The invisible politics of teaching silence

Monica Karpinski
Aug 12, 2014 8:04AM

Yet again, Marina Abramović has got the art world talking. Only now, it’s not for nudity or taking drugs to induce catatonia, it’s for 512 Hours, her latest performance currently underway at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Not to mention the yet-to-open art institution in Hudson that bears her name.

When complete, the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI) purports to teach a series of exercises designed by the artist to explore boundaries between the body and the mind. This curriculum is duly named ‘the Abramović Method’.

A similar sort of idea underpins 512 Hours. Made to leave their belongings in lockers before entering the exhibition space, visitors are given sound-blocking headphones and left free to occupy one of three rooms. In each, you have different options in ways you’re able to pass the time: you can stand, lie on a cot beneath a thin, coloured sheet, or sit at a desk and separate a mixed pile of uncooked rice and lentils.

Why? To teach us how to be critically aware of our consciousness, as it’s experienced in the present. In removing all external stimulation, we’re left with just our inner monologue; left to concentrate upon, and ideally isolate the simple sensation of ‘being’.  It sounds quite clever in theory, but in practice, the dubious task of challenging the bounds between mind and body is a pretty tall order. Since our progress down this path is essentially unknowable and unquantifiable, it’s kind of strange to imagine it as a skill that can be taught.

British interest in art is at an all-time high. With increasing gallery visits and ready amounts of free exhibitions and events, we’re keener than ever pick up new art skills and knowledge.  But if ‘art education’ can comprise standing in front of a white wall with our eyes shut for however long we desire, are we really being ‘taught art’?  

When it comes to seeking out plastic skill to supplement expression, (i.e. painting, drawing) there are direct, very tangible lessons to give. For those hoping to tap into some secret, mythic wellspring of all that is profound, a class probably isn’t your best bet.

512 Hours is essentially, as so aptly put by one critic, “simply an exercise in mindfulness”. Meditation and seeking access to an otherworldly level of profundity as the key to creative thought are not new ventures: monasteries, anyone?   Nor is there any one way to pursue this path.

Whilst tutelage in the ‘Abramović method’ seems to very much follow suit, it does need to be said that the MIA really seems to be breaching new research frontiers. With a team of neuroscientists on board, the institute has produced an art-meets-science installation that explores what actually happens in our minds when we engage in a mutual gaze. This work on brainwave synchronisation might just shed further light on how we’re able to extract meaning from art, and illuminate new possibilities for kick starting the meaning-making process. For now, we’re wordlessly left in front of a blank, white wall to contemplate our simultaneous being and nothingness. But is simply telling us to think something enough to make us realise it?

The premise undermining both the institute and exhibition might be sustained conceptually (How much can you really interfere in helping someone delve inside their own minds, particularly when you’ve removed all external stimuli to do so?) but is questionable in its execution. These ‘teachings’ are self-lead exercises, not part of a performance. They are an experience, not a performance, and not a lesson in art. If anything, they are a prompt towards reaching our idea of a certain state of mind: one Abramović has described to us herself.

Will this kind of teaching soon overlap into realms of mainstream art education? Or, will British hunger to learn meet Abramović’s celebrity status and demand it’s included on the curriculum? Only time will tell.

Monica Karpinski