Seeing Marina Abramovic’s “512 Hours” at Serpentine Galleries
A Long Durational Work Chronicle
I hate being quiet, always have. Despite protestations from friends, family and various lovers through the years, I am uncomfortable with silence, and tend not to sit in it for too long. Yoga has always proved difficult, meditation unthinkable. My performance practice, perhaps accordingly, has featured 25 hours of talking about my Facebook friends ("Purge"), 40 hours of dancing to classic movie musicals ("Hold My Hand and We’re Halfway There"), and weeks of speaking to strangers about how they value their time ("Carpe Minuta Prima"). In many ways, I make this work because I am a firm believer in the power and potential of words and fast movements, and the transformative possibilities that exist within the cacophony of everyday sounds, technology, media, and memories.
But I also make this work because I hate silence. In the past, I’ve associated silence with the boredom of cancer and with the silencing of voices I’ve seen excluded from political, social, and ethical conversations. When I used to work as a smoothie-maker at a bourgeois fitness club and sauna in Chicago, I also associated silence with the thing that was sought after by high-end marketing managers, bankers and lawyers. This was a silence that seemed exclusive to a privileged few. This is all to say, I’ve always been suspicious of silence.
In the past, I’ve associated silence with the boredom of cancer and with the silencing of voices I’ve seen excluded from political, social, and ethical conversations [ ... ] I've always been suspicious of silence.
Even before we entered the Serpentine Gallery, I was nervous about the silence that I would encounter inside "512 Hours." I had cycled into central London with an artist friend whose floor I had slept on after a particularly late night of drinking, and we had laughed and talked the entire journey. I felt particularly cynical about silence and already knew I would be angry if someone shushed me or stifled my (particularly gunfire-like) laughter in the name of Art. We packed our possessions into lockers and an invigilator shushed another patron. My head whipped around automatically in order to defend the patron’s honor, even though, if I’m completely honest, he was acting like an asshole.
The performance space was already filled with about 100 people engaged in actions such as slow-motion walking, staring at a wall, or walking backwards with the help of a hand mirror. None of the actions were complicated, and were entered into by fellow audience members with various levels of commitment; it seemed quite clear that some had come for the austere silence of a gallery or durational work, while others had come to poke at the edges and test the limits of such an energy. I still didn’t know where I stood on this spectrum.
It seemed quite clear that some had come for the austere silence of a gallery or durational work, while others had come to poke at the edges and test the limits of such an energy. I still didn’t know where I stood on this spectrum.
But like the good spectator and artist I try to be, I gave it my all, and when a young woman, perhaps an audience member, or perhaps an invigilator, grabbed my hand and walked me to where people were crossing the room in slow-motion, I took a deep breath, and began to walk. Slowly. Silently. Within moments, I was screaming inside — "THIS IS NOT SOMETHING I DO! I DON’T LIKE THIS! WHY CAN’T WE TALK?!? TALK TO ME!!! TALK TO ME!!!" I have no doubt she knew this was my energy, as she must have felt my blood screaming, but she stayed focused on the task at hand, walking with aplomb and intention. My snippets of song or puns couldn’t save me, as nothing else was on this short menu of performance – we were crossing the gallery at a snail’s pace and we were only two-fifths of the way across the room. At the halfway mark, I planted my feet together in an attempt to say “I am done walking across the room” but found myself pulled — physically and perhaps emotionally — and continued the rest of the way. In the end, I (unceremoniously and I hope not ungenerously) lowered my hands and smiled at my walking partner as if to thank her for the opportunity which felt like it lasted all afternoon. In reality, perhaps about eight to ten minutes had passed.
Relieved that I had participated, and ‘done well’ at the experience, I walked into the other room where I sat on the floor and watched as Marina Abramovic herself was sitting people down onto chairs, whispering instructions into their ears. She spoke with economy, not lingering too long with an individual instruction, but it seemed as though they were readily understood and enacted with sincerity. Abramovic’s body in the space felt perfectly and purposefully unspectacular. Instead of being confronted with the much-lauded performance artist in a way which I had expected, she seemed like another body in the crowd. She facilitated the action, without a doubt, but she did so not from on high, and not in a way which felt forced or hierarchical.
