This is what happened. We were ready to go. The artist was sitting on a chair within a circle of ice, the audience was waiting on the other side of the double doors, chafing the corridor walls. Everything in place except the five pythons.
The artist was Marina Abramović, the year was 1990. Abramovic had recently broken up with Ulay, her partner and co-performer, and this piece – ‘Boat Emptying, Stream Entering’ – was her return to solo work. She was not yet the world-famous she-eminence we know today, just one performance artist among others for a festival called Edge’90. I was organizing the Glasgow leg of the festival. Most of the events were taking place in an abandoned school nearby, but we needed a more controlled environment for the snakes. The Third Eye Centre had generously offered their main gallery space.
Out in the corridor, someone essayed a slow handclap. Trevor, the gallery manager, appeared from upstairs, hurried over and said quietly, ‘One of the snakes is missing.’
Hard on Trevor’s heels came the snake handlers, a couple from Newcastle. The man wore leather trousers and an oiled quiff, the woman was in leopard print. Each of their arms was weighed down with coiled python, diamond patterns of pale green and sand sleeving pure muscle. I counted the snakes’ heads, just to be sure, trying to resist what they were telling me. Four heads, not five.
‘He popped his box,’ said the man, shrugging his shoulders and snakes.
Eight to twelve feet at full stretch, the woman had told me, over cigarettes in the café. They’re lovely creatures really, you just have to watch it when they’re round your neck.
Abramović sat with her eyes closed, gathering her charisma, unaware of this setback. The programme notes said the snakes would symbolize the five elements. In China there are five, apparently, but I had not researched deeply enough to know what the extra one could be. I suddenly felt unprepared for all of this, and we were running ten minutes late.
‘You did look for him?’ I asked.
‘He’ll be under the floor by now,’ said the woman.
Trevor shrugged. ‘I’ve locked the door.’
Abramović was not exactly intimidating, but she was more than other people. Taller, more intense, her clothes tight over a powerful body, her hair thick and glossy as a comic book superheroine’s. When she arrived in Glasgow, she asked for access to a gym. No artist had ever wanted a gym before.
My role was to organize: to find the right chair (‘straight but with arms’), the right ice (‘not those ridiculous cubes’) to form a cordon to contain the snakes, a suitable space, an audience. But someone else had recruited the snakes. They had already performed with Abramović in the Newcastle manifestation of Edge’90. Their owners had agreed to drive cross-country for this event, with the snakes in five polystyrene boxes in their little van.
I stepped into the ring of ice, put my hand on the back of the chair and bent to Abramović’s ear like a queen’s advisor.
‘A snake has escaped, we only have four.’
Her eyelids snapped open, but she looked straight ahead, not at me. The snake handlers were in her line of vision, and she gave a small nod. They walked forward and began to drape the snakes on her lap and shoulders and on top of the strange Nefertiti-style hat she was wearing. Abramović kept absolutely still; it seemed the performance was going ahead.
Once the snake owners stepped out of the ring, we allowed the audience in, to sit on the floor or lean against the white walls. Suddenly, one snake made a rush for it, whipping across the floor and bellying over the blocks of ice towards the fire exit. So much for the repellent power of ice. Luckily, the Newcastle woman was right there to grab it and drop it into a pillowcase she produced from somewhere.
And then there were three.
I always had difficulty concentrating during events I’d organized. To be receptive to art you have to quell your thoughts, not be running through disaster scenarios. We needed to organize a proper search straight after the performance. The snake owners might need somewhere to stay overnight.
The pythons moved slowly over Abramović’s breasts and arms, tight as ivy. They had an uncanny way of shifting sections of themselves while the rest remained still. One python gathered itself into a kind of curly pile on top of her hat, its tail flowing down over her face, obscuring one eye completely.
Around me, the audience breathed slowly, settling into a suspended state in harmony with the artist, none of the usual restlessness. There was no distracting photographer, no documentation at all.
In Knossos, they dug up ancient clay figures of Minoan women with arms outstretched, writhing snakes gripped in their fists. As I looked at Abramović, the snake on her head craned out horizontally, half an arm’s length towards the audience, tasting their exhalations with a flickering tongue, like an extension of the artist’s curiosity.
My friends and I used to say, whenever the projects we were organizing threatened to hit the rocks, What’s the worst thing that could happen? It helped us gain a bit of perspective. It was just art. It was not life or death, even if it felt like it. This time might be different.
The following afternoon, I went into a shop just off George Square that I’d never had cause to visit before: a pet shop specializing in reptiles, snakes and spiders. Glass tanks of bright desert heat, stacked to the ceiling.
I asked the man at the counter for what I wanted and he gestured to follow him to the back of the shop, to a screened chest freezer with a glass top, like the kind ice cream is sold from. He slid a pane across and dipped his hand into frosted chaos. The hand came out with something like a lollipop in a plastic bag, except that the stick was a tail, the bulge covered in white fur.
I had been surprised that the snake’s owners had shown no particular emotion at their loss. They seemed more concerned about the long drive back to Newcastle, eager to go, no question of staying until the missing python was found. We conducted a quick but thorough search of the storeroom, shifting crates of frames and unsold catalogues out into the corridor. We let the owners do most of the frontline work, but as they poked about they kept saying, in various ways, that this was futile, pointing to gaps where pipes entered the room or where slivers of old floorboard were missing.
