Proximity to death is nothing new for Marina Abramović. But never was it closer than three months ago, when the 76-year-old performance artist had a pulmonary embolism, and almost died.
The Royal Academy’s long-awaited Abramović blockbuster this fall surveys a 55-year career that has repeatedly played out her greatest fears—pain, death, isolation, and humiliation among them—in front of the public through feats of endurance. She has set herself on fire, swapped places for a night with a prostitute in Amsterdam, and walked the length of the Great Wall of China.
Speaking at the inauguration of the exhibition, the Serbian artist recalled the aftermath of her health scare earlier this year, which included three operations and ten transfusions. “I was in unbelievable pain, they said it was a miracle I survived,” she told attendees to the press conference, crediting her persistence to the application of her practice. “I used every single knowledge and experience I had doing my difficult performances: breathing, dealing with pain, working with consciousness.”
The experience has left her too weak to perform any of her work herself, presenting the true test of the exhibition (on view through January 1), which is essentially an experiment in the afterlife of her performance art. Abramović was a pioneer of the medium and key to bringing the ephemeral art form into the mainstream, and it is clear that she also wants to be active in considering how her legacy and work will live on without her.
The show experiments with different ways to chronicle her many performances, through which she has repeatedly tested her own limits, as well as the limits of her audience, in a quest for insight into the nature of being. “We are so afraid of pain. I don’t like pain, but I think that pain is such an important element in human life,” she said. “Suffering is like a kind of gate in order to understand the universe, in order to understand yourself.”
Her historic works are shown variously through archival footage, photographic documentation, and installation, as well as the re-performance of a selection of work by performers trained in “the Marina Abramović method” by her eponymous institution in New York.
Several static installations are successful at evoking a sense of the original work. A long table installed at the end of one gallery is laid out with 72 objects relating to pain and pleasure, including a rose, scissors, feathers, a bullet, and a gun. It memorializes a harrowing 1974 performance in Naples during which she stood motionless in the gallery for six hours, inviting the public to use the objects on her “as desired,” to see what they would do with the freedom, and just how much she could withstand. What started out as playful interaction soon turned traumatic as her clothes were cut, her body brutalized, and the gun loaded and held to her neck. A slideshow of still images from the performance archives the event in spine-tingling horror.
But not all of the archival works included prompted the same reaction. Less successful was the evocation of her 1997, Golden Lion-winning performance at the Venice Biennale, where she sat for days on piles of bloody cow bones trying to scrub them clean, in a statement on the ethnic conflict in her native country, the former Yugoslavia and the Sisyphean task of trying to wash it away. The neat pile of bones in the heavily air-conditioned room did little justice to the grueling performance, which has since become symbolic of horrors of war everywhere.
Other failed attempts at capturing the life of her performances include alabaster slabs immortalizing The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas (a cynic might even suggest that these works were more about creating a commercial object than about legacy carving). New age experiments with crystal energy, including a portal of rose quartz, from 2022, feel at best like an Instagram trap and at worst like filler.
Notably absent from the exhibition was the dead-eyed VR Marina who stared at the viewer through a headset, which she showed at the Serpentine in 2019, a poor extension of her famous 2010 MoMA performance, The Artist is Present, for which she sat motionless in a chair for six hours a day for three months, inviting members of the public to sit opposite her. Instead, that famous performance is captured in a video installation where, on one side of the room, videos of Abramović’s mostly stoic expressions face off with videos of the public, including some famous faces, like Kim Catrall and Antony Gormley. The documentation, showing humans responding to each other and emoting, was a much more moving extension of this work.
There is clearly the most potential in the live re-performances, although they carry with them the risk of dilution of the original work, whether that is through bad casting or the limits imposed by health and safety rules.
Imponderabilia, a joint work made during her 12-year partnership with the late artist Ulay, where visitors squeeze through a doorway formed by a naked man and a woman, was faithfully re-staged due to a request from Ulay’s estate. Others lived somewhere between that and an homage to the original piece; Nude with Skeleton is performed on top of a video box playing the original performance, for example.
“I don’t want them to replicate my work,” she said of the re-performances. “The source has to be mentioned, but the interpretation is personal. You have to have your own experience as an artist, your own stamina, your charisma, and also add some new elements of your own.”
She stressed that the acts must be emancipatory for the performer—“you share the pain with others and you’re free,” she noted—as well as inspirational to the viewer. “I’m your mirror,” she said. “If I can do this, you can do it too in your own life.”
In the same gallery, a three-room house has been constructed, which will be the setting for a re-performance of The House With the Ocean View; for the moment, it contained a video projection of Abramović’s original performance at Sean Kelly gallery in New York in 2002, during which she lived in the construction for 12 days without food, speaking, and only drinking water.
It is a work that is clearly extremely dear to her. “This performance really actually changed the state of my consciousness,” she noted. “Long performance leads to real transformation. You can’t pretend, you can’t act, you are your true self and you’re vulnerable, and that vulnerability is how you make a true connection with the public.”
And while the other pieces are performed by a rotating cast of 42 people, Abramović found only three performers she could trust with this work. Performances begin in October.
Abramović herself is still recovering from her brush with death, but has kept the question open on whether she will perform when she feels better. If she does anything, she said, it will be working with public in the courtyard, rather than in the museum, and it will mark a new phase of her practice, as getting so close to death has changed her outlook. “I’m actually worried, because I’m happy. So how am I going to work now with happiness? This is a completely new thing for me. My work is so tragic,” she said. “Now it’s going to be fun.”
“Marina Abramović” is on view from September 23, 2023 to January 1, 2024 at the Royal Academy in London.
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