In 2014, more than 110,000 people queued for hours outside London’s Serpentine Gallery for the chance to see her performance piece 512 Hours. Me and my friend Ilinca were among those people that went to meet Marina Abramović for the first time. On arrival at the exhibition I didn’t know what to expect and after the wait outside, there it was, complete immersion. There were no rules, no formula – just the artist, the audience and a few simple props in the empty white space.
To begin with, you had to wear noise-canceling headphone and any communication had to be non-verbal. There was all kind of energy in the room and you had to go through various exercises: just looking at the wall, counting grains of rice and lentils, doing a slow-motion walk and standing on a platform, and all the these had to be done in complete silence. I think after that I understood the transformative power of performance and what it had done to me. I went to buy her book “Walk through Walls” and that is where I learnt more about the artist Marina Abramović and her workshops.
She had gone several times to India to do retreats, yet for all her spiritual exploration she still had important lessons to learn. In 1999, Lama Doboom Tulku the director of Tibet House in New Delhi, invited Marina Abramović to participate in a festival of sacred music in Bangalore. That was a big event encompassing five different Buddhist traditions – Theravada, Mahayana, Vajrayana, Hinayana and Bön.
The Dalai Lama, who felt the music unites everybody, wanted Marina Abramovic to choreograph a piece with many monks from these five Buddhist traditions, all singing one song together. She was given 120 monks to work with -20 for each tradition.
Interestingly, for the song she chose Heart Sutra, a prayer common to all Buddhist traditions. For the choreography, she decided to arrange the monks on movable benches so that they would form a human pyramid.
She worked with the monks for a month and in the end the monks said: “We really enjoyed your collaboration, but we have a problem – we can’t do the pyramid because in Tibetan Buddhism nobody can be at the top.” Although weeping with frustration, fury and exhaustion Marina said she learned that something important…sometimes you do everything you can to achieve a goal, and then it doesn’t happen because the cosmic laws go a different way. You need to learn detachment. Her teaching and the workshops were an extremely important part of her career. She taught in so many places: Paris, Hamburg, Berlin, Kitakyushu in southern Japan, Copenhagen, Milan, Bern and the longest of all eight years Braunschweig in northern Germany. “In each place I taught, I always started with a workshop for the students. The workshop taught endurance, concentration, perception, self-control, willpower, and confrontation with mental and physical limits. This was the core of my teaching. For each workshop I would take between twelve and twenty five students, always to a place that was either too cold or too hot, never comfortable, and, while we fasted for three to five days, drinking only water and herbal teas, and refraining from speaking we would do various exercises.
- BREATHING. Lie on the ground, press your body against the ground as forcefully as possible without breathing, keep this position as long as you can, then breathe deeply and relax.
- BLINDFOLD. Leave home and go to the forest, where you are blindfolded, then try to find your way back home. Like a blind person, an artist needs to learn to see with his or her whole body.
- LONG WALK IN LANDSCAPE. Start walking from a given point, proceeding in a straight line through the landscape for four hours. Rest, then return along the same route.
- WALKING BACKWARDS. Walk backwards for four hours, while holding a mirror in your hand. Observe reality as a reflection.
- FEELING ENERGY. With your eyes closed, extern your hands in front of you toward another participant. Never touching the other person, move your hands around different area of their body for one hour, feeling their energy.
- STOPPING ANGER. If you get angry, stop breathing and hold your breath until you can’t hold it anymore, then inhale fresh air.
- REMEMBERING.Try to remember the very moment between being awake and falling asleep.
- COMPLAINING TO A TREE. Hold a tree and complain to it, for a minimum of fifteen minutes.
- SLOW-MOTION EXERCISE. For the entire day, do everything very slowly, walking, drinking water.
- OPENING THE DOOR. For three hours, very slowly open a door, neither entering nor exiting. After three hours the door is not a door anymore.
Students have asked me what I expect them to get out of these workshops, and what I get out of them. I tell them that after the workshops, participants get a burst of positive energy and a flow of new ideas; their work becomes clear. The general feeling is that the hardship was worth it. And a strong sense of unity is created between the participants and me. Then we go to the academy and work. ”