Marina Abramovic, The Current, 2017. Video; 1 hour 35 mins. Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives. © Marina Abramovic.
For the self-proclaimed godmother of performance art, a solo retrospective in such a pillar of the art establishment as the Royal Academy is a notable symbol of the increased recognition of both her own artistic achievements and of her medium over the course of her career. For fifty-five years, Marina Abramović has confronted prevailing assumptions as to the nature of art and the role of the artist, as well as pushing social boundaries and taboos. As an anonymous letter addressed to both Abramović and the RA just last month attests, her art still provokes strong reactions, both artistic and moral.
In this retrospective exhibition it is these reactions, as much as artworks, that are on display. Throughout her career, Abramović has experimented with, and brought into relief the written and unwritten rules of the gallery and of everyday social spaces. In much of her work, (as in the 2010 piece which occupies the first gallery of the exhibition) the artist is present; she is the art-object, pushing her body to masochistic extremes, but also suspending or revising the behavioural norms imposed on her audience. Her absence (or mediated presence) in this retrospective invites us to look more closely at ourselves, and each other, as art. When presented with vulnerable human beings, with our environment, do we respond with disgust, discomfort, indifference, or empathy?
Curating a retrospective exhibition of performance art presents obvious challenges, even once the medium has been accepted into the academy. If the artist is the art, how can one display the art without the artist? And can, or should, a historically-specific and time-bound performance be repeated? Several of Abramović’s more dangerous pieces pose additional difficulties in this regard. In 2008 she proposed a performance of a revised Rhythm 0 (1974) – the work in which she laid out 74 objects including knives and a loaded gun for the audience to use on her as they wished – at the Guggenheim, but was turned down on legal grounds. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine recreating this work when we are all particularly aware of what people will do to a woman’s body when they think they can, and all too often do, get away with it.
Marina Abramovic, Balkan Baroque, June 1997. Performance at XLVIII Venice Biennale; 4 days. Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives. © Marina Abramovic.
The exhibition navigates these challenges with a mixture of video footage of Abramović and restagings of select works by new performers, trained at the Marina Abramović Institute. The recorded format inevitably reduces the emotional power of many of these pieces, as well as the jeopardy. The Artist Is Present (2010), which opens the exhibition, acquires a certain irony displayed as hundreds of videos of Abramović’s face on one wall, opposite hundreds of her participants’. We see them blank-faced, tearful, smiling, or avoiding eye-contact, but we are not confronted with any face in particular, any gaze to accept or avoid.
Yet, even on screen, many of these works remain incredibly provocative and moving decades on. They expose and sensitise us to the human body (and mind) at violent extremes – bloody, naked, unconscious, drugged. Works like Rhythm 5 (1974), and Balkan Baroque (1997), which combines a gruesome folk tale, a pile of bloody bones, and videos of the artist and her parents, reference the rigorous discipline and violence of her childhood in Yugoslavia. They speak to the potential (and actual) cruelty and indifference of humanity more broadly, implicating us in it as voyeuristic onlookers. They are hard to look at, but that is why they are so important to look at in today’s world, when we are used to scrolling past stories of war and violence and suffering.
The irony of displaying The Artist is Present on film serves to frame the exhibition through themes of presence, (self-)consciousness and human connection – and their mediation, especially in the digital age. Abramović’s physical absence from the show also emphasises the agency of the audience to engage (or not) with her pieces and the performers on their own terms.
Abramović most explicitly enacted her ideas of interactivity and relationality in her work with then-partner, Ulay (aka Frank Uwe Laysiepen) in the late 1970s and 1980s. In the images and video footage included in the exhibition, they explore different modes of embodiment and being together; they kiss, breathe at/with each other, are knotted together by their hair, and run naked around each other until they collide.
Ulay / Marina Abramovic, Imponderabilia, 1977. Performance; 90 minutes. Galleria Communale d'Arte Moderna, Bologna. Courtesy of the Marina Abramovic Archives. © Ulay / Marina Abramovic.
The restaging of the pair’s work Imponderabilia (1977/2023) has particularly attracted public attention. It invites visitors to walk between two naked performers standing in either side of a narrow doorway. (The recreation here does offer an alternative exit, unlike the premiere in Milan, which was shut down by the police after three hours for public indecency.)
The work focuses our attention on our own bodies and the choices we make as we move through space and among others. Do we walk through the performers or around them? Whom do we face? Do we make eye contact? Do we barge our way through or clumsily contort our bodies as though we’re in a vertical game of limbo we’re desperate not to lose? In crossing the threshold, we become performers, or rather realise that we have been all along, and it is as interesting to watch other audience members as it is the artists.
After breaking up with Ulay in China (The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk, 1988), Abramović became more interested in creating objects. From this point forward the exhibition (which is loosely chronological) transitions from recordings to more live performers and physical artworks for audiences to interact with, exploring the idea of an energy flowing between us and our (human and non-human) environment.
Works from her series of Transitory Objects for Human Use (1989 onwards) are gloriously displayed beyond an inscription in the gallery wall which declares that ‘It is strictly forbidden to touch any exhibit’. Audience members are invited to close our eyes and step barefoot into the oversized quartz crystal ‘Shoes for Departure’ (1991), and to lie, sit, stand, or lean on various stone slabs labelled ‘Dragons’ (1989 – ’90), until we become attuned to them. Whether we open ourselves to this energy-transfer, simply pose for a photo, or are too distracted by the fact we’re wearing Christmas socks, in public, in October, is, however, up to us. These works challenge us to be present and (self-)conscious of our situation in the world in a way we might not be in our everyday lives.
Many of Abramović’s more recent pieces continue to thematise presence and consciousness through the medium of self-portraiture, reflecting on her life and work, and looking forward to death, which she considers “the ultimate physical transition”. In Five Stage of Maya Dance (2013/2016), we see five striking backlit images of Abramović screaming and clutching her face, which on closer inspection are revealed to be carved into alabaster in negative relief, becoming these kind of tortured death masks, memorialising the contours of her face and hands. Four Crosses (2019), also plays with positives and negatives, arranging photo-booth style sets of photographs into crosses displayed opposite each other.
Abramović has fittingly flamboyant plans for her death and funeral, which are sure to be as playful and thought-provoking as her life. For the present though, her works continue to present us with timeless, but also very timely, questions about what it means to be present, to be conscious, to be human and in the world.
As much as it is ethically profound, though, the exhibition is not moralising, but laced with irony, ambiguity, and contradictions, which, as she has said, are the most human things of all. Not least among them is the jarring effect of leaving the silent, meditative House with an Ocean View (2002) for a gift shop in which Abramović’s presence is mediated and transformed yet again, into commodities, more objects for human use. But this is not art that can be summed up on a postcard, or in a slogan on a t-shirt. This is art everyone should face, and touch, and be touched by.
Marina Abramović is at the Royal Academy until 1st January 2024.
Students go for £21. RA Under 25s get half price tickets.
Edited by Samuel Blackburn