When one of the world's most respected and renowned performance artists invites the public to take part in her new collective piece in the city that you just moved to, you brave the sub-zero weather and queue outside for no less than 3 hours to join her. You pack out in layers so that you bare a close resemblance to a life-size egg and ask the friendly strangers around you to hold your place in the line while you go inside and massage the blood back into your frozen numb feet every 30 minutes.
You follow the instructions to leave phones and watches outside and enter a bubble where time is a forgotten concept. You cry for the first part and then people watch for the next and you feel an overwhelming sense of intimacy and peace and something else too great and intangible to put into words. You clear your mind and make the present moment count and lose yourself in an unexpected meditation.
And the next time you open your eyes, it's sunset already.
I'm still kind of processing what happened on Sunday. The Moderna Museet here in Stockholm is exhibiting a major retrospective for the work of Marina Abramovic (please Google her if you don't already know because you should really know about her) until May and I don't exactly know how or why but something also popped up on my Facebook feed last month about a brand new performance piece that she would be holding in the Eric Ericson Hall right next to the modern art museum, for one week only. Which was last week.
The performance was from 2pm - 10pm everyday so I showed up around 4:30 on Saturday and holy hell, the queue was three hours long. When I asked about what time people started queuing, I was told that it was usually around 11am when the first people would show up. So either way, early or not, it was going to be a three hour wait. Since I was not in anyway prepared for this, I went inside to see the exhibition and then headed home, undecided whether or not I'd come back the next day. The last day for the performance.
The Cleaner was a collective performance piece that explored the creation of community through shared experience and human contact. It wasn't something I've ever been a part of before or really, anything that I really knew of. Marina has an artist career spanning close to 40 years and yet in this new piece, no-one knew exactly what it was and there was no other information surrounding it except that it would involve a choir. I guess one of her most renowned pieces, the one that also made her name in popular culture, was The Artist is Present, 2010, which was held in New York at the MoMA. She sat for eight hours a day for almost three months, while over 1000 strangers took it in turns to sit opposite her and lock eyes. When I first heard about her, it was through one of my flatmates at the time a few years later. I remember feeling a sense of awe when she described it to me, the way so many people were moved to tears and the way, in turn, Marina was too, simply from the intimacy of the gaze from another human being. She came to London in the summer of 2014 and held another new participatory performance piece at the Serpentine Gallery. I don't really remember much about that summer except that it was a pretty bad summer for me and I kind of just dropped out of London for a bit and.. so I missed it. And of course, I regret it. Or regretted it. I made it back to myself on Sunday.
I turned up at 11am and joined the small queue that had already taken shape. I wore layers and a big shearling coat and thick Doc Martens and had a flask of hot tea in my bag.. still not quite enough. I don't think that it was much colder than the days before but I suppose on those days before I wasn't standing stationary for a prolonged period of time. As I chatted to the people in front and behind me in the line, the cold just kind of crept up on me. The first hour was fine and then my toes were starting to lose feeling. I took a toilet break and walked around a couple of laps of the museum and came back with my feet still cold. Half an hour later, my toes were so cold that they just started to hurt and I actually got a worried. I went back inside again (thank god for making new friends and having people there to save my place) but then actually considered pulling out of the line and missing the performance altogether. My feet were so numb that even a few more walks around the museum weren't helping and I just wondered if I really wanted my first weekend in Stockholm to be in hospital because I couldn't hack the cold and I had frozen my feet to the point of no return. I spotted a few people I had seen in the queue outside earlier and they were sitting on the benches by the toilets with their boots off and massaging their feet. So I did the same. And after 15 minutes of massaging the blood back into my feet-turned-bricks, they slowly started to warm up again. I stayed for a little longer until they were fully functioning again before heading back out to rejoin the queue. And somehow I was fine after that - as long as I kept my legs moving - and the next hour or so went by a lot faster than I expected.
We were so excited. Too excited; I think we were half scared that we'd built it up too much in our heads already. Especially since.. well, who knew what would happen inside?
