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Is Performance Art the New Religion?

According to a Pew Research study, if you count people who change from one type of Protestantism to another, “44% of American adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.” This “very competitive religious marketplace” promises to only get more competitive, as percentages of young people either unaffiliated with a faith or totally unaffiliated being even higher. Why are these people taking their faith to the marketplace? What are they looking for? Is it some kind of different or higher experience? With the stir surrounding Marina Abramović’s current performance art piece, Marina Abramović: 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery in London, England, being described frequently as a “religious experience,” is it possible that performance art—the most often ridiculed, poorly understood, but perhaps most vibrant art form today—could be the new religion?

Marina Abramović: 512 Hours takes its title from the number of hours that the performance artist will be spending with the public, approximately 160 visitors at a time, 10 am through 6 pm, 6 days a week, through August 25, 2014. “[V]isitors will both literally and metaphorically leave their baggage behind in order to enter the exhibition: bags, jackets, electronic equipment, watches and cameras may not accompany them,” the exhibition website explains. “The public will become the performing body, participating in the delivery of an unprecedented moment in the history of performance art.” After lining up outside the gallery, visitors will be allowed into the exhibition space of white-walled rooms bare except for a simple stage in one. Abramović (shown above) and her assistants—clad in high-contrasting black—then interact with the public at random.  Often Abramović will walk up to a person, whisper something to them, and then lead them to another room where they will possibly have a spiritual experience in which they allow themselves to simply “be” in the exhibition space. Her assistants similarly lead people from place to place, fulfilling the promise of making them “the performing body.” But is this really “the delivery of an unprecedented moment in the history of performance art”?

As the exhibition website also helpfully explains, there’s plenty of precedents thanks to a “historically well established relationship between art and ‘nothingness’; visual artists including Robert Barry, John CageMary Ellen Carroll, Robert Irwin, Yves Klein, Gustav Metzger and Yoko Ono (to name only a very few) have all explored the notion of material absence within their practice.” I’m not sure when Mary Ellen Carroll was added to that list, but I do know that a group of curators and art historians accused Abramović of failing to acknowledge the influence of Carroll’s conceptual artwork based on nothing, especially her 2006 performance piece titled Nothing in which she left her New York City apartment and traveled to Argentina for 6 weeks with nothing but the clothes on her back and her passport. I personally have trouble with someone claiming to own the concept of “nothing” as their territory. Even Seinfeld had an episode back in 1993 pitching “a show about nothing,” but you don’t hear him complaining.

You also don’t hear anyone from the long religious tradition of belief based in nothing complaining. Abramović pledged to “have more and more of less and less” in her 2009 Artist’s Life manifesto, but Buddha beat her to that by about 2,500 years. Not to be sacrilegious, but if you look at any of the great religious figures of history, they all begin to look like performance artists. Buddha made the introspective life of worldly renunciation cool long before Carroll. According to scripture, Jesus Christ performed miracles not just for those witnesses before him, but also for all those who only heard secondhand or more and still believed in a world beyond this one. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism—name any religion and you’ll find some grand performance and/or performers at its birth. Many of those performances involve the idea of renouncing this world for another one or for another state of being, essentially trading something for nothing, like Abramović’s visitors stowing their “baggage” in lockers before entering her sanctuary space.

The parallels between Abramović’s 512-hour performance and religion are obvious (and undoubtedly intentional): a holy space, the charismatic leader, the devoted disciples, and the curious uninitiated longing just for a moment of uplift. In a BBC piece on the exhibition, a young art student told an interviewer, “I really wanted to connect with her, so I said a little prayer… Connecting with her presence was really special. She said, ‘stay here as long as you like, take deep breaths, be present’… It was perfect, really.” The possibility of Abramović reducing an audience member to tears happens frequently enough to inspire a tumblr account of tear-drenched portraits titled “Marina Abramovic Made Me Cry.” I haven’t visited the exhibition myself, but other critics have taken on the “cry challenge” as a point of professional pride.  The Guardian’s Zoe Williams admits to a tear or two (joking that she joined “the cult”), but TIME’s  Megan Gibson snarkily refuses to well up, although she does admit to a calming, joyous experience. Even those prepared not to be moved often find the performance moving. Freed of the “baggage” of conventional religion, people may find their inhibitions regarding spirituality broken down more easily by performance art simply because it doesn’t look like the religion they’ve come to know and doubt for more worldly than spiritual reasons.

Performance art’s always flirted with cult status. Abramović’s followers look much like Joseph Beuys’ and others’ from decades before. When Chris Burden crucified himself on a Volkswagen in 1974 for Trans-fixed, the message was clear. More subtly religious was Burden’s 1975 Doomed, in which he decided to lay beneath a slanted sheet of glass beside a running wall clock until someone interacted with him. Only when a museum employee placed a pitcher of water within the dehydrated Burden’s reach after more than 45 hours did Burden smash the glass and then the clock—a powerful parable about human compassion, or the lack thereof. Maybe it’s parables like Burden’s and performances like Marina Abramović’s in Marina Abramović: 512 Hours that are what we need to stop shopping for a religion and to start living more spiritually.

[Image: Marina Abramović. Photograph by Marco Anelli © 2014.]

[Marina Abramović: 512 Hours runs at the Serpentine Gallery in London, England, through August 25, 2014.]

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