Marina Abramović: 512 Hours
by Sophie O'Brien
A Resonant Emptiness
The process has always been more important than the result, the performance more important than the object. – Marina Abramović
In the state of imminence before a live performance, we wait patiently amidst the residues of the past, inhabiting this present moment of anticipation and conjuring up an imagined future. In the case of Marina Abramović’s new exhibition for the Serpentine Gallery, 512 Hours, we are here, prior to the work commencing, frozen in the moment before an important event: the realisation of a long-anticipated work, and one for which there will be no script or plan. Preparation by the artist consists of a life’s work, and included in this book are images of her well-preserved archive that maps some of this history, alongside journal extracts from her recent travel in Brazil, which was an important part of Abramović’s development of the London exhibition. Here, as in her performance work, her life and private sphere fold transparently into her artistic practice.
Abramović began working as an artist in the 1970s in Belgrade, and has spent over thirty years travelling the world, studying ancient and contemporary thinking. In this time she has developed an unsurpassed body of performance work and has explored her own physical and emotional limits uncompromisingly. Her trajectory is one that mirrors the achievements of performance art as a whole, while playing an integral role in this history. During that time, she has consciously moved towards a practice that rests between life and art, introducing an ethical dimension to her work whereby each performance, object or activity might have a use beyond the art world.
The beginning of everything is nothing. — Marina Abramović
In describing her starting point for the exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery, Abramović has proposed that ‘from nothing, something may or may not happen’. This simple statement encapsulates her desire to strip away all the elements of the exhibition (objects, furniture, lighting etc) and work directly with the audience. The public, the artist, her performance collaborator Lynsey Peisinger and the gallery team will be the material of the show, with the ‘current’ in the room — the energy generated by this encounter — the matter to which the artist will respond, be witness, and direct. Unlike all her previous performances, this work will be to some extent improvisational — a constantly changing piece that will grow and develop every day. In describing the lack of material substance in the space, Abramović refers to the Sanskrit and Tibetan explanations of emptiness, termed ‘suchness’: ‘Suchness is emptiness, but it is full emptiness. It’s a contradiction in terms, and in scientific terms it’s a vacuum. So I will be starting with this vacuum — this full emptiness — where all of the elements are present but they are not yet manifested.’ In order to create this space of encounter, visitors are required to enter in silence, and leave behind their bags, mobile phones, mp3 players, cameras and all recording devices before entering. Free from the obligations and habits of social media and documentation, visitors will also be free from the now normalised state of electronic connectedness and heightened public self-awareness that technology brings. With these basic rules, the public will be invited into a space of simplicity, a charged space where the work is yet to be created with them.
Abramović’s commitment to duration, ephemerality and human exchange and interrelationship has been inherent in her practice since the beginning. Connections between previous projects and 512 Hours are numerous — for example, in Freeing the voice, Freeing the Memory, Freeing the body (1975), the artist’s commitment to a single action that will in some way elicit transformation in the performer (or a new freedom) is evident — but several speak more strongly than others as endeavours that had to be realised in order for her to undertake this new work.
There is a clear arc of development throughout Abramović's work with regards to the audience: a turn from self-containment to complete engagement, from an aversion to looking directly at viewers to a completely mutual gaze. In Rhythm 0 (1974), the viewers were invited to use any of a selection of seventy-two objects on the artist’s body, as they desired. This submission to the public’s will reflected a different relationship to the audience — one where the threat of mob behaviour and violence was implicit, but where this was entirely intentional. A much later work, The House with the Ocean View (2002) — where Abramović built three ‘rooms’ on the walls of the gallery, and where she lived for twelve days without food — invited the audience into the private space of the artist. Here, although silent, she welcomed new visitors with her gaze, making eye contact for extended periods, and sometimes mirroring her viewers’ postures (something to which she was to return in The Artist is Present in 2010). In The Future of Performance art (2009), Abramović led a large group of visitors through a training programme to prepare them for seeing the work of younger performance artists. It was participation through instruction, with the artist guiding and explaining techniques, including mutual eye gazing. This generous gift to the younger generation of artists — not only presenting their work, but also teaching the audience how to prepare as viewers — reflects Abramović's relationship to other artists and her belief in the importance of performance as an area to be valued and recorded. For her large-scale retrospective exhibition, The Artist is Present, she performed a new piece, set against other re-performances of her work by younger artists. This entailed sitting still and silent in a chair, in a clearly demarcated space during the opening hours of the museum, inviting visitors to sit opposite her and look into her eyes for as long as they wanted.
