So back in June Marina Abramovic took over Pier 2/3 in Sydney for 12 days for Project 30: Marina Abramovic in Residence presented by Kaldor Public Art Projects.
Project 30 picked up where 512 Hours left off. Instead of performing for 12 days, Marina presented visitors to the Project with five different exercises from the Abramovic Method. Everyone entering the Project was asked to remove anything that might distract them from the exercises – watches, phones, iPods – and to put on noise cancelling headphones. The Project space was to be silent. Visitors were lead into the space by a group of black clad facilitators who would hold their hands and move them to different exercises. Visitors were allowed to complete as many or as few of the exercises as they wanted, in whatever order they wanted. There was no time limit on how long you could spend in the Project space, with some people staying in for the whole seven hours the space was open for each day.
The exercises that Marina chose for the Project were: Slow Walk, Counting Rice, Platform, Looking at Colour, Mutual Gaze and Beds. Slow Walk, Counting Rice and Looking at Colour were pretty straight forward. You walk as slow as you can or you separate and count grains of rice from a pile of rice and lentils or you stare at a piece of coloured paper. Beds is also pretty straight forward really. A number of camp beds were set up in the space where visitors could lie down and rest, after being tucked in by facilitator of course. Mutual Gaze follows what Marina did in The Artist Is Present and visitors sat opposite strangers and held their gaze. Platform is a bit harder to explain. Marina is a big believer in the energy that can be transferred from person to person and how rejuvenating this energy can be and that’s what Platform is about. A bunch of wooden platforms were all group together and visitors were led to a spot on a platform by a facilitator. The facilitator would gesture for the visitor to close their eyes. They then stay on the platform, feeling and absorbing the energy of the people around them.
It was not a traditional exhibition. It was not an exhibition at all really. It was people going through exercises. It was an experience. It forced people to engage. It was such an incredible thing to be a part of.
The week before the Project opened, I went down to Hobart to see Marina’s exhibition Private Archaeology at the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA – it’s still on for about another month, go see it if you can). As part of the exhibition they had a version of the rice counting exercise. I went into the room, was given my noise cancelling headphones, my lab coat, a pile of rice and lentils, a piece of paper and a pencil and I started counting. I hated it. After about twenty minutes I was on the verge of such a huge anxiety attack about the amount of rice still to count that I had to leave the room and get a cup of tea and a doughnut.
I got really worried while I was drinking my tea – how am I going to be involved with the Project for twelve days when I just did an exercise and hated it? How can I talk about Marina and how fantastic her work is when what I just sat through was horrible?
Two days before the Project opened to the public, there was the opening event. A bunch of important members of the art community, members of the government and sponsors all crammed in to the Pier to see what was going on. I’d spent the day being shown around and getting more worried about what I’d gotten involved with. It sounded like such a giant load of wank. That was, until I experienced it.
We had an hour in which to go through the Project and experience some of the exercises along with everyone else at the opening. I went in still expecting it to be horrible and it wasn’t. A facilitator took me by the hand and led me straight to a platform, she stood with me, still holding my hand, for about five minutes. She left and I felt a little abandoned but chose to stay. I don’t know how long I stood there for. Gradually started to feel calmer and calmer. All my anxiety about everything just began to disappear completely. And I can’t explain why or what it was about standing, eyes shut, surrounded by strangers that did this but it happened.
A few days later an incredibly good friend of mine came through the Project and we met up after. He was visibly shaken by what he had experienced. After talking for a while he mentioned that this was the happiest he’d seen me in ages. I shrugged the comment off but as I was going home later it dawned on me that my anxiety levels were probably the lowest they’d been in about a year. I can only attribute this to the time I spent in the Project. I’d been spending a bit of time each day doing the Slow Walk exercise. Focusing solely on the act of walking, and slowing the process down to the point that it is all you can think about is so bizarrely soothing. My mind would shut down and all the worry and stress and lists would just dissipate. Everything and anything seemed doable after a slow walk.
Trying to explain to anyone who didn’t experience the Project what it was like is nigh on impossible. I’ve tried but everything I say sounds contrite or like a giant pile of hipster wank. I probably sound like a massive tosser right now actually.
What I think made it such an amazing immersive experience is the fact that everyone walked into the Project and just did it. The visitors threw themselves into the exercises and took it so seriously. This continues to astound me – that members of the very cynical Australian public would commit so whole heartedly to such an out of the ordinary experience. And that people were lining up to participate. I’m sure there is something to be said for this kind of project filling a void in contemporary life – that we actually crave moments of stillness and silence and in actuality want to connect.
There was this one truly magic on the second night of the Project. It was a special event for the Project’s major corporate sponsor, a very large national bank. A large group of people were queuing to enter the space and the people at the front of the queue had seen everyone else have a facilitator take their hand and lead them into the Project. They stood waiting for a facilitator and after a while when one didn’t appear (they were all with other visitors) two men at the front of the line turned to each, held hands and walked into the project together. Others in the line then followed.
I think I’m going to have to write a third part to talk about actually meeting Marina. I was hoping to get to that today but this is a fair chunk of words already. Part I of this blog can be found here.