Sneaking into portals with Marina Abramović

By Alex Mazey

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One of the more interesting spaces in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum is that transitional space which lies between each floor. It is a perfectly sterile, staired mezzanine of sorts which delivers spectators to a gargantuan room of trinkets and curiosities plundered – it is said – by way of British colonialism. 

The timely admission of this evil – of facing a certain historical reality – is perhaps as performative as it is platitudinal, serving a deeply ideological function in our aesthetic age. It is in these spaces of non-neutrality where spectators might even receive their homeopathic dose of evil in preparation for the world outside; and so, it could be said, in restless effort to preserve a certain paradigm, such museums take one for the team. Nevertheless, having been liberated from the ideal neutrality of elsewhere worlds you can almost see history sigh with relief. And yet, the real function is this: in the open problematisation of the historical space the issues of what lies beyond the past – which is to say the catastrophes of the present – seem to dissipate entirely. 

Lauding a contemporary morality over the past – a morality which holds no allegiance to any referential whatsoever – is the protective cloak of the here and now, and in pointing out the depth of historical evil – in its practical fetishization – we are completely blinkered from those white-washed walls that devour us, where even as one urinates in the facilities provided a person will be soaked in the presence of this ‘neutral reality’ – transparent reality – delivered by way of poster and those screens we hold like rosary beads, as Byung-Chul Han once observed. 

Poster then, as in, an advertisement for Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals today shown at Modern Art Oxford, developed during a research residency the artist undertook at Pitt Rivers in the spring of 2021, and screen, as in, an endless profusion of TikTok reels. I am so repulsed by history I must observe the brilliance of the contemporary in the cleanliness of this toilet cubicle, I am so bored by the banality of urination I must have a laugh whilst doing so. Name something more ironic than the architecture of the world we inhabit, where everything on the inside appears to be painted with a wash of holy white. 

Stepping beyond the facilities provided, I walk the white corridor, enter through a white door where another poster is presented at eye level. In this hypnotic hallway, which exists here without a single blemish of blue tack – radiating as it does with the snowy, bleached glow of bones – the same affiche is presented every few metres, every poster pressed between thin glass so that no crease should ever exist again; the casual uniformity perhaps a mirror of our own. As I walk this corridor, I wonder whether Marina Abramović walked here too. It is so abundantly clear in my capacity to perceive the world that this reality we made for ourselves is a kind of fever dream where spaces advertise the other spaces with which they share an unspoken pact of allegiance. 

Nevertheless, before leaving any British museum, you should really check your pockets for phone and wallet to make sure they haven’t stolen those things too. Wallet, check. Phone, check. Bottle of Blue Raspberry Prime Hydration, check. What’s particularly noteworthy about this variety of energy drink – once kept body temperature in my back pocket – is how the colour of the bottle achieves the simultaneous qualities of both a vibrancy and a dreariness I have never quite seen before. The bottle appears emblematic of what we might call the transaesthetic age whilst also remaining a representative of that seemingly transparent logic that involves affixing the semblance of the natural world onto our own. What we have discovered in this process of (af)fixation is the agonising truth of a world that holds no allegiance to what we believe it ought to be. Obsession is also a process; a ritual which adheres to its own logic. And we are all possessed.   

It is this possession that might also offer the compartmentalization of an absolute agony when I first took a good ol’ swig of Prime Hydration (which is obviously the dumb flex of energy drinks) whilst at the same time making my way through those cobblestone streets towards Modern Art Oxford. Walking throughout the time reading the back of the bottle – its list of ingredients, and so on – the first line of the beverage’s mission statement dripping with an almost palpable sardonicism as it read, ‘Prime was developed to fill the void…’. Whilst this sentence obviously resumes on the next printed line, there has been perhaps no better description of a product made in the image of a reality we must constantly fill – preferably with three types of media beamed into our retinas all at once. In truth, I was hoping to accustom my palette to the taste of reconstituted powdered coconut water in preparation for the inevitable arrival of soylent green. Rolling the high viscosity liquid around in my mouth, I was left thinking, ‘what the fuck is a blue raspberry, anyway?’ You see, what I’ve obviously done wrong here – what I have always done wrong – is making that elementary mistake of thinking anything at all. 

And so, I check my phone for any nearby Pokémon before I check my phone once more for any tidbits of information in regards to Marina Abramović: Gates and Portals. Now, according to the world’s most reliable source of information (Wikipedia), Abramović scrubbed human bones for five hours in the Pitt Rivers Museum back in 1995. Twenty-six years later and the ‘grandmother of performance art’ was back in the city of dreaming spires where she had conjured up a new exhibition designed to explore ‘transitional states of being’ or something really cool like that. Nevertheless, no matter how much I wanted to step through that (glass) door and enter Abramović’s esoteric world of gates, portals, and at one time ‘spirit cooking’ (aka what a certain conspiracy theorist once considered covert Satanism(?)), the impression I always received from such prestigious art galleries is that I do not belong there. It is like an alarm is sounded on entrance and suddenly everyone in the vicinity is aware that I am in possession of an inbuilt bullshit detector. What basically ensued then was this person trying to sneak into an art gallery to see art, which was – I was later told by a friendly gallery attendant – not so much ‘art’ but an ‘experience’. For the longest time I thought the pleasure of art was to be found in the experience of being disappointed by it. Turns out I might have been right all along. People always review art as if they came to that world so naturally, they stand in front of an artwork – say – and never once talk about the experience of getting there. Of course, sneaking into the gallery was necessary because 1) all the tickets had been sold, and 2) I had spent all my money on a bottle of Blue Raspberry Prime Hydration

Full disclosure: I didn’t sneak anywhere since that would be as uncouth as it would be unlawful so in lieu of a ticket to attend Marina Abramović’s Gates and Portals, I visited the transitional spaces of Modern Art Oxford that were openly available to me. As such, the only space worth writing about could be found outside the facilities provided, which is to say, that basement level resembling the interiority of a multistorey car park where it is perpetual night; another transitional space resembling the mise-en-scène of a Japanese horror. I thought of the high street then, tee shirts set behind wet windows, Hatsune Miku’s teal twin tails, a row of designs by Junji Ito. 

Cover image by Tsui