If art is the new religion, we were always going to end up here. With high priests, acolytes and ‘energy’. That’s the set up at the Serpentine Gallery at the moment, us as the potential believers queuing around the block ready to be received, and Marina Abramović as the high priestess armed with nothing (literally nothing) but her presence. It could be Rome, Jerusalem or Gold Base. It could be the 20th, 8th or 1st centuries. We’re in a world of belief – perhaps make-believe.
I was Abramović-ed last week. Rationalist cynic that I am, I thought I wouldn’t be able to take it. But I did. I felt compelled to really. It seemed churlish not to at least try to engage in it. To not do so would be cutting off my nose to spite my face. If there’s something to gain from an experience, why not suspend disbelief? Why not give someone with integrity the benefit of the doubt? 512 Hours seemed honest enough to be worth my while. And it was.
The religious overtones are immediate. Like encountering a gnostic variant of a recognised cult, the ritual is both familiar and odd: people line up facing walls, others wrap arms around each other, some hold hands, there are zombies, lemmings, a queen bee. There are even ablutions: a locker room where you divest yourself of electronic devices. The perambulation – the constant churn of beings moving from one room to the next – is familiar and odd, too, as is the adoration of the sacred one. What was less familiar – but still odder – was the lack of paraphernalia, the lack of concrete pleading beyond the out-stretched hand.
That hand (Marina’s hand – I’d have felt shortchanged to get an assistant’s) came for me. And though in most other contexts I would have recoiled, I succumbed. I fluffed my first test, gave her the wrong hand. She wanted my right. The walk to the wall wasn’t much better. The third test is to understand what she wants from you. There’s nothing to do except look at the wall. Could I look around? Would she let me look at her? I didn’t dare.
The lack of accoutrements, of anything beyond the body of the artist and her assistants, focuses the mind, accentuates the detail, makes you aware, mindful, thoughtful. Critical, too: what an enormous nose she has, I thought. What a bloated face – the depth of two faces. And look at that siren’s smile.
With the focus on you and her, you find yourself going through every permutation of relationship that you could possibly go through with a woman. Like a hormonal teenager you’re at first desperate to find her. You’re here for her, after all. You follow those following her. You see her. Her arm is around another. You convince yourself you don’t want to be picked. Jealousy bubbles up when others are picked. How do I get picked? You sulk. You sneer. She catches your eye. She holds out her hand. Your heart begins to beat faster. Early on there’s fumbling. You try to walk in step. She puts her arm around you. Her body presses against you. She whispers into your ear: ‘Please stay a while’. From boy and girl, to boyfriend and girlfriend, to mother and son, to grandmother (babushka really) to grandson: it’s all here, in the space of a few minutes.
Some have been less appreciative. ‘The empress is splendidly arrayed,’ wrote one friend on Facebook. Sure, if you choose not to believe, it’s quite easy to come to that conclusion. But if 512 Hours is a con, so is all religion. And I’d much rather be swindled by Marina than anyone else.