I wasn’t sure what to expect before getting to the Serpentine gallery that fateful day; I was told by a friend I was with that we would be arranged in different positions. I had also read that Marina herself would be part of the exhibit, but, as someone who knows who she is, this was unsurprising. There was, of course, the obvious anticipation – this was, after all, Marina Abramović!
Before even getting into the gallery, we encounter an exhibit that was an ‘UFO’. The installation had an open plan, and before seeing a poster on the tube publicising it, I would have taken it to be a pavilion of some sort. There is no obstruction in the flow of the landscape, and nobody seems to be responsive to the fact that they are currently in an art piece as I would have expected.
We get to the Serpentine gallery after a meandering trek through Hyde Park. Outside, there are peoples of all descriptions. From the hype beasts to the normcore folk to everyone in between: London has come out to play.
We get to the entrance, and are informed that no watches or electronic devices were permitted past the lockers, and that we will be provided with noise-cancelling headphones.
We walk into this white room, with high ceilings and a circular skylight. Beneath this, in the centre of the room is a stage no more than 5cm off the ground, made up of square blocks in the shape of a cross. On each side there is a set of three chairs a few feet away from the stage. There are a few people on the stage, standing with their eyes closed; and a few on some of the chairs as well, also in the blackness. As I stand on the side, still unsure of what is going on, I am approached by one of the aides in all black attire. She stretches out her hand to me, wearing the softest of smiles, almost as if to say that it’s alright if I reject her advance. But I accept.
She gestures to the stage, where a few others already occupy. I have my doubts and am still a bit self conscious about all that is going on. So I gesture to one of the chairs, where I am sat down and instructed to close my eyes.
I suddenly feel what I can only hope to be her arms on my shoulders. At first I am slightly taken aback, but soon I become parasitic to this calming presence. Then the training wheels come off, and I am left to pedal at my own accord. This is when the silent contemplation begins.
At first I wonder whether something else is going to happen. Perhaps she’ll come back to gesture me further instructions. Maybe this is all a trick to see how long I will wait for her. But nothing happens.
Soon my mind begins to wander through my past, like flicking through a photo album of my existence. Then I wonder, “is this what is meant to happen?”. The pages continue to turn, and stop on certain aspects of my life I realise hold great gravity on the being I am. The evolution; decisions made; actions planned out but never executed; the very fabric of my existence. This show goes on in the darkness for about twenty minutes before I decide that it’s time to see what else the exhibit has to offer. The skylight reveals itself once more. With my senses regained, I rise.
IV. Journey of a million thoughts
I move on to the next room on the left, where I notice a few new faces. People are walking in straight lines up and down the length and breadth of the room, and a few walk diagonally across. What is peculiar about this is the speed at which they travel. I would be liberally using hyperbole to say that they would never reach their destination at the rate they were going. The patience with which every step is taken would almost certainly frustrate me into dosing a healthy shove if we ever crossed paths during rush hour. Feet slowly rising, and falling, and rising again, and falling again. This exercise would have been completely alien to me, had it not been that a conversation with a friend the week before had provided me with some insight into the purpose of such a languid gait.
During my friend Fred’s travels through Thailand, he went to learn the ways of meditation and consciousness atop a high mountain (the name of which I cannot recall). There, they were given the task of performing this same walk for hours on end. Mentally, one would sound the actions that their legs were performing over and over again. With enough patience and concentration, soon the students would reach a state of cloudy consciousness.
On remembering this story, an idea of what these exercises were trying to convey slowly begins to form in my mind. I stand on the side of this room, with its white walks, low ceiling (with respect to the main room) and black tiled floors. Eventually another aide in black approaches me in similar manner to the first. This time, it’s a man with a blue streak in his hair. With the same smile, sending the same message, “If you’d like, I will show you”. We go to one end of the room, and stand side by side, hand in hand. Then he gestures to his right leg, which I take to mean “right foot first”. I am correct.
Slowly, we advance towards the other end of the room, looking down at our feet, moving with a monk’s patience. Left right, left right. Halfway down the room. Right left, right left, “thank God! We’ve almost made it!”. He tells me to look at the white wall, and breathe. While doing so, I begin to think about how white the wall is, and how my grandmother always insisted on no man, woman or child ever touching her pristine white walls. The journey begins once more.
