From Gaza to Mahler’s 6th via the Antiwar Movement and Marina Abramović
It’s Saturday, July 19th, the day of the big national demo in England against Israel’s asymmetrical war on the people of Gaza. We’re both feeling a bit under the weather and not up for a two-mile hike through muggy London. So we take a bus to near the end point, the fortified Israeli embassy in upscale Kensington, and wait for the march to catch up to us. It’s encouraging to see thousands of people fill the road, lots of under-35s, pods of here-we-are young men, and of women in black very much holding their own, overwhelmingly Arab and Muslim, a spirited, serious demo with no hint of violence except for the special units massed for battle in the back streets. Neither big labor nor Labor seems to be present, and there are no established religious groups preaching peace. The Trotsykists are omnipresent, of course, but the overall mood is nationalist, not socialist.
“I’d like to join one of the Jewish groups,” I tell Cecilia, who knows that I want to make a statement. And so we wait for a banner that declares something like “Jews for Justice in Palestine,” or “Jews Against War Criminals,” or “Jewish Solidarity with Palestine.”
And wait and wait. Maybe I missed them, or maybe they were crouching. Instead we join a lively group chanting “Free Palestine” and “Palestine for the Palestinians,” though my heart is not really into it, as it was in the days of “Free Nicaragua.” I support self-determination for Palestine, but I can’t envision how such a dispersed people will be able to create a nation out of an archipelago striated by Israeli settlements.
I’m glad to do my part in the protest, though I don’t feel like I’m on the cusp of a new movement. Next morning the Brit media hardly cover the march. And a day or so later, the U. S. Senate, every single one of them, including Bernie and Elizabeth, vote rah rah for the IDF.
On Sunday I’m ready for something artsy to restore my sagging spirit. We head over to the Serpentine Gallery to see how this year’s architect-in-residence, Smiljan Radic, has imagined a giant egg shell cracking over boulders on the craggy landscape of Hyde Park. We’d talked about also going to see Marina Abramović’s piece, “512 Hours,” inside the gallery space, but I was hesitant to participate in what has become a hyper-hip event, promoted as “an exceptional moment in the history of performance art.” What’s the point of lining up for hours to go into an experience with my guard up?
But there’s no queue. Abramović’s sleek, black-clad acolytes beckon us in, no charge. Certainly a nice surprise after paying 22 pounds to see two exhibitions at the “Keep-The-Tate-Free” museum. So, why not? We do as we’re told: stash all our stuff in lockers, unload electronics, read the rules (come and go as we please, agree to be filmed, etc.). As we enter the space, an attendant gives each of us heavy-duty earphones that look like the ones workers with jackhammers wear. I brace myself for New Agey sounds, water trilling down-stream or the yips of dolphins.
But there’s nothing. Total silence. I enter the first room, sit in a chair to chart my course, an outsider looking in. I spend time listening, hearing only distant lower register sounds that remind me of wood thumping against metal far away, maybe the building creaking, I think. I’m thinking a lot. Then I look around carefully, not so discretely. There are folks in the room, but it’s not crowded, maybe thirty in all, mostly young and white, the people not at yesterday’s march. Some stand still and silent on a low stage around one of Abramović’s assistants. Occasionally aides steer onlookers and position them around the Assistant. No words, every movement slowed down. I’m restless, I move on.
In the next room I’m given a blindfold and gently urged into the abyss. Now I’m blind as well as mute and deaf. Nobody speaks, no “sorries” when you bump into a leg or arm. I think about what it would be like to be in solitary confinement, subjected to sensory deprivation in an American prison. I’m anxious, take off the blindfold, and move into the third room.
Here everybody is walking around, very slowly. I watch from a wall. I see Cecilia adapting a Tai Chi exercise and think, “I wish I could do that.”
Then Marina Abramović is right in front of me, inches away. I see only her strong face. I can smell her minty breath. I take off one of the earphones to hear her whisper into my ear: “Will you slow walk with me?” is what I think I hear her saying in a faintly Serbic accent. “The mind races like a Ferrari. It takes us four times to slow it down. Will you walk with me?”
“Yes,” I whisper. [Yes, yes, yes.]
She takes my hand in her cool, perfectly proportioned grip. I look down and follow her slow, deliberate gait. In seconds we are in sync. I can think of nothing else but stepping, how each step feels in my whole body. At the wall, we stop, stay for a moment, let go, turn and hold hands. Four times. Then she lets go, nods at me, and is gone. As she leaves the room, she hands her severe black jacket to an aide and leaves in a flash of bright white shirt.
Afterwards Cecilia tells me that during my slow walk with Abramović, the room filled up with people in ones and twos slow-stepping their way around and with us, a ballet of bodies. I have no memory of this. But now I have a better understanding of what Marina Abramović means when she says that she’s trying to create “art without any object, solely between performer and public.”
We talk through our experiences, both of us calm and joyous, in Radic’s extra-terrestrial, very sociable Pavilion. There are earphones for free here too. I accept one, ready for more of what Abramović has to offer. But this is nothing to do with her. It’s a sound piece, with another artist’s voice telling us privately to jump, cut the air into pieces, roll around. But it’s not private. The trick is that it’s synchronized, so in a matter of seconds the café and surrounding lawn are filled with strangers miming and laughing in common.
That evening I attend the World Orchestra for Peace concert at the Albert Hall Proms. The orchestra is engorged with percussion, including a monstrous hammer to perform the menacing portent of Mahler’s 6th. It’s part of the centennial commemorations of the onset of World War I. But as I walk somberly out of the building, recreating yesterday’s slow pace, it’s today’s warfare that troubles my mind: young men gun their cars up and down the Kensington Road, flaunt huge Israeli and Palestinian flags out of their windows, and taunt each other with the screech of disembodied car horns.