How I held the hand that stripped Gaga naked: Zen with Marina Abramović, part two

24 Jul

Marina abramovicAfter my Zen rice-and-lentils exercise at Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours (see part one), I reenter the main room of the Serpentine Gallery quietened, cleansed, happy now to join the Art Zombies in standing stock-still by a white wall. The headphones don’t just dampen noise; they preclude any conversation. You begin to understand the Trappist monks and their vow of silence. Without speech, there is only contemplation.

But there’s more to come: one final side-room. Here, people are walking with painful and deliberate slowness, a half-step at a time, then a pause, then another half-step; either solo, or holding hands. We start joining in, but self-consciously: the non-conformist in me rebels, and I start to channel the ludicrous slow gait with which Michael Palin steps out in giant shoes at the end of the Ministry of Silly Walks sketch.

Suddenly a figure comes between us, grasping our hands. I look up: I’m holding hands with Marina Abramović herself. But her grasp is firm, rather than friendly. She looks at me in admonishment, even lets go of my hand for a second to wag her finger, no-no-no. And for two lengths of the room, incredibly slowly, until it starts to seem the most natural thing in the world to be holding hands with a globally renowned artist, she demonstrates the correct way of walking.

At last she leaves, signing that we must complete four more lengths once she’s gone. Dutifully, we complete our assigned task. And it is rewarding: freed of the pressure to arrive, the journey becomes the important thing. I become aware of my breathing; the number of steps taken to complete a length (about 60, like the seconds in a minute, the minutes in an hour); the patterns on the floor.

It reminds me of a barging weekend I took from Oxford, as a student. The boat went slowly, no more than walking pace. At first I found this irksome: it would take us an hour to reach the next village. But your internal rhythm soon slows to accommodate the external rhythm: instead of looking for important landmarks, you appreciate this bush, that tree, this leaf; the ripples on the water; the flight of a dragonfly.

I emerged from the Serpentine gallery bathed in sweat and blinking into the sun, feeling transformed. Londoners are always rushing to somewhere, never appreciating where we actually are.

And yet I still recoil at Marina Abramović’s tut-tutting disapproval at the way in which I tried to express my slow walk, in what I felt was a creative and individual manner but which was evidently deemed dangerously subversive. Worse, my companion told me afterwards that my seminal rice-and-lentil moment (see part one) was an accident: what I thought was a period of free expression, a unique reaction to a common set of objects, was, in fact, simply the result of the ushers overlooking me when I sat down. To my companion, and to other visitors, they had whispered a common and banal task: separate the grains of rice from the lentils, count them, and write the numbers on the sheet of paper. Had they instructed me likewise, I would have missed my moment of satori.

An hour at the Serpentine Gallery is heartily recommended as a crash-course in Zen. But perhaps Marina Abramović needs to learn the lessons she’s teaching.

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