Sunday, July 5, 2015

Cathy is present: experiencing Marina Abramovic and her residency in Sydney

When you mention performance art to people, you get interesting reactions, mostly 'well, that's not art.'

And well, it's not a Monet, a Picasso, a Warhol, or even Dali's lobster phone.

But it IS art, like theatre is art, like music is art, like anything creative is art. 

Art can come in all forms, and it can touch your soul or irritate the shit out of you.

Like beauty, it is in the eye of the beholder.

Yesterday, on a gloriously sunny winter Saturday, I headed to Sydney to participate in some performance art.

I was definitely well out of my comfort zone. I don't like participatory exercises, they make me cringe and irritable. If I am at the theatre and instructed to participate my initial thoughts are I paid YOU to entertain ME, not the other way round. I am not even a fan of clapping in unison at concerts (although I will always join in vocally), mostly as I am a rock snob, but that's a whole other story.

So why did I head all the way to Sydney to participate in something that would most certainly make me feel uncomfortable?

Marina Abramovic.

Marina, at 69, is up there with Yoko Ono as a avant-garde performance artist. Over the years she has pulled off some crazy feats in the name of art. But she also has contributed great heart and soul to the world of art. There is something enigmatic and charismatic about her, and I find myself very drawn to her and what she does...even if some of it makes me feel uncomfortable.

When I heard she was doing a residency as part of the Kalder Public Art Projects I was intrigued. Reviews I read were sketchy, it sounded almost completely interactive, and Marina may or may not even be there. Would I go?? As awkward as it made me feel, I felt I really had to a way I couldn't exactly explain.

My friend R kindly got me a VIP pass, which I presumed would get me in ahead of crowds given the whole experience was free. So I decided to go. Unsurprisingly no one was too keen to accompany me! But that is ok, sometimes things are to be experienced alone, and hey, if anyone does alone well, it is me!

Each day the residence begins at midday, so I headed towards Pier 2/3 at Walsh Bay around 11.30 in case there were queues, and there was. I headed gingerly to the front of the line...even doing that made me feel uncomfortable, lol! The guy there had no idea what my pass meant but directed me to the other side of the building, I almost gave up and just jumped in line, which probably would have taken forever and I would walk away. But there was this determination in me that pushed through the fear. I headed around to the side entrance and was greeted and put into a small group of other VIPs.

We moved through the big sheds with a guide giving us loads of background information about how the residency was going, Marina, participants etc. Marina was in and out of the main section all the time but tried to keep a low profile. She was also working with the other artists in residence on the top floor of the building. The artists in residence had all struggled settling into their spaces, but were now working more comfortably. Some people were coming back multiple times and staying all day. Marina had noticed some of these, and would approach them, and talk to them, and ask them to do 'homework' overnight and bring it in the next wasn't specified what the homework was. The guide wouldn't let us into the area until it had filled a little, to ensure the room had the right vibe for that. At that point I must admit I was thinking the whole thing was a bit of a wank.

We were finally allowed to enter, probably only 5 mins or so after it opened.

We were asked as we entered to read Marina's statement about the residency, and then asked to put all our gear in lockers, including phones and watches. Then we were asked to go to the warm up room, where about 50 other participants were warming up to a video of Marina talking us through physical activities. None were strenuous, but some felt ridiculous, but the vibe of the room was just give it a go, and people were either quietly intense or friendly and happy. Exercises included rubbing/massaging various parts of your body to wake them up, eg lips, chest, heart etc. Also a great breathing one which really seemed to clear my sinuses (going to do it regularly I think).

I didn't do the whole thing, most didn't, the room started to fill more and I moved on to the next room where you were given a pair of headphones to wear. This blocked out all sounds.

I then walked into the main area which was open plan but divided by a few walls. Everyone was quiet and wandering slowly, everyone wearing headphones were participants and then there was heaps of young, beautiful people in black not wearing headphones. They are the facilitators who can guide you through the experience. As I walked slowly looking and wondering what I was going to do a gorgeous young male facilitator took me by the hand and slowly walked me to the area where large wooden framed chairs were facing each other. There was a man in the chair facing me. We smiled. This exercise is based on her famous, The Artist Is Present, exhibit from 2010 at The Moma.

The lovely man and I sat opposite each other for some time. Initially it was excruciatingly painful and embarrassing for me. I couldn't hold his gaze completely, but neither could he. We smiled and kinda laughed but it was incredibly confronting, but eventually we got into a groove and it was very intense. Initially my internal dialogue was freaking out, I'd love to hear a recording of what was going on in my head! I got a point where I calmed down and was comfortable but felt spent and moved to get up and he did the exact same thing at the exact same time, we weren't reacting to each other, it just happened. It was surreal.

I had hardly moved from that when another facilitator took my hand, this time a happy looking young woman. She took me to an area where lots of camp beds with pillows and blankets were set up and with a sweeping gesture suggested I lay down. Remember no talking, can barely hear any noise, all silent. I lay down on the seriously comfortable camp bed and she pulled a grey blanket over me and gently tucked me all the way in and then massaged my temples for a bit. At first I was a little embarrassed, but that left me fairly quickly. After she left I lay there staring at the ceiling, feeling warm and relaxed and completely comforted. I thought about the experience thus far and what else I would I participate in. I thought about the anxiety that had returned the past 6 months after decades of lying dormant. I wondered if I was subconsciously compelled to attend this to assist the anxiety as I felt more calm and still and present than I had been in a long time. I say subconsciously as I didn't know enough about the experience to know it would sooth my soul. Eventually I must have fallen asleep as I may or may not have woken myself with a little snorty snore. Thank goodness for the headphones.  How long I laid there I couldn't tell you, I had completely lost the concept of time, it could have been minutes or hours, I had no idea.

