The elusive self

Due to some cock up with EE, I’ve had no phone this past week and so yesterday I decided to fly away on my bicycle – the kids were at school; my work could wait. It was the perfect day to go and get mindful with Marina Abromovic.

Arriving at the Serpentine Gallery http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/ (I got there at 11ish and didn’t have to queue), it took a while to take in my surroundings: a bare white room, people standing and sitting up against the wall, watching, some on chairs wearing headphones, and others on a central platform with their eyes closed.

It is quiet; no one speaks and people glide rather than walk.

There are two additional rooms: one that I coined the ‘corpse room’, where people lie flat on their backs on camp beds, headphones on, eyes closed; the other the ‘blind room’, where people walk around in blindfolds. All three rooms are flushed with daylight.

There’s a sense, as with many of Abromovic’s works of performance art, of being the participant and the audience. At first, I am the audience, and a little awkward in my movement, my body, not sure about where to put my hands – and I don’t know how to get over to the other side. Then a woman in black appears beside me, and smiles.

Hi!’ I say, with surprise and enthusiasm.

Silently, she takes my hand, lacing her fingers into mine.

She leads me to an empty bed, and walks slower than my eager trot. Lying down, I put on soundless headphones and watch as she throws the green cotton cover up into the air to let it settle. I close my eyes and hear nothing but my breathing and my heartbeat. It’s nice. I’ve just cycled nine miles from Hackney; I haven’t even had my morning coffee. I savour the time to stop and calm. I lie there for some time and hear distant movement around me, but I give myself up to the experience. I am aware that I have a bit of a tummy ache; my breathing settles; my eyes stop twitching.

Back in the central room I go in search of Marina who is not there. I’d seen her talking to a guard and wonder if she’s gone off for some lunch or a coffee or to use the loo. I wonder how she does such things. The helpers, dressed in black, drift around, holding people’s hands and guiding them to their stations, sometimes waiting with them and resting, their eyes closed, or stroking their backs, encouraging them to relax. A man, in meditation on the central platform, looks very odd with his head at an uncomfortable angle.

I am interested in what is happening in the blind room. People walk around in a kind of trance and I notice two strangers gripping hands as they pass. I feel anxious suddenly at the prospect of someone else touching me. I am a reasonably tactile person – I’m affectionate with my children, particularly, though I realise I feel differently about strangers getting too close.

The man on the central platform puts his arms above his head, still with eyes closed. He stands in this pose for some time: those who sit around him and are supposed to be in a state of mindfulness are distracted by him.

I wait for Marina to come back. I was hoping she might take my hand and make me cry. I watched a viral video of her at MoMa when she sat at a table and stared at whoever sat opposite her (see above). She doesn’t know that an ex-lover has sat down. When she opens her eyes and sees him, she cries at some memory or regret, overcome with emotion. It makes me cry every time I watch it. I’ve wondered about this. Perhaps it has something to do with the ex-lover’s Germanic looks. He reminds me of my dad and I guess a part of me, the little girl perhaps, would like to see him again (my dad is dead).

Marina doesn’t come, so I work up the courage to go into the blind room. I’m given a blindfold and told to walk around slowly and not to worry about bumping into people. Someone’s hand finds me, and leads me into the middle of the room, where it leaves me. My body feels surprisingly heavy. I stand still for a while, before shuffling off, slowly. I cheat, as there’s a sliver of light at the bottom of my blindfold, so I can see my feet and the floor’s shine. I can also see the edge of someone else’s foot if they come too close. But I feel bad for cheating so I close my eyes. I hear people shuffling nearby and far off, but the sounds blend into one, and then there’s a loud thwack as someone walks into a wall. I try to let go and walk in blindness, and feel panic rise through me and tears spring to my eyes. I cry, finally; then I feel better.

Marina is back again in the main room, but she’s meditating on one of the chairs. She stays like this for some time and I find myself inspecting my sandals, which are dirty, and my toes, which need a new coat of nail varnish. What colour shall I paint them? Blue? Pink? Green? Green can make my toes look like they have gangrene. The irritating man is still doing his yogic moves. A woman takes his hand; he flinches, then continues making strange shapes with his arms. Some people watch, some put their heads between their knees. Marina is still in a meditative state. She then rises and guides a few people to the central platform. She approaches me. I get nervous because I think – this is it; she’s going to take my hand. But she walks to the people standing next to me, opens her arms and hugs them. I look up and wonder if this work of hers extends to an even deeper level of intimacy. But she knows them. They talk a bit and then follow each other out of the room. I give up. I don’t want any one else but Marina to touch me, so I get up and go. Outside I help myself to some water and notice her talking urgently with her friends, as if there is something wrong. It makes me wonder about what she exposes herself to in this art of hers, what strange people come into her space.

As I leave the gallery, I feel a little disappointed. Perhaps because I didn’t have Marina’s attention – I think a lot of people are there to see her, which brings into question how much her ego comes into this, as does one’s own. Perhaps it’s also to do with a natural reserve. Or it’s the mother in me always thinking of the other. Or the writer, watching, liable to cynicism, wanting to capture and record, rather than just be.

I’ve recorded it now, and I want to go again. But next time I’ll try and switch off the analytic brain. What is there to fear in touch? I’ll close my eyes and leave my baggage behind.

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3 thoughts on “The elusive self

  1. You should find a way to canvass all visitors’ reactions and connect them together. That would be really interesting.

    • That would be fascinating. I overheard a couple as walking out talking about how much they admire Marina, which is what made me realize what a superstar she is. How distracting it is to have her there, when the goal is to let go of all these things. I guess it’s a fine line, and maybe visitors do need to go a couple of times in order to let go of these natural feelings of wanting to be noticed by her. Thanks for reading, dear Ghengis. x

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