This piece appeared in the “Conference Room” section of LEAP magazine, in Chinese translation:
LOCATION: Serpentine Gallery and Serpentine Radio
PARTICIPANTS: Hans Ulrich Obrist, Saskia Sassen, Bruno Latour, Gilbert & George and Victoria, Tino Sehgal, Alice Rawsthorn, Eyal Weizman, Etel Adnan, Dorothea von Hantelmann, Juliet Jacques, Kim West, Judy Chicago, François Jullien, Marcus du Sautoy, Jimmie Durham, Gabriella Coleman, Julieta Aranda, and many others.
Now in its tenth year, the annual Serpentine Marathon at the close of Frieze Week has become a London institution. Initiated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2006, the inaugural 24-Hour Interview Marathon was co-curated with architect Rem Koolhaas; subsequent marathons explored topics as diverse as maps, manifestos, gardens, poetry, memory and, last year, extinction. The Transformation Marathon grew out of this last entrant, as a counterpoint to a loaded theme with a certain ring of finality to it.
“Transformation is change with no interruption,” Obrist made his own Etel Adnan’s claim in his opening speech. The Lebanese-American poet, who has been in six prior editions of the Serpentine Marathon, is an oracle Obrist consults in the run up to each new marathon. On the eve of the Transformation Marathon proper, she and two other marathon stalwarts, the artist duo Gilbert and George, took part in an hour-long Flash Marathon at the Google Cultural Institute, alongside Obrist and Juliet Jacques, author of Trans: A Memoir (2015), which, together with Paul B. Preciado’s 2008 Testo Junkie, originally published in Spanish, inspired the transgender strand of this year’s marathon.
“Trans” means to go through or beyond, outgoing Serpentine director Peyton-Jones reminded the audience in her inaugural address, adding that the chosen topic of transformation “touches everybody in spite of their race, color and creed.” Coming at the notion from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds and interests, the 100-odd participants considered its social, political, biological, ecological and institutional ramifications. Among other things, the marathon’s anniversary edition addressed the transformation not only of museums and art institutions but of the marathon format itself.
As in previous years, the marathon availed itself of different presentation formats – from talks and conversations to screenings and sound performances – lasting about 15 minutes, and occasionally longer. The Transformation Marathon as a whole reverted to the original non-stop 24-hour format, scaling back somewhat from the last editions. Whereas the initial twelve hours happened live before an audience gathered in Zaha Hadid’s sinuous white Magazine at the Sackler Gallery, the remainder continued on air from midnight until noon the following day in a bid to explore the “transformative power of radio”.
“Bringing together all fields of knowledge but not in a continental and homogenizing way,” in the words of Obrist, the Serpentine marathons invoke Martinican writer Édouard Glissant’s “archipelago-thinking.” What follows are three islands selected by LEAP from the archipelago of ideas.
Poet and painter
When you speak of transformation you have the beautiful combination or contrast of something permanent that is there, a substratum, and something that changes. There is a mountain north of San Francisco called Mount Tamalpais. The Indians called it the Sleeping Woman. When I became a painter, I started drawing it and I realized how much something that looked so stable was never the same. This was a great discovery that helped me understand painters like Giorgio Morandi, who painted the same ten bottles in his kitchen, or Paul Cézanne, who went everyday to Mont Sainte-Victoire. The area where I lived had phenomenal fogs in the summer that came like rivers, like in some old Chinese painting, and the mountain would be cut in two. You would see the tip and nothing else. When a cloud came under the sun you had shadows moving on the mountain, as if a guardian or some spirit was touching it and moving with it. Sometimes I had the feeling, when these shadows touched it, that it was like some people’s face. You speak to somebody and you say something that moves them and their physiognomy changes. This mountain became as close as a person. It was alive in a strange way. Still on paper or on canvas I try with colour to catch the different moods; the mountain is moody like people are moody. The transformation of the mountain transforms you.
Philosopher and sinologist
I call the “silent transformation” a transformation that takes place without noise and which we do not talk about. Why don’t we talk about it? Because it is global and continuous. It takes place discreetly. We cannot see ourselves getting old because everything within us gets old. Everything is a silent transformation. Ice melting or the falling out of love. I am a philosopher and I follow the Greeks, but I have also decided to look at China because that enables me to step back from our European culture and to consider it from an external point of view. The Greeks did not know how to think about transition, which is at the heart of transformation. Plato spoke about melting snow. Snow, while melting, is indistinct: it is neither water nor snow. It has no essence. Greeks and subsequent philosophies such as ours thought that transition is distinguishing what is indistinct. Chinese thought helps us to think about transition. In China, there are two concepts that refer to transition: modification and continuation. There are four seasons: two seasons which change and two seasons which continue. Winter to spring is a change, spring to summer is a continuation, then to autumn is a change and a continuation into winter. Transformation is an alteration rather a change. This alteration within continuation enables renewal.
Artist and feminist
By the end of the 1960s I began looking back at women’s history because I’d decided that I was tired of not being myself. At the time I don’t think I realized what a radical break I was about to make. In Pasadena Lifesavers, I was starting to try and infuse the minimal language and the colour systems I had developed with my own content and subject matter as a woman. I became incredibly interested in trying to fashion images of female sexual agency. The image of the flying phallus, active male sexuality, goes back to Greek times. There is no comparable history of female sexual agency. So imagine if you’re a female artist and you feel not only active as an artist, as a sexual being, as a person, actively wanting to participate in human history – you have to think and stand against the entire history of Western thought. Pasadena Leftovers was probably my first baby step in preparing myself to stand against the tradition of art history and of Western culture, to find my way and create a path for female sexual agency. When I decided to make this radical change in my work, I wanted a way to symbolize it. And I thought I’m going to announce with a name change that I’m taking control of my future, my identity, my art making.