How I became a convert to the cult of Marina Abramović
'The grandmother of performance art' had people openly weeping at New York's MoMA. Zoe Williams spent a whole day in her presence at her long-anticipated London show. Did she break down?
Saturday 14 June 2014 08.00 BST
obert is a 46-year-old psychiatrist and Elisa is 28, and from Italy, and they both arrived outside the Serpentine gallery at around quarter to six on Wednesday morning. They were waiting for the opening of the Marina Abramović exhibition – Elisa had seen her three times already: on London's Southbank, in Milan and in Madrid. "I think she expresses something that was already inside of us but that we couldn't express." At last year's retrospective at MoMA, The Artist is Present, Abramović sat in a chair; people came and sat opposite her. Many were openly weeping during it. Lars, 36, a fine artist who is joint first in the queue, having arrived at 4.30am, explained: "In that show, she was just a mirror, as if you were facing yourself. That's why so many people got so sad and started crying. Because they couldn't actually face themselves."
Robert saw someone cry this morning as the artist walked past the queue. "I'll be keeping all my inhibitions intact," he said. "But what if you have a profound emotional reaction?" I asked. "I won't. I know that already." Why a man would get up in the middle of the night in order definitely not to have an emotional reaction, I do not know. He may have been treading that British tightrope between wanting to abide by a law (Hyde Park is closed at night) and wanting to be first in a queue.
"The British are sarcastic. They make fun of everything." Marina Abramović, in advance of her show in the Serpentine, was quite calm and open about her anxieties. "You just arrive in the gallery, are you not surprised there is absolutely nothing here? There is no work. This gallery has never been that empty. What do you think? I never made anything so radical as this," she said in an interview onNewsnight. At the summit of a four-decade career of peerless illustriousness – people have started calling her the "grandmother of performance art" - she arrives in London with her most immaterial show ever.
Just by coincidence, this week has seen a national conversation about "British values", whether they exist, and whether they can, according to education secretary Michael Gove's wishes, be taught in schools. It's asinine, and everybody knows it: the qualities we'd be proud to claim are those that every nation cherishes; when anything is demonstrably, exclusively British, it's almost certainly something to be ashamed of.
And yet I do think there are British traits, characteristics relating to immersion, not race, hovering underneath the jokes about queuing, somewhere on this territory of sarcasm. It's not making fun of everything, or it's not only that – rather, a tendency to be pre-emptively embarrassed, followed by anger at whoever is around who doesn't seem afflicted by this hypothetical shame, which comes out in sarcasm. (I do not think it either necessary or desirable to teach this in schools.) Everything I read, hear and see about Abramović brings out some Englishness in me. Every question in my mind is related to social awkwardness rather than art. The artist stands in a gallery. There is nothing around her. We, the audience, experience it as art simply by being around her. But how will I know when she wants me to leave? What if she can tell from across a room how much it would make me uncomfortable if she held my hand? They're like cats, performance artists: they can tell when you don't like them.
You wouldn't say this was the most challenging show of Abramović's career: in 1997, her piece Balkan Baroque featured more than 1,000 cow bones, complete with blood and flesh, the artist sitting atop this death assemblage, scrubbing. In 1974, she performed Rhythm 0, with herself as the object, and a table of 72 things – a thorn, a gun, a rose – to use on her. She remembers it for the aggression it generated in the people who came: one of them stuck rose thorns in her stomach, another held the gun to her head. And she posits, furthermore, that when you challenge an audience in some important way, some of them will react as violently to you as they would if you'd punched them.
So, 512 hours, which is the name of her current programme, may not throw down the gauntlet in that way, but naturally it is an affront of a different sort, a challenge to the people who think art ought to be, or do, or mean something, people whose number is considerable. Others think she's too rock star, too much of a glamour puss, to be an authentic artist. She has inspired an episode of Sex and the City, and taught Lady Gaga a technique to give up smoking (it involved counting grains of rice). "I love fashion," she said to Emma Brockes in this newspaper. "Who says if you have red lipstick and nail polish you're not a good artist?" I only remember it because my mother actually did tell me when I was a kid that women who wore red lipstick and red nail varnish wanted to look as though they'd just eaten someone. Others accuse her of plagiarising Mary Ellen Carroll, the US performance artist who has apparently made the creation of art about nothing her life's work.
