It is quite a statement to say that art heals and it is certainly not always the case that it does. Perhaps it is only rarely and even then not due to our own volition that it does this either. However today I experienced the fact that on occasion, and when not expected, art can indeed heal.
I disembarked from the train at Victoria station in quite a mood. There were people lolloping about everywhere, a sight and experience that is a cert mid-morning in the summer at Victoria (and at almost every other time too, although the early birds tend to be swifter). Finding the gaps I did my best to stride and weave between the dragged suitcases and wheeled buggies. As I arrived at the Underground station I realised I had neither purchased a travelcard which I usually do (just a return to London) and I had, of course, left my Oyster card in my trouser pocket from yesterday. I had misplaced my travelcard the day before too and had to pay extra with my Oyster card, later finding the ticket had been used for my bookmark. This recollection added to the distress. I looked at the price of a return once I had waited out the hoards of traipsers in the queue only to note the exceptionally high price of a ticket and to then wheel about and fume off, disgraced at the cost of this nonsensical toing and froing. So I walked back out into the open and set off on foot for my studio, a walk of an hour or so north west. My mood immediately lightened once I had resigned myself to being inefficient. I would now enjoy this freedom and walk through this most gorgeous part of London on this marvellously sunny day. So through Belgravia, Knightsbridge and into Hyde Park I went, and although in more jolly spirit I was still plagued by guilt at my inefficiency and the general dread which hovers menacingly near from time to time.
As I walked through the park, from near the south east corner towards the north-west, I took my shoes off and enjoyed the feel of grass on my soles. Soon enough I happened upon the Serpentine Gallery somewhere near the centre. I noticed that the gallery was exhibiting Marina Abramovic's 512 hours. I saw a small queue and thought, “Yes, indeed I shall wait as I would very much like to see what this is” or somesuch. I had read a small, rather unilluminating, yet enticing review that had piqued my interest a few months ago. I had also seen the fantastic documentary, 'The Artist is Present', which I had caught by chance late at night and I still remember as one of an esteemed company of delightful late-night found films I have viewed over the years on television (others include Weird Science and Drugstore Cowboy but that is another topic altogether). So I joined the queue and soon I was in the gallery entrance hall.
Although sensing my mildly subversive unshod feet would be accepted (they were) I did not particularly know what to expect. However I did know it would be likely be tranquil and involve a great deal of not very much. Well, I was right and I don't want to try and write out a transcript of what happened in the four or so hours I was in there, that would be tedious for all, but I would like to try and express some of the things that were experienced and came to mind in that unique space. The experience of this artwork is not easily put into words. It was in fact primarily an energetic experience, in myself and my participation between the other gallery viewers, in my interaction with the few regular objects; chairs, camp-beds and a platform, with Marina and her assistants, and, primarily, as part of a body in itself contained in this space of three plain, white-walled rooms.
On entering for the first time I was slightly disconcerted. Immediately the visitor, on entering, is drawn to the centre of the room where, on a slightly raised platform people stood with their eyes closed. Surrounding this, and making up the contents of the rest of the room, were people either sitting on fold-out chairs surrounding the platform, some facing it, the others facing the wall, standing in available spots or slowly walking around around the space. I soon became quite comfortable but in those opening moments still I was apprehensive in some defensive, ego-led part of my being, so I furtively took a seat next to somebody on the outer edges of the room facing a blank white wall. I closed my eyes and began to feel the world of expectation drop away. I came to feel my eyelids convulsing. I had trouble keeping them closed. Later I looked at my hands. They were were blotchy and felt like I had been at high altitude, swollen and hard to clench. Sitting still was plagued with movement. In those opening minutes and in the moments upon first entering the other two rooms I felt a strong urge to rebel amongst the odd order silently structuring the many people in the gallery; don’t sit upright but sit upside down, thighs on the seat, ankles over the seat back and the top of my head on the cool stone floor. All around people sat quietly, orthodoxly, either with eyes closed or watching the happenings around, some inquisitively, others in mild astonishment, a few perhaps in self-conscious embarrassment, many seemingly in a withdrawn and subconscious attitude. But perhaps withdrawn would be a wrong word to describe it. Because although we were not interacting in the usual ways, so dominated by talking, we were still drawn to each other as part of a body of silent presence. Slowly the need to express myself as different and separate fell away. I didn't need to be different here. I felt a kinship. On the slightly raised platform in the centre of the room people still stood still with their eyes closed.
