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Beyond Performance Art: Marina Abramović

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Marina Abramović  in conversation with Maria Popova tonight at 7:30pm at the Nourse Theater, San Francisco.  Jennifer Lewis, the editor of Red Light Lit,  remembers Abramovic’s world famous 512 hours exhibit in London two years earlier.

Serpentine Pavilion, London 2014, designed by Smiljan Radić.

Beyond Performance Art
By Jennifer Lewis

Around noon on Tuesday, July 24th 2014, I stood in a fifteen-person line outside the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens in London, awaiting (a free) entry to Marina Abramović’s exhibit, 512 Hours. A group of autistic adults exited the building, and their facilitator, a tall thin man with a beak-like nose and slicked-back hair asked them to huddle up and share their experience. I had no idea what to expect, so I eavesdropped. I heard the facilitator say, “Now, what did you think?” A man started bouncing around saying, “I can do that.” He leaned his face purposely into one of his group member’s face, reminding me of Abramović’s performance in Jay Z’s art film, “Picasso Baby.” The facilitator quietly tried to make him stop mocking her, but his interpretation of the Serbian artist made me smile.

Jay-Z-+-Marina-Abramovic in ‘Picasso Baby’

A few minutes later, I entered the gallery and was instructed to put my hat, sunglasses, wallet, watch, and phone into a locker. It was day 12. Between 1,000 and 1,500 people had ushered in and out of this room each day. I felt like a freshman in high school with 160 new students. I put the key in the pocket of my jeans shorts and rounded the corner, head down (with unkempt hair) and bashful, into the silent exhibit. There were a handful of people standing, facing each other, on thin wood blocks in the center of the room. Their eyes were closed, their arms akimbo. The other sixty spectators leaned on or sat against the white walls observing them. The crowd looked rather diverse and arty, almost like an old Benetton ad. I immediately felt uncomfortable, confused. I didn’t get it. Everyone else looked so enthralled. I was here to see Abramović, not these strangers. I searched for her, the celebrity, the woman who thousands of people came from all over the world to sit across from her for 716 hours in “The Artist is Present” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The woman who, in 1974’s Rhythm 0, trusted an audience with 72 objects (perfume, roses, nails, scissors, even a loaded pistol) and allowed them to do whatever they pleased with her. (The audience cut her neck, tasted her blood, cut off her clothes, and shoved a rose petals in her body.) The woman known for pushing the limitations of the body by playing with pain thresholds, publicly cutting a star into her belly with a razorblade.

Marina Abramović, performance & pain

Just then, she walked into the room, looking less glamorous than in the magazines and less intimidating than in her YouTube videos, but incredibly youthful for her 67-years. She wore her signature black pantsuit, her black hair pulled back in a low ponytail that hung down her rounded upper-back. Her skin glowed an unnatural white. She greeted the strangers like a hostess at a party. She slid her hands up and down a woman’s arm as if she warmed her up. She helped an elderly couple up and walked them around. She whispered into their ears. I couldn’t hear what she said, but I witnessed the enthusiasm in the recipients’ faces.  She seemed self-possessed, not in-your-face at all, almost standoffish. She walked around with a healthy looking man with a cane. The ease in which he spoke to her, made me think that they were intimate. He had the look of an artist to him, a tan expression-lined face, his hair also in a low ponytail and lively animated eyes. They walked out of the main room into the locker room to speak. I wondered, Was this normal? Was she breaking her self-imposed rules like the time she crossed her hand to touch her former lover, Ulay, at the MOMA? Was I witnessing something special?

Marina Abramovic – 512 Hours, performance. The Serpentine Gallery, London 2014

Without her presence, I became disinterested and I hurried into the other room only to realize it was the slow walking room. I halted in the doorway, watching the civilians pace back and forth at a snail’s speed. One stylish shoe in front of the other. I rolled my eyes. Not ready for that yet. I walked into the other room filled with cots, pillows and medical blankets: the napping quarters. I immediately thought lice, and backed into the main gallery for a second try. Abramović had helpers:  young, thin art students who were dressed in black. They held hands with people in the main gallery and led them to the wooden blocks for standing meditation.  I wondered how she found these assistants who appeared boundary-less and centered. How did they do this with a straight face? I’m guessing they were her students or volunteers from MAI Institute, she had flown them here.

