How do I reclaim the sense of being present in space like my pre-digital ancestors? Get mindful, meditate, find god, exercise, listen to Keith Jarrett’s entire back catalogue? What about flying to the Fondation Louis Vuitton (FLV) in Paris, where one can sit shut-eyed in a deck chair and listen to metronomes in Marina Abramović’s installation from 2000, Rejuvenator of the Astral Balance?
I don’t have the patience for mindfulness or meditation, am slightly allergic to both religion and organised exercise, and every time I am about to get centred listening to Jarrett I am interrupted by one of the audible grunts of passion that punctuate most of his live recordings. So the Belgrade-born American doyenne of the contemporary art world is my last hope.
I get the metro to the Bois de Boulogne and enter the FLV. Frank Gehry’s building is characteristically disorientating, but I find my way upstairs to the room where the Abramović work is showing. Five resort-style deck chairs circle the room with their backs to the centre. Mounted on the wall in front of each chair is a handsome wooden metronome ticking along to its own rhythm.
Unfortunately, every chair in the room is occupied when I arrive, so I hunker down in the glass vestibule entry with some other gallery goers and the security guard to wait. The information panel in the vestibule promises that the wait will be worth it:
Visitors are invited to sit in front of one of the metronomes with their eyes closed for an extended period – 45 minutes according to the artist’s instructions – entering into a meditative state designed to renew their contact with cosmic energies, far from the turbulence of daily life.
Gazing into the room in anticipation, I’m greeted by a scene that is surely a far cry from that envisaged by the artist. Two of the five seated participants are typing on their phones; a third is taking a photo of a metronome. As far as I can tell, only one guy has his eyes closed. I fixate on him, trying to gauge whether he is entering the state of astral equilibrium that I am craving. Pretty soon though, I see his hand dive for his jeans pocket and he actually answers his phone right there in the room of cosmic peace. He gets up – it seems he at least has the decorum to take his call outside – and passes through the vestibule indifferently chuckling into his handset.
As I stand waiting my turn, I realise I won’t have to wait long. The average sit-time seems to be about one minute, if that. Pretty soon it’s my turn and I settle down into the low-slung white canvas chair, closing my eyes. I try to focus on the beat of the metronome in front of me, but I can’t shut out the sounds coming from the other metronomes.
What I hear is more akin to a high-hat techno intro than the heartbeat echo the artist was presumably aiming for. That’s cool, I can chill to techno, I think to myself. But the beat is subtly morphing, and I realise the metronomes are not perfectly in time with each other; each is going at its own speed, though the difference – a matter of milliseconds – only becomes apparent to the discerning listener. I struggle to maintain my focus, distracted by the creaking of wood and canvas as my neighbours shift position.
Two of the five seated participants are typing on their phones; a third is taking a photo of a metronome. As far as I can tell, only one guy has his eyes closed.
I give up. I can’t have lasted longer than five minutes, and my mental state as I come out of the room is decidedly more restless, frustrated and disappointed than when I entered. At least, I console myself, the joke is on the artist not me: how naïve to think people would give her work forty-five minutes of undivided attention. But I can’t even convince myself of this.
Whatever Abramović intended when making Rejuvenator of the Astral Balance fifteen-odd years ago, it still succeeds as a participatory work, a human experiment, and perhaps finally a comment on the changing ways we inhabit and engage with art and the world.
Julian R. Murphy is a lawyer and writer based in Melbourne. You can find his writing about art and film in Art & Australia, Un Magazine, Gallery Magazine, Das Superpaper and Senses of Cinema.