Standing in the queue for Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours, her interactive performance piece at the Serpentine Gallery (until Aug 25), the suspense builds. All we know is that there will be a big white space, and that in it will be the woman who stripped Lady Gaga naked for Artpop, and who made the whole of Facebook cry with her unexpected reunion after 22 years with her old lover Ulay, during her arty staring contest at MoMA entitled The Artist Is Present. [The pair had agreed to part in 1988, as only artists do, by saying goodbye in the middle of the Great Wall of China – having first walked there separately from opposite ends.]
We also know that Abramović has covered dangerous ground as a performer. In 1974 she laid some objects on a table – a rose, a feather, a whip, a knife – and allowed the audience to do to her as they wished. “They became more and more aggressive,” she said in a documentary. “They would cut my clothes. They would cut me with a knife, close to my neck, and drink my blood, and then put a plaster over the wound. They would carry me round half-naked, put me on the table and stick a knife between my legs into the wood.” [Yoko Ono predated her, mind you, with 1964’s Cut Piece, in which she invited the audience to come, one by one, and snip off a piece of her clothing with scissors.]
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Abramović has become more controlling – but more of that later.
When ushered in, we are told to place all electronic items into a locker. My companion is admonished by an assistant for keeping a watch on, and told to stow that, too. We are handed noise-cancelling headphones, which are disorientating at first: I find it difficult to breathe; I feel I am having a panic attack. I calm down when I work out what’s wrong. The noiselessness has tapped into a childhood phobia of sharks: the blocking of the ears is the same as you experience underwater.
All around us, people are standing still, like Art Zombies, or tone-deaf participants in a Silent Disco: arms by their sides, some with eyes closed, some standing on a cross-shaped stage in the centre. It’s an absurd scene. I can’t yet relate. It’s not until I try the side-room that I start to get into the Zen zone.
The room is filled with old wooden school desks. On each, a pile of rice and green lentils. Beside that, a pencil and paper. This seems like a wonderful exercise. I see one person carefully sorting the rice and the lentils into separate piles; another constructing an elaborate pattern in green and white. I contemplate mine, wondering what my reaction to the challenge will be, until it dawns on me that the pile looks like a volcano – an erupted Mount Fuji, with the rice as its snowy peak and the green lentils as gigantic boulders and streams of lava.
My imagination catches fire as I write down on the piece of paper what I am seeing. This bonsai volcano is a mini-catastrophe, a tiny cataclysm, and the striped black grains in the wood of the table suddenly seem like a city of toppled skyscrapers laid low. Beyond it, on the scorched earth of the table’s orange plain, is a whorl of wood grain extending outwards in concentric ovals – the epicentre of a bomb blast, or the eye of some apocalyptic storm.
The whole becomes to me a mini-metaphor for all the disasters that have befallen Japan and by extension the world, both natural and man-made – the atomic bombs, the earthquakes, the tidal waves, the nuclear plant gone awry. By looking at them in miniature it becomes, counter-intuitively, finally possible to comprehend their unimaginable magnitude – and, in so doing, to understand all the other natural disasters and the ravages of war that seem too epic to grasp. The misery and deaths of thousands and millions can be wished away simply by changing the TV channel, whereas one would never ignore a single person bleeding and dying on one’s doorstep. In fully understanding the micro, you can appreciate the macro. Or, as the old Zen parable has it, to understand the tree, first you must contemplate the leaf.
… Come back tomorrow for Part Two, in which Marina Abramović tells me off, and holds my hand.