Being Human

Ann Jones visits two very different art installations currently showing in central London and finds both provide space to think.

Marina Abramovic
Marina Abramović

Some artists I like, some I don’t. Sometimes it’s all about the work, sometimes it’s not. Frankly, sometimes it’s sheer bloody prejudice on my part; I get put off by something – by super-slick presentation perhaps, or by something the artist says or does – and it becomes very difficult to give the work a fair chance. Likewise, if an artist is filed under ‘good people’ in my head, I’ll approach new work expecting to like it and go out of my way to give it a chance. I suppose having favourites is basically just human nature.

Marina Abramović is good people in my book. In the main that’s down to work I know by reputation – and, crucially, documentation – rather than by having seen it at the time. Even by the standards of 1970s performance art, Abramović seems to be a force of nature; furthermore, the endurance of each individual work is now matched by the endurance of her career in performance. I’ve heard Abramović speak a couple of times now and though she comes across as completely sure of herself and of the importance of her own work she also comes across as likeable and as far less scary than I would ever have expected. All of which means that when I heard she was going to be at the Serpentine Gallery for 512 Hours this summer, I was intrigued but also a little apprehensive. What if the work couldn’t live up to my expectations? What if I had to queue so long to get in that nothing could ever live up to my expectations? And, hearing Abramović interviewed on Front Row, it sounded like nothing was exactly what we were going to get. Abramović is the material of her own work; here the audience – and its energy – also becomes art material. I was now both more intrigued and more apprehensive. It wasn’t concern over whether Abramović could pull off the feat of making her presence in an empty gallery into art that worried me; I just had a vague notion that the show in some way demanded to be approached with a sense of reverence. Arguably Abramović has crossed a line somewhere along the way and gone from performance artist to cult leader. I deliberately avoided reading reviews of the show but also put off visiting it myself, in part through lack of time and in part through assuming there would be a long queue, but in no small measure to delay the moment of not liking it. In the event, the queue was quite short and I was feeling well-disposed to just go with the flow and join the cult of Marina for an afternoon. In no time at all I was at the door getting my hand stamped and preparing to enter the gallery.

The Mark Of Marina
The Mark Of Marina

There is something very liberating about stashing one’s bag and phone in a locker before going into a gallery. I don’t mean dropping your coat and backpack off at the cloakroom and walking in with your phone in one pocket and your wallet in the other the way you might at, say, Tate Modern or the Hayward Gallery – though I do always feel energised just by taking the chance to offload my heavy bag to someone else’s safekeeping – I mean locking it all away. No phone. No laptop. No camera. No watch. No way to access the outside world (other than, you know, walking back out into it, pausing to collect your stuff on the way). So, having left my stuff in a locker I feel unencumbered by clutter and, for the first time really, a little bit excited about seeing Marina. I am given a pair of noise-cancelling headphones on my way into the gallery.

I go in. In the centre of the space, Marina Abramović stands on a low square platform with about ten other people. She is simply dressed in a white shirt worn loose over black trousers. She is holding the hand of the man to her right. Everyone on the platform has their eyes closed. On three sides, two rows of folding wooden chairs face the platform; a third row of chairs faces the wall. On the fourth side there is a wider aisle and another long low platform on which more people stand, some holding hands with the person next to them. Some face the wall. It’s an odd scene. Newcomers like me watch intently, not quite sure what’s expected of us. Every now and again, one of what I assume to be Abramović’s team of assistants approaches a member of audience, leads them to a chair and sits them down or stands with them on one of the platforms. A gesture telling the audience member to close their eyes is unfailingly obeyed. When anyone walks around the space, they do so very slowly – like zombies – consciously trying to maintain the silence in the space though everyone is wearing their noise-cancelling headphones. It’s a very odd experience. I sit down facing the wall and stare at it for a while. I close my eyes. I wander around, surveying the scene from different vantage points. I am led to one of the platforms and stand, eyes closed, hand in hand with an assistant for a time; how long, I couldn’t say. Abramović’s stint on the platform when I first arrived was a long one and finished with her leading the man whose hand she’d been holding off the platform and, after a brief whispered conversation, seating him closed-eyed in a chair. She led others around the space, stood them on platforms or sat them down often consolidating them in their new position with a had on the back; she sat for a long time with her eyes closed and, though she left the space for a time, was very present.