We turn around, and return as we came. All the while these images are coming and going. On returning to the starting point, I am asked to repeat the journey three more times. Some images appear so vividly that my stride stagnates for a slight moment. I end up doing the trek five more times before taking my leave.
V. From chaos to subconscious
The last room on the right of the main room is the smallest room in the exhibit. It’s just over half the size of the last room which was longer than, but not as wide as, the first, and it has the same white walls and black tiled floors as the second room. There are three rows of tables and chairs, all facing the longer wall. The furniture is rather small and makes the room seem to me like a classroom with big schoolchildren, all performing some specific task. Each table would have originally had the same configuration: a pile of rice and lentils jumbled together, a plain white sheet of A4 paper and a yellow wooden pencil, which was popular in school. An agent in black invites us one by one to occupy the empty chairs as they become available, in a similar fashion to the last two. This was the one room however, where speech was the most suitable means of instruction: “separate the lentils from the rice, you can arrange them in any way you please; count them, anything”. The brief has been defined, and I return to the sound of the blood vessels in my ear – that airy vibration heard when you put your ear to a large seashell.
At first, I begin to separate rice from lentil, or rather lentil from rice (as the latter was visibly more abundant, and is smaller in size). This evolves into alternating concentric circles of rice and lentil. Eventually I end up with a picture: from one angle, it has the form of a smiling head; rotating it through ninety degrees clockwise makes it a mouth being fed. Then I write “feed joy| and sign off with a popular expression back home that the people know all too well: “A hungry man is an angry man.” To me this is amazing. I have gone from counting to expressing one of my life’s mantras (as I am an optimist, what would the world be without us?) on this sheet of A4 paper.
I wonder whether any of the other students had similar experiences. On walking round the classroom, and observing what was on the other sheets of paper, I find a wide range of solutions of the problem posed before us. Some had diligently counted every grain of rice and every lentil on the table in tallies over multiple A4 sheets. Others had the respective piles of grain and notes of what I believe to be their innermost thoughts. There were many words, mostly very personal and acute self-evaluation. One of the conclusions that really stuck to me was a poem I cannot quote, but the message I can paraphrase: Green and white, Palestine and Israel, the act of separation, the war, the original pile of mixed grain, peace.
After my completion of the last trip, I stay behind of a few hours, watching people flock in with the same apprehensive disposition I had on entering. One by one, all going through the motions that I had. Some smiling, sat on the chairs with their eyes closed, or stood on stage giving off the impression that they were in tough with some cosmic force not seen, only felt. Doing the trek, sheepishly at first, then gradually with intent. I even go as far as taking it upon myself to play the role of aide without the attire. It only takes one or two rejections; eventually the outstretched arm, eye contact, and smile has been mastered. When it rains it pours, and there were two more conversions after the first observer accepted my invitation.
Some time had passed after I began observing the crowd, when the artist herself walks into the room, initially sat on a chair in the main room for an extended amount of time, before interacting with people – taking some on stage, showing some pensioners the slow walk (no pun intended), speaking to some fellow who looked like he had recently cried. And then our eyes finally met.
There was a single question I had been asking myself for a long time while in the nether zone: “Is it just me? Is this just art, or somehow connected with God?” On her approaching me, this was the first thing I could say to her. She asks what I do, and requests me to give my thoughts on the experience in a video diary that was being compiled. I accept. She explains to me how important this work she was doing was for the youths as we venture to the interview room in the back of the second room I had been to. I do my review, and get her to sign a poster. And on leaving the gallery I see some of the watchers I have converted to participants. Some have blank expressions on seeing me. We were no longer in the nether zone; but a lady I had walked with has the most empathetic smile. She too must have seen the light.
I am not sure what went down in the Serpentine on the 25th of July. But on leaving I experienced a feeling of being uplifted (ironic as we had been in the nether zone), as if I had just woken up from a beautiful dream. The different pieces had a profound impact on my mood, and I had been in there for over 5 hours without food or drink or any bearing on time. Activities from the first two rooms have subsequently worked their way into my weekly routine. This was probably one of the most gripping visits to an art exhibit I have been to. Luckily for me, I could also take the pieces home.
512 HOURS: A REVIEW OF MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ’S LATEST PERFORMANCE ART PIECE by
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