ICE and I went to the Serpentine yesterday to check out Marina Abramovic’s 512 Hours. After surrendering all our belongings, most especially recording devices and watches, we were asked to wear noise cancelling headphones and enter the gallery that was dominated by a low stage in the center, on which were standing about a dozen visitors, with their eyes closed, and several pairs were holding hands. In another gallery, people were walking slowly and in patterns, and some were seated, facing the wall on which were hung squares of solid color that they were staring at. And in the third gallery, about a dozen camp beds with different colored coverlets were arranged, and people were serenely lying in them with their eyes closed. At the other end were 8 desks at which visitors were engrossed in counting, arranging, sorting and moving grains of rice and small lentils. Marina appeared at one point, her strong aquiline features and long dark hair pulled back in a severe pony tail, and she approached a visitor with a gentle gaze and an embrace, reached for his hand and proceeded to walk with him slowly across the room with eyes closed. Then she took another visitor and with the same sort of loving gaze, led her to the stage where she joined the other closed-eyed standers. ICE and I wandered around, wondering who were the actor/facilitators and who were the visitors, and after awhile we got comfortable enough to consider ourselves part of the work. Feeling slightly blasphemous in our concern for practicalities, we whispered a game plan to each other for an exit since the car was parked for only an hour and we had no watches to gauge the time.

We wondered what signaled to the facilitators a visitor’s willingness to participate. Should one adopt an expression of curiosity? Of scepticism? Or eagerness? When she was least expecting it, ICE was approached to stand on the stage, and I became comfortable enough to seize the opportunity to climb into an empty bed and have a little rest. We agreed that the participation was important to the work, because it forced us to go inside ourselves rather than merely observe. Awareness of my breathing, the weight of my body against the firm horizontal of the cot, even of my heartbeat echoing through the headphones contributed to a meditative suspension of ordinary life. It was fascinating to see how people evolved over the period of their visits, ourselves included. We could tell who were the recent arrivals, and who had been there awhile, and I became aware of the different types of energy people emitted. There was a palpable sense of safety, openness and non judgment. Even the recent arrivals, whose discomfort or embarrassment at not knowing what was going on, quickly adapted to the general atmosphere of acceptance.

What did slightly trouble me was the feeling of being lulled into something, almost like being under a spell imposed by the will and spirit of the artist. While I admire the atmosphere of acceptance, I’m wary about the exclusion of judgment. Perhaps that’s exactly Abramovic’s strength, is in getting us to question the shifting roles of judgment and acceptance. 512 Hours is a refuge and a laboratory for surrendering to being human.

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