Abramovic, John of God and the space in between experience and memory

Twelve years ago I arrived back in Palma de Mallorca after a month in Abadiania, Brazil. I had been to see the healer and psychic surgeon John of God for the second time with my then partner. She died on 9 February 2005. I will always believe that whatever John of God did prolonged her life, gave her some sort of peace and helped prepare me for the awful grief that followed.

But I couldn't tell you how. I thought The Space in Between: Marina Abramovic and Brazil, which starts at what we called the Casa, John of God's compound in Abadiania might give me some answers. 

The film, described as 'a hardcore journey through spiritual Brazil' showed what John of God does as a psychic surgeon in unflinching detail, bringing back memories of just how bloody and raw things get in Abadiania. He's shown scraping a cornea, ramming a metal rod up someone's nose and jabbing into a woman's abdomen with the kind of knife you'd cut onions with, before sowing her up with what looks like fishing line.

'Contemporary art icon' Abramovic presented this as proof that there's no trickery in what JOG, as we ended up calling him, does. But that's to miss the point entirely.

I think it was the Amazing Randi who attacked JOG for being a fraud who pointed out that there are no nerve endings on the surface of the eye so it is possible to scrape away without causing the person any pain. Sticking a metal rod up the nose is an old circus trick, apparently. As long as you get the angle right it's possible to push it down through the sinus cavity and into the throat. Something like that.

This is why JOG allows himself to be filmed in such gory close-up. It's trickery but it's not. I believe that what JOG does, if it works, triggers his patients to heal themselves.

But then that's still only part of the story. There's something going on in Abadiania that simply can't be explained. On our first visit, an Irish filmmaker showed us a film he was making about JOG and healing. He'd been allowed to film the same stuff as Abramovic and her crew. But the really remarkable thing was when a psychologist from one of the American Ivy League universities, in Abadiania to study healing. started spontaneously to bleed and the Irish guy caught it on camera.

When the bleeding started it looked like the psychologist had been shot in the heart. He lifted up his t-shirt and hadn't a mark on him. Yet still he bled. And bled.

Either the Irish filmmaker had faked this - highly unlikely because the psychologist was a serious researcher and, in any case, he was in the middle of a crowd in broad daylight. Or something really happened. 

I still have no idea. But I would say if you or someone you know is seriously physically or mentally ill, go to Abadiania if you can. Go because you have nothing to lose and who knows what might happen. Go also if you want to be in a strange and marvellous place that quite simply brings out the best in people. 

Abramovic doesn't mention this aspect of Abadiania at all. She talks in a monotone about the hope in people's faces - duh! But, perhaps because, as she says, she's primarily an artist fascinated with ritual but not especially interested in true faith,  she comes across as profoundly unsympathetic to the suffering and ecstasy she's witnessing. Her self-absorbtion and the impossibility of showing what is happening inside her, even on a vile-looking ayahausca trip, also makes this a film of surfaces.

I haven't ruled out the possibility that Abramovic might be acting, sort of satirising spiritual tourism and ragbag faith-hopping. I think it's highly unlikely, though. In which case the reason she gives for going to Abadiania - that she'd had her heart broken by a true love and couldn't move forward - is pretty pathetic. It sounds like the kind of thing you'd invent just to have something to say.

Going to John of God in Abadiania brings out the best in people who are staring at death, and in the people who love them facing up to the possibility of loss. So I can't help but see what Abramovic was saying about her emotional pain as an insult to those like my partner who suffered terribly through no fault of her own.

But the The Space Between did help me remember how extraordinary the work of John of God and Abadiania are, even if it didn't bring me any closer to understanding what I experienced.  One of the reasons we went to Abadiania was because we watched a TV programme that claimed John of God was the real thing. Whatever Abromovic's reasons for making her film, if it inspires you to go to Abadiania, that's great.

Getting to Abadiania

If you do decide to go to Abadiania or want to suggest to someone else that they do, you'll find everything you need to know here.