Much Ado About Nothing

Gemma Tipton on Marina Abramović and Ed Atkins at the Serpentine

Left: Tate curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas and artist Ed Atkins. Right: Writer and editor Bob Collins with artist John Gerrard.

IT WAS A PERFECT SUMMER EVENING: Tuesday earlier this month. The sun shone in Kensington Gardens as flocks of joggers breezed by the ever-lengthening line outside the Serpentine Gallery. Names were given, ticked off lists on clipboards, and even the most august were told, “Yes, you still have to queue.” Though as the BBC’s Alan Yentob arrived on a fold-up bicycle, I got the strong impression he was being specially ushered.

A sense of excitement settled, then thickened. The line was flush with performance artists. There was Nigel Rolfe with Lois Keidan from the Live Art Development Agency; farther along, Anne Tallentire and John Seth; and standing out with a tall pink hairpiece was Silvia Ziranek. With a crowd like that, anything could happen—except nothing really did.

We were waiting to be let into the inaugural session of Marina Abramović’s 512 Hours, and it wouldn’t have been polite for a colleague to steal her thunder… Forewarned, I had come early, so it was only a short wait until we were sworn to silence and handed a card explaining that everything must be left outside in specially installed lockers: bags, coats, and, yes, cameras and mobile phones. So, clad only in dress, shoes, and a waft of the Serpentine’s new perfume (scent by Comme des Garçons, bottle by Tracey Emin, result much nicer than I anticipated), in I went.

Left: Artist Silvia Ziranek. Right: Lisson Gallery’s Nicholas Logsdail and Greg Hilty with curator Sir Norman Rosenthal (center).

People wandered about the hushed, empty galleries, waiting for something. Every day during the run is promised to be different, but this evening black-clad Abramović assistants mingled, occasionally taking a visitor’s hand and leading them off to face a wall or window. The one I thought was Abramović wasn’t; it can be easy to confuse tall, elegant women with epic charisma. But then suddenly, there she was. Holding the hand of Sir Norman Rosenthal, she wore a beatific, almost Stepford Wives expression. Rosenthal was led to the wall, his shoulder briefly touched—anointed. Who would Abramović pick next? She went for Nigel Rolfe, and as the pair clasped hands it was a perfect art moment.

I began to wonder what I’d do. Would I feel cheated if a non-Abramović picked me up? Of course I would. How long would I feel compelled to stare at the wall if she placed me there? Was everyone in black an assistant? Hardly: This was an art crowd, after all. I began to feel rather like I used to at school dances—an increasingly grumpy wallflower—and realizing that this wasn’t exactly in spirit, and as no one seemed prepared to take me by the hand, I took myself in hand and left.

Outside, the line had grown longer, the excitement more palpable there than within. I got the sense that everyone was anticipating the experience of remembering it later. Such is the promise of art celebrity. Richard Wilson was chatting to Joy Gerrard, both perhaps reminiscing about their public art projects at the London School of Economics. Wilson told me he was looking forward to seeing the Queen again. She will be unveiling his new sculpture, Slipstream, at Heathrow’s Terminal 2. “I met her before at the RA, when I was showing the maquette,” he said with a twinkle. “I could tell she wished she’d made it.”

Left: Serpentine Gallery cocurator Hans Ulrich Obrist and Serpentine Gallery director Julia Peyton-Jones. (Photo: Jegors Jerohomovičs) Right: Artists John Seth and Anne Tallentire. (Expected where noted, all photos: Gemma Tipton)

I wondered if Abramović had taken him by the hand. “Of course.” And was it profoundly moving? “Not really,” though he also recalled once clubbing with Abramović and Joseph Kosuth in Japan. “That was a night…”

Ziranek was similarly unimpressed. “I liked looking, but I wanted substance. Someone took my hand, but I said no. I don’t like being led by someone I don’t know.” She told me about her Serpentine performance, in the 1990s: “I came in on a motorbike. Now that was something.”

We decided to stroll through the park to the Serpentine Sackler Galleries for the second part of the evening’s entertainment: Ed Atkins’s solo show. Tallentire told me she had taught Atkins in art school. “I always knew he’d go somewhere, I just didn’t know where. He was just one of the most wonderful students.” Outside the Sackler, Rosenthal was chatting to Lisson Gallery’s Nicholas Logsdail. How had Rosenthal felt when his hand was taken? “I felt the beautiful simplicity,” he said, much moved. “I loved it because it is what it is. So many people try to do things like this, but this…?” He broke off, lost for words.

Inside the beautifully installed Atkins show, there was a different sense of embodiment/disembodiment. Atkins’s CGI films showed such delights as a severed head bouncing down a staircase. In the new Ribbons, a man swoons at a table, burns out a cigarette, and empties the pint before him; as I watched, his head slowly deflated. It was all rather wonderful, and I wondered whether, if we were all waiting to feel nostalgic about the Abramović experience, Atkins’s scene might offer a truer sense of how we might be tomorrow morning.

Left: Artists Joseph Noonan-Ganley and Oisin Byrne. Right: Artists Joy Gerrard and Richard Wilson.

The afterparty at the Polish Club seemed set to deliver on that promise. Jegors Jerohomovičs, over from Latvia to write about the event, was transported. “She puts you in a trance, when it’s her in the room, she takes over with her presence.” He had also sat with Abramović in MoMA in 2010, for The Artist Is Present. They had talked about telepathy and telephones. She gets some people that way.

Downstairs, Maureen Paley was tidying up her hair before going back up to join Wolfgang Tillmans. Hans Ulrich Obrist and Julia Peyton-Jones arrived, with Peyton-Jones’s dog Charlie in arms. Obrist told me that it’s a Gesamtkunstwerk, and Peyton-Jones argued that the pairing of the shows was especially important. I think it must be a hard station to be paired with Abramović.

It was a fun night, the wine flowed, and the party spilled out into the park behind. Atkins chatted with Tate curator Lizzie Carey-Thomas about his imminent trip to Basel for “14 Rooms.” Curated by Obrist with Klaus Biesenbach, it also includes Abramović. That’s the art world for you. If you stay still long enough, it will probably all come to you.

Left: Cabinet Gallery architect Trevor Horn. Right: Curator and writer Ben Borthwick, DRAF director Vincent Honore, and artist Nicholas Deshayes.