Marina Abramovic: 512 Hours, The Serpentine Gallery, London until August 25
Vogue Ukraine’s August issue is their “Art number”, with a cover and inside story on/by Marina Abramovic. It features a bloody cow’s head, a gas mask, Marina on crutches, and model Crystal Renn covered in fake entrails. At least I think they’re fake.
Marina had a serious agenda (naturally) when agreeing to be involved in the project. She says in the interview, ‘I’ve been following the events in Ukraine and realised I couldn’t do just another fashion shoot. It would be inadequate. Ukraine needs to purify and cure itself. We decided to use some Communist symbols to show that it was Communism that brought us to this hell’.
It’s a pretty amazing piece of work – and scared the heck out of some of our senior colleagues at Condé Nast, who suggested ways to water it down. However, enough of us championed it, and it survives, intact, 14 pages of blood, gore, and fashion. I got the Editor in Chief Masha Tsukhanova to write a behind-the-scenes piece for CNI Now, and ran it, at length, with all the pictures and layouts, as the website’s lead story yesterday morning.
And then I woke up and got a message from Yaroslav, the Art Director, about the Malaysia Airlines plane that was shot down over Ukraine on Thursday evening.
Cut to Friday afternoon.
It was HOT: 31º with a cloudless blue sky. As I set off to walk across Hyde Park from Marble Arch to the Serpentine Gallery, it felt like heading out across the desert or going on a pilgrimage. If one were to read far too much into an afternoon stroll (which, of course, I do), the combination of the beautiful wilderness, the killer heat, and the backdrop of events in Ukraine, felt quite Medieval, and entirely appropriate for a visit to the Godmother of Performance Art.
Happily the queue outside the Serpentine was very short, and moved fast. Inside, you are instructed to leave all your stuff in lockers – no selfies with the artist – and put on noise-cancelling headphones, and then in you go.
The main room has a small raised platform, with chairs arranged neatly around it. People were hovering around the walls, sitting on the chairs, and standing on the platform. Some held hands. It took a few moments to identify Marina, who was sitting towards the back, eyes closed (first reactions: she’s shorter than I expected. And wearing a lot of panstick makeup. Hair looks great.)
It was entirely unclear what to do – which, clearly, is the point. The work is about “Nothing”, and you participate however you wish (within the parameters of the artist’s instructions and gallery’s rules.) I wandered around for a bit, then sat down and, being me, had a little weep about Ukraine. Art does that to me. Art and war and being overtired.
In one room, people were lying on camp beds, looking eerily like injured victims in a field hospital.
In another, people were walking around, slowly, back and forth. Marina went in after a bit, took someone by the hand, and led a new perambulation.
The thing about modern art galleries is that looking at the people who visit them is often at least as much fun as looking at the exhibits. Especially in a city like London, in a gallery like the Serpentine, where the crowd is mostly young and hipsterish. At one point Marina, holding hands with a beautiful barefoot girl with a huge afro and cutoff shorts, was slowly passing an equally beautiful pale and partially-sighted girl, in knee-socks with a white stick, and the shallow among us thought, that’s so PRETTY. Whatever about the conceptualism, the human vignettes are aesthetically pleasing.
After about 20 minutes, my own self-consciousness made me scoot off. I don’t mind crying in public in an art gallery, but my palms were drenched with sweat, and the idea of Marina taking me by the hand made me cringe. Also, she has this thing of making some people take off their headphones so she can whisper in their ear. As my hearing loss makes it impossible for me to hear whispers, the embarrassment factor, should Marina decide to say something to me, would just have been too much.
So I scrammed, by way of the bookshop to buy photography books in the sale, to the Pavilion, for a glass of wine.