Although a silent space, of course ideas and words came and went in my mind in those few hours (there is no set time to be in there). Aches and pains made their noticeable appearances. Old foes that have been with me for years became strengthened in the silence. But although they still were in me and still relentless doing their tired old thing, the tinnitus ringing in my left ear for one, I felt an unusual strength to overcome them, that this thing that resides in my core is higher, stronger, more determined and more important. The need and desire to transcend these personal things and enter into a liminal, superior, universal and calming mode of being began to prevail as my small journey through part of the 512 hours progressed. On occasion there was a sense of connectedness with other people in the three rooms. Most obviously and noticeably this occurred in the central room, the first room in which the visitor would enter, where on the platform people stood, eyes closed, their bodies there providing the energetic focus of the body we were all a part of. And that is all that the platform people did; stand with their eyes closed. I sat on a chair in the second ring surrounding the platform with a clear view through. It was a beautiful sight and I was soon drawn to a woman whose standing stance was precisely opposite mine, our ears perpendicular you could say. I gazed intently at her calm face. She wore spectacles and purple brogues with lime-green soles. Still I gazed. She opened her eyes and we stood there locked in looking. She closed her eyes. I closed mine. After a wide moment in time and experience and an emptiness resonant with power I opened my eyes to see another fellow stood to the right. He, like so many others, appeared to my judgemental first thoughts somebody I am afraid to say I wouldn't necessarily expect to see at this kind of thing. A terribly naughty thought but one that I had nonetheless. But I soon came to feel a profound sense of belonging and I came to have some slight understanding and feeling for how it could indeed be possible for us to live by the commandment to 'love thy neighbour as thyself', something that I believe in but nonetheless been gripped by doubts about. This was a proof of its possibility, its necessity and its reality. As the hours passed I felt a kinship with others in this space and was somewhat dismayed when, on occasion, I opened my eyes to seek out a familiar face, not to see one. The silent order that reigned made some advance in the idea that it may be possible to live without the grand systems we currently live within and drive much of our lives; these systems (I know of one) that as well as constructing many marvellous things cause destruction and waste with it, as a supposedly necessary part of our growth. Instead the feeling that pervaded our body was that we were within a something more calm, present, reverent and energising. Of course the grand system helped bring us to this place and helped build the walls surrounding us but still the notion was, and is, present and real.
Later I came to the platform and stood myself. The process of standing was complex and rich in detail and experience. With eyes closed the feeling was of belonging and comfort. As always the aches and pains, the jabbings of doubt came and went but something much greater than these overcame them. Being raised up. Loosening the skeleton, muscles fading away. The tips of my fingers started a slow movement through each of my hands and my lower arms lifted ever so slightly but effortlessly upwards. In the state of utmost relaxation my arms were somewhat raised just away from my body as though they were neither held up nor dragged down by gravity. I consciously let my head hang, chin near to chest. Soon my face was lifted, eyes still closed, drawn up to the centre of the room and my weight lifted away from beneath with it. After a long and full space I slowly stepped down.
In the next room people walked very slowly indeed up and down the room. I noted that there was very much an order to this. There was no one stating the order but the order was there. Again I felt as though I should disrupt this. Maybe do some press-ups. And I was close to this. But fortunately the ego was quelled and I realised this quiet order was something to be respected. I started to also walk slowly across the room. I found it very difficult physically. My legs were very weak and wobbly and I had always prided myself in their strength. It became liberating to follow this weakness and work through it and I found that my body and mind would go through many phases. The task entailed an effort to begin again and again. Each step was a new beginning. On more than a few occasions I stumbled during this seemingly easy task.
This quote from Marina Abramovic from the exhibition book, '512 Hours', suggests the great difficulty and struggle of bringing into the world something so deceptively simple:
It took me twenty-five years to have the courage, the concentration and the knowledge to come to this. It was just a vision, the idea that there would be art without any object, solely between performer and public... I needed all of the preparation, I needed all the worlds that come before; they were leading to this point. And somehow this really becomes the test.