Marina Abramovic Opens at Serpentine Gallery in London
LONDON — “You look suspicious,” Marina Abramovic said to an older couple standing to the side of a room in the Serpentine Gallery here on Thursday. The couple looked, well, suspicious, as around them people contemplated panels of bright primary colors, or lay on the floor, eyes closed. Ms. Abramovic took them by the hand, gently asked them to close their eyes, and led them away, walking with a slow, measured tread.
It was Day 2 of “512 Hours,” Ms. Abramovic’s first new work since her 2010 retrospective, “The Artist Is Present,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, transformed her from a pioneering performance artist to a celebrity. There, she sat motionless, six days a week, seven hours a day, looking straight at whoever sat down opposite her. This time there is no chair. “There is just me,” she said. “And the public. It is insane what I try to do.”
The idea of “512 Hours,” named for the length of time Ms. Abramovic will spend in the gallery over the duration of the exhibition (running through Aug. 25), is both simple and radical. There is nothing in the Serpentine galleries except lockers, where visitors can put their bags and electronic devices. Ms. Abramovic, as well as an assistant, Lynsey Peisinger, and several museum guards are there. What will happen in the space no one quite knows. “I honestly don’t know; I don’t have a plan,” she said in an interview at the house she is sharing with her assistants during the London show. “That is the point. The idea is that the public are my material, and I am theirs. I will open the gallery myself in the morning and close it at 6 p.m. with my key. I want to understand how I can be in the present moment, be with the public.” On Wednesday, hundreds of people lined up outside to enter the gallery, although on Thursday there was no wait.
Ms. Abramovic, who has long black hair and almost spookily unlined creamy skin at 67, was born in Belgrade, in what was then Yugoslavia, to parents who had been partisan heroes during World War II. She started her performance career in Belgrade, but has lived most of her adult life elsewhere and speaks a throaty, lightly accented English. Even before the MoMA show made her a star, she was widely known in the art world as a pioneer in her field who had not just created performances of physical intensity — carving a star into her stomach with a razor, lying on a block of ice for hours, screaming until her voice gave out — but had also re-enacted the grueling performance pieces of other artists.
She said that she had been invited to the Serpentine, the small museum in the middle of Kensington Gardens that is mostly dedicated to experimental work, almost 17 years ago. (“Everything takes forever in my life,” she declared dramatically.)
When she and the gallery’s co-curators, Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans Ulrich Obrist, finally fixed a date, she thought she might show little-known early works, or sound pieces. “Then one night, in the middle of the night,” she said, “I woke up thinking: ‘This is wrong. I must do something really radical, there is no time to lose.’ I had this vision of an empty gallery — nothing there.”
But there has been much ado about the word “nothing.” Two weeks ago, The Guardian newspaper reported that a number of American art historians and curators had written to Mr. Obrist, accusing Ms. Abramovic and the gallery of failing to acknowledge the work of Mary Ellen Carroll, a New York-based conceptual artist. Ms. Carroll said in an email that she had been working on a project called “Nothing” since 1984, describing it as “an engagement with the public” without documentation. Ms. Carroll did not respond directly to the question of how Ms. Abramovic’s piece is imitative of her own. But she wrote: “There is a historical tradition/protocol for artists, curators and historians to acknowledge historical precedents. When they are similar, one would say it is necessary.”
Mr. Obrist, in a telephone interview, said that Ms. Carroll was one of numerous artists before Ms. Abramovic who had explored the relationship between art and nothingness.
“There are many people — John Cage, Yves Klein, Gustav Metzger, Yoko Ono, Joseph Beuys — who have worked with this idea, including Mary Ellen Carroll. Of course we take that seriously.” (Mr. Obrist did not mention Jerry Seinfeld.)
“From my point of view, it’s difficult for anyone to claim nothing,” Ms. Abramovic said dryly. “I think it’s a misunderstanding anyway. It’s not that I’m doing nothing — quite the opposite. It’s just that there is nothing except people in the space. But now we are getting letters every day from people who did nothing first. It seems to have become something.”
After “The Artist Is Present,” which drew more than a half-million visitors, Ms. Abramovic said she found it difficult to move on to another performance work. “I set up such a high bar I think everyone was thinking that was it and now I’d do my institute,” she said, referring to the Marina Abramovic Institute, a center for long-durational work in Hudson, N.Y., that she hopes will bring together figures from the worlds of art, science and spirituality. “And it is true that it was so incredibly complete I had to figure out how to get out of that. The solution was simple: To take away even the few things I had there — the chair, the structure of sitting and looking.”
The controversy generated by “512 Hours,” the first performance work that Ms. Abramovic has presented in a British gallery, is nothing new for this artist, who has been criticized for appearing to relish the fame that has accompanied her success: Lady Gaga has come to her for instruction and Time magazine put her on this year’s list of its 100 most influential people.
“I have moved from an art structure to a larger one,” Ms. Abramovic said. “‘This is not a public who usually go to museums; they are super young, and I become for them some kind of example of things they want to know. I think there is an enormous need to be in contact with the artist. It is a huge responsibility, there are huge expectations. It does not make my ego bigger, it gives me more to do.”
In the gallery she gave a small mirror to a visitor and told her to walk backward, using the mirror as a guide. “Reality is behind you,” she whispered.
© New York Times 2014