“It was night now in my mind, I was alone in the semi-darkness of the booth and I was thinking, protected from outer torments. The most favorable conditions for thinking, the moments when thought can let itself naturally follow its course, are precisely moments when, having temporarily given up fighting a seemingly inexhaustible reality, the tension beginning to loosen little by little, all the tension accumulated in protecting yourself against the threat of injury—and I had my share of minor injuries—and that, alone in an enclosed space, alone and following the course of your thoughts in a state of growing belief, you move progressively from the struggle of living to the despair of being.”
Wednesday August 6th 2014, 8:30AM. I’m getting dressed, as if for work, worrying about what might be appropriate. I’m going to see Marina Abramović in 512 Hours, her durational performance at the Serpentine Gallery. She is there every day, 10AM – 6PM, her only materials being herself, the audience, and a selection of props which she may or may not use. In this respect 512 Hours has parallels with her Rhythm 0 performance, where she stood by a table covered with objects and told the crowd to do as they pleased: one event famously ended with a loaded gun held to her head. Wishing that Abramović had specified a uniform, I decide upon a plain white T-shirt, black trousers and pumps, with no make-up. If I do interact with Marina then I want my appearance to provide as little stimulation as possible.
512 Hours aims to induce a state of mindfulness—total immersion in the present time and space. I’m ambivalent: I dream of this but I think it’s impossible, agreeing with Jenny Diski2 that its current popularity is understandable in a society dominated by smart phones and social media, but that it serves as a mechanism of control, discouraging individuals from learning from the past or planning for the future.
Seemingly forever, I’ve been trapped in a Western malaise of depression and anxiety, with my mind always wandering away from details in friends’ conversations or plot twists in films. It came to a head when I was twenty-five, watching a friend’s band, only to find my head couldn’t leave my dismal data entry job, and I decided to see a therapist. Every week I would pry deeper into childhood alienation and detachment, agonized each time when she said my fifty minutes were up: I recall the second session best, when I left with my mind clear for what felt like the first time. Within minutes, however, the clamoring voices returned, screaming about money, love, fitness, work, clothes, diet, sex, family, health, dragging me away from what I cared about most, writing, leaving me terrified that I wouldn’t leave some worthwhile work before I died, and I wanted to die soon.
These concerns infused themselves throughout my body, making me desperate to break out of it until I resolved to shift from male to female. It started building as soon as I realized my gender dysphoria, aged ten, and became paranoid about who would find out, my shoulders always hunched. Twenty years later, in Charing Cross Hospital after my sex reassignment surgery, a fellow patient abandoned her attempts to massage them because my brain wouldn’t allow it. I thought back to the first transsexual woman I really knew, a performance artist called Pia who did a striptease to Laurie Anderson’s O Superman. She told me that once I became comfortable in my body, the familiar and unbearable imperative to do everything now would dissipate.
My mind bore so many marks of transition—the fear of harassment, mockery, violence, rejection—and my body language changed to fend off intrusive questions and abusive comments. My frame itself had become scarred by the operation, though all have faded, two years after my week on the ward. Now, I leave Lancaster Gate tube, trying not to get impatient as the pedestrian light stays red for ages, becoming annoyed with the tourists who block me from jabbing the WAIT button, even though I know I’ll have to queue outside the Serpentine.
I have soundtracks for when I want to calm or slow myself. During my second night in hospital, after I came off the morphine and couldn’t sleep, wracked with pain yet happier to stay alive, I put on the final track of Königsforst by Gas, a ten-minute loop of a single melody, soft scratching and two bass notes, one rising, one falling, providing respite if not rest. Now I listen to “Anglepoised” by Fridge, built around a pulsating bassline that varies just slightly, the drum line subtly shifting as synthesized sounds shimmer over the top, inviting me to fall into its groove rather than ordering me to march to its rhythm.
The track suits the otherworldly feel to Hyde Park, with the beautiful fountains and marble basins in the Italian gardens. I love the view from the bridge over the river, every branch hanging in the right place, the swans and geese so carelessly at ease. Recently, I worked nearby at St. Mary’s Hospital: Marina Abramović arrived just before my contract expired, which already feels like an eternity ago. In the same seat in the same room, three days a week, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I had so little motivation that one lunchtime I came here and wondered who would notice if I spent the whole afternoon in the gallery. I would pretend I’d been at a meeting if anyone asked, but I never quite dared.
In the line at the Serpentine, I find my friend Alexandra Lazar, a Serbian artist. I tell her I’m trying to freelance, speaking about a piece on transgender people and radical feminism, absurdly long at 8,500 words that I sent to my editor at 1AM, for which I’m expecting ambivalence from trans people, anger from journalists, and death threats from extremists. Alexandra talks about how Serbia is trying to adopt the neoliberal economics which the European Union imposes on new members, and how this manifests in the hideous “Belgrade on the Water” cultural scheme with a blue Chinese bridge dumped over the river, ruining the sulphur yellow house style of the city.
We reach the entrance. A woman, dressed in black, tells us to put our possessions in a locker, and advises going to the toilet now as once we leave, we won’t be allowed back without queuing. In the bathroom, I get an email: my article is online. I put the link on Twitter and Facebook, take a deep breath and step inside.
