The Art of Care
I hear about my performance through blogs and notes left downstairs. One lengthy reflection reads: ‘I wasn’t expecting to feel looked after at an art gallery. At best, I am being considered: some comfortable seating, legible texts, enough space to move around without accidentally backing into another person or work of art. But do I feel like the art gallery cares about me personally? More than just one in a mass? Probably not’.
On entering the gallery, you have nothing but your clothed body. You have deposited your phone and bag in a locker downstairs. When visitors come to us they are often overzealous. Loud and laughing and hurried, compensating for the unknown space in front of them.
Yesterday, a man shook uncontrollably, forgetting to breathe, when I took him to the towers in the first gallery. I could see droplets of perspiration gathering on his forehead. I’m learning a lot about insecurity: the body gives everything away. Those who enter the space with booming voices and apparent mockery often reveal themselves when I take their hand.
‘Heroes create their own symbols
Symbols are the Heroes’ language
The language must then be translated’,
writes Marina Abramovic in her ‘Hero’s Manifesto’ (2022), a development of her original ‘Artist’s Life Manifesto’ (2009). I wonder whether writing about moments of intimacy with strangers somehow destroys the purity of our shared symbols. The dirty act of translation brings the gestures of living bodies onto the page, making them stick. Marina’s recent emphasis on presence and emptiness resists linguistic translation. She rejects recording the performance altogether. Instead, her late work seeks a loss of temporality: ‘time is lost’, she writes on the wall I stare at each morning.
In writing this, my words fill an intentional silence with meaning; replace something nebulous with definition.
At the exhibition, there are very few words. The symbols are gestures and objects. Gestures, a kind of object in themselves, punctuate our journey from care to pacification. Turning back to the bodily manifestations of care helps me to reflect on what it means, symbolically, to provide for someone else.
The first touch of the hand is a sacred moment, and I try to savor the shock of touch – their shock. In my gendered body, touch is often a cause of numbness. Perhaps this is one of the only experiences where I feel absolutely in control. I get to decide when I touch them. Touch is not only something I rarely feel empowered by, but also something we have all been deprived of in recent years. This much physical contact with strangers still feels forbidden, transgressive.
A man enters. I must greet him and feel a sense of absolute calm when I regard his facial features, particularly the long and slightly rounded nose, realising that he looks exactly like my ex, who has been accused of rape by several women. I take his hand and feel I am exercising some kind of grace. Caring for him, silently, becomes a selfish act, an act of healing.
Bringing the hands to the face, closing the hands around the eyes
As we turn the corner into the first gallery, you can see the copper towers, arranged in a dyad formation. Their shadows make angular patterns on the floor. We step into the unknown, where magnetic energy runs around us. The magnets, encased in the top of the towers, connect to one another and the iron in our blood. I try to soothe your anxiety through walking extremely slowly. Marina calls this the ‘slow walk’. Technically, we are meant to take over an hour to get from one side of the room to the other. In reality, this never happens. This time, I’m not transgressing societal norms but the Abramovic method itself. After all, she isn’t here.
Between the towers I feel a dense wall in the air. I am not worried about whether this is a placebo, or caused by the magnetic field. Together, we are both choosing to believe in something. Here we surrender to the immaterial: we no longer really have any power. We don’t know what’s real or not. The magnets know. They wait for our hands to detach, the shock of being alone again. I place you here, under the magnet, under the tower. We are still. Standing face to face, there is a transference of contact from hands to eyes. Now that our hands are no longer touching, I stare into your irises. You look down or away. I feel my gaze penetrating, powerful and full of shame.
Under the mystical towers I give visitors the ‘mutual gaze’, as Marina calls it. Most people are very shy, avoiding eye contact. Sometimes people want it, or expect me to be strange. Occasionally the gaze is intensely sexual. In these circumstances, I no longer always feel in control or caring. I transgress again.
An old man enters and I feel the presence of my dead grandfather, who I never really knew as an adult, only feeling his grand bodily presence as a young child. My grandfather was an eye specialist. I take this man’s hand and his grip is strong and curious, as I imagine the doctor’s would have been. I lead him to the portal and he keeps his eyes closed. When I leave him I feel the grief wash over me.