As if he heard my thoughts, a young volunteer with long hair interlaced his fingers in mine. He walked me across the marble floor. I was terrified. He must have known I was not ready to go up on the wooden blocks. Instead, he locked hands with an older woman with dyed red, almost maroon hair, and turned us to face the wall like dunces. The three of us stood holding hands, our backs to the meditators on the platform.  We were the only people facing the wall.  I wondered how long was I supposed to stay here?  Was I in some sort of non-believer jail? Were people looking at my ass? I closed my eyed. I had a mediation practice. Twenty minutes a day, but it was a private thing. This seemed a little showy. Still, I was aware of the energy swirling around this young man’s hand so I focused on my breath.

A minute or two later, he released my hand and walked away; yet, it felt like he was still holding my hand, and if I wasn’t so self-conscious I would have stood there holding an invisible hand. Instead, I placed my hand in my pocket, like no big deal; but my newfound awareness was unsettling. Was I really supposed to be studying the energy around me, slowing down time, in a room circulating with people? I peeked at the older woman standing next to me, still and tranquil. She gave me courage. I lifted and spread my toes in my moccasins, finding all four corners of my feet, trying to find equal weight on my right and left foot. I closed my eyes again, feeling more and more grateful to be facing the wall. We were bookends, this woman and I. Pillars of peace. I decided I would turn around when she did. Minutes had to go by and I still felt her presence. I stayed longer. It started to get exhausted. I opened my right eye, but she was gone. Like the young man’s hand, it felt like she was there. I slowly turned around. I had to sit down. I had not to be part of the exhibit. I hadn’t drank any water or eaten any breakfast. I only had coffee. How did Abramović do this for 512 hours, when I could barely make one?

Photograph by Marco Anelli 2014

I turned my attention to the people standing on the platform. Other people sitting on the floor around them wiped away tears. There was a standoff in the center: a 20-something-goth-man in a black gown with dyed yellow and pink hair with ear expanders and a tan woman in her early-50s with blonde permed short hair. The woman’s chest convulsed in waves, as if she were receiving a stream of pounding water. The man in the gown stood stock-still, his face tight with pain. Yet they looked like a live Rubin’s vase. A woman with a high bun and black dress stood behind Zen-like. A girl in a jean skirt, pink socks and high-tops, pushed an older woman in a wheelchair to the platform. The woman’s hands curled in illness. All of them faced the center, eyes closed, all appearing as if they were receiving something. Just then, one of the handlers walked a young, curvaceous woman wearing a blue sundress onto the wood.

As I watched these people, I no longer thought they were trying too hard. Instead, I marveled at their discipline. Their ability to focus, unwavering. A small bead of sweat dripped down the man in the gown’s face. It moved from his pink and yellow striped hair, around his eyebrow and hung on his cheekbone. Was he going to just leave it there? How could he? I wouldn’t have been able to resist wiping it with my hand.  Then out of nowhere, the young woman in the sundress ever-so-slowly raised her arms to the grand ceiling and a beam of sunlight pushed its way through the stain glass windows onto her face. She stood there, her palms outstretched to the sky. Particulars of dust glittered in the beam of light. It sprinkled all over them. The young woman stayed like this: unafraid, open and free. Then she elegantly lowered her arms. A woman seated on the floor behind her, placed her hand on her heart. She looked across the gallery to her friend. Her eyes said, Did you see that? I nodded my head to this stranger. My own eyes started to water while new people were ushering in off the street. Now they looked like zoo animals. I keep my eyes on my friends on the platform. The woman in her 50’s with the permed blonde hair had arched her back so her chest arched to the ceiling, trembling.

It was intense. I needed some water. I needed to get some air. I stood up and went outside, but the bubble of awareness was still around me. The world was different. I needed to do something ordinary. I walked over one of the bridges in Hyde Park and ate a hot dog on a pretzel bun, then I walked back to the gallery, sat in the grass outside and took some notes. The woman with the high bun sat next to me, looking less Zen as she sent a flurry of text messages and lit a cigarette. I  wanted to talk to her but I chickened out and wrote some more.  It was 4pm and the line grew longer, a group of German students took up most of the cue. I got behind them and entered the gallery.