We handed in our coats and scarves and bags and phones and we were ushered through a big door to wait behind another. And when it opened and we were guided through I let out a gasp. The building was reclaimed as a concert hall, more of a cultural centre for concerts and social events, in 2009 and renamed the Eric Ericsonhallen but before this, it was a church. And the space inside has been kept true to it's roots. It's circular by way of design and the ceiling is high and beautiful and dome-shaped. There are great columns that stand around the hall claiming their ground and are connected with strong arches that neatly frame the windows. Windows that are grand and bright and there is so much light and space in what seems to be much smaller from the outside. And so I took a gasp. Because coming from the cold and anticipation from the outside and into the warmth of this golden hall was something.. else. And I am in no way religious, but I could feel something there, like a kind of presence, but not at all the the godly sense. It's hard to explain; maybe it will come to me in a more articulate way later.
The choir performed in acapella throughout the whole time, sometimes it seemed rehearsed and other times like a complete in-the-moment improvisation. It was incredible. Every song had a hymnal tone in its rhythm but it was a constant switch between lyrical songs and just vocal music and sounds. It was so so beautiful. Some of the "performers" were part of the choir, some not, and they walked around the room at a pace so slow and so calm. When you first step into the hall, you are approached by one with their hand outstretched and you take it and let them lead you in closer. You're placed in a spot in the hall, randomly I think - standing, sitting on a chair or lying on the floor. Speaking is not allowed so you are motioned to close your eyes and you'll feel a hand rest on your chest, or on your back or on your shoulders. Just for a few seconds or so to centre yourself in your new place and you'll naturally match the calm breathes of your guide. So I stayed in my chair for I don't know how long and listened to the sounds of the choir and thought of.. nothing. Except that it was like all my emotions were filling up the empty spaces in me and suddenly I was crying. It wasn't dramatic - there wasn't anything I was thinking about in particular - but it was just.. something I had never felt before. And when I opened my eyes, the whole choir was standing around me. They weren't looking at me. They were just there, singing. And I got chills.
For the rest of the time my eyes were mostly open. I was completely mesmerised by the choir. You were free to move around to different positions around the room but most people waited until a performer came and offered their hand before moving again. I was moved four times in total and every time the same routine - a gesture to close my eyes, a hand on my chest or back or shoulders, and a few quiet seconds of intimacy with a complete stranger. When I thought that it was about time to leave, I walked a slow lap around the room and only then did I notice that the lights were on and the sky was painted with streaks of red.
It was 5:30pm when I got my phone back and checked the time. This sounds quite extreme but 3.5 hours was nothing compared to what I heard some people had stayed in there for. Some maybe a couple more hours longer than me but some who made it to the end; the full 8 hours. And I can imagine I might have done the same had I not started to feel cold again. Just being in there for few minutes enters you into such a meditative state of peace and tranquility that you just lose all concept of time and forget about any feelings of hunger or thirst or needing the toilet. It was crazy and enlightening and beautiful all at once and not something that I will ever forget.
I saw Marina three times while I was in there. Right at the beginning when I was being led to my first position in the hall, I saw her whispering in the ear of one for the performers. So I assumed that she was only there in a voyeuristic sense, unlike her other performances where she plays a more central figure, I assumed that she'd designed the piece and now she was there to watch the people in it. But then I saw her again, from my second place in the hall, just as I turned my head to look to the side for a moment (because I was positioned facing a wall this time) and I saw her picking up a chair. She held it over her head and carried it outside of my peripheral vision. And then a short while later, I turned my whole body back around to face inwards, she walked right passed me holding the hand of a stranger and guiding him through to his position. And then she disappeared behind a column and I never saw her again.
I'm sometimes so surprised about the way things have come about lately, in the timings and in things that are seemingly out of your own control and yet, still conclude in some form of serendipity. That on the week I move to Stockholm, Marina is "performing" in the very same city and I am lucky (persistent) enough to be a part of her immersive bubble. That on the week I move to Stockholm, I've fallen into an immediate comfort in being here and the relief of a new beginning. That on the week I move to Stockholm, things are happening all of a sudden and in the moment and it apparently makes sense. And now, still, I'm only just processing it all.