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It’s tough to fault an art show in which you are the art

Author Chris Wright Illustration Peter Oumanski

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LONDON – The opening of “512 Hours” at London’s Serpentine Gallery has caused quite a stir here, with a line of excitable art fans stretching around the block. “Look!” says one young woman, pointing to an ambulance pulling up nearby. “Is that part of the show?”

It’s not an absurd question, as the performance artist she’s waiting to see is Marina Abramović, who, at the age of 67, is queen bee of the avant-garde, a source of inspiration for Lady Gaga. This is, after all, the same artist who once presented audience members with the opportunity to point a loaded gun at her head.

Inside, however, the gallery is silent, the expressions solemn. Attendees will later describe it as a meditative, even spiritual experience, but it’s too awkward to be that. The idea is that Abramović and her assistants move among the assembled audience in an otherwise barren space, delivering instructions into random ears—face the wall, lie down, sit—so that we, the viewers, become the art. You can see people grappling with the etiquette: Is it OK to stare? Maybe, if the person has become part of the show. But how do you know who’s part of the show and who’s not? Beats me.

Meanwhile, every time Abramović passes you by, you feel a little wounded, like a wallflower at a high school disco. “Me!” your eyes say as she ghosts around the room. “Me!”

And then, finally, it happens. The artist takes my hand, guides me to a wooden folding chair and tells me to sit. I stay there for 15 minutes or so, wondering whether I’m experiencing a work of art or others are experiencing me.

After the show, I put this question to an older man who’d occupied a chair not far from my own. “I don’t know,” he says. “But it felt good to sit down.”

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