I have always viewed Marina Abramovic as experimenter first, artist second.
The best of her work creates experimental conditions where she has at times revealed the shocking choices and nature of her participants.
In Rhythym 0 she stood motionless in a gallery and gave visitors license to manipulate her with an array of objects, it turned out that people could be cruel. Imponderabilia tested people’s caution when faced with intimacy and documented their relational attitudes to gender by having Abramovic and her then partner, Ulay, stand naked facing one another in a doorframe and invited visitors to squeeze through the tight space between the two of them.
Now, Marina Abramovic, around 100 hours into the 512 hours that she will be spending in the Serpentine Gallery, presents a new experiment that comprises of just her, visitors and a few props. The space in the gallery is largely empty, but for a few chairs and a podium the people in it are the only things to look at. Marina and her gang of assistants slowly make their way around the room whispering in the ears of visitors instructing them to do this and that, activities all related to principles of meditation, concentration and presence.
There is a pleasing absurdity to it all – Amidst the instructed downward dogs, and the people walking backwards with only the aid of a handheld mirror people’s minds naturally search for meaning and they challenge the space, like a chess game, trying to work out what to do next. It is a simple design, there are no cloaks or disappearing acts here, it is her and you in the space. It is these kinds of simple designs that have been so effective in her work, she has found a knack of exposing the very intention behind individual’s choices, however to the detriment of her newer work her celebrity has grown too large. With all eyes facing her, unless she tells you to close them, the intention of the piece is lost and any kind of self-reflection is precluded.
In the 1970s at the time of Rhythym 0 and Imponderabilia Marina Abramovic’s public persona was that of a crazy young experimental artist, one who had not yet captured the attention of the mainstream. Today she is the self-proclaimed ‘grandmother of performance art’. She is clearly aware of her celebrity and therein lies the problem – for this experiment to be effective she shouldn’t have included herself. Abramovic has lost what she will never again obtain: anonymity.
Other critics have reported the feeling of envy when another audience member won Marina Abramovic’s attention. It is the dynamic of a Justin Bieber concert or a Leicester Square premiere that reigns here, where most visitors lock eyes with Marina trying to gain an intimate moment with her. By the exit the all too familiar response to the piece is: ‘she touched me’, rather than ‘I was touched’. If the audience was interested in enlightenment and mindfulness they would be better off in a somatics or yoga class learning from a disinterested professional.
It is hard to know whether Abramovic is once again proving that she is the mistress of manipulation or is simply convinced of her profundity but what is clear from the media buzz is that there is a much-needed movement in the arts where art can speak for itself, where there is a reduction or indeed the absence of the artist in an artist’s work. The positioning of the artist as a subject done badly is a crude reaction to the birth of the celebrity. It has given us masturbation, childbirth, a man eating a stillborn baby, and countless other works where solipsism is mistaken for art.
One of Abramovic’s assistants managing the queue remarked that she liked to keep her audience waiting and one cannot deny that Abramovic is the master of the spectacle, the unmissable event. The blurb of the performance tells visitors that they are taking part in ‘a defining moment in performance art’, and that she is the ‘mother of performance art’, and you can be a part of it, you can actually touch her. As it stands, her inclusion in 512 hours is like George Clooney being generally charming, gaining the attention of every one in the room, sipping a branded coffee on a rooftop bar – 512 hours is the celebrity endorsement of mindfulness.
The artist should not be present – Marina Abramovic 512 hours – article by Christo Hall