I spent a portion of my Sunday afternoon in the Serpentine Gallery, participating in Marina Abramović’s unique work, 512 Hours. To a certain degree, I knew what to expect; queue outside for a while, leave your belongings and wristwatch in a locker, put on a set of soundproofing headphones and enter the gallery space. I also anticipated what I would probably feel; contemplation, mindfulness, peace, self-awareness. I had researched the work of Abramović and MAI in detail fairly recently and wrote an article for an online journal about the impact of their work engaging contemporary audiences with performance art. This research involved following the progress of 512 Hours via Abramović’s daily video diaries and the blog feed of visitor “chronicles”. Many of the visitor’s comments mention feelings of “calm”, “silence”, “therapy”, “peacefulness”. Abramović wearily talks at midnight at the end of each day about the work happening organically, naturally, and the shifting role of the public from observer to participant.
Because of this knowledge, I felt as though my expectations were especially high. I entered the space with a hyper awareness of what was happening to me and around me. Although I could not have predicted the exercises that were taking place that day (slow walking and being put to bed), as soon as one of Abramović’s associates who was dressed head to toe in black reached his hand out to me, I thought “here we go”. At first it felt like I was going through the motions. I was overthinking the experience: “now I should be feeling [like this]”. I found it impossible to fully let go and release the preconceived idea I had formed in my head. It was only when I left the gallery space and reflected on the experience as I whole that I realised it had made me feel something different, something I could not have predicted. Because I was so concerned with the concept of self-awareness and personal mindfulness, I hadn’t for a moment considered how the work makes you reflect on your relationship with other people. Ultimately, the work for me was about the collective audience. In the process of walking slowly across a room, even if I was deep in my own thoughts, I still had to encounter a person walking towards me in my path and consider how we would navigate around each other. As I entered the main room, I glanced and stared at other people and thought about what they were doing, what it must feel like for them to be sitting on the floor or standing with their eyes closed. Even when I had my eyes shut, lying on one of the beds, I was wondering what other people were thinking about. Has the woman next to me fallen asleep, what would happen if someone started snoring and so on.
Even though you are forbidden from communicating with one another in the gallery space, one of the most important aspects of 512 Hours, I felt, was sharing. From writing down and submitting your own “chronicle” of the work to existing in a space with other people doing the same exercise as you, with no influence from the outside world, every part of the work comes back to the collective experience. We had all taken some time out of day to be there. We had all committed to handing over our possessions and our own initiative to be fully immersed in the work. And that is quite a powerful image. It is interesting that Abramović talks about this in particular in her video dairy from day 39, the day that I attended. She quotes a girl who told her how in awe she was of “the sheer beauty of people standing together, motionless, peaceful, in a perfect balance of energy, harmony and symmetry.” Abramović goes on to describe the feeling of somebody passing by you. The feeling of being able to sense the movement and waves of energy from other people, even with your eyes closed. “All day it was like this”, she says, and I guess I felt it.