its completion but its undertaking.  The fact that there were 823 lentils (I gave up counting the rice grains) was far less meaningful than the process of counting them. Some people, who hadn’t been led and instructed by the helper wandered through the room of people absorbed in their rice and lentil separating, trying to gage what they were doing and join in. Why do people feel such a need to be the same as everyone else, even when it means performing such a fruitless task?

When I wandered back into the centre room, a helper immediately grabbed my hand and led me onto the platform, instructing me by example to close my eyes. Holding hands with a stranger went entirely against what social conventions had ever taught me. And yet, it was liberating. In the room on the left people were pacing up and down with exaggeratedly slow steps, either by themselves or with helper-guides. Marina Abramović herself wove her way through the statue-like members of the public, placing a gentle hand on their backs, stroking their eyes shut and exchanging a jovial word.

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The guides had a faint air of pretention about them, but there was nothing artificial about Marina Abramović’s movements. Her life and art co-exist in complete harmony and this is evident from her poise and gravitas. In performing her art she is merely living. Like John Cage’s ‘4.33’ or Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ (currently being exhibited at the Tate Modern), this piece is the reduction of art to its bare form, the end to art. Like its musical and visual counterparts, the performance piece’s title bears little comment on its meaning, being a mere description of its duration. By expressing so little, it expresses everything.  In most of Marina Abramović’s pieces she uses her body as both subject and object, they are physical and mental tests of her endurance. The one hour I spent in this exhibition felt like an age and it is a veritable feat of stamina that Marina Abramović will be doing it for 512.