Marina Abramović woke up in the middle of the night having entirely reimagined her then-upcoming exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery. Narrating her epiphany, she said: “I must do something really radical, there is no time to lose. I had the vision of an empty gallery — nothing there.”
“512 Hours,” the fruit of that moment of realization, is now approaching the end of its lifespan at the Serpentine. Falling a bit short of Abramović’s statement, the work has proven to be more palatable than avant-garde, a flirtation with Eastern spirituality that’s easy for the art experience economy to swallow.
It’s not that the notion behind the piece isn’t provocative; it is. As an artistic concept, nothingness oozes radical potential. Forced to engage with the void, the stimulation-deprived viewer moves through stages of boredom, irritation, more boredom, and eventually, for the lucky ones, a heightened state of awareness. Fluxus member Dick Higgins theorized that this process facilitates a spiritual dissolution of ego and the immersion of the participant (“viewer” being a term that the process renders inadequate) into the piece. Nothingness has accordingly been a rich topic for artistic exploration, as reiterated by those concerned with the Serpentine show’s initial failure to acknowledge its genealogy. Their concerns were not unfounded; in 2009 there was even a retrospective of art of the “void” at Centre Pompidou. The Serpentine has since graciously acknowledged “512 Hours”’s influences and cohorts, among them the work of John Cage, Yves Klein, Mary Ellen Carroll, and others.
But “512 Hours” isn’t John Cage’s 4’33”. A hallmark of Fluxus, 4’33” is a performance art haiku: simple, elegant, and potent. In the work, a pianist armed with a stopwatch and the blank measures of Cage’s musical score plays three movements of silence. The performer closes and opens the piano lid to signify the start and completion of each movement. 4’33”’s structural rigor makes the concept it explores — the fullness of silence when one is attuned to its musicality — compelling. “512 Hours” aims for but only sometimes brushes up against a similar slice of transcendence.
I came to the performance familiar with its basis: Abramović would occupy a virtually empty space in the Serpentine over the course of a two-month period ( … for 512 hours), interacting with gallery-goers who, stripped of their mobile devices, would become her “performing body.” Always ready to get synecdochic, I followed a gesturing gallery assistant to a chair. Upright and motionless in it, my eyes squeezed shut and noise-cancelling headphones clamped on my ears, silence turned into static. The movement of gallery assistants and visitors around the space became a palpable pressure on my skin. Maybe, in this sensorial darkness, “512 Hours” was teaching me how to see.
But when my lids flickered open at a (more or less) arbitrary pause in my efforts, the artist was all too present. In lieu of making a concerted effort at mindfulness, people had turned their eyes and ears toward the force of nature that is Marina. The celebrity artist moved about the space whispering to and conversing with visitors at random, the less composed of whom could not contain their glee. Her presence felt almost intrusive to my attempts at light meditation.
Yet it was not her celebrity that most concerned me, but the gnawing sense that the piece was a disconnected amalgamation of Spirituality Lite™ tasks. Instead of truly exploring the concept of nothing, the performance relies upon prop-heavy exercises to facilitate mindfulness: blindfolds for walking, headphones for sitting, seeds for sorting. “512 Hours” offers us satisfying, doable exercises — an approachable checklist — in lieu of an engagement with nothing that is scary, challenging, boring, or unknown. With little exertion required on the part of the artist or viewer, can we really say that Abramović leapt into the void?
Abramović’s move toward more palatable work is not particularly surprising. A core member of the body art movement of the 1970s, she spent decades putting herself through the ringer: fire, flagellation, ice, carbon monoxide poisoning. Her work from this earlier period leveraged risk and trauma to rocket-launch the performer and her audience into presence. It was powerful stuff, not just because of its sensationalism (though that probably helped), but because it demanded so much vulnerability and engagement from the artist and viewer. Her new goal doesn’t seem to be the acute intensity of presence, but rather its breadth. And she has said as much, noting that she’s now working in a different (read: celebrity) context and professing her support for the mainstreaming of performance art.
“512 Hours” is an important piece of our cultural moment. There is value in giving the public a space where, for free, they can chuck their phones in a locker for an hour and comfortably experiment with mindfulness. Abramović’s is a loving — if perhaps lightly self-interested — response to the anxiety of our alienating society. But let’s not pretend the subdued “512 Hours” has the power or poetry of that influential performance art canon, of which her earlier pieces are part.
Marina Abramović: 512 Hours continues at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London) though August 25.