Marina Abramović’s 2010 New York show The Artist Is Present made her a global icon, but she is not personally present in the mystical extravaganza of her new show Gates and Portals. She did turn up at the press launch, however, to explain that since becoming a celebrity she wants to remove herself from her work, to allow it to speak for itself. This is a tall order. As I found at that event, she’s an extraordinary presence. She composes herself with magnetic stillness, and when she speaks she seems to time her words to some underlying rhythm of breath and heartbeat. Her charisma and uncanny agelessness hold you hypnotised.
Facilitators trained in what she calls the Abramović Method sadly can’t reproduce those unearthly qualities. It’s as if Judi Dench were to train a bunch of people in the Dench Method and get them to perform her famous roles: just not the same. Worse, it focuses your mind on the ideas behind the art – and they are wafer-thin.
The Abramović Method as practised here involves a lot of slow walking, gentle coercion and sensory deprivation. Just as you’re wondering how long you will have to stand by the wall with your eyes closed, they move you to another spot. It’s like being in The Blair Witch Project, an impression confirmed by a glimpse of Abramović on screen, reacting in reverie to some very Blair Witchy items from Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum.
The fussy moves from one space to another deprive it of power. Finally you’re led to the grandest, supposedly climactic chamber, in the middle of which is a gate or “portal”: a tall rectangular frame studded with glowing crystals. You are ritualistically walked through it, then urged to lie down on a mat. To process the spiritual journey you’ve taken, presumably.
It felt like death to me. And just when I thought it was over, they took me to the glowing gate again. To stand in it this time, absorbing its radiance.
Is that what Abramović wants to share, a revelation of New Age belief? Gates and Portals is offering a religious, not an aesthetic experience. To feel renewed, cleansed and transformed by this beating down of the self would be to accept its mystical insight. And that meaning boils down to believing in the power of a glowing portal to change you from one state to another. To experience it you give up your liberty of thought and action for an hour and a quarter.
Fans of participatory art claim it subverts the “passivity” of the traditional museum or gallery, but surely this is the truly passive experience, uncritically submitting to the collective rite. By contrast, if you are passive when you explore a museum collection, you are not doing it properly. In fact, a visit to the Pitt Rivers Museum – where Abramović recently held a residency, and a trail lets you follow her research – is a reminder of just how inspiring an old-fashioned collection can be.
Abramović spent her time in its atmospheric Victorian anthropology gallery with its stupendously strange displays, from masks to coffins to a primeval Ukrainian figure no one can even date. Yet it was the English folklore that gripped her. On a video she’s conducting a seance with a witch’s ladder from 19th-century Somerset, a rope into which feathers have been knotted. Suddenly her eyes open as wide as portals to another universe and she stares at you as if possessed.
You can also find the “witch in a bottle” she studied. This is, purportedly, exactly what it says on the label: a plump, tightly stoppered glass bottle inside which the spirit of a witch is imprisoned. It was collected near Hove, Sussex, in 1915 by the historian and folklorist Margaret Murray, from an old woman who told her: “They do say there be a witch in it and if let un out there it be a peck o’ trouble.” The museum has never opened it.
Here too are the three ring-like loops of knotted rowan wood that feature in her video at Modern Art Oxford. These were catalogued in 1893 as coming from a house in Yorkshire where they were put on the garden railings to ward away witches.
These objects are entrancing, and I felt grateful to Abramović for leading me to find them. But without her as performer to link it all together, there doesn’t seem any connection between her research and the oppressive, laborious ritual of her Gates and Portals. It’s all a demonstration of why art can draw on religion and magic but is not the same thing. By trying to be more than art, this becomes so much less.
This review was amended on 23 September 2022 to remove a description of those helping with the exhibition as volunteers; the facilitators are paid.