Marina Abramović at the opening of 512 Hours at the Serpentine, 9 June 2014. Photo: Getty Images
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Marina Abramović's 512 Hours at the Serpentine shows the self-indulgent side of anti-materialism

The performance artist's latest blockbuster work empties Hyde Park's Serpentine Gallery, and makes visitors the subjects of the piece - but its radical anti-materialism feels flat.

Routinely hailed as the ‘grandmother’ of performance art, Marina Abramović’s recently opened 512 Hours at the Serpentine marks a departure from former work, which since the 1970s has often used her body as radical canvas placed at the mercy of the public.

In her 2010 show at MoMA, The Artist is Present, Abramović sat silently at a table for 736 hours and invited members of the queuing public to sit opposite her, often provoking emotional and dramatic responses. The show attracted a frenzy of media and celebrity attention, and the artist herself reached superstardom, subsequently collaborating with Jay Z, Lady Gaga, and high end fashion labels and magazines.

In The Serpentine, though, there are no ‘art objects’ to be found - instead it’s the visitors who become art subjects, led to do things in the otherwise empty room by the artist and her assistants. In language that caters to the current Mindfulness fad, they're instructed to breathe deeply, to feel the space around them and be “in the present”.

Abramović claims the work is “as immaterial as you can go”, a statement that comes across as anti-commodity culture, and especially anti-the art world’s obsession with luxurious, marketable objects. This is an immensely popular show, with predictably long queues and personal accounts of transformation pouring in from visitors. Londoners work infamously long hours with little sleep, and the political potential of a work that can make them slow down and take a breath should not be underestimated. Yet we live in a world where capitalist oppression can also be immaterial, in the form of a deliberately opaque and difficult to regulate financial system and a daily assault on our subjectivity by algorithms and Big Data – so a personal encounter with an artist and a feeling of ‘well-being’ can miss the point by only emphasising self-fulfilment.

Performance art has been described as a safe or liminal space for what would otherwise qualify as torture, or sadistic or spiritual practices: think of Chris Burden’s macho-cum-masochist Shoot! in 1971. It’s the latter of these that Abramović’s work channels, introducing a mostly secular audience to a meditative experience that they might otherwise find alienating. Visitors to the Serpentine must leave coats and bags in lockers before entering a room lined with tables and chairs (and which, on inspection, are disappointingly “material”). A lucky few are invited to count and tally grains of rice, part of the ‘Abramović Method’, which is described on the Marina Abramović Institute website as an "ironic and useless action for our contemporary western society".

Divorced from its context, the activity more resembles a form of menial torture inflicted on prisoners of war. Is this about moving beyond materialism, or is it just pointing out our willing complicity in a capitalist ideology, that tells us boring, repetitive tasks are “good” for us?

The chic-ification of poverty has precedence in visual culture - just look at dieters last year, who were desperate to undereat their way to emaciated-revolutionary-heroine following Anne Hathaway’s performance in Les Misérables. We’re used to the ‘homemade’ meal no longer indicating scarcity but instead being a middle class marketing angle, and to the affectation of ruinenlust, and furnishings readymade with a pseudo-patina of time, in hipster bars and burger joints. Abramović herself is reportedly a fan of the infamous juice detox - it's frugality repurposed as ‘self-discipline’, by someone who can afford not to eat enough.

Growing up under the communist regime of Yugoslavia, the image of Abramović’s body often takes on a political symbolism. Grainy black and white nude photos of her from the 1970s have, like those of other performance artists of the period like Carolee Schneemann and Ana Mendieta, created a marketable aesthetic for ideologically challenging work. The Occupy movement’s settlements of 2012 bear significant visual resemblance to the recurring ‘shelter’ in installation art, but the line separating art from politics has become increasingly bent by commodification. The political or activist potential of artworks is at risk of drowning in a competitive market which has reduced ‘political’ to a visual theme, rather than a sensibility capable of provoking action and change.

