The sparse meditative ritual of Marina Abramovic‘s 512 Hours

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10,000 hours put in, they say, makes you a master. 10,000 hours of cello practice, 10,000 hours of sushi making, or 10,000 hours of art.

Consciously or not, the title for Marina Abramović’s latest durational, immersive performance piece at the Serpentine alludes to this concept. 512 Hours is, according to the press bumf, the defining performance of Abramović’s career to date; the culmination of what must be at least 10,000 hours’ practice; time spent refining her performance, bringing her to a point of (what shouldn’t be termed as ease, but for ease) ease with her audience who here become props, foil and collaborator.

Abramović’s five-decade career has seen her performances mellow – physical intensity pared down, emotional intensity amped up. With early work comparable to the macho stunts of Chris Burden (he who was shot, crawled over broken glass, was crucified on a car, blah, blah, blah) her line of inquiry gradually refocused. As Senior Curator of the Serpentine Sophie O’Brien puts it in her foreword to the exhibition catalogue, Abramović has “turn[ed] from self containment to complete engagement.”

In terms of audience engagement, this work segues nicely from her last major durational performance, where for three months she occupied a table where the public were invited to sit, one by one, and sustain eye- contact with her for an indeterminate period of time. In 512 Hours the directness of the performance is diffused across 160-odd members of the public who simultaneously occupy the space, through her assistants, and performance collaborator Lynsey Peisinger. These usher the audience around, sometimes like nurses, exam invigilators, alternative therapists or shepherds.

Our experience of it went thus: a 15 minute wait (if you want to dodge those queues get down there in the early afternoon on a weekday), a slightly awkward glass of water in the locker room from Ewan McGregor flick The Island, and then immersion.

That day (it changes), the main room seemed like an exam hall; a grid of tables laid out, with a gallery assistant prowling the edges. On each table a pile of dry basmati rice, a pile of black beans, a pencil and a piece of paper. The tables were occupied with people engaging in tasks so Sisyphean it was almost unbearably anxious. To the right of this exam room, was a ward. Camp beds were filled with people, tucked in, noise-excluding headphones on. These people were being tended to by Abramović herself, their expressions ranging from tranquil to haunted. This room, too, was jarring. All arranged the public seemed to be undergoing some sort of psychic nursing, treatment for an illness they didn’t know they had.

The third room seemed to go a stage further than the camp-bed ward. If that was A&E, this was recovery; members of the public convalesced on chairs before the windows facing a view of drawn blinds, ears for the most part covered, eyes largely shut. Around the place, gallery assistants, Abramović and Peisinger led audience members to and fro, like children, by the hand.

Not every member of the public was participating, mind. Many were there politely, observing, waiting to be assigned a duty. Walking around, taking this in as an exhibition seemed a bit off – it felt frowned upon, or facetious. The artist seemed to have co-opted the entrenched gallery conventions for her own purposes; the hush that pervades the white cube seemed to become the hush that accompanies a religious service. Clearly, what is taking place in 512 Hours is a ritual, of sorts; but one divorced totally from the tradition of [a] church. This is a secular service, but the congregation are no less spiritual for that. The perceived quality of the art, also, seems to depend on one’s predisposition to like it, in the same way as communion is only more than symbolism if it’s already been decided to be.

And so it comes, in a way, back to the 10,000 hours; Marina Abramović has clearly been up to something for the last 40-odd years. The time put into her practice does translate, but not necessarily into more than the weight of authority. In this exhibition she becomes, as fully as any artist has, shaman, priest, sufi. The net effect depends on propensity for belief, or trust. Counting grains of rice is not something worth bothering with, yet the audience does because she tells them to. Whether it feels like a kind of brainwashing, psychic self-murder, or an opportunity to transcend the everyday through repetitive action hinges on a commitment to participation, and an internal decision made; do you find this sort of thing poignant, spiritual and emancipating, or a bit creepy? Engaging fully means relinquishing, for the duration of your visit, agency as an audience. To view the show, for there to be a show to view, requires deference to and respect for the artist as something other than artist. To accept Abramović as the kind of guide she’s trying to be is not for everyone. The reward, potentially, is a moment of stillness, meditation, peace. A real, Rothko style, ‘art-experience’.

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