Alexandra has entered already, and I’m worried that I’ve lost her. I lock up my phone, purse and keys, trying to let go of the dread I feel whenever I’m without them. I think about how I never dare do anything spontaneously, and then, tentatively, start to ask myself if I’ll be able to give up fighting this seemingly inexhaustible reality, even temporarily, and follow the course of my thoughts.
I thought there was no talking, but Marina Abramović sits, whispering to an invigilator. I read the text outlining the concept and put on headphones, wondering if she’s dictating a soundtrack, but there is no sound. I try another pair, realizing then that they cancel noise. It reminds me that I’ve always had music on, whenever I’m alone in public, using it during the year-long Real Life Experience of “living as a woman”, before hormone treatment to drown out the abuse from strangers, but well before that to silence the constant chattering inside myself.
I enter the gallery, its walls are blank and people are sat on chairs around a podium, some staring ahead, others down. The invigilator leads me silently to a seat, gesturing at me to close my eyes. I do so for some time, then I decide to join a few other people on the planks of wood in the center, exposing myself to the gaze of the audience, and the potential humiliation this brings. Are my flies done up? What if I slip? Or if I start sneezing or coughing?
I remember all the times I’ve relinquished control of my body: in fetish clubs, or in private with a master or mistress, no longer protecting myself from the threat of injury but willfully submitting to it. They tell me what to wear, making demands of my dress and deportment like the Gender Identity Clinics used to before people challenged the cruelty of this. Then we enter some otherworldly environment where my punishment for some unspecified transgression will be enacted, and they take me on a chain, tying and blindfolding me before smashing the tension out of me, little by little. I have no way of knowing when the attacks will start or stop, or even who is delivering them, let alone halting them, briefly savoring those moments when they flit from brutality to tenderness before the beatings resume, and it’s incredibly liberating.
Growing up in a small town, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I could always discern the hour and minute with an uncanny degree of accuracy, but under their supervision, this ability leaves me. Time, so oppressive when I was waiting for the Clinic to prescribe hormones or set a date for surgery, becomes erotic duration: being left so helpless is one of my favorite feelings, perhaps the only time when the voices realize there’s no point in harassing me, and when I’m finally unbound, they never tell me how long it’s been, and I never want to ask.
I step into one of two rooms filled with camp beds and sheets. The invigilator invites me to lie down, providing the public space to nap that I’ve always craved: the tyranny of the nine-to-five has never let me rest, reminding me that humans are the only animals to sleep in one block. I welcome her offer. Horizontal, I wish that I could transcribe every thought directly from my brain, but accept that some will remain as others vanish, trying to trust myself to keep the most important. In an age where everything is recorded and broadcast, there’s something freeing about this, especially as writers are now practically obliged to be on Twitter, worrying about how to shape every brainwave into a brand that stands out from the incessant noise. Then I realize that the very process of writing trammels my thoughts, and that a piece like this can only ever be an approximation: I’ve read translations of Surrealist “automatic writing” where they tried to record a stream of consciousness with as little mediation as possible, but the results were always dull and aimless, being far better when they structured things, especially when they talked about sex. I get up and sit back down. Marina Abramović sits next to me, taking her time to breathe. When I think about transition, or my life as a transsexual journalist, I see that film of her, inhaling and then hurling herself into a wall. She closes her eyes, and I want to take her hand, knowing that talking is forbidden but certain that we can still communicate. I want her to know that the pain that makes her throw herself into a wall, or put herself in a position where people hold loaded guns to her head, that’s my pain too, I’ve known it all my life, and her sharpness in expressing it makes me feel braver.
Somehow, it feels more beautiful to leave her alone, and I go to the foyer to chart my reflections. Alexandra has left at more or less the same time, and the moment is broken: we cannot return. Outside, normal life rushes towards us: I have an email about temporary public sector jobs, but just as I think about how I never want to go back to that, I bump into Lizzie, my old manager at NHS London, who let me go home when I got my date for surgery and was going crazy about how soon it suddenly seemed. Then, having tried so hard to suspend any consideration of it, I remember my article: I check Twitter on my phone. It’s gone viral. How can so many people possibly have read so many words while we were in the gallery? Amazed, I tell Alexandra that my whole life has been building up to this moment—when I challenge forty years of “radical” transphobia head-on and people finally listen. She hugs me, buys me a cup of camomile tea in the café, and tells me to relax.
1 Jean-Phillipe Toussaint, Camera (Illinois: Dalkey Archive Press, 2008), pp82-83
Header Image: Marina Abramović holds a loaded pistol to her neck after a participant forces a gun into her hand. Rhythm O, 1974, performance, Studio Morra, Naples, Italy.
Juliet Jacques is a writer and filmmaker based in London. She is the author of Rayner Heppenstall: A Critical Study (Dalkey Archive, 2007), Trans: A Memoir (Verso, 2015), and Variations (Influx Press, 2021). Her criticism and essays have appeared in the London Review of Books, Granta, Sight & Sound, Frieze, Art Review, the New York Times, and elsewhere.