‘Could be a right long time before he shows up. It’s an old building, plenty of places to go. And he ate last week.’
They told us his name was Solomon and drove off into the night.
Marina Abramović was still in the bar, talking to a group of rapt art students. When I broke in to give her an update on the snake situation, she listened politely. It seemed she did not regard it as her concern, although I had some obscure hope that she would. She was due to perform in Oxford the next day. Fresh pythons awaited her there.
It was June and fairly mild, but only Scottish mild, so the old stone walls would be cold at night, and Solomon would surely be tempted to leave them for somewhere cosier. The handlers had said he might – might – be drawn to warmth or to food, but only when pressed for advice. The night after the performance, Trevor and I set up two folding chairs in the storeroom and a double-bar electric fire. We put the defrosting rat on a piece of newspaper in front of it and turned off the lights.
‘Maybe we should hide,’ I suggested.
‘Like back home in our beds?’
Time passed slowly in the storeroom. I found myself thinking of the performance again, and how our current vigil was an echo of the stillness of Abramović. Trevor was bent forward, his elbows on his knees, head and hands nodding. Small wisps of steam rose from the rat as it defrosted in the orange light of the fire. The sight was strangely affecting.
It seemed that every performance or exhibition I organized had its shadow performance, some side drama in the wings, and this was simply the most bizarre example. The concept of the work is always a clean one, and the retelling and documentation back up that original vision, but the actual carrying out of the thing has its unacknowledged subplots and loose threads. When those priestesses danced with snakes in that ancient temple, there was probably someone getting fired in the basement for not cleaning the droppings off the fancy costumes.
The box that the snake had arrived in was on the floor beside me. The lid had originally been secured with two short strips of Sellotape – completely inadequate. I wanted to be angry about that, but there was no point. If Solomon showed up, we would, through some undiscussed manoeuvre, grab him and stuff him inside the box.
‘It was a good performance, though, wasn’t it?’ I said.
The audience had been gripped. They would talk about it, and people who were not there would be annoyed they had missed it, or claim in later years that they were there. Although my attention had not been fully engaged, there are images from that performance that will stay with me always. But none had entered as deep as my imaginary pictures of the big snake lurking in a dusty trough under the floorboards, or spiralled around a copper pipe behind the plasterboard.
We allowed ourselves home in the early hours. I brought the rat with me and put it in the ice compartment of my fridge. The next night we tried again. We sat and discussed how often you could freeze and unfreeze a rat before it started to go off, though I argued the stink might prove a lure.
‘What if there never was a snake?’ said Trevor.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Maybe, for some reason, those people didn’t have five snakes to spare, or one was sick, so they brought five boxes and four snakes, and just said that one escaped so they’d still get paid.’
Around midnight, Trevor and I decided our vigil was useless and I put the rat corpse in the bins outside the gallery.
In the weeks that followed, Solomon threaded in and out of my mind. I imagined someone bringing a new baby in to show their co-workers, and leaving it unattended in a carry seat. Or the snake suddenly dropping from a café beam onto a man with a fragile heart.
Every now and again I would ring Solomon’s owners to tell them that there was no news. One day that number didn’t work.
It was nearly a year later that Trevor phoned me in the middle of the working day with some surprising news. At the end of the Third Eye Centre’s morning staff meeting, a woman called Helen had said, ‘Very funny, by the way, whoever put the rubber snake in the storeroom.’ Nobody owned up to this. Helen said that when she passed the storeroom she had glimpsed a rubber snake in the middle of the floor. The door had one of those vertical glass windows, you see, gridded with wire.
Apparently a small stampede upstairs followed, and sure enough, there was Solomon coiled neat as a cinnamon Danish in the very spot he had disappeared from. The fact that there had been a particularly strenuous dance troupe rehearsing on the top floor may have been a factor in his reappearance.
Trevor said the snake was ‘rasping’ when they found him. He called a vet, who referred him to the zoo. Someone with an eye to publicity, meanwhile, staged a photograph with two staff members holding Solomon like a sagging rope between them. It appeared as a good-news story in the Evening Times the next day. By then Solomon was at the zoo, where the reptile keepers were dismayed at the state of him. The triumphal return soured when it became obvious that his time in hiding had badly damaged his health. Whether he had managed to eat anything during all that time, a passing mouse, say, we could only speculate.
I was pleased that Solomon was real, and relieved he had not killed anyone. But within the week, it was Solomon that was dead.
‘His lungs weren’t good,’ Trevor said. ‘Pneumonia.’
I had never thought of a snake having lungs before. I could only picture a pair of wet tights hanging from a line.
Sometimes the story comes up again, in the pub or over a meal, a part of Glasgow art folklore that has proved more enduring than the performance itself. So I tell the story, confirm the bizarre truth of it, laugh along; but it always shifts something deep and guilty in my mind, a narrow soul in a dark channel.
Note: The performance ‘Boat Emptying, Stream Entering’ and similar performances have been retrospectively re-titled the ‘Dragon Heads’ series. Descriptions of the work include the statement, ‘The snakes in the performances would actually never go into the audience because they do not slither over ice.’
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