mArina Abramović’s 2010 New York show The Artist Is Present made her a global icon, but she is not personally present in the mystical spectacle of her new show Gates and Portals. However, she showed up at the press presentation to explain that since she became a celebrity, she wants to remove herself from her work, to let it speak for itself. This is a big assignment. As I discovered at that event, she is an extraordinary presence. She calms herself with magnetic silence, and when she speaks she seems to time her words to an underlying rhythm of breath and heartbeat. Her charisma and eerie timelessness will keep you hypnotized.
Unfortunately, counselors trained in what she calls the Abramović method cannot reproduce these unearthly qualities. It’s like Judi Dench would train a bunch of people in the Dench method and let them play her famous roles: just not the same. Worse, it focuses your mind on the ideas behind the art — and they’re paper thin.
The Abramović method as practiced here involves a lot of slow walking, gentle coercion, and sensory deprivation. Just when you wonder how long to stand with your eyes close to the wall, they move you to another spot. It’s like being in The Blair Witch Project, an impression confirmed by a glimpse of Abramović on screen, reacting in reverie to some very Blair Witchy items from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.
The finicky movements from one room to another rob him of power. Finally, you’ll be led into the largest, so-called climax chamber, with a gate or “portal” in the center: a tall rectangular frame studded with glowing crystals. You are ritually walked through and then urged to lie down on a mat. To process the spiritual journey you’ve been on, presumably.
It felt like death to me. And just when I thought it was over, they took me back to the glowing gate. To stand in it this time and absorb its radiance.
Is that what Abramović wants to share, a revelation of the New Age faith? Gates and Portals offers a religious, not an aesthetic experience. If you feel renewed, cleansed, and transformed by this self-precipitation, you would accept its mystical insight. And that meaning comes down to believing in the power of a glowing portal to change you from one state to another. To experience it, you give up your freedom of thought and action for an hour and a quarter.
Fans of participatory art argue that it undermines the ‘passivity’ of the traditional museum or gallery, but this is certainly the truly passive experience, uncritically submitting to the collective rite. If, on the other hand, you’re passive when exploring a museum collection, you’re not doing it right. A visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum – where Abramović recently had a residency, and a path through which you can follow her research – is a reminder of how inspiring an old-fashioned collection can be.
Abramović spent her time in the atmospheric Victorian Anthropology Gallery with its stunningly strange displays, from masks to coffins to an ancient Ukrainian figure that no one can even date. Yet it was English folklore that gripped her. In one video, she conducts a seance using a 19th-century Somerset witch’s ladder, a rope with feathers tied into it. Suddenly her eyes open as wide as gates to another universe and she stares at you as if possessed.
You can also find the “witch in a bottle” she studied. This is reportedly exactly what it says on the label: a thick, tightly closed glass bottle that contains a witch’s ghost. It was collected in 1915 near Hove, Sussex, by the historian and folklorist Margaret Murray, from an old woman who told her: ‘They do say there’s a witch in it and it’s a problem if you look at it. outside late. The museum never opened it.
Also here are the three ring-shaped loops of knotted mountain ash seen in her video at Modern Art Oxford. These were cataloged in 1893 as coming from a house in Yorkshire, where they were placed on the garden railing to scare away witches.
These objects are enchanting and I was grateful to Abramović for leading me to find them. But without her as a performer to connect everything, there seems to be no connection whatsoever between her research and the oppressive, laborious ritual of her Gates and Portals. It’s all a demonstration of why art can draw on religion and magic, but are not the same. Trying to be more than art makes this so much less.
This review was amended on September 23, 2022 to remove a description of those volunteering to help with the exhibit; the escorts are paid.