Closing the eyes
This is a very intimate moment. Our faces are close and I am still staring. When the mysterious time comes, when we can no longer look at one another, I leave you there, making a sign to shut your eyes. This moment is magic, uncanny. I am still looking at you, knowing that the last thing you saw was my face, imagining how it looked. I walk away, leaving you in a personal blackness. That moment of mutual gaze to nothingness is irretrievable: it utterly evades language, making me shiver.
When you close your eyes, the art is no longer visual; it’s inside your head.
It occurs to me that I might not remember these details in the future, and so I should record them even though they are boring. The point of the exhibit doesn’t seem to be the objects but the feelings. In fact, the objects are unexplained and potentially pointless. Perhaps the ‘symbols to be translated’ (as in the ‘Hero’s Manifesto’) are these feelings. We all become artists, then. Or heroes.
Who is the Hero at this moment?
One day a girl faints right in front of me, with a group of school children watching from under the towers. She’s OK: we help her. In fact, another Facilitator helps her. I, the closest responsible adult, stand motionless while others rush around. Perhaps I am not cut out for real care; just performance. She is so hot, they say. She is wearing a scarf and a coat and gloves. She has cut her lip by falling with her hands in her pockets. All these details are relayed to me by colleagues.
Writing about this feels cowardly, shameful.
Tapping the shoulder
What Marina is searching for, or trying to get people to experience, has become routine for us. A deep and slow contemplation. But for those walking into the gallery on a Saturday afternoon, on a break from their shopping in the Mall next door, the white cube emanates corporate tranquility; a simultaneously alienating and comforting space. This has all been said before. We could call Marina’s work site specific: breaking apart this tranquil gallery site by returning to the agitated body. My job is to watch people confront themselves.
Fourteen minutes standing in the first gallery is meant to induce an initial calming effect. Usually, I wake people from under the towers by touching their upper arms gently. Sometimes they jump and I feel a rush of energy through my heart.
Marina hasn’t explained the magnets or the copper or the crystals, although these all point to the genre of healing therapies and spiritual practices – a set of themes, a message.
Marina has handed over the baton. The artist is not present, we are. And who are we? A motley crew of artists, front of house staff and graduates. Her name entices us and the visitors to participate. So, in fact, the exhibit is about a name – without a presence. It is about how people fill a name with presence. They are forced to contemplate this emptiness, noticing their own bodies in this strange white space, and then their lack of sight in the blindfolding room. Here, my degree of power increases as I gesture towards the blindfold and walk them to a seat, where they will remain for 10 minutes. Although they are more peaceful here, having already had 15 minutes of slow movement and stillness, the level of care increases.
The smell of garlic lingers in the blindfolding room. Perhaps I will never again be this intimate with the smells of strangers.
Care and power coalesce to form a boundary: the black curtain that opens onto this final scene, where you choose where to go. Here, where we end up, I no longer have agency over our actions, and at this moment my care disintegrates.
My father described entering the final gallery as walking into heaven, referring to the archway of Selenite crystals that glows at its center. So perhaps we have all been redeemed. Saved from the push and pull of performance.
A green haired person kisses someone in a techno t-shirt who doesn’t make eye contact with me. They kiss right in front of me although they hide their faces from view. I try to not notice. The lovers reclaim the realm of intimacy, shot through with white light from the glowing crystals. The bulbs make walking through this portal warm and fuzzy.
If care is a performance, what does it tell the caregiver about themselves? What impels me to give up this presence to another? Or to force upon them a contemplation which obliterates time?
To become an artist or a hero, Abramovic says, we must invent our own signs. These words are mine.
Elinor Arden explores care as a transgressive performance through her experience as a performer at a recent Marina Abramovic show. She experiments with the act of translating bodily symbols onto the page. Describing the exhibition becomes a metaphor for the complex relationship between you (reader) and I (writer): the antipode of you (viewer) and I (performer).