Marina Abramovic has opened a powerful new retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts that captivates audiences with its intensity
By Sarah Bates
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Tuesday October 10, 2023
It only took 255 years for the Royal Academy of Arts to host an exhibition by a woman in its main galleries.
Today, it is the powerful Marina Abramovic who holds this dubious honor. And the major retrospective of the performance artist’s work, which spans around fifty years, is a truly electrifying experience.
Abramovic’s body is central to much of his work and is often used to explore the relationship between artist and audience.
Nowhere is this clearer – or arguably more uncomfortable – than Rhythm 0. Made in 1974, some 72 objects were displayed on a table in front of a silent and still Abramovic, which visitors were welcome to use as they wished.
They are meant to represent a spectrum of pleasure and pain, so there is wine, a delicious loaf of bread, but there are also various knives, an ax and chains.
A note assured everyone that she took “full responsibility” for everything that happened during the six hours.
Over time, the crowd became more confident and more violent– going so far as to cut her skin, strip her upper body and point a gun at her.
The trauma of this experience turned some of his hair white. But it’s not just about observing violence and suffering.
After the performance ended, Abramovic walked towards the crowd who quickly fled the gallery. It got me thinking about consent and control. The video footage of Abramovic silent but increasingly tearful, projected around the room, was truly heartbreaking.
But if the audience was unable to cope with him, who was really in control of the performance?
Another recurring theme in some of his work concerns his understanding of the political history of his native Serbia, which was once part of Yugoslavia, which was led by the Communist Party. The symbolism is not particularly subtle. In one, she climbs inside a wooden star while it is lit. In another, she sculpts the same shape into her stomach.
Another deeply political work is Balkan Baroque from 1997, in which she washes blood from bones while singing Serbian folk songs. He was due to represent his home country at the Venice Biennale international art exhibition, but was deemed too controversial by the Serbian government.
“You can’t wash the blood off your hands, just like you can’t wash the shame of war,” she has since said in interviews.
What I found particularly interesting was Abramovic’s efforts to preserve her work – from artist training at the Marina Abramovic Institute to the videos, photographs and her diary.
It is a pleasure that the people of 2023 can be absorbed in performances undertaken decades earlier. There are performances throughout the gallery, so the air was thick with tension.
For this reason, it may not be the wisest exhibit to bring a newborn to, and not just because the pram doesn’t fit through the Imponderabilia, where two naked artists flank a narrow doorway.
If I had discovered some of Abramovic’s works when I was a teenager, I probably would have burst out laughing. A cavernous room filled with ten-foot-tall projections of her and her longtime partner and artistic collaborator Ulay doing weird things to each other was too intense for me.
But despite the overall intensity, I find something truly absorbing about his work. His later works which address the relationship between man, nature and energy were fascinating.
Abramovic’s incredible legacy has done much to shape the discipline of performance art and sometimes pushes the boundaries of the genre and its body.
And it’s not a bad thing to be so intrigued by an exhibition. A few days after emerging, I try to understand why I found it so powerful. There are different performances every day at the exhibition, so each visit will be different.
It’s great to see his work getting the space it deserves, and I hope the Royal Academy will not wait another 255 years before giving another woman a chance.