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.

Photo: Jonathan Cape
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Who’s the daddy? Two memoirs that examine the complexities of fatherhood

Both Fathers and Sons by Howard Cunnell and Fathers by Sam Miller chase what can never really be known.

About three-quarters of the way in to his striking memoir, Fathers and Sons, Howard Cunnell writes about a support group he attends at the Tavistock Centre in London with his son, Jay, who is trans.

He observes the other boys, their “look” – short hair, shaved at the back and sides, low-slung jeans, Converse trainers, caps. He observes their expressions and manner: “a lot of looking down, faces set to blank, whether out of fear and unhappiness, or an approximation of the hard mask boys often wear”.

Then he observes the other dads, “all of us trying hard to look like there’s nothing unusual about being here . . . recalibrating our speech and body language to masculine when we talk to our new sons”.

He calls Jay “mate”, ruffles his hair and pretends to punch him, that manly sock on the shoulder that signals a certain kind of defined gender identity. He asks himself, “What do the dads who don’t come think? The ones who think there’s something wrong with their child?”

He has no answer to those questions: only his understanding of what it feels like to be judged, or to imagine such a judgement. Fathers and Sons begins not with Jay but with Cunnell’s own early history, with the sense of permanent loss and recrimination he suffered when his father abandoned the family – he, his elder brother, Luke, and their mother. In his childhood in Sussex, his mother’s love is no cure for the wound he carries with him always: “I want other boys to like me because that might give the lie to what I know about myself. That I am worthless. That’s why my dad left.”

The reader understands, then, that from his earliest days Cunnell, a novelist and academic, has been haunted by the absence of masculine love, forced to ask himself why that particular lack should leave such a hole in his life. When his beautiful daughter becomes – with suffering and struggles – his beautiful son, he is again accosted by those issues, this time from the other side of the generational divide.

What does it mean, a father’s love? Does it signify something different to a daughter from what it does to a son? Perhaps so, but then every love has a different shape. Sam Miller’s memoir, Fathers, comes at paternity and the question of what it means to be a father from a no less arresting angle.

Miller is the middle child of Karl Miller, the founding editor of the London Review of Books and great British littérateur who died in 2014. Miller, Sr wrote two volumes of memoir of his own, Rebecca’s Vest (1993) and Dark Horses (1998). But as Sam discovered when he was a teenager, he is not, in fact, Karl Miller’s son, but the product of an on-again-off-again affair his mother, Jane, had with a family friend, Tony White – who died suddenly at the age of 45 as the result of a blood clot in his leg. Fathers is Miller’s heartfelt attempt to come to terms with his complicated family, to consider the meaning of fatherhood and to grasp at the ghost of Tony White.

Where Karl and Jane Miller lived a mostly settled life in Chelsea, Tony, a friend from their university days and widely loved by their circle of friends, was a wanderer. A talented actor and footballer, he worked as a translator, a lamplighter, a lobsterman in the west of Ireland.

From his own memoir, it seemed that Karl Miller loved his friend unequivocally, despite the affair between Tony and his wife. Sam quotes Karl’s description of Tony on the football field. “Tony was big and strong and eager, forever being cut and gashed,” Karl Miller recalled. “His rich dark eyes, boundless generosity and zest and his lavish brushstrokes on the field of play held us together.” It is clear to Sam that his father’s affection for Tony ran deep – and this book also explores the seeming mystery of masculine love.

Tony is a shining figure, always out of reach and, after his death, he seems even more unreachable because his biological son is his spitting image. When Sam finds a photograph taken at a Christmas party that his parents gave the year before he was born, it gives him a fright: it shows Karl, staring straight at the camera, with Tony standing, half hidden, behind him. “The head in profile appears to be me, as a grown-up – some 13 months before I was born . . . The upper parts of our faces are almost identical. And I just can’t understand how more of my parents’ friends did not guess I was Tony’s son.” They might have guessed without speaking, of course.

Both of these books, in very different ways, chase what can never be known. Cunnell’s is the more artfully written, a meditation as much as a memoir, the fragments of his life presented with a novelist’s eye for detail and language. The author uses pseudonyms for those close to him, but that does not make the book any less honest.

There is plenty of darkness here – as Cunnell grows to manhood, he seems to be heading for self-destruction, his restless life marked by violence and heavy drinking – and yet his account is suffused with light. The light of the Sussex Downs that washes his childhood; “tin-coloured clouds” racing across the moon when he finds himself in Mexico; light that gleams from page after page, “a floating frame of light” that shines over Jay’s bed when he was a small child. These images of brightness, of sun and shadow, make a prism of the book. Narrow ideas of what makes a father, what makes a son, are opened out into a rainbow of possibilities.

Miller, who worked for the BBC World Service for nearly two decades, takes a much more documentary approach, searching for evidence, photographs and letters, which nearly always fail to give him the answers he seeks. No wonder, for he seems to be alone in the world:

I came across no likeness, no one in literature or in life, who seemed similar to me, who was brought up as the middle child of a married couple, and then learned his father was not really his father, and that the two men were friends and remained friends. I have not yet met my double. And my situation, my story, seemed both unusual and, in the way it played out, surprisingly uncomplicated.

Or, as this book proves, as complicated as any life. His quest for a deeper understanding of his paternity is punctuated by his accounts of the months and weeks before his father’s death, a time to which he returns in his mind, painting a loving portrait of father and son. Something is missing, and yet nothing is missing.

Perhaps Sam Miller’s memoir offers more of a sense of completion than the author knows. Fathers is a book that circles around itself, asking questions that can have no answers, looking for truth where none can finally be found, and it is all the more moving for that. 

Erica Wagner’s latest book is “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” (Bloomsbury)

Fathers and Sons
Howard Cunnell
Picador, 224pp, £14.99

Fathers
Sam Miller
Jonathan Cape, 250pp, £14.99

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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