To me, the act of opening up is so important ... and for the audience, even if I’m standing there not saying anything, it’s fine. I never believed i could manage that, but with the long duration pieces and the feeling of elevation they invoke, I can get to that stage much faster than i used to. I’m really convinced that i am now able to share this experience with a younger generation. — Marina Abramović
Abramović, perhaps more than other artists working with the body and self as material in this way, has committed within her practice to changing our relationship to time. Previous works centred on endurance of difficult physical actions (screaming until she lost her voice, lying within the centre of a fire, ingesting anti-psychotic drugs, whipping her body until she no longer had sensation). From this point, there has been a steady movement towards duration as a focus. Although still rooted in the practice of endurance — Abramović prepares rigorously for her performances , which require stamina, physical strength and fitness — later works are as much about making time, about creating a conscious awareness and about responding to the audience. Mapping time with silence, repetition and inconsistent actions, Abramović pushes to create ‘black holes’, where the audience can experience the depth of time. This shared experience charges the space with psychological and emotional complexities, an energy that is constantly shifting shape and dynamics. In 512 Hours, Abramović will encourage us to give up everything extraneous to ourselves so that we might have recourse to the body as human instrument and the space of a few hours to experience as limitless time.
(My work) is not only about the artist. i want to address the public ... without moving, motionless, controlling our own breathing
and observing this, you experience something completely different. Your mind will start to work in a really different way. — Marina Abramović
The ‘disappearance’ of the work of art in the post-Abstract Expressionist art of the 1960s and the Conceptual art of the 1970s led to artists functioning more as intermediaries than creators, and transforming the relationship with the spectator, who was invited to intervene in the process in an unprecedented way. Body art, which for Abramović was the starting point of her practice, called for a grasping of the moment—existence in all its physicality and pathos—and a bringing of the individual into a renewed relationship to him or herself and to others. Throughout her practice, Abramović has never viewed spectatorship as passive, instead inviting audiences to participate in the making of the work — but also, importantly, increasingly acknowledging them as collaborators, and as interpreters or translators of the work, who might make use of the work in new ways for themselves.
The public become like an electric field around me. and then communication is possible because they can project onto me like a mirror, I hope... The thing is that the space has to be charged differently so you lose this concept of time and it is really now, here and now, just here and now. There is no beginning and no end. There is no end interrupting the image, so the image continues in your head after you leave. Since you don’t see a beginning or an end it’s as if the image goes on forever, as if it expresses something that goes on forever. — Marina Abramović
The ‘image’ to which Abramović refers rests at the core of each of her projects; she states that she cannot start a project without a single strong vision in mind. It is often this image that becomes the central core of a work — in this context, it might be described as a meditation object or visualisation, one that centres the work for the artist and becomes the point of departure for the audience.
You can start with any object and create an energy field around it again and again through ritual... because repetition of the same thing over and over again generates enormous power. Old cultures know this, that’s why they base their entire ritual structure on repetition. — Marina Abramović
It is really hard not to follow Abramović's methods and principles, because they are very simple and very truthful in terms of creating performance art. I would like to explore more into the idea of interaction between the performer and the audience, altering the conventional passive audience participation and really have the them engage in the live performance. I would like to look into ritualistic, symbolic and repetitive elements as well.
Abramović has travelled widely, and is deeply influenced by many traditional cultural forms of knowledge, most particularly Tibetan Buddhism and shamanic wisdom from disparate traditions. The influence of this travel and research is evident in her work; the concepts of her performances often rest at the division between art and life. McEvilley claims that her practice is radically advanced in its rejection of modernism and Eurocentrism, yet very primitive in its association of art with religion. Further, he notes that her unusual sense of the role of the artist is tied to this paradox, and parallels roles in religious settings. Within this context, it is notable that she was one of the few female contemporary artists included in Magiciens de la Terre (Paris, 1989), an exhibition that aimed to counteract ethnocentric practices and includes 100 artists from around the world. This exhibition brought together the work of the artist and the spiritual leader, both of whom perform rituals for themselves and on behalf of others, laying bare what lies within.
Abramović has developed a particular way of working with ideas of ritual and the objects that ritual uses through ceremony and repetition — and again, the development from early work to more recent projects is striking. For a re-presentation in 1998 at the Museum of Contemporary art in Los Angeles of the objects originally used in Rhythm 0 (including a gun, a bullet, blue paint, a comb, a whip and lipstick), the artist obtained a number of similar objects, claiming that the originals were not artworks, since they were things that anyone could buy. Similarly, at the Serpentine Gallery Abramović will have to hand a series of props for use in specific exercises designed to attune or re-attune creative energies; they are, however, standard objects that will remain stored until needed, obsolete until the audience activates them with the guidance of the artist. They are tools for a transformative experience rather than objects of intrinsic value, rendered useless without the presence of the individual.
In 1960, the Brazilian artist Lygia Clark wrote of ‘emptiness-fullness’, noting that a form only has meaning because of its close link with its inner space. The idea that the form of objects — and indeed our bodies, the containers of our own selves — might only have meaning due to their relationship with an internal empty space has a strong link to Abramović’s work. The implicit confrontation with oneself — both for the artist and for the participating audience — is something that the artist embraces wholeheartedly, and has done from the earliest times. Cutting out all things that are superfluous — from objects in the room to psychological or emotional states — she develops a practice where the only actions are those relevant to the work, so that clarity and transparency are maintained. The props (water, rice, paper, blindfolds), which may or may not be used, are called upon to unite the inside with the outside, to access what Suely Rolnik calls the ‘resonant body’.