I headed towards the next activity when a facilitator took my hand and led me back to the gazing chairs...sigh. I was seated opposite a lovely young South American woman with an infectious smile that helped ease my discomfort. We smiled and it was amusing and funny. Slowly her smile left her face and we were eyeball to eyeball, the intensity and drama of her eyes were palpable, I felt incredibly moved, like she had some grave sadness behind the smile, my eyes filled with tears and hers became glassy. The moment passed, I looked down to clear my head, we stayed a little longer, then she got up put her hands together and bowed before leaving. I sat there to collect my thoughts.

The next activity was large pieces of cardboard pinned to pillars with a chair directly in front. I chose a lovely blue, even though I wanted the purple, but it was taken. I love to meditate, but don't think I ever completely clear my head of thoughts, my internal dialogue is pretty strong, lol, but I came close this time. I almost fell asleep I was that still and calm, the blue was soothing too. In front of me another activity was going on, one I knew I wouldn't participate in, so I watched it for a bit while sitting there. People were walking incredibly slowly in a large oval, some singularly, some holding hands. And when I say slow, think about walking as slow as you can possibly go, and then slow down a hundred times more and you might get how slow they were. I knew I couldn't walk that slow and would end up laughing or disturbing others. They reminded me of that scene in Plan 9 From Outer Space, where they are running from the aliens (if you know that scene you will know what I mean), that thought made me smile and worried I would get the giggles I moved on.

This time I was led gently by another lovely young man to a platform where many participants stood still with their eyes closed. People were close but not touching. He led me up, it was only a few inches off the ground and motioned for me to close my eyes, all the while holding my hand. Then he gently massaged my shoulders for a little while and tapped me and left. Standing so close to all these other zen, still people with ears blocked by the headphones and eyes shut was surreal. I cannot begin the explain the beautiful energy I felt from standing there and I cannot begin to tell you how long I stood there, I have no idea. After a while I felt a little rocky, so I opened my eyes and stood down. I then sat in a chair close by and watched that for a while before moving on to the last activity.

The last activity was separating grains into colours and counting them. This simplistic activity is to help clear your mind by concentrating on something simple, the area was full and I waited for a while and eventually decided to leave.

I handed my headphones back, collected my stuff and slowly walked out. There was a debriefing room where you could talk about your experience, but I wanted to hold it close and continue to be quiet. I walked slowly through the back area of the experience and up to the top floor where the other artists in residence were, I walked around there but eventually moved on.

I left the building, and wandered slowly around the pier catching the sun. A few memories were triggered by being there and along with my experience I found myself in tears. Not sobbing just tears, I sat down and eventually felt this calmness wash over me, the moment had passed. I guess it was a release after such an intense experience.

I then ran into one of the ladies who came in with me, an older lady in her 80s I think, we spoke for a little while about it, she was quite moved but had had enough, the people she were with were still inside. I left her sitting there contemplating it all and moved on. The rest of the day I walked slowly, I wouldn't call myself a fast walker, but I never walk this slow, but it felt right and comfy. I knew this zen would hang around and possibly be difficult to shake, not that I wanted to anyway. I had planned on some shopping, but I no longer had interest in that, I mostly wandered The Rocks and The Quay, sitting and thinking and watching the world pass by from time to time. I felt calm and quiet and present.

A day later I still feel like that, my life isn't changed, my anxiety is probably not banished, and I am sure at some point the calmness will move on, but I feel from all I observed and did that afternoon, if I take the time - and I sure will take the time - I feel I can return to that state when I wish.

How long was I there? I would have said a little less than an hour, but it was double that time, not quite two hours. It all sounds a bit airy fairy and a bit wanky possibly, and that's ok, the cynic in me was prepared for that, but you know, it never really felt like that. The whole exercise was definitely about shedding inhibitions, being still, being in the present, affording those you are with the time and presence and energy they deserve, and to heal. Because we all need love and healing, no matter how well we are feeling in our lives.
I particularly loved the hand holding, touching, tucking into bed etc. This was a revelation, cause I am not at all good with complete strangers touching me. But it was incredibly comforting, and as an adult, when was the last time someone tucked you into bed? It may sound childish, but what is wrong with that, I highly recommend it.

And the thing I took with me the most was how wonderful each and every participant was. Kind, considerate, generous, and respectful. I mean, people could have been arseholes, disturbed the zen, laughed crassly, been rude, but I didn't experience or see that.

And finally Marina!! I think I caught a glimpse of her holding someone's hand and taking them to the camp bed, she was in a hooded jacket and I am certain it was her face. I guess that makes sense, to be sort of hidden, if she was brazen and out there, it would break the vibe of the room. I thought I would be disappointed not to see her, yet when I did - and I cannot even be certain I did - I really didn't care at all.

So, yes it was uncomfortable and confronting, but once I got over that it was such an experience of transcendence and beauty, I kinda wish I could do a little of it every day.

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