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Drinking Kool-Aid with Marina

Marina Abramovic has sparked religious–like fervour in fans with her new London show, 512 Hours. We culted out with Her Eminence

512 Hours is – as is usual for Marina Abramovic – a mammoth, marathon–length performance piece, with an interactive core. It is notable and notorious already, for two reasons: first, for the fact that the show contains no artwork whatsoever, and second, for the way in which it's inspired hysterical, snaking queues outside the Serpentine gallery – queues of the kind more typically associated with the stadium gigs of her erstwhile pop–star associates, Jay–Z and Lady Gaga.

Like Bowie's Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell To Earth, Abramovic's interest lies chiefly in “energy – the transference of energy” (“the art of the future,” she wrote in 1990, “will be an art without objects, because in the communication of pure energy, the object appears as an obstacle”). Like Newton, also, there is something of the extraterrestrial about her – her process concerns subtraction more closely than it does creation. Whether or not you believe this to be a legitimate means of making art, of course, is up to you.

This new work, either way, is the apotheosis of a lifelong attempt to eliminate the physical object from art, in its entirety. In brief: a hundred and sixty participants enter the gallery – leaving behind, in lockers, their electronic lifelines and comforters – and stand around the artist in a scattered crowd of struck–dumb acolytes, remaining at the artist's mercy for the duration.

She picks her players at random and leads them one–by–one around the room, as if it were a chessboard, or a dance–floor, or the site of a museum tour. She whispers a series of soothing platitudes as her hand interlocks with theirs – some faintly hippy–dippy mantra concerning 'silence,' infinite space, and 'the void' – until they reach their destination. Once there: she leaves them adrift for ten minutes. 

More than simply Pop–star worship, there is a cultish funk which hangs like sack–cloth over these movements: it is distinctly Jonestown – a woozy soupcon of Heaven's Gate. 

(Re–open your Serpentine–issue lockers, and in place of your electronics, one might expect to find a black shirt, a pair of joggers, and some monochromatic Nike Decades trainers. It is the final–form uniform of the latter UFO cultites, yes, but also a reasonable approximation of the garb of a South London Normcore artist. Like everything else, the new bohemia's standard–issue.)

The stated aim of Heaven's Gate's Marshall Applewhite, was for his followers to ascend to some mythic spiritual level “above the physical human experience.” What, if not this, is the aim here? The means are less sinister, but the end–game is the same. During my time at the opening–day performance, I saw a pretty young girl in a yellow coat swaying back and forth and buckling, fawn–like, on her legs, as if in a Pentecostal trance.

I'm told, meanwhile, that other participants cried. It's almost chillingly reverential in there, in that great white cathedral of a space, with its walls flanked with zombified art–appreciators: the overall effect is of one of being trapped inside a soothing purgatory. Stay for the ten allocated minutes, or stay for as long as you're breathing.

A Google–search for “Marina Abramovic” + “drink the Kool–Aid” gives some more concrete examples of the real art–icon/cult comparison:

“I queued for 12 hrs to see Marina,” writes a teenage girl who was at the MoMA, “and I am totally obsessed, like, drank the Kool-Aid, hand over my black trainers,” while an interview with the man who sat with the artist fourteen times suggests that he's “high on the Abramovic Kool–Aid.” 

The phrase may have sprung from the tragic story of the Jonestown massacre, but its modern meaning is somewhat different: a Kool–Aid drinker is, effectively, a sheepish dupe, and it's often used to apply to those who buy into a so–called uberphenom without reason to do so – it suggests a certain hopeful blindness, or a misplaced belief, or perhaps simply groupie–ish fervour.

When my own moment came for interacting with Our Most Benevolent leader, Marina, meanwhile, I found myself running short on enlightenment and long on dumb ideas: I thought about the softness of the artist's hands; about the moisturising routine which kept them this baby–pliable; about whether the artist ever took a hand–sanitizer break, or whether the Guardian's Adrian Searle sat out the lofty thought–athon for longer than I did.

Mostly, though, I thought about Abramovic's recent assertion that the British public are cynical, drunk, and too in love with terrible jokes to fully appreciate her actions. I'd concede that I'm guilty on all three charges, and perhaps, by extension, the fourth. I wonder, though, if those who are struck by the artist's performances 'til they're driven to weep and convulse aren't somehow fundamentally happier people than those like myself. There is a freedom, surely, to meditation without complication – one which, as one of the British public's greatest cynics, I can't at all fathom. 

Still: there's always the good–ole–English drink to fall back on. I wonder whether Marina knows how much easier alcohol makes it to hold hands with perfect strangers.

Want to know more about Marina? Check out our dA-zed guide to Abramović here or read our feature on her work with Givenchy's Riccardo Tisci