The public has to take a much more interactive position, has to become more of an experimenter and, together with the artist, has to develop the illumination of the state of mind, where objects would no longer be necessary between the artist and the public, and the transmission of pure energy and a kind of wellbeing were the only things necessary. — Marina Abramović
In Unanswered Questions, her foreword for a book on theatre and the body, Marina Abramović asks the following questions:
How should the performer prepare for the performance?
What is the performance body?
Are the photographs taken of the performance a work of art themselves or just documentation?
What happens to a performance if something unpredictable takes place?
Can performance elevate the spirit of the performer and the audience?
What about time?
What about repetition?
Abramović has a complex relationship to theatre and theatricality. At first glance, theatre is anathema to performance, which often deliberately eschews the trappings of theatre, and the basic premise of the audience as the ‘fourth wall’. However, it is important to remember the significance of narrative and storytelling to the artist, as well as her recent work with Robert Wilson on The Life and Death of Marina abramović (2012). She played herself in this work, continuing a line of autobiographical undertakings that have appeared throughout her practice. This sense of ‘playing oneself’ — which cannot fail to be a part of 512 Hours given Abramović’s prominence and fame — is counterbalanced by a serious endeavour: that of finding a new radicality within the sphere of performance in general.
In 1968, Peter Brook documented in The Empty Stage the process that he and his actors adopted in order to find a new language of the theatre—one that could directly lead from Artaud, Brecht and Gratowski.
Slowly we worked towards different wordless languages: we took an event, a fragment of experience and made exercises that turned them into forms that could be shared. We encouraged the actors to see themselves not only as improvisers, lending themselves blindly to their inner impulses, but as artists responsible for searching and selecting amongst form, so that a gesture of a cry becomes like an object that he discovers and even remoulds. We experimented with and came to reject the traditional language of masks and make-ups as no longer appropriate. We experimented with silence. We set out to discover the relations between silence and duration: we needed an audience so that we could set a silent actor in front of them to see the varying lengths of attention he could command. Then we experimented with ritual in the sense of repetitive patterns, seeing how it is possible to present more meaning, more swiftly than by a logical unfolding of events. our aim for each experiment, good or bad, successful or disastrous, was the same: can the invisible be made visible through the performer’s presence?
In this excerpt, Brook could be describing the practice of Abramović, both in terms of her overall aims, and in terms of this moment of making 512 Hours. Early performance, particularly body art, drew directly on Artaud’s desire to suspend time and eradicate the split between observer and observed, removing discursive language, narration and character from the work. However, Abramović takes these elements and adds to them a return to the ‘essence’ of performance with the primacy of the body, and in later projects (as in Seven Easy Pieces) even embraces the spectacle that was rejected in her early works. These operations of the body in space still resonate as original and minimal, and not of the theatre.
As something that exists apart from theatre, then, performance can be seen as putting ideas into play — both in the sense of the meeting of ideas, and in the sense of a space for experiment and exploration. Abramović’s practice, continually rethinking and reforming the nature of the live act, keeps the questions of performance, theatre and audience very much alive.
You never know how the experiment will turn out. it can be great, it can be really bad, but failure is so important, because it involves a learning process and it enables you to get to a new level and to other ways of seeing your work. — Marina Abramović
Remaining open to this sense of ‘the work in play’ is a continual challenge, not only in terms of the physical impact of remaining steadfastly within a difficult endurance practice, but also in terms of retaining a freshness, and a willingness to take on new contexts and developments.
When i do a new piece, the freshness is important: first time for me and first time for the audience. and with this comes unpredictability: anything can happen. and, in this way, when Ii am performing a piece, anything that happens in that moment is part of the piece. You have to be open to accept it, and that has always been so nerve racking because you never know how things can go. — Marina Abramović
(When we are in-between), this is where our mind is the most open. We are alert, sensitive, and destiny can happen. We do not have any barriers and we are vulnerable. Vulnerability is important. it means we are completely alive and that is an extremely important space. This is for me the space from which my work generates. — Marina Abramović
The potential of failure inherent in Abramović’s work functions to sharpen her physical and psychological presence in performance. Performance artists are experienced by the audience as a thing in a permanent state of becoming; like an initiate in a ritual, they are suspended in an in-between or liminal state during the work itself. Furthermore, beyond the immediacy of the work, Abramović occupies a complex state: she is between artist, celebrity and individual; between performance art, theatre and exhibition; between endurance work (solo) and offering herself as a guide to other states (shared); between immateriality and the daily stuff of life; between her body and the audience; between structure and improvisation. Abramović has a strong desire for freedom and intensity, but also inhabits fragility and the potentiality of failure. In 512 Hours, she takes this network of relationships and tensions, and transforms it through the body (both her own, our individual bodies, and the collective) into something larger and unspoken.
We will enter the space of Marina Abramović ’s performance of 512 Hours without knowing what we will find. She is inviting us to follow her, to come as we are, to trust her and to commit to the particular time and space we are in. This improvised durational work will not merely be an act of communication; it will be an act of compulsion.
Be quiet, still and solitary. The world will roll in ecstasy at your feet. — Marina Abramović