” I will be like a conductor in the exhibition space, but it will be the public who will take the physical and emotional journey. We constantly like to be entertained, to get things from outside. We never take time to get in touch with ourselves… our inner self. My function in this new kind of performance situation is to show you, through the Abramovic Method, what you can do for yourself. I wanted to make this big change because I understood that actually you can’t get any experience by me doing it for you… So I’m completely shifting the paradigm, changing the rules.”
– Marina Abramović
It was a cold Sunday in Sydney, when we joined the queues lined up outside the large, warehouse pier, to be ‘conducted’ by Abramović’s new work. In partnership with Kaldor Public Art Project, Marina Abramović: In Residence’ represents the latest development in the artist’s four-decade-long career, an innovative new experience at the forefront of international art.
After attending to some very strict instructions on how to enter the space we were advised to set a meeting place with our friends/partner, “because you’ll probably be separated”. Slightly disconcerting. We were then asked to put our belongings in a locker (even watches,bracelets and mobile phones), There was no ‘turn your phone off ‘ here- it was total confiscation. We were sternly told the exhibition space was a one way street, ”you go in and then out-there is no going back in” said an amazonian woman who put her body in front of me as I tried to casually meander into the space. This was clearly serious business.
We were shepherded into a small space to do warm up activities that included stretching our ears and applying hot hand pressures to our noses which was fine as it was very cold. After the exercises we were given noise cancelling headphones and gestured to enter the space. The regimented start to the process was unsettling, and moving into this space where there were no sounds or signs to tell us what to do created a decidedly alien feel.
Inside there were lots of people, lots of slow movement, some people looking certain of themselves, most looking lost, awkward or startled. There was clearly a group of workers in the exhibition , ready to guide you without words, in uniform black.
A woman slow space-walked up to me and took my hand. I let her lead me through the people, stunned and silent, to sit me in a seat that faced another exactly like it. She dissapeared and then space-walked back with another person, sat this one in front of me and gestured that we should look at each other ,before slow motioning off. The seated woman and I looked at each other, gestured, smirked, rolled our eyes, hunched our shoulders and looked everywhere but at each other. A few seconds later she stood up, waved goodbye and was off. I think we failed that one.
I wasn’t sure what to do next so stood up and space-walked my way around ( by then I figured the space-walk was the thing to do) .I noticed that my eyes were large trying to read the visual information around me to make sense of what to do next. I edged past my partner , sitting in a chair staring at a blue piece of cardboard. He looked content.
Another woman took my hand and led me ,achingly slowly ,to a place where everyone was just walking along an undesignated path,slowly, really slowly. For the first five minutes I was overwhelmed with questions : How long do I hold this woman’s hand? Do my steps have to match hers? Am I walking too fast? Am I not fast enough? Do we walk in sync or out of sync? Do I have to walk this slowly the whole way?
Eventually my chattering monkey brain slowed and I began to pay attention to my steps: lift my foot, place it on the floor. What part touched first? What part touched last? I felt the shift in my hips as I moved the weight from one foot to the other. I became so attentive to every small action that I began to wobble and felt as though I actually could not stand or step anymore. I lost my balance on something I do subconsciously hundreds of times a day. I told myself to get a grip, to look up and then started to move in more of a flow with the other waves of movement around me. The eventual silence was wonderful, the slow methodical movement hypnotic. I realised how little attention I pay to my body as it goes about its workings, and how peaceful and fulfilling it is in that space.
As my hypnotic walk ended, I moved across to a large group of people standing together on a platform with their eyes closed. I noted that I had now developed confidence in this space, I knew how to read the space and what to do next. I stepped onto the platform and joined the others. We were all so close, in each other space, so close but so calm and tranquil. I enjoyed the peace of this community and noted the irony of the peace with which we can share space in this context, yet if we were just a few metres away to the outside area, the social mores revert.
The final stage in my Abramović experience was to sit at a desk with a sign that said ‘separate and count’, next to a small-ish pile of rice and lentils. A piece of paper and a pencil lay alongside. The idea again was to slow down ,concentrate and contemplate, and while I earnestly started my task of separating the white rice from the black lentils, the size of the task became obviously much more significant than I first thought, there were loads of rice and lentils. And so I began to work out ways to make the process quicker.
I tried using the end of the pencil to push through the rice and lentils ,to see if they separated more quickly than with the freezing and numb tip of my finger. I then tried rubbed my hands together to create friction to lift the lentils ( I know). No luck so far ,so I then tried rolling my hand across the top of the pile and shaking it slightly to see if this helped, as the lentils sat higher than the rice and were easier to separate. Finally, frustrated, I tried rolling all of the rice and lentils onto my paper and then agitated the paper slightly , to see if it could separate them out by weight. At that point I realised that there were no shortcuts, and no clever tricks or mysteries to speed the process, I just had to sit still and separate the rice from the lentils with my hands, and then count them.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t make it to the end of the pile, but as I stood up ,I felt guilt, and shared this with the organic coffee guy upstairs as I left the exhibition and ordered my warming cup. “Why so competitive?,” he asked, “Not sure,” I replied.
So, granted, I’m probably not the best student for Abramović’s experiments ,but in those few moments when I could stop my moronically wired brain chatterings, the sensation was tranquil and comfortable. Now I know what to expect, I kind of wish I’d gone back again, but with Abramović’s Sydney residency over, I will just have to wait ’til the next one.
Kaldor Art Project http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/projects/marina-abramovic
Marina Abramovic http://kaldorartprojects.org.au/projects/marina-abramovic