Marina Abramović: In Residence – again

(You can read about my first visit to this event here. Once more, this is part of my 750words process.)

I returned today to Marina Abramović: In Residence, at Wharf 2/3 in Sydney. I visited earlier in the week and wanted to see whether my experience there – something I’d written about, also – was going to be different this time. Could it be repeated, or was it a one-time-only deal? Part of me wanted to feel more than I did the first time, and part of me was greedy to have another go, because I wondered how long it might be before I could do something similar.

(This, of course, is a silly thought: it appears Abramović’s goal with her Method is to enable the exercises to be done without her. This is something with a life of its own, now.)

The lines were longer this time. I arrived the same time as my previous visit, but it seemed to take longer to get inside. (I was through the door at roughly the same time as the first visit, though, so I suppose it all evens out.) The usual conversations of arty bent continued behind me, as before, though I wasn’t the only solo visitor this time; in front of me, a girl peered at the world through defensive Prada shades, her face occluded.

I spotted Abramović herself, leading an older lady into the experience. The chatterers missed it. She smiled and seemed to float, more than walk, though that could be the influence of her enormous, gazing portrait at the head of the line: when presented with the real person after so much image, there’s bound to be a little feeling of unreality.

Once inside and divested of scarf and bag – I didn’t wear a watch at all today, so the process was marginally quicker – I took part in some of the warm-up exercises, which I began, serendipitously, at the point where I’d last left off, with “Fighter Breath”. Lots of breathing, lots of shaking, and a little stillness. A couple of minutes of these and I was ready for re-entry.

The wharf was colder today than during my last visit. It wasn’t unpleasantly so, but I could definitely feel it in my hands, and I envied some of the facilitators’ heavy coats and goth life-preserver vests. The space had been reconfigured slightly: the eye-height walls blocking off parts of the rooms were now missing, and the colour staring stations were mounted to the wharf’s massive uprights. There seemed to be a lot more people milling about, so I assume the changes reduced the chance of bottlenecks. Chairs were positioned around the standing platforms, too, for those who needed some seating.

Already, the rice-counting desks were full, people bent over their grains.

A short-haired blonde facilitator smiled benignly and led me to the gazing/staring section. I had a loose goal of seeing more people than I had on my previous visit, and I was determined to not attempt to count time.

(That’s the problem with this exercise for me – in my first visit some of it had been spent trying to discern how much time was passing in each encounter, which really goes against the grain of what’s going on. I guess it shows how embedded the idea of timekeeping is these days – it is very difficult for me to just let time pass without attempting to quantify it.)

I also had thought I would try to see more people than I had. Given how intense the experience was, I wasn’t sure how I would react. Led to a seat, I was placed opposite an older woman, possibly in her 60s. There was a very closed-in feeling to her, and she observed me from behind her glasses, rather than looked. (I find glasses in this exercise are almost offputting – they’re kind of like a fence or aquarium glass, though I guess if they’re necessary for vision it’s unavoidable.)

It felt weird. Not that the activity in general feels otherwise, but… this was similar to being skewered. Eventually, she grew tired (or satisfied with the event) and bowed her head briefly before leaving.

Next, a younger blonde woman with a bandanna tied around her head. A nosering provided occasional focus, but the eyes were the root. There was a wall there, too – an interested look, but a definite feeling of security. I felt myself relax into the event – I couldn’t have moved my feet if I had wanted to, and my hands (though cold) seemed glued to my thighs.

Trains went by, and eventually she left.

A young man, sandy haired and bespectacled sat down. There was a nervous smile, and then it was as if a weight had come down. I found myself setting back, just observing, hardly blinking. My breaths came slower, my shoulders sagged. He looked so terribly sad, but the sadness seemed to come from watching me. His eyes teared and drops escaped, rolling down his face. He couldn’t leave yet it was plain he didn’t want to stay.

I breathed, more and more slowly. Eventually, he left. It had been a long time, and he had had to wrench himself away.

Now, my eyes were beginning to feel strange. I had to close them as each person went away, just to have a little time to myself – odd, given how little I felt the ego of ‘me’ being there. I’d crack my neck and close my eyes and breathe, and generally, when I opened them, there were more people there.

There was the older woman with a bouffant and cat’s-eye glasses who, when told in mime that the purpose was to look at the other person, fled immediately.

There was the Latino man in leather with nervous eyes who slipped further into sadness before mouthing ‘namaste’ and walking away.

There was the young guy with eyes like obsidian who began happy and ended sad, but gave a firm handshake at the end of the encounter.

I sat for a couple of minutes at the end of this last session, feeling my lower back kink. A facilitator took my hand and showed me to another seat, in front of a woman of my age, dressed in black, a slick of blonde hair across her forehead. She wore a chunky ring on her left hand and had eyes I couldn’t read.

She wasn’t wearing the ear-protectors.

What’s strange about the process of gazing is how one’s brain seems to leave out particular data. I find myself focusing on one eye, then the other, sometimes both at once. Occasionally the space at the top of the nose. Even at this event, where the aim is to drink in the visage of another, there is a feeling of impropriety – as if it might be wrong, somehow, to stare at the lips or to roam the face for the duration. So one focuses on the eyes, in whatever configuration, and eventually the brain seems to discard other features, leaving a portrait similar to Cugat’s illustration for the first edition of The Great Gatsby; eyes without a face.

This was the longest and most intense period of my day. Eyes flickered between readable and unreadable. I felt myself there, and not there. Time stretched on and on, proper relativity. A person leaned heavily on the back of her chair – the resulting balance wonkiness providing a brief moment of levity – but then the seriousness returned. It was heavy, a sort of indescribable heaviness though there’s no physical contact. I guess it’s what’s meant with the title of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. The weight of existence, experienced as an emotional, physical process.

Eventually, she rose. Holding out a hand, she mouthed for me to follow. A facilitator! She led me to one of the rest beds, pulled it down and tucked me in tightly around the arms and my feet. It was a curiously tender experience; we smiled and I closed my eyes. I silently thanked her.

I doubt that person will ever read this post, but I wanted to offer some kind of thanks: it was a feeling of pure connection and care that is difficult to explain. I was not myself – I was an observer – but then I was treated like a person with a simple, reassuring gesture.

Thank you.

I carried out a couple of the other stations of the project. I slow-walked the length of the wharf, agonisingly slow but matchless in the feeling of achievement. With each step I could see the harbour through the gaps in the floor. I stood on a platform, held in place by the energy of a facilitator’s hands, regarding an absent core. I looked at a red sheet of card – less successfully as I think the situation felt wrong, with walkers behind it.

I didn’t count rice and lentils. I couldn’t get a seat.

I was exhausted and walked out at 3:30pm into the sunlight. I sat by the water for with a coffee, just breathing. Everything glistened. Luna Park’s rides, across the water, were mechanical semaphore.

Writing this at home, I feel as if my eyes have been sunburned. Maybe it’s the dryness that comes from looking at people for a couple of hours, or maybe it’s some kind of invisible burn, the result of the focus of others.

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