Sunday, 8 June 2014

A Method in Marina

Michael Peters embarks on some Marina Abramović approved self-improvement exercises and meditates on her upcoming show, 512 Hours at Serpentine Gallery.

Marina Abramović has a new show coming up at the Serpentine. She’s going to wander around the gallery space for the duration of the show and the audience can come and look at her.

A couple of years ago, at MoMA, Abramović staged a similar work, The Artist is Present. She sat in the gallery space for the duration of the show, and the audience could come and take turns sitting opposite her. Famously, many of them cried. Wimps. Getting emotional over an art piece is as crass as finding nirvana in a yoga class. This performance brought forth a glut of hysterical media gushing. She’s been referred to as a “Yugoslavian born provocateur”, the “Queen of extreme art”, even as a “deity” (by man of a thousand talents James Franco).

Personally, however, I’m slightly dubious about the credibility of Abramović. So much of her work is fascinating, but I can’t help wonder if, behind her mirror calm surface, she is in slightly over her head.  She projects the image of a new age art prophetess, but this is slightly undone by her penchant for making bizarre statements that cause her to sound like a self help guru espousing simple, catch all theories. 'The worse the childhood, the better the artist' is one such pronouncement. 'In theatre, blood is ketchup. In performance, everything is real' is another of her half-baked declarations. 

Easily beguiled by the glittering lights of celebrity, (the appearance in a Jay-Z video, the ridiculous collaborations with Lady Gaga) the concept behind the upcoming Serpentine show feels a little too familiar to me, a rehashing of the performance at MoMA; The Artist is Present, London style. “I’ve never done anything as radical as this” Abramović says of the Serpentine show. Maybe not. But she has done something very, very nearly as radical as this.

In order to prepare for her performances Marina goes to suitably new age extremes: for the upcoming show she’s apparently jet setting to Brazil to consult with a tribal shaman. But she also practices a self-devised technique for centring the mind – the Abramović method. There are a couple of videos of her practicing these exercises online, and, in a spirit of investigative journalism, I thought I’d try some of them out and see what it really takes to be Marina Abramović.

Exercise 1: The Glass of Water

For this exercise, one has to spend twenty minutes concentrating on drinking a glass of water.  Simple enough; I ran myself a glass, set it before me on the table top and sat down. I was optimistic – 'twenty minutes isn’t that long!' I told myself. 'I’m bound to have some kind of spiritual epiphany in that time!'  I brought the glass to my lips and took a sip. Refreshing. Nourishing. I could feel the water hydrating my desiccated body like a stream in the Kalahari. Maybe Marina was onto something?

After about seven minutes had gone by, I became conscious that I had drunk over half the water in the glass and I had thirteen minutes left. I became slightly panicked – should I continue sipping at my natural rate and finish early? Or should I ration the remaining water to make use of the whole twenty minutes? Which was the more Zen option? What would Marina do? I resolved to slow down my pace slightly, but if I finished a few minutes early, no big deal. From this point on, however, I became overly preoccupied with sipping slowly, slowly, dividing the level of water in my glass into minutes worth portions. By the time twenty minutes was up, I was more highly strung than when I first sat down.

Exercise 2: Writing my Name

The next exercise entails writing your name once, very slowly, for a whole hour, always moving the pencil.  I was more dubious about this one; an hour is a long time. What if I started panicking about doing it too fast again? I would have to deliberately overkill and move at a pace so slowly I couldn’t possibly finish the task in an hour. I set a timer on my phone and sat down with a pencil and paper.

I have to say this was the most challenging of the three exercises. The timespan is too long, the task too short, for it to ever be comfortable. But while Marina claimed this to be an exercise to improve concentration, I completely glazed over after five minutes. It wasn’t too hard to write my name on autopilot. I was basically sitting there, bored and uncomfortable, for most of the hour. When I finished I felt pride and self-accomplishment, but certainly not more concentrated, enlightened or self-aware.  Overall, an underwhelming and frustrating experience.

Exercise 3: The Bag of Rice

This last exercise involves counting the number of grains in a bag of rice.  Simple, menial.  I once had a job at Next; I could do this. Bizarrely though, when I went to buy the rice, I became unduly concerned with what variety would be most suitable. Would Marina use the classic American long grain? Or would she go for the tantalizing eastern allure of Basmati? Twenty minutes later, I was sat at the kitchen table with a bag emptied emptied out in front of me like a small hill. In the video I’d watched, Marina encourages counting what appears to be a full sack of rice, but I decided to go for a smaller quantity. I’m a busy person after all.

I started counting.  It was actually quite relaxing, even enjoyable. I didn’t know if I should be making a tally of some kind, trying to find out the exact number of grains, so whenever I got to a significant number I wrote it down on a bit of paper. Of course I didn’t count the whole bag – it would have taken hours – but I did make it to somewhere around 2500 before stopping, and I felt quite relaxed afterwards.

Despite my reservations, I’m sure this exhibition will still manage to pull in the crowds and Abramović is unlikely to experience any kind of backlash. I don’t even really think her art is bad; it’s more that I want her to move away from this endless reduction; these increasingly minimal performances, and return to the psychosexual intrigue of her earlier works such as Rhythm 0 and Lips of Thomas. In the HBO documentary following her throughout her preparations for The Artist is Present, Abramović proclaims: “The hardest thing is to do almost nothing”. Perhaps. But good art, of course, doesn’t always have to be the hardest thing.

Michael Peters

512 Hours will be on show at Serpentine Gallery from June 11 - August 25

No comments:

Post a Comment