What to expect?
Marina Abramović presents for Manchester International Festival, a ‘durational’ work with a clutch of performance artists that is garlanded with advance praise. Her own, occasionally very confrontational work has ‘explored ritual, extreme pain’ and has been lauded for the past forty years. The artists she - and Maria Balshaw and Hans Ulrich Obrist - have gathered, reading their biogs, are of a similar confrontational bent.
The remaining members of the audience were given a Certificate of Accomplishment - ‘This is to certify Matthew Frost has successfully endured four hours participation in Marina Abramović Presents... Thank you for your trust.’
Around 150 of us sign in, basically agreeing to stay for the full four hours, don our white lab coats and mill around in the South Gallery, expectant.
Marina comes in. She is calm and jovial saying we look like a science convention.
Marina tells us we are going to experience something never before attempted. But to make the most of it, we have to slow down. Modern life, with the internet, and mobiles and texting, has made life so fast. We should learn to appreciate the now more. If there is a glass of water on the table, it is either just a glass of water, or if we meditate upon it, we can find the world in that glass of water. So far, so Zen: it’s not the taboo-raping, self-harming catharsis of some performance art. It is actually quite fun. And peaceful. And quiet.Everybody’s wearing lab coats at the Whitworth this season
And ludicrous when you look around and see everyone sitting on uncomfortable chairs, sweating in their lab coats. Certainly the two photographers thought so, wandering past in the park outside. But we were asked to close our eyes. And stop laughing. This was serious.
We ran through a few exercises such as ‘drinking a cool glass of water in seven minutes’. Slow. Think. Experience. As the hour long initiation ended we all assembled at one end of the gallery and we learnt to walk slowly to the door at the other end. Marina led us, intoning ‘Lifting ... Stretching ... Touching ... Moving...’ It looked like a geriatric version of Thriller.
On reaching the exit we were a given an exhibition guide and let loose into the rest of the building, from which all the art has been removed apart from the efforts of the 14 performing artists (well, 13, one had failed to turn up). These hail from Ireland, China, the US, Scotland, South Korea, India, Serbia, Indonesia ... Performance Art is nothing if not international.
The Gulbenkian Room’s floor was entirely covered in brown paper. A lunatic in a loincloth was sprinting around with hands blackened from sticks of black chalk. There was a desk, and loosely tied parcels scattered about. The walls were white, apart from the continuous undulating lines he was busy leaving. More of this work later.
The rustle of the paper was the first noise I’d heard. I left this room when he started crawling on all fours and I heard choral music, so I passed through into the Pilkington Room and found a woman rolling around on a ‘mountainous mound’ (it looked like a seven foot tall loaf of bread) in a state that appeared to be of sexual arousal. Her top kept falling down as well.
Some images will stay with you. Nico Vascellari was sat on the flagstone floor tucked away at the bottom of one of the stairwells, he repeatedly smashed what appeared to be a sizeable piece of bronze grasped with both hands into a chunk of rock, held in the crook of his outstretched legs. The sound was as punishing as the effect was frightening. Echoing and reverberating up the stairwell, the bizarre noises, metallic and brutal, he created were accentuated by microphones and speakers. Flecks of rock spat out and dust covered his arms and his legs made patterns in the dust.
Was this a comment on art and obsession? On slavery? On sculpture? People found it difficult to stay for long. How Vascellari lasted three hours I don’t know, let alone two weeks.
Kira O’Reilly in the staircase in the other wing was falling down the stairs. For three hours. In slow motion. Naked. I was worried looking into her eyes at one point, as they appeared to be glazed, but then her head was flat against the stone of a step and her legs were slowly, very slowly arcing over her. Her sinews and tendons quivering, in her neck, her arms. Very fit these artists. It took minutes. It wasn’t erotic. More anatomical.
A Gallery where some performers have stolen all the art
In the South West gallery, was Alastair MacLennan’s tableau. The room was split diagonally by a long narrow table, covered with a table cloth. The top was covered in a continuous pile of earth. At either end atop the earth, fifty or so feet apart, were two pigs’ heads, facing outwards. Just inside them were a couple of fish. Either side of the table, arranged in triangles so that the audience could only walk around the walls, were hundreds of shoes, single shoes arranged neatly. MacLennan sat at one end of the table, facing a corner of the gallery. He was fully dressed and wearing one glove, two pairs of glasses and had a walking boot balanced on his head. He didn’t move. Once.
I got irritated in this one room. Talking to people who knew MacLennan’s work better they mentioned that the soil, the heads, the shoes and the shredded paper were common references in his work. Someone I think mentioned conflicts ... were the shoes from victims? Did the decapitated pigs signify humanity? And so on. I went back to the room later and thought, actually, no, time is too short and I’d rather invest it in something else. These things might have meaning for him, but to me you could replace them with anything else and it would have the same effect. So many artists in this tradition want the audience to do the work of interpretation for them without clues. It can be lazy.
Tired of one performance, you could wander into another room. It was arresting for a while. Or you could sip water and eat strawberries and biscuits back in the South Gallery and chat to the other guests. The atmosphere throughout was reverential, serious. For three hours.
At the end, the ‘lunatic’ Nikhil Chopra had transformed himself. He was now wearing gorgeous silks and leather boots, a princely hat. The walls were now very obviously a landscape. It is probably the longest ‘do you know what it is yet’ in history. Rolf Harris would have approved. Chopra’s performance is going to grow each night, as the character that he has based on his grandfather develops.
A man with a gong sounded the finishing time. The only other noise was the last few rumblings from Vascellari’s end of the building. I’d say half the audience had already departed. There was just the one comment in the visitor’s book, saying that the chairs were uncomfortable and had given the comment writer back pain. Not, maybe, what the Gallery was hoping for.
This is a snapshot of the performances. Others included a mouth installation, the green jelly woman, the mesmerisingly graceful Marie Cool, the wall climbing filmmaker, Jamie Isenstein’s wonderful rug, and a very unhappy naked woman.
The remaining members of the audience were given a Certificate of Accomplishment - ‘This is to certify Matthew Frost has successfully endured four hours participation in Marina Abramović Presents... Thank you for your trust.’ Odd this. As though the organisers thought the performance a trial or test for the visitors .
I left wanting to talk about it, wanting to find meaning, wanting to know if it was ‘worth it’. I’d love to know how some of the performers and their installations develop. It’s a slow burner this one, which is exactly what Abramović would have wanted when she told us to slacken the pace at the initiation. Two days later I keep remembering installations in the show and thinking them over.Has the pig’s head killed the artist and stolen his boot?
Only Manchester International Festival could provide a reason to bring something on this scale, in this least popular branch of art. Of course, Performance Art is now recognised, it’s almost establishment and no longer the l’enfant terrible, but we still get very few opportunities to see it done this big and with performance artists of this calibre. For that reason, and for the way the visit keeps returning to you, it’s worth booking on a four hour foray into the weird world of Marina Abramović Presents...
The Whitworth Art Gallery, until 19 July 2009. Admission free. Advance booking essential on whitworth.manchester
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