From Yoko Ono to Vivienne Westwood, Ai Weiwei and Marina Abramović: reflect on the past decade of London's Serpentine Marathon ahead of its opening this weekend
The notorious German word “gesamtkunstwerk” finds its home in the histories of art, politics and philosophy. Simply put, it denotes a “total” work of art, or an all-embracing synthesis of the arts. As such, it’s an ambitious but, pretty much, unrealisable ideal – familiar to the 20th-century utopian aims of the Bauhaus and Constructivists, and, on the flip side, to Stalin’s totalitarian vision of a politically, socially and aesthetically integrated society. But, as the Swiss powerhouse curator Hans Ulrich Obrist would probably tell you, the beauty of a (well-intentioned) gesamtkunstwerk is that it is perpetually in progress, a protean creation continually being remade.
That is exactly how to describe Obrist’s legendary brainchild, the Serpentine Marathon, hosted annually by the Serpentine Gallery in London, where Obrist is co-director. Launched in 2006, the multi-disciplinary festival of ideas sees luminaries from far-reaching fields speak or perform on themes such as memory, manifestos, gardens, poetry, extinction and maps. In celebration of its 10th anniversary, this year the theme is transformation, and it’s paying close attention to timely subjects including transgender politics; the ever-evolving environment; the futurology of cyborgs, bioengineering and AI; as well as the ecology of literature, art and design.
While tickets are now sold out, guests won’t even have to descend onto Hyde Park where the gallery is situated to participate in the event. This weekend, the Serpentine Marathon is running half of its talks on the first-ever broadcast of Serpentine Radio, accessible online from 12am (midnight) on Sunday 18 October. A livestream of Saturday’s talk will also be at the click of a keyboard via the Serpentine's YouTube channel.
Here, we look back on a selection of the most engaging, inspiring and entertaining talks and performances from a superstar roster of participants, and predict who might be going viral at this year’s Transformation Marathon.
2015: JULIET JACQUES
2015 is the year that transgender culture went mainstream. With ‘transformation’ as the topic of the Serpentine Marathon, it would have been scandalous not to include transgender voices. Fortunately, British journalist Juliet Jacques, whose recently published memoir, Trans, has garnered raving reviews, will be presenting a performative lecture of a fictional story that we’re fully anticipating.
See a taster of what to expect with Jacques interview with ACI Radical Voices below:
2014: YOKO ONO/LILY COLE
2014 turned to the dystopian theme of extinction, but the Marathon’s finale poem “Bells for Serpentine”, written by Yoko Ono and performed by Lily Cole, had a simple and resolutely optimistic message: “Don’t try to change the world, that’s a concept floating on our horizon. Just use your wits and change your heads.”
2013 was dedicated to the 89 plus generation – emerging creatives born in the victorious collapse of the Berlin wall, and bred in the internet age of capitalist crisis. Post-dance producer Koreless offered a motorik soundscape in the undulating space of Zaha Hadid’s temporary Serpentine Pavillion.
2012: ED ATKINS
Exploring memory and archeological excavation through interactions between artistic practice and scientific enquiry, the 2013 Marathon included artist Ed Atkin’s powerful performance, DEPRESSION: a story of the brain translating melancholy via a blue screen, a microphone and electronic sound.
2011: HELENE CIXOUS
At the 2011 Garden Marathon, the French-Algerian Feminist writer and philosopher, Hélène Cixous, quietly stole the show with her short story “Un Vrai Jardin”, which traversed a metaphorical landscape of a child’s mind, grappling with notions of origins, loss and identity.
2010: AI WEIWEI
In the same year Ai Weiwei presented his monumental “Sunflower Seeds” at the Turbine Hall, the mega artist and activist spoke at the 2010 map-themed Marathon. Discussing the political conditions of territory, Weiwei recounted that his map series of China had to be checked by bureaucrats to ensure all lands of the country were included before being presented to the Chinese ambassador.
2009: TRACEY EMIN
2009 was dedicated to poetry, and while some critics thought Tracey Emin’s contribution to the Marathon was questionable, we found it thoroughly enjoyable. Sometimes a bit of comic relief in the lofty midst of intellectual circles goes a very long way. In any case, she definitely broke the ice.
2008: VIVIENNE WESTWOOD
2007: MARINA ABRAMOVIĆ
For the 2007 Experiment Marathon, Abramović offered her holistic performance “Cleaning the House”. Dressed in a lab coat, she ordered the audience to do mini exercises like drinking a glass of water – because, for Abramović, “when you do nothing, everything happens.”
2006: DORIS LESSING
The inaugural Serpentine Marathon was a 24-hour string of interviews hosted by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. Bleary-eyed, the brilliant 87-year-old British writer Doris Lessing managed to do the all-nighter, ending the event with an an urgent ecological message.