For Abramović, “immateriality” means “a lack of objects”. The concrete manifestation of this “not having objects” for many is often not enlightenment but poverty, and 512 Hours toes a fine line between empathy and indulgence. It's political sensibility that delineates the self-starvation of the Suffragettes or Simone Weil from the anxiety-fuelled diet culture of today. Following the advice of the feminist art historian and curator Linda Nochlin, we must look between what is exhibited; the implications of what have not been shown. The Serpentine may indeed be emptied of objects but is far from liberated from the clutches of the elitist art world. By emptying the gallery, 512 Hours proves that an exhibition is held intact not by the art, but the complex nexus of artist-celebrity as commodity, gallery branding and media interest. Hopefully this de-objectification will instead heighten the social awareness of visitors, motivating them to look outwards, as well as in.

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My first ever vocal performance was singing "Rebel Rebel" inside a wardrobe

Inspirational artists don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid. That's what David Bowie did for me.

I couldn’t write anything the day David Bowie died. Like many people in music, I was asked for a tribute, but despite being a huge fan, I felt unable to strike the right tone. A glance at Twitter showed me how upset people were, and in that immediate aftermath of shock and dismay what was needed was cathartic and expressive writing. Some people took umbrage at the declamatory grieving, but to me it felt appropriate and I never much mind other people saying things I’m too shy or inhibited to say.

The outpouring of love and affection reminded me how personally we respond to artists, how they speak to us and for us. Pop music has its greatest effect on us when we’re young, when our clay is soft and pliable, and we take its imprint and carry it for ever. The songs we hear while our hearts are still wide open to the world make such an impression that it seems reasonable to me that we care more strongly about the people who sang them than, say, casual acquaintances we make later. So we can mourn a singer we never met more than someone we actually knew.

But one thing I thought wasn’t stressed enough in all the tributes and obituaries was simply that none of Bowie’s groundbreaking work with image/gender/sexuality, would have had as much impact without the phenomenal tunes he wrote, which ensured that his records were played to a mainstream audience. Like anyone my age, I came to Bowie not through an underground record shop, or reading about him in the NME, but by hearing him on Radio 1 and seeing him on Top of the Pops. He embedded himself in my consciousness primarily as a pop artist, a writer of songs so packed full of hooks, you were caught on first listen. I loved my brother’s Ziggy Stardust album because it was strange and yet familiar and I could sing along with all of it.

If you’d never heard Bowie, many of the descriptions might make you think that his work was arch, cool and detached. But he was part of the pre-ironic period of pop, not afraid of sincerity, especially in his singing. It surprises me when he is talked about as a kind of alien, because although he often seemed heroic, and immortal, he clearly had a sense of humour, and a family, and by all accounts was witty and charming and friendly to people. A proper human being, in other words.

Through all the tributes and memories, what became clear was that everyone had some recollection that encapsulated his meaning for them. My little story is one I have told before, in Bedsit Disco Queen, of the day when I was rehearsing in someone’s bedroom with my first band, Stern Bops. I was the rhythm guitarist, and that day our singer didn’t turn up, so the boys in the band asked if I could sing. I wasn’t sure – I’d never really tried, certainly not in front of anyone – and so I replied that I would have a go but not if they were all looking at me. Instead, I’d get inside the wardrobe and sing from there. Which is precisely what I did, and once inside the stuffy darkness, out of sight but clutching my microphone, I sang David Bowie’s “Rebel Rebel”. It was my first ever vocal performance.

How hilarious, you might think, how pitiful even, to sing an anthem to rebelliousness while hiding in a closet. How could you take all the defiance and pride of that song and undermine it with fear? But the more I think about it, the more I realise that this is exactly how inspirational artists work, and why we need them. They don’t inspire the brave (they’re fine already): they inspire the timid.

And you don’t copy people you’re inspired by. Quite often you can’t; you wouldn’t know where to start. You can only stare, open-mouthed in wonder. And yet still something happens, you hear a voice telling you something, a tiny little spark is lit. And you treasure that spark, and add it to others that you’re finding elsewhere, gathering them around you like a protective halo. Until you have just enough courage to take that song you love to dance to and sing those words you love to sing. Even from inside a wardrobe.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle