On a cold Saturday morning in December, I went to Generator, Marina Abramović’s performance installation at Sean Kelly Gallery. In her first solo exhibition in New York since The Artist is Present at MoMA in 2010, Abramović focuses on “nothingness” and asks visitors to participate in an exercise of sensory deprivation and forced self-introspection. Here is my story.
Upon entry, I was greeted by a charming female facilitator and asked to sign a waiver, which I did not read. I then disrobed – coat, gloves, scarf, bag – and placed my belongings in a locker. I took this time to drink some water from the cooler and answer any last-minute texts and emails before locking up.
I relished the opportunity to be untethered by my belongings, my constantly ticking iPhone, my “stuff”, and I moved towards a group of attendants, one of whom walked across to me, blindfold in hand. “You have great style,” he said. I said thank you, and asked if he would catch me if I fell. He said that I wouldn’t fall because I was so graceful.
He explained the rules: he would walk me in and then I would raise my hand when I wanted to leave. He placed the blindfold on me and asked, “Is that ok?” “Tighter,” I said. Darkness. Then, the noise-cancelling headphones. Silence. With one hand in mine and the other on my back, he led me down what seemed to be an interminable corridor. I imagined being led without candlelight through a dark catacomb. As he walked me, slowly and gingerly, into the abyss, I could hear only the sound of my heels on the gallery floor. Then, without notice, I was released.
It is at that moment, I suppose, where all the “nothingness” should begin. Lauren Kelly, the gallery’s director, later told me that the facilitators, who are all trained by Abramović, are taught to read people’s energy. Some want to be engaged, want attention, some want to be ignored, treated sterilely, coldly, and so on. Each experience is unique, each participant led in and out of the gallery in a different way.
I took my first steps cautiously, but then quickly gained a stride. There is a certain freedom to walking, destination unknown, sight unseen, sound unheard. It wasn’t until I ran into my first wall that I was jolted back into somethingness. Ah, the harsh, cold reality of literally hitting wall. I giggled, a reaction to a feeling of embarrassment, the possibility of having been seen – a feeling that quickly passes without the ability to see or hear any possible outside judgment. One is forced to let go of the idea of looking silly while being placed in an uncomfortable situation, a trademark found in many of Abramović’s pieces (only the very resolute will not at least blush while walking through two naked people facing each other in a doorway in Imponderabilia). Self-awareness is forced upon the participant in these moments.
As I walked along, there were hard walls, there were padded walls, and there were people. There have been tales of people dancing, holding hands, almost kissing in the installation – all of which is captured by cameras and loaded onto the dedicated Tumblr – I ran into one person in my time inside Generator, or, more aptly, I ran into a chunky knit sweater, and found myself swiveling around and walking in the other direction almost immediately. I just wanted to be alone.
I imagine that to reach the “full emptiness” that Abramović touts would take more than my short time inside the gallery that morning (not to mention years of meditative training), but, if anything, Generator forces one to be confronted with the rather daunting task of being with oneself – nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing to do – even if just for a moment. To not check one’s phone incessantly (and live to tell the tale), to not seek outside stimulation to satiate us and save us, to be present (even if the artist is not)… this is the modern man’s plight.
When I decided my time was done, I raised my hand and a facilitator came to me and guided me back, this time via a more labyrinthine path. When we finally came to a stop and the facilitator removed my earmuffs, a familiar voice whispered in my ear, “You didn’t fall.”