Abramovic’s body in the space felt perfectly and purposefully unspectacular. Instead of being confronted with the much-lauded performance artist in a way which I had expected, she seemed like another body in the crowd. She facilitated the action, without a doubt, but she did so not from on high, and not in a way which felt forced or hierarchical.
I didn’t know if it would be a more awesome experience to ‘get picked’ for an interaction with Abramovic, or if my artistic fandom would be confident enough to consider the experience full without her touch, or the sound of her voice in my ear. I didn’t get to dwell on this debate for too long because suddenly she was there, standing next to me, fingers interlocking, and guiding me to the slow-motion walking room. The thrill of the touch from this artist I admire was instantly tempered by my fear of slow-motion walking, and of the silence and slowness which I had endured just 15 minutes prior.
But we walked — slowly, silently and purposefully. My feet moved slowly but my mind raced: how do I do this right when walking with Marina Abramovic? Could she tell just from glancing at me that I struggle with silence or slowness? Is it that obvious? How can I prove that I’m doing this right? Was the previous hand-holding a test? And if so, did I pass? Is my hand pressure too tight? Not tight enough? Are my hands sweaty? Do I smell like I had a big night of drinking? What is she thinking about? Does she wish she was holding hands with someone else? Why didn’t I think about these questions when I was with someone whose name I didn’t know?
Would she tell just from glancing at me that I struggle with silence or slowness? Is it that obvious? How can I prove that I’m doing this right? Was the previous hand-holding a test? And if so, did I pass? Is my hand pressure too tight? Not tight enough?
At the midway point, I expected that Abramovic might put her feet together as if to say “I am done walking across the room” but there was no such stopping. I was shocked by her concentration, by her willingness to spend so long completing this minute task, and simultaneously aware that this is what she does and is doing for the entire piece — completing one focused task at a time, with an audience who are (more than likely) not used to single-tasking, or at least not publicly. We just walked forward together slowly in a way which seemed to combine our two speeds — I seemed to extend my leg farther but she seemed to take more time putting her toes down.
We approached a threesome of audience members walking slowly in front of us, and were encroaching quickly when Abramovic put her free hand on my forearm. “We must wait”, she said simply. And we did. We just stood there and allowed the group to get further ahead of us so that we didn’t clash, and then began walking again. We must wait. It was this short phrase that opened something unexpected inside me, something that had flown in under what I thought was an impervious radar. We. Must. Wait. As we approached the wall, Abramovic instructed me to consider the wall, which I did. I gave a small squeeze to her hand — she is a legend after all — and took in the wall. We. Must. Wait. It was a white door, unadorned and unspectacular. We. Must. Wait. I just held hands with Marina Abramovic, whose work I teach to my students. We. Must. Wait. Why don’t I take time for myself? We. Must. Wait. Why am I so afraid of silence? We. Must. Wait. What is the rush? Professionally? Personally? We. Must. Wait. What am I doing here? We. Must. Wait.
We. Must. Wait. Why don’t I take time for myself? We. Must. Wait. Why am I so afraid of silence? We. Must. Wait. What is the rush? Professionally? Personally? We. Must. Wait. What am I doing here? We. Must. Wait.
What felt like an hour of meditation was assuredly no more than a minute of quietly staring a wall — and it was broken by some whispering audience members, who I wish had been shushed by an invigilator. Regardless of the length of my meditation, Abramovic and the system she created with an audience, succeeded in not only silencing this un-silence-able person, but more importantly, made me realise what I might be missing by not acknowledging silence in my own life. I know that everyone will have their own experience, their own likes and dislikes and barriers to accessing the work, but for me, this acknowledgement of silence, slowness and single-tasking was profound and deeply moving. But if “512 Hours” had just gotten me to shut up for a minute, well, in itself that’s a fantastic artistic achievement.