One of the side galleries contains two rows of camp beds each occupied by an audience member with their eyes closed. When beds are free, Abramović leads people to them and tucks them up. At the entrance to the other side gallery, assistants hand out blindfolds. In this space people move even more slowly, deprived of both sight and hearing. It’s disconcerting even though peeping out from under my blindfold I can just make out people’s feet. I stand in the middle of the space for a time, eyes closed behind my blindfold.

In many ways I find myself not wanting to like 512 Hours. There’s a sense of reverence that I find offputting and there’s a sense of occasion that comes in part from having to queue – albeit not for long – and from getting date-stamped at the door, which adds a feeling of being branded; initiated into the cult of Marina. But, despite all that, and despite the fact that I’ve essentially spent a couple of hours watching people sit and stand with their eyes closed, sitting and standing with my own eyes closed, watching people walking like zombies, walking like a zombie myself and staring at a blank wall, there is something I find genuinely interesting about the experience. Ultimately what Abramović has created is perhaps a kind of retreat, a space to think about nothing, or perhaps to question why we are so seldom still and so rarely off-grid. Obviously I can stare at the wall in the privacy of my own home or studio; if I say so myself, I do excel at doing nothing.

My studio wall
My studio wall

Whether my fascination with the work is down to my enjoyment of people watching or to giving myself up to the work and the opportunity to take time out and do nothing or to the energy of Marina Abramović I have no clear idea. I suspect it was a combination of many factors and though I had no clear sense of time while I was in there and in the main didn’t notice others leaving I stayed a lot longer than I’d expected to. Though there’s a calmness about the whole thing there’s also a seriousness to it and level of intensity that makes me wonder how Abramović can sustain this for eight hours a day, six days a week for the whole summer; if nothing else, the woman’s got stamina. At one point, having noticed I’ve been there a long time, Abramović comes over and embraces me; having removed our headphones, we have a whispered conversation. She asks me what I do and what I think of the work; she describes it as about “being human” and says that it’s we, the audience, who are the work. At the end, she asks me my name and, somewhat unnecessarily, tells me hers.

Ultimately, I think it’s the sense of reverence that now surrounds Abramović that made me put off visiting 512 Hours for so long and think that despite admiring her work, I might well find the experience annoying. I’m more than slightly resistant to the idea of reverence when it comes to art. Or, more accurately, there are few things as likely to irritate me as the way in which some artists seem to be revered and the way galleries sometimes seem to expect and encourage it. Which brings me to Bill Viola.

I have an uneasy relationship with Bill Viola. Or, more accurately, with his work. He might be a very likeable man for all I know, but mostly I just can’t quite get on with his work. We got off to a good start, Bill and I. He made big, all-encompassing video projections and I stood in front of them awed by their scale and power. Sometimes I even sat on the floor to watch them and I don’t do that for just anyone (I am easily put off by the inevitable pins and needles and anyway the floor just isn’t very comfy; to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have stayed with Marina for as long if she hadn’t provided chairs). I’m not sure when it started to go wrong or what the problem was – the arrival of plasma screens, possibly – but somewhere along the line I started to get irritated by the slickness of it all.

I first pitched a piece about Bill Viola to MostlyFilm last summer when his Frustrated Actions and Futile Gestures show was on at Blain Southern – undoubtedly one of London’s slickest gallery spaces, but in a good way, which further extended the slickness for Bill Viola by installing one series in a basement room not normally used as an exhibition space – but in the end I just couldn’t get worked up enough about it all to get the piece written. ‘Artist I often don’t much like but sometimes love has show at the gallery that represents him; I sort of like the show but am a bit annoyed by it anyway’ isn’t much of an article really so it seemed better to keep my Viola rant private. But Bill’s back. This time it’s for good, and reverence is definitely called for.

