Guest Post By Kimberley Ng
It is always a pleasure for me to introduce you to a new wonderful contributor. I met Kimberley at the Sotheby’s Institute this summer, she is 21 and lives in London. Studies International Politics but would much rather be studying Art History. She is smart and witty, so there is not doubt you will enjoy her writing as much as I did.
Before entering the gallery, assistants standing by the door pass you a small leaflet on exhibition protocol (refer below).
No photographs are allowed, so I quickly sneak one in the locker room of the exhibition’s write-up (refer below). I sit in the locker room for some time, collecting my thoughts and emotions. My mind was abuzz with excitement; what was it going to be like, what was I supposed to think/feel/do, and most importantly, will I get to see Marina Abramović?
For the uninitiated, Abramović is the ‘grandmother of performance art’. Her artistic career spans three decades and has seen her engaged in various performances that push her physical, emotional and psychological boundaries.
Her latest work, 512 Hours, attempts to cross the divide between artist and audience. Visitors become both performers and audience members as they move around the gallery participating yet also observing other participants. The visitor also becomes an artist as each decision of where to go, what to do, how to pose changes the piece slightly. It stimulates thought about what it means to be a performance artist, what it means to be an audience and what it means to participate in an art piece.
Before entering the gallery, one is invited to put on noise cancelling headphones.
Already there is a mass of people sitting, standing, moving about inside the exhibition space. I stumble around aimlessly wondering what I am supposed to do. Do I take a seat on the numerous empty foldable wooden chairs or do I wait to receive instructions from the assistants who seem to glide through the gallery? In my moment of hesitation, I feel someone take my hand. My half-wet hands, mind you. (I just came out of the bathroom, where the hand dryers are really scary. Really scary.) Wait, is that Marina Abramović? Is Marina Abramović taking my hand?! I flail about mentally. She leads me to one of the vacated wooden platforms where some other people are standing, facing the white-washed walls of the gallery. What am I supposed to do here? Using my peripherals, I sneak a peak at the two ladies on either side of me. One has her eyes closed as if in a deep meditative state; while the other is staring at the wall. I decide to stare. My eyes trace the unevenness in the white paint, the layers that have been painted over probably for past exhibitions. After a while, the bright white of the wall hurts my eyes, I close them. Intending to calm myself down but I continue to buzz from the excitement. How do sculptures feel being stared at for hours? I think to myself. What do they think about? Wait, do sculptures even feel or think? Aren’t they inanimate objects? Am I really having this conversation with myself? Instead, I fine-tune my thoughts, is this how artists feel when they are performing? Are we all pieces of art meant to be gazed upon by the other visitors? What makes a performance art? The people next to me shuffle down from the wooden platform and new people take their place. Some of their own accord, some lead there by gallery assistants.
I find myself wondering what are in the rooms to the left and right of the main gallery space. Curious, I step off the plinth and head to the one on the left where assistants dressed in black are handing out strips of black cloth. So, one has to be blindfold in this section of the piece. I catch a glimpse of the room before putting on my blindfold. There is a couple (or a pair of strangers?) embracing in the middle while the designated photographer snaps away at them. It is a strangely poignant and beautiful scene, two people have somehow managed to find and embrace each other while blindfolded. Meanwhile, I try to ensure that while most of my vision was obscured by the thick black piece of cloth, I would still able to see people’s feet if I lowered my eyes. Then began the stumbling around. At first, I reached out my hands to feel my way but after a while, I felt self-conscious that it looked tacky not to mention, I had the fear that I was going to unknowingly feel up a stranger.
I suppose that this is part where I start to wax lyrical about how this activity is a metaphor for life, of how we stumble around blind not knowing where we are supposed to go or how to get there. But no, instead it was a strangely calming experience once I got over my self-consciousness. I wandered around the room, occasionally bumping into people, having people bump into me. I think I even faced someone’s back for about 20 seconds. Towards the end, I was comfortable enough to find a spot in the room to sit down against a wall, which may have caused someone to almost trip over me (oops). All in all, this part of the art piece seemed to have imbued more confidence in me as I walked out of the room back into the main gallery.
Back in the main gallery, I sit in one of the foldable wooden chairs, facing the wall for a while. I close my eyes and try to meditate, an experience which I have hitherto never attempted before. It fails, I get bored after a while and choose to try standing on the wooden platform in the middle of the room. Somehow it once again feels like I’m a sculpture, a piece of art that is being watched by the visitors who sit in a semi-circle of wooden chairs surrounding this platform. A gallery assistant encourages some of the participants on the platform to hold hands. I fidget a little then decide to head for the room on the right.
The room first strikes me as a sick bay, with people lying on camp beds covered in brightly coloured sheets of cloth. Most of them have their eyes closed while some are staring blankly at the ceiling, though almost all have a serene look on their faces. I spot an empty camp bed with a purple blanket (Yay!). Lying down, I study the ceiling but after a while it gets too much for me and I lapsed into a deep meditative state. (Kidding, I fall asleep. At least I think so, since there is a blank period in my memory. Alternatively, I could have been hijacked for nefarious purposes, but we’ll apply Occam’s Razor to this one.)
Upon regaining consciousness, I leave the room and try to stare at the wall back in the main gallery. But something makes me feel like this is it, I am ready to leave this space and make it back into reality (okay, it may have also been my wailing stomach that was getting louder and louder in an otherwise quiet space). With that, I leave the gallery and head out into the world, refreshed but still contemplating the meaning and intent of the performance.
P.S. :The Serpentine Gallery has a wonderful branch of Koenig Books, which has a bargain section at the back!