Marina Abramović review – ‘Who knows what might happen?’
“Close your eyes and think of the void,” Marina Abramović announces. “The void is also a cinema screen.” There are 160 of us here, along with a small number of the artist’s assistants, who stand facing the wall. The queue outside is lengthening. The galleries are empty, save for a low MDF stage in the middle of the space. Picking a handful of visitors from the crowd, Abramović leads them gently on to the stage and has them stand, eyes closed, arms to their sides, zombified.
She picks more of us, one by one, and leads us to other parts of the gallery, to stand in pockets of isolation. The artist takes my hand, and off we go. In a workshop she once held at the Manchester international festival, she had dozens of us, all in white coats, doing breathing exercises, walking backwards, slowly progressing up and down. I was hopeless at it. “But now we are touching,” she whispers. Her hand is firm. Will I ever wash it again?
There’s only so much standing still like this I can take. I have a sudden image of Martin Kippenberger’s life-sized sculpture Martin, Into the Corner, You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself. The air conditioning hums. I hear footsteps and the distant glug of the water cooler in the South Gallery, where we have deposited all our possessions in lockers. Up against a window, the sun through the blind warms my face. The child psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott thought the screen we project our dreams on to was the mother’s breast. I think of Marina.
There is a feeling of communal attentiveness in the room. It’s a bit like a prayer meeting. Ever the defiant atheist, I seek eye contact with fellow unbelievers, but there aren’t any. I’m waiting for Mistress Marina, the relaxation-class dominatrix, to give me a good telling off. Later, she takes my hand again. “Breathe slowly. Just be in the present. It’s a good feeling.” Not: “See you round the back later, you naughty boy.” But who knows what might happen if you hang around for long enough.
It is good to walk among and between everyone else here. It is like wandering on stage in a play, with no notion of the plot, no place in the drama. Maybe that’s it. Strangely, time flies by. I’m here for almost two hours. How are things going to unfold over the 512 hours of this work? Will there be interruptions, games, breakdowns? What about the Abramović stalkers? Will those who arrive at 10 every morning stay all day? What about the queue? That’s a kind of performance, too.
Walking with the artist, I have a fantasy that she’s Pina Bausch, and we’re slowly crossing the deck of a listing ship. Like the great German choreographer, Abramović knows how to slow things down and make you attend to every step. Presence, pretty much, is what her work is about. Mostly her presence.
Are we audience or participants, agents or objects? For decades, Abramović has made startling and unforgettable performances, both alone and with her former partner, Ulay. Nowadays, her work is aboutbeing Marina Abramović, a kind of media star, an elusive fiction who has even starred in an opera about her own life and death.
You can’t judge the first two hours; Abramović is making something, but who knows what. I like the indeterminacy, and that I don’t know what has happened since I left. I shall be returning with updates over the duration of the work, if work it is, as it unfolds.