Martyrs (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water), his four-screen installation unveiled at St Paul’s Cathedral in May, which will be joined next year by a second work, Mary, is the first moving image work to be installed in a British church on a long-term basis (the works have been gifted to Tate and are on loan to St Paul’s). Though it is possible to just visit the Viola work, I chose to visit the cathedral to see the work in its full context. As the title suggests, Viola’s martyrs are battling, or perhaps offering themselves up to, the elements each on their own portrait-format screen. In a way, it’s the combination of the title Martyrs and the context of the cathedral that lends the work the feeling of religious art though the imagery at times reinforces this; though the figure is hanging upside down by his ankles, Water quite directly references crucifixion. My knowledge of Christian martyrs is minimal (indeed, I had to check the spelling of crucifixion) though I suspect being buried alive and fire may well be in there somewhere as causes of death; effectively, though, the martyrs here are facing nature in the form of the elements.

Water
Water

For all my doubts about Bill Viola, the work is extraordinary. Each martyr – isolated from the world, alone in the rectangle of their screen – faces torture by one of the elements. By the end, the once buried man is standing free, the wind, fire and water have died away; the martyrs subjected to a wind and water remain suspended, through both have reached a state of calm if not of actual comfort. Ultimately though, the work seems to be about being human in the face of the power of the elements: in my reading at least, it’s stoicism rather than faith that’s seen the martyrs through their trials and in battling nature, there is a universality to their predicament. Interviewed by the Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Bill Viola says “everyone here has something that they need to resolve, something that they really need to understand better; and I think that’s the main essence right here … this is a human thing and we’re bringing it down to the human level”.

For all that though – and this comes back to my issue with Viola – I find myself distracted by the slickness of the piece. The installation is every bit as perfect as I would have expected. It sits within the space beautifully. I also find myself wondering quite how it’s done. In the cases of Wind and Water, I assume strength and determination prevail; for Earth this is coupled with running the video backwards and slowing it down. But I’m still not quite sure how you have fire raining down on – okay, all around – an actor while he just sits there impassively, not only not getting burned but seemingly not even breaking into a sweat.

Fire
Fire

Wandering off into the rest of the cathedral I find myself thinking about the parallels with Marina Abramović at the Serpentine. Both spaces expect quiet from visitors and, though cameras and bulky bags abound in the cathedral, both ban photography (though this does appear to be widely ignored by visitors to St Paul’s).

St Paul’s has more comfortable chairs and, though no one takes me by the hand and leads me to one, I sit for a while mulling over the work I’ve just seen. No one asks me to close my eyes; I do it anyway and am struck by the unsilence (rustling, shuffling, loud shoes on a stone floor, the choir and the cries of small children). This is where I need the noise cancelling headphones, not the Serpentine, where children are banned and no one speaks and where I’m pretty sure anyone with noisy shoes would feel compelled to stand perfectly still before creeping away as stealthily as possible.

On the hour, visitors to St Paul’s are asked to spend a couple of minutes being quiet, perhaps sitting in prayer or contemplation; the quiet never comes though as the request is immediately followed by one to recite the Lord’s Prayer in a language of your own choosing. The church could learn a thing or two both about manipulating visitors’ behavior and about silence from Marina Abramović.

In the end, though I found both works engaging and though both gave me pause for thought, neither really does much more than scratch the surface of interesting territory. My experiences of the two works were enjoyable rather than profound; I left happy but without any greater understanding of the human condition or of my own place in the world than I’d started with.

Marina Abramović: 512 Hours is at the Serpentine Gallery until 25 August 2014. A video diary ­– Marina at Midnight – is uploaded each night.

Bill Viola’s Martyrs (Earth, Wind, Fire, Water) is at St Paul’s Cathedral for the foreseeable future. Free short viewings of the work are available on weekdays; Art Fund and Tate members receive a 50% discount on admission to the cathedral during 2014.

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About Ann Jones

London-based artist and educator who somehow seldom gets time to actually make any work, who writes about art, somewhat irregularly, at ImageObjectText.com and occasionally contributes to MostlyFilm.com – writing about art, mostly.

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