Marina Abramović, Generator, Sean Kelly Gallery (Oct. 24-Dec. 6, 2014)

Last week I went with a friend visiting from abroad to the Sean Kelly gallery where Generator, the new installation by Marina Abramović, is being presented. Gallery-goers intending to enter it were instructed in a prominent notice to leave any bag, coat, watch, and cellphone in the small grey lockers covering a nearby wall. It was a stripping away in preparation for a filling up. Participation also signaled agreement to be filmed or photographed. Facilitators helped would-be participants to prepare by putting a blindfold around their eyes and offering sound-cancelling headphones.  The main gallery of the installation was shown to be a large bright, white space with a few central columns. I didn’t want to do any of this and so I sat on a bench in front of the lockers waiting for my friend to make her way through the installation.  

After a few minutes Abramović walked in and saw me sitting there. She gently encouraged me to try the experience. She took me by the hand and said she would go with me. I explained that I didn’t like participation and I’d always been like that. She explained that one should do what one doesn’t like, and that it would offer a new sensory challenge. I said she was right but that I had been familiar with these kinds of things coming from theatre. She explained it wasn’t like theatre. I said I love the idea of performance but I don’t like to perform.  My friend would tell me about it. She again encouraged me to enter. I repeated that I didn’t like the idea of participation.  She asked me what sign I was. “Taurus,” I answered. “Calabrian.” “Very stubborn,” she said.  Then we walked toward the lockers and Abramović remarked simply, “KGB.” I don’t know why it came to me but I said “Stasi,” and we left it at that. We talked briefly about some difficulties with construction at her Institute in Hudson, she walked off into the gallery offices, and I sat back down on the bench.

Then I thought about how unusual it was that she characterized the lockers as “KGB.” I began to think of the work in another way, not in comparison to a beginning acting exercise, but with the sense that it was rooted in the experience of life in a police state. I now viewed the installation as if it were a model of solitary confinement, imprisonment—real or metaphoric. The blindfolded people who felt their way around the walls of the large open space (void, silence, nothingness), seeing no one, hearing no one, had only their imagination, an individualistic mental space, to provoke the limitless contours of the mind. In a condition of surveillance and control that is the only free space. Thus, there is a duality to this dialectical world: objective space and subjective space. The participants are like figures lost in Plato’s cave, their shadows on the wall making a play of gestures, in a white cube instead of a black box. Generator is a turn to theatre, the ur social-political-philosophical form. The release of personal energy strives toward a permanent utopian project.