Reviewer Ken Johnson described Generator, performance artist Marina Abramović’s latest show in New York, as a participatory exercise in sensory deprivation. Knowing her work, we can guess it is probably much more than that. Johnson’s description of his experience is necessarily subjective which would be true of all participants. He was blindfolded and fitted with sound-deadening head phones before he was led into a gallery space which would hold anywhere from 1 to 67 people.
“I decided to try to get to a wall. I can see a little bit under the blindfold, but I think it would be cheating to look, so I keep my eyes closed. I reach a wall and lean back against it. I stay here for a long time. It’s relaxing and meditative, something I’m familiar with through attending meditation workshops before this. I notice how my body feels, which is neither pleasant nor painful.”
“Someone passes by, grazing my back. Someone else comes near and puts a hand on my arm. The hand stays there. I feel its warmth. Would it be rude to back off? The person touches my hand. I touch back and feel skin. I run my hand up to a bare shoulder. I get the feeling the person wants to interact more, but I fear creepiness, and I turn away.”
“Standing now in what I think is somewhere near the center of the room, I begin to feel physically uncomfortable. It’s hot; I’m sweating. The blindfold hurts the bridge of my nose. I’m getting a headache. I begin to think about raising my hand [The signal that he wants to be led out of the room and to have the blindfold and headphones removed thus ending the experience]. How much time has passed? Have I stayed long enough? Have I given it a chance?”
By the time he raises his hand Johnson had been in the room for an hour and gave the following description of his experience. “Drawing back for a more distanced view, I find that a metaphorical aspect comes to the fore: To be blindfolded and artificially deafened in a brightly lit space is analogous to the typically human experience of being imbedded in a reality whose depth, breadth and general nature exceeds most people’s ability to know and comprehend. To have your blindfold and headphones removed, and the actuality of your situation revealed, is like being spiritually enlightened. You’re like the prisoner who escapes Plato’s cave and discovers that what he had thought was real was only the shadow of the really real. Ms. Abramović wants to bring people into the light.”
Johnson’s article does not include an interview with Abramović, so he is speculating when he says that the goal of her Marina Abramović Institute is to offer techniques and exercises to affect and alter consciousness. Her body of work over several decades, however, would not be inconsistent with such goals. Indeed, the goal of all art, whether the artist realizes it or not is to lead humanity into the light of awareness—into an experience of the present moment.
The central questions challenging all of humanity is what is the difference between illusion and reality, and what role do the senses have in helping us find the answer? Anyone engaged in an authentic and profound meditation practice has learned that the senses are not designed to illuminate reality but rather have another purpose. Our sensory apparatus guides the physical body in coping with physical survival and problem solving in the world of form. If we take this physical world for ultimate reality, we are in effect succumbing to Plato’s illusion in a cave of shadows. We are prisoners locked in a highly self-limiting dark environment that exists only in our imagination.
There is a deeper experience possible for humanity that our eyes and ears are unaware of. We have allowed ourselves to be blindfolded, deprived of sound and to be led into an environment in which we can only find doubt, confusion, discomfort and anxiety. Until we can separate our narrative and identity from our senses, we will continue to find ourselves “in the dark.”
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in books by Roy Charles Henry.