Marina Abramović gets Royal Academy of Arts show—but will she be present?

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It is hard to overstate Marina Abramović’s influence on contemporary art. Since establishing her reputation in the 1970s, the starry Serbian artist has redefined the nature of performance art and propelled it onto the world stage.

The Royal Academy of Arts in London was due to open the UK’s first major retrospective of her work in September 2020, but it was postponed due to Covid-19. “We used the intervening years to start again from scratch,” says the exhibition’s curator, Andrea Tarsia. “Marina has been generous in developing not one but two exhibitions with us.”

Spanning the 50-year career of the artist, who was born in Belgrade in 1946, the much-anticipated survey will chart her practice through photographs, videos, objects and installations, as well as four of her ground-breaking performance pieces. Visitors can look forward to reruns of Imponderabilia (1977), which saw Abramović and her former partner and collaborator, the late German performance artist Ulay, stand naked in a narrow entrance, forcing visitors to squeeze between them and choose who to face.

Ulay and Marina Abramović, Imponderabilia (1977) Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna, Bologna. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Ulay / Marina Abramović

The exhibition will conclude with a reperformance of The House with the Ocean View (2002), an intense durational work in the wake of 9/11 in which the artist lived within three specially constructed units at New York’s Sean Kelly gallery for 12 days, subsisting only on water.

While the exhibition has been developed in close collaboration with Abramović, the exact nature of her live participation is yet to be determined. What we do know is that the performance pieces will be re-enacted by others. “This is an exciting element of the exhibition, and is a process that has been unfolding over a period of many months,” Tarsia says. “It started with a series of auditions from which we selected around 40 emerging artists, who have undergone a period of training in the Marina Abramović Method, which consists of a series of exercises conceived by Marina in the tradition of artists like Tadeusz Kantor or experimