LONDON — There are countless ways to spend a damp gray morning in London. In the name of art, I’ve decided to make my way up to “512 Hours,” the new performance by Marina Abramović at the Serpentine Gallery.
“512 Hours” has been on for only two weeks, and although there’s been controversy over the concept, the work itself hasn’t received the media attention I would expect, even if the daily crowd at the gallery doors speaks for itself. Fours years have passed since The Artist Is Present, the artist’s retrospective/performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which became a huge cultural event. London isn’t New York, but it’s probably too early to make a statement about the reception of this newest work.
So, to make up my own mind, I’ve woken early and gone to Kensington Gardens.
Waiting in an orderly queue, I observe the people around me. The crowd is pretty much what you’d expect: the usual mix of students, arty types, hipsters and alternative-looking people, plus some elderly couples. There’s an atmosphere of expectation.
I eavesdrop on two girls behind me. They’re diligently analyzing every single past performance by Abramović but abruptly stop discussing art when one mentions an ex-boyfriend. The woman in front of me has been talking on the phone about her relationship with her mother for 20 minutes now; she could be in psychoanalysis or a line at the post office — it wouldn’t make any difference. But it’s the group of guys at the head of the line that inspires me most. They all wear black, they have singular haircuts, and they seem to be big Abramović fans. Considering where the line is now, they must have been waiting for at least two hours to be at the front. I go and talk to them. They’re overexcited. This isn’t the first time that most of them are taking part in the performance. (Four times in less than two weeks gives you the right to be called an Abramović fan indeed — or a fanatic.) One tells me he came three days in a row before “Marina” took him by the hand. “How determined!” is the only response I can muster.
I return to my place in line and get lost in my own thoughts, recalling a conversation with a friend trying to eke out a living as a photographer. He was trenchant in his dismissal of Abramović as “a sellout,” accusing her of cravenly seeking media coverage while attending an endless series of glamorous events. I drew his attention to the specifics of her career and tireless work to date as a performance artist. (Luckily for me our conversation predated her dancing with Jay-Z and collaborations with James Franco and Lady Gaga).
At 10 o’clock I’m brought sharply back to reality as the gallery doors open and Abramović appears, standing at the entrance, greeting visitors, hugging some of them, welcoming us in as if this were her home. Only 160 people are allowed in at any one time. Visitors may stay as long as they like and leave whenever they choose.
As noted on the website, visitors must “literally and metaphorically” leave their baggage at the entrance. Bags, watches, electronic equipment, etc. have to be placed in a locker before taking part in the performance. No selfies with Marina to post on Instagram. General disappointment.
As I enter, the artist’s assistants start to single people out of the crowd, gently taking their hands and moving them around the gallery. They place people in front of the walls, whispering to them to relax, to concentrate, to breathe. When Abramović enters the space, starting to move people herself, most of the crowd follows her; she seems to have a sort of messianic quality about her. People do as they are told. There’s a palpable excitement in the air, an almost religious silence mixed with anxiety.
The artist passes by me several times. She looks peaceful, her long hair gathered up in a braid. She smells good.
I have the honor of being chosen by Abramović’s collaborator Lynsey Peisinger to be placed in front of a wall. “Stay here as long as you can,” she murmurs. And there she leaves me, facing the almost unbearable whiteness of the wall, as if in punishment.
I decide to close my eyes and concentrate on my body. I’m used to meditation, up to a point, and this experience is similar. Surprisingly, I find a state of complete isolation, even though I’m surrounded by dozens of people. I can actually feel the power of the experience, although I also can’t help asking myself if I’m not under the spell of suggestion.
When I move from my position, after what seems like an indeterminable period of time (5 minutes? 20? I really can’t tell), most people are standing still. There’s less confusion than earlier, when everyone followed the artist like zombies. Some assistants start distributing small mirrors, instructing participants to use them as a guide for walking backwards. I’m distracted by the amusing sight of Abramović walking hand-in-hand with the Serpentine’s co-director Julia Peyton-Jones, like two schoolgirls. There isn’t a specific ban on talking, but everyone is quiet, occasionally murmuring a few words.
When I finally decide to leave, Abramović is walking unnaturally slowly with a woman, encouraging her to do the same. Some people are crying; others look tired and sit on the floor.
I feel at peace, better than when I came. The time spent in the gallery with total strangers allowed us to make eye contact and created a sort of complicity, so that we smile at each other on our way out. This is a remarkable achievement for Londoners. The people I talk to report the same feelings: a general sense of relaxation and serenity. I find them almost dazed, not completely able to speak their minds.
Yet “512 Hours” clearly is predicated upon the artist’s persona. Would it work without her charisma and self-awareness? Some might call it the power of improvisation, but the performance does seem to lack structure. Abramović’s attempt to shape a work “without any object, solely between performer and public” is both highly risky and highly ambitious. I appreciate the simplicity, but as I walk home from the gallery I’m also plagued with doubt: will “512 Hours” be focused enough on the public to redeem Abramović in its eyes?
Marina Abramović: 512 Hours continues at the Serpentine Gallery (Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park, London) though August 25.