Upon entering “Marina Abramović: In Residence,” visitors are given noise-cancelling headphones to wear during the exhibition. Here, they are seen standing in silence on a raised, cruciform wooden plinth. Installation view of “Marina Abramović: In Residence,” Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney, 2015. All photographs in this article are by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

A section of the exhibition is dedicated for visitors to count white rice grains and black lentils. Blank sheets of paper and red lead pencils are provided for the visitors to record the results. Installation view of “Marina Abramović: In Residence,” Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney, 2015.

Jul 08 2015

Marina Abramović: In Residence

by Michael Young

It is winter in Sydney and the temperature in Pier 2’s cavernous interior at Walsh Bay, Sydney, hovers around a chilly nine degrees Celsius. On one particular day in late June, Marina Abramović, the New York-based veteran performance art is swathed in layers of black clothing, taking part in “Marina Abramović: In Residence,” her series of audience-participation activities that has had previous iterations in New York’s MoMA (“The Artist is Present,” 2010) and London’s Serpentine Gallery (“512 Hours,” 2014) to near universal acclaim. Abramović developed these interactive exercises originally to help her prepare for the long-durational, often grueling performances for which she has become renowned—and which have propelled her to superstar status, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous wherever she touches down in the world.

Marina holds court in the space, but at a distance. She may have conceived of the project, but it is made alive only through audience participation—without which there would be no artwork, performance or happening. For decades, and throughout her oeuvre, her focus has been moving ever closer to the immateriality of art. Now, the object itself has become obsolescent to the artist. The chairs and tables that have managed to remain in her performances are merely tools used to articulate the audience’s experience.

There are several preliminary things to bear in mind before entering “Marina Abramović: In Residence. All electronic devices must be stashed in lockers, noise-canceling headphones must be worn at all times and a series of preparatory exercises need to be undertaken before proceeding. For example, there is the nostril squeezing exercise, which consists of breathing through one nostril nine times while blocking the other, followed by a set of physical squats to expand lung capacity.

The interior of the exhibition is partitioned into several areas, where specific activities take place in each section: counting rice; standing still while eyes closed; staring mutely into the eyes of a facilitator; or sleeping on camp beds. All of these exercises have an allotted space. This might all sound somewhat new-age—and it is—but the immateriality of performance art is so of the moment, and so much of the zeitgeist.

The space is gloomy like a cathedral, but not pitch dark, as there is light flooding in from clerestory windows. There is a sense of spirituality here, or perhaps—as Abramović attests—energy. There are 40 or so black-clad assistants, referred to as “facilitators,” who practice a continuous form of meditative slow-walking, from one end of the warehouse to the other, looking as though they have just stepped out of a Fritz Lang film. They collect members of the public and lead them to an activity. No one is allowed to speak, including the facilitators, and the activities’ directions are mimed.

Australian author David Malouf sits in a chair that is set before a yellow, rectangular sheet of paper hung on a wall. Installation view of “Marina Abramović: In Residence,” Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney, 2015.

The exhibition includes a space consisting of rudimentary divisions and crude wooden chairs facing each other. Visitors are encouraged to sit facing one another and hold each other’s gaze in a reenactment of Abramović’s performance The Artist is Present, which originally took place in 2010 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

Here, visitors to the exhibition are seen counting rice grains and lentils. Installation view of “Marina Abramović: In Residence,” Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney, 2015.

When I enter the space, a middle-aged woman takes my hand—I am startled by the warmth of her fingers—and leads me to a raised, cruciform wooden plinth. I step up as though entering an inner sanctum, and I am directed to close my eyes, which I do, but I can’t resist a quick peep. Everyone around me has their eyes tightly shut, with a look of beatitude on their faces. I see Abramović slow-walking close by. She is holding hands with David Malouf, one of Australia’s most beloved writers, whose work explores spatial relationships and built environments.

To one side of this area, there are chairs set before colored rectangular sheets of paper hung on a wall. I am invited to sit and look at a yellow sheet. I try hard to empty my mind, but I fail. I see only a lozenge of yellow paper.

I move to an open-plan space comprising rudimentary divisions and crude wooden chairs facing each other. A handsome young hipster slow-walks up to me, takes my hands in his and motions me to sit down. We sit facing one another and, for what seems an eternity, hold each other’s gaze in a reenactment of Abramović’s 2010 New York performance The Artist is Present, where for hours on end she sat staring into the eyes of individual audience members.

My facilitator’s face is set in a rictus of equanimity. Maybe five minutes pass, maybe one hour—I have no idea. A gob of moisture drips from my nose and rolls across my chin and I mop it with my handkerchief. The spell is broken and the facilitator offers both his hands and leads me to a camp bed, where he tucks me in and gestures that I must close my eyes.

Malouf is asleep next to me. I see a sparse bony head with a gray blanket pulled tight to his chin. Like a naughty child I am soon out of bed and heading back down the length of the warehouse to the rice-counting area that I missed on the way through the space. Everyone is bent over piles of white rice grains and black lentils. Some count in colors, while others count in free-form, scribbling numbers onto blank sheets of paper with red lead pencils. To me it seems a Sisyphean ordeal of extreme futility designed to cloud the inevitability of life.

“It is more about time, and how much you invest is how much you get out of it. Because we live such a fast life we have to make art slow, which can bring us back to ourselves,” Abramović later commented.

It all sounds very messianic yet unconvincing, and I leave the bitterly cold space and step out into the sunshine—where the harbor water sparkles like never before, and the sky is as blue as one of the rectangular sheets of paper inside. And I know what I would rather be looking at.

Another section of the exhibition comprises rows of camp beds, where visitors are led to by “facilitators” and instructed to sleep on. Installation view of “Marina Abramović: In Residence,” Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney, 2015.

“Marina Abramović: In Residence,” the Kaldor Public Art Project’s 30th program, is at Pier 2, Walsh Bay, Sydney, and is on view until July 5.