Illustrations by Sara Rabin
I do not believe in performance art, I repeat to myself, patting the soft blindfolds over my eyes and adjusting my noise-cancelling headphones. With one hand in mine and an arm around on my shoulder, my guide slowly walks me into the middle of an undetermined space. I’ve forgotten her face, but remember her words: “You will be entering a place that is simultaneously slow motion and quiet.” Her hands hover around me for a moment—and then she’s gone. I am alone in the dark and silence of Marina Abramovic’s Generator with 67 other people.
For her first solo exhibition in New York since 2010, Abramovic uses emptiness as her medium, subsisting on the energy of pure individual experiences without the help of props, or visuals. “It took me twenty five years to have the courage, the concentration and the knowledge to come to this, the idea that there would be art without any objects, solely an exchange between performer and public,” she says in a quote plastered on the wall near where people are discarding their bags, jackets, digital devices, and putting on their headphones and blindfolds to enter her gallery of nothing.
“Part of the experience is waiting,” says a girl in front of me to her group of shiny friends. “I heard Marina won’t let anyone cut.” It’s the opening night, and already the line is coiling out the door of the gallery and spilling onto the block. The people around me burrow into their phones, the bluish light casting alien auras on their faces. The irony is palpable: our technologies splinter time so that we are neither here nor there. When was the last time any of us were completely immersed in the full present? I can’t remember a moment when I was.
I plunge forward into the blackness and my lips brush against a sweater, the touch coursing through my body like a taser shockwave. Stunned, I jerk backwards and stumble for an unoccupied place in the emptiness. I catch a whiff of perfume like flowers sauteed in butter as I advance. I shuffle to my left and run into a warm entity encased in denim and again, a rush of adrenaline. The noise-cancelling headphones do not block out the chatter from the people waiting in the gallery, and this cloud of rhythmic gibberish consumes me.
I imagine I’m walking on a balance beam in the center of the universe: one misstep and I’ll go crashing through existence. My legs are shaking. I recall the conversation of two tall men in black on the street in front of the gallery: “What if someone touched you and you realized it was Marina?" Asked one. “I would totally die,” his friend responded. They were referring to a cryptic sentence embedded in the press release: The artist will be present. It dawns on me that she could be in the room with me. I stretch out my arms and hands, and picture her standing directly in front of me, without blindfolds and headphones, looking into my mind.
The last time she performed in New York, she was at MoMA for The Artist Is Present. From March until May, she sat at a table in the museum’s atrium, as members of audience joined her at the opposite end of the table. No talking or touching was allowed, and an “energy dialogue” would take their place. Everyone watching felt the pull of the moment, the connection, the meeting of two souls. Abramovic admitted she needed at least three years to recover from the emotional and physical stress of the performance.
I make it my mission to find her in the Generator. I pass the smell of the remnants of mint gum and wet cigarettes. I hear the ghost of a woman’s laugh slip through the blocks around my ears. I sweep the floor with my shoe and feel a metal grate. I swing my arms as wide as I can, and spin around, charting the emptiness around me. When my hands graze what I imagine is the shoulder or the hand or the shoe of another person, I feel electricity again and again. It’s as if my mind keeps forgetting that there are other human beings wandering aimlessly around the room. There are others in here with me. There are others in here with me. There are others in here with me.
As I mentally prepare myself to leave, out of the darkness, a hand emerges and grasps my elbow. It’s a long and tender hold, like a mother consoling a child—and then it vanishes. As I begin to sink into the memory of that touch, I remember it as odd and different from the brushes with other people that seemed devoid of meaning. It was not an innocent caress; it bled with intention. The hand, and the body it was attached to knew where my elbow was and where I was standing. This person could see. I am sure it was Marina.
I raise my hand to leave Generator, and wait. Someone taps me on the shoulder and grabs my arm, leading me back out through the disorienting maze. How did I end up so far from where I started? When I pull off the folds from my eyes, images of the gallery, people, and conversations flood my system—it’s blinding. Dusk had turned into night while I was inside. The guide is someone new. You can write about your experience, she says, pointing me to a station with pencils and paper. An older woman near me writes one word, “In” and scribbles it out. I write nothing. A lone car’s shrill honk blasts through the streets of Chelsea as I walk home clinging to the memory that I had met Marina in the Generator.
Experience Marina Abramovic's Generator at the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York until December 6.