These accusations, which distil down to a lack of substance on the one hand and a lack of originality on the other, simply won't stick. They misrepresent the history of performance art, how central Abramović is to it, what copying means and doesn't mean: in 2005, she remade Vito Acconci's 1972Seedbed at the Guggenheim, and masturbated under the floor that people were walking on, claiming afterwards to have had nine orgasms. "A copy is never just a copy," said Elisa.
Dylan Stone, a 47-year-old lecturer in art and film and storyboarding, was in the queue with his sister, Alexandra, and a student, Rory. Dylan says: "Her work for the last 20 years has been about coming from a country, Serbia, that's been trampled on and raped. The horror of rape, the horror of having your community destroyed, the horror of any love you had having been ruined." Alexandra is a film producer, and says: "Her stuff is just so intense. She's very present." The trauma of Serbia's history is matched by her personal story, living with a mother so controlling that Abramović didn't go out after 10pm until she was 29 years old. "In one performance," Elisa told me, "she wanted to dress up in the way her mum always wanted her to dress. And then put a bullet in her head. She said, 'This performance can have two endings' [she would either survive, or she wouldn't]. Obviously no gallery would allow her to do it."
The terms Abramović uses of her work are utter presence, meditation, a kind of channelled shamanism to engulf the whole room.
Along with Lars, some art students are at the very front, minutes away from going in. Daniel, 22, is studying fine art in Camberwell. He seems anxious. "I do feel anxious most of the time," he admits, "but not particularly now." "It's like jumping in to an ocean," Lars adds, "and you don't know whether it's going to be warm or cold. It's that kind of anxiety. But you just have to jump in."
Inside, I am mainly struck by what a religious experience it is; I am as sure as I've ever been of anything that this would have been what it was like in the earliest days of Christian mysticism. One charismatic, 20 or 30 devoted disciples; maybe 100 people who are ready, respectfully silent, waiting to be convinced; a few sceptics, there on purpose to ruin things; some people who are perhaps there by accident.
Abramović moves through the room. She takes people by the hand, one by one, leads them somewhere in the room, directs them to stand against the wall, whispers something, leaves. The crowd watches. There are three spaces in the gallery, and as she moves from one to another, nobody is quite sure whether they're allowed to follow. One person decides it's OK; then the whole lot moves. A woman in red lipstick is taking people by the hand, acting as a kind of freelance deputy artist. "Did she actually ask you to do that?" my inner voice asks, angrily. Immediately I'm angry with myself, for being so rulebound. Then the freelancer approaches a stranger, trying to hold her hand, and is rejected; her hand-holdee doesn't want to pass up the chance to be stood against a wall by the artist herself. The moment had everything I hate in human intercourse. A misplaced boldness, pretentiousness, rejection, humiliation, haughtiness, hierarchy, a horrible, exquisite social awkwardness, I was squirming. I spent the rest of the hour just trying to avoid the freelancer, so I didn't even notice when Abramović took my hand. She likes to do it in a particular way – an interlocking clasp, rather than a passive, childlike hold; I gathered this by observing, very closely, how she did it with other people, so I didn't get caught out. It was a bit like being in an aerobics class. She walked me across the floor, her step urgently slow, like a heartbeat. I tried and failed to match her impossible pace, while she held my hand, and my shoes clipclopped like a policeman with a limp. "Close your eyes," she whispered. "Listen to the silence. Be in the present. Nothing matters." Then she said a fifth thing that I didn't hear, because I was thinking "of course things matter. You can't just stop things mattering by saying they don't matter." "Stay as long as you like," she continued. So anyway, there I was, against a wall, with my eyes closed. Thinking, I'm still not a disciple. But nor am I here just to be sceptical. Think of me as one of the passers-by of early Christianity, neither for nor against it, just happening to be in the area. I wouldn't say I remained detached.
Even faces whose openness is maybe a tiny bit contrived are bizarrely transparent. Although the naked, expressive emotions of the MoMA crowd perhaps won't be replicated here, it did strike me, looking around, that a lot of young people are quite anxious, and a lot of old people are quite sad.
Then I caught sight of Alexandra, beaming enormously; initially I thought it was at a wall, and she was having a transcendent experience. Then I realised that she was smiling at her brother. "Isn't it amazing?" she mouthed. It was like a pure snapshot of siblinghood, the first solidarity, the delight of sharing, the assumption of being understood. How ironic, I thought, as a tear streaked down my face and hit my collarbone. I only came to take the piss out of the crying people, and I'm the only one crying.