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512 Hours with Marina Abramovic, the Serbian goddess of the Serpentine

It seemed we had picked a good time to visit performance artist Marina Abramovic’s 512 Hours at The Serpentine Gallery in London.

It was a bright sunny day, in the early morning and the crowds were sparse. We had been anticipating long and winding queues.

Not today. We went straight in. To what exactly? We weren’t sure.

“Abramovic’s only materials will be herself, the audience and a selection of props that she may or may not use. On arrival, visitors will both literally and metaphorically leave their baggage behind in order to enter the exhibition: bags, jackets, electronic equipment, watches and cameras may not accompany them.” — 512 Hours blurb

Abramovic’s blockbuster exhibition (excuse the clichéd expression, but it’s true) in New York City, The Artist is Present (2010) explored similar themes.

Abramovic, remaining still for many hours a day, invited the show’s visitors to sit opposite her and stare deeply into her eyes, in what was supposed to be a unique and meaningful human interaction.

I’ve only seen video footage of the event, but, by all accounts, it was a successful performance piece, one that people genuinely responded to.

And it produced a significant cultural moment:

Can 512 Hours recreate this emotional resonance?

On a Spring day in London I go to find out.

The only thing I know is that I will be asked to put away my mobile phone and other electronic devices before I enter the space, and that Abramovic will be moving around inside. A direct physical encounter with her is possible.

This is what everyone is here for. For an interaction, however brief, with an incandescent artist whose gravitational force has pulled in people from all over London.

This becomes obvious in the first 10 minutes. In the locker room, preceding the gallery, where we are asked to store our electronic equipment, we see her immediately, engrossed in conversation with someone — presumably a gallery official. She seems serious and a little agitated. No one directly acknowledges her, busying themselves with a concentrated effort at not doing so.

Done talking, she sweeps out of the room. The thin layer of insouciance that had misted the scene before evaporates immediately.

Every head turns at the departure. A dizzied silence ensues.

We pour into the gallery, after her.

Others are there already. In various unusual poses: eyes closed, facing the bare, white walls; walking ponderously, like sloths, as they are led by the hand of one of the gallery assistants; some are peering around watchfully. You know immediately who they are looking for.

This is her temple. You can hear the silent joyous cries whenever she appears in all her glory. She shines her light on an anointed one, taking them gently by the hand into Elysium.

I can’t settle into the space. I feel awkward. Upon entering, my companion immediately assumes a sitting buddha position on the floor and closes his eyes. I am left to fend for myself.

I slump to the floor, against the wall and observe those around me. My natural urge is to be disruptive and mischievous. I want to sing loudly or do acrobatics around the room. But I don’t. Like everyone else, I am still and silent.

The social rules, though never made explicit, develop naturally.

I feel like an outsider here. I can’t will myself into the purpose of the place. Around me, people seem to be in transcendent states. I don’t understand it. I don’t feel anything.

I want to, but I just don’t.

Later, I work out why.

I was not “chosen” by the Serbian goddess of the Serpentine. She did not touch me or soothe my soul with whispered words of wisdom.

My trip to the gallery in Hyde Park had been a cold distant orbit around the sun.

This originally appeared on Athena.