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.

DE AGOSTINI PICTURE LIBRARY / BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Eighty pages in to Age of Anger, I still had no idea what it was about

When Pankaj Mishra describes a “postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”, he inadvertently summarises his own book.

Most books arrive on the market dragging a comet tail of context: the press release, the blurb on the back, the comparison with another book that sold well (sometimes this is baked into the title, as with a spate of novels in which grown women were recast as “girls”, variously gone, or on the train, or with dragon tattoos or pearl earrings). Before you even start reading, you know pretty much what you will get.

So I was particularly disconcerted to reach page 80 of Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger and realise that I didn’t really know what it was about. The prologue starts with a recap of the tyrannical career of the Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, namechecks The Communist Manifesto, describes how Europeans were enthralled by Napoleon’s “quasi-autistic machismo”, links this to the “great euphoria” experienced in 1914, mentions that Eugene Onegin “wears a tony ‘Bolívar’ hat”, then dwells on Rimbaud’s belief that not washing made him a better writer, before returning to D’Annunzio to conclude that his life “crystallised many themes of our own global ferment as well as those of his spiritually agitated epoch”.

Psychologists have demonstrated that the maximum number of things that a human can hold in their brain is about seven. The prologue is titled “Forgotten Conjunctures”. I might know why they have been forgotten.

Two pages later, Mishra is at it again. How’s this for a paragraph?

After all, Maxim Gorky, the Bolshevik, Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-advocate of “pure” Islam, Martin Buber, the exponent of the “New Jew”, and Lu Xun, the campaigner for a “New Life” in China, as well as D’Annunzio, were all devotees of Nietzsche. Asian anti-imperialists and American robber barons borrowed equally eagerly from the 19th-century polymath Herbert Spencer, the first truly global thinker – who, after reading Darwin, coined the term “survival of the fittest”. Hitler revered Atatürk (literally “the father of the Turks”) as his guru; Lenin and Gramsci were keen on Taylorism, or “Americanism”; American New Dealers later borrowed from Mussolini’s “corporatism”.

This continues throughout. The dizzying whirl of names began to remind me of Wendy Cope’s “Waste Land Limericks”: “No water. Dry rocks and dry throats/Then thunder, a shower of quotes/From the Sanskrit and Dante./Da. Damyata. Shantih./I hope you’ll make sense of the notes.”

The trouble comes because Mishra has set himself an enormous subject: explaining why the modern world, from London to Mumbai and Mosul, is like it is. But the risk of writing about everything is that one can end up writing about nothing. (Hang on, I think I might be echoing someone here. Perhaps this prose style is contagious. As Nietzsche probably wrote.) Too often, the sheer mass of Mishra’s reading list obscures the narrative connective tissue that should make sense of his disparate examples.

By the halfway point, wondering if I was just too thick to understand it, I did something I don’t normally do and read some other reviews. One recorded approvingly that Mishra’s “vision is . . . resistant to categorisation”. That feels like Reviewer Code to me.

His central thesis is that the current “age of anger” – demonstrated by the rise of Islamic State and right-wing nationalism across Europe and the US – is best understood by looking at the 18th century. Mishra invokes the concept of “ressentiment”, or projecting resentment on to an external enemy; and the emergence of the “clash of civilisations” narrative, once used to justify imperialism (“We’re bringing order to the natives”) and now used to turn Islamic extremism from a political challenge into an existential threat to the West.

It is on the latter subject that Mishra is most readable. He grew up in “semi-rural India” and now lives between London and Shimla; his prose hums with energy when he feels that he is writing against a dominant paradigm. His skirmish with Niall Ferguson over the latter’s Civilisation: the West and the Rest in the London Review of Books in 2011 was highly enjoyable, and there are echoes of that fire here. For centuries, the West has presumed to impose a narrative on the developing world. Some of its current anxiety and its flirtation with white nationalism springs from the other half of the globe talking back.

On the subject of half of us getting a raw deal, this is unequivocally a history of men. We read about Flaubert and Baudelaire “spinning dreams of virility”, Gorky’s attachment to the idea of a “New Man” and the cultural anxieties of (male) terrorists. Poor Madame de Staël sometimes seems like the only woman who ever wrote a book.

And yet, in a book devoted to unpicking hidden connections, the role of masculinity in rage and violence is merely noted again and again without being explored. “Many intelligent young men . . . were breaking their heads against the prison walls of their societies” in the 19th century, we learn. Might it not be interesting to ask whether their mothers, sisters and daughters were doing the same? And if not, why?

Mishra ends with the present, an atomised, alienated world of social media and Kim Kardashian. Isis, we are told, “offers a postmodern collage rather than a coherent doctrine”. That is also a good description of this book. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era