The second time around, I was a sophomore, more confident and comfortable. I knew what and where everything was. When I entered the main gallery, the students made it more playful, holding back their laughter, blushing, exchanging funny faces. They had less regrets, more joy. I suddenly did not feel like sitting. I wanted to move. You guessed it. I was ready to slow walk. This time, I gracefully entered the second room. My slow walk looked like a cross between an aging gymnast and a flamingo. Most people took off their shoes. I kept mine on and walked slow enough that my moccasins did not squeak. This took total concentration. My focus burned off all of my anxiety and I stopped thinking about all my problems that brought me to London in the first place. Being completely in my body, I felt better than I had in weeks. Moving silently was the most important task in the world, and by doing so, I released myself from my internal-suffering loop. I lightened up. I relaxed. Even laughed at myself for taking myself so seriously. What a joke! While moving in slow motion, I realized I had been transformed. Not from a caterpillar to a butterfly, but rather from spectator to performer. The new people look at us strangely. Some with wonder. Some with confusion—were they paid to do this?  Some with a little mockery—what a bunch of freaks? Just as I had done when I walked in.

I ignored them and simply stepped one foot in front of the other. When I looked up again, the 50-year-old woman with the blonde permed hair entered the room. She moved so slowly that I paced her three times. Incredible! Who was this woman? I wondered what country she was from? What language did she speak? What did she do? How did she become so evolved?

After a half-hour or so (actually I had no idea how long I was in there), I was exhausted again. Nothing sounded better than going into the nap room and lying down. Fuck the lice. A young boy walked me to a cot and tucked me in. He placed headphones on my ears and the room went silent. My body buzzed like I had just finished the most difficult yoga class in my life. Fifty adults laid in cots next to me, like an infirmly, like we were in cocoons.  I didn’t want to get up, I actually wanted to fall asleep there, have Abrovamic wake me up so I could thank her. Thank her for creating this beautiful space, but I was too energized to sleep. I wiggled my fingers and toes and stretched my arms overhead, 100% part of the performance, and I walked into the main room. I planned on leaving except my blond permed haired lady stood in the center of the room, her chest heaving. I suddenly knew what I had to do. I walked up on the platform (no handler) and closed my eyes. I felt like I was going to faint. I had to put a micro-bend in my knees for fear I would be knocked down and the video would become viral on YouTube the next day. I breathed those fears out of my head while I attempted to feel the experience of existing. And to be honest, the inability to interpret my surroundings by my perception left me so unsettled that I longed to open my eyes. It was like the Rubin’s vase. I no longer wanted to see the two profiles. I just wanted to see the damn vase.

When I left, the permed woman stayed, shaking on the platform. What a star. I wanted to clap for her, put roses at her feet. I wished her so many things. Whatever she wanted. To be healed. To win the Power Ball. To know her own greatness. When I left, I had forgotten about Abramović altogether. 512 Hours wasn’t about the artist at all. She merely created a place where humans could slow down, rest and respect each other’s space. See each other clearly, beyond the concepts of beauty, beyond our labels of identity, and even beyond judgment.


After I left the Serpentine Gallery, I walked through Kensington Gardens to Lancaster Gate hyper-aware of my steps and of the wind on my face. I looked at the people who walked past me with more kindness and patience. I suddenly felt the perfection and choreography of the taxis, the horses, the cyclists, and the foot traffic in the park.

When I returned to San Francisco and most of this awareness had already left me, I clicked on Abramović’s diary on the day that I went to the gallery. In her video she said, “It’s very dangerous to get out of the zone. If you’re always in the zone, it’s easier to handle.” I now understand how “the grandmother of performance art” built her life around being in the zone. To no avail, I have since closed my eyes and attempted to bring myself back there. In the video, she spoke about the man with the cane. The artist who I thought was her friend, but sadly, he was a stranger who informed her that he was dying of cancer. She was so impressed with how fearless he appeared in the eyes of death that she asked him to go into the locker room to talk about it.

More information about tonight’s show:

Jennifer Lewis is the editor of Red Light Lit. Her fiction has been published in in Eleven Eleven, Fourteen Hills Press, Midnight Breakfast, Transfer Magazine, and Sparkle and Blink. She received her MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State University in May 2015 and was the recipient of the Leo Litwak award for creative non-fiction in 2012 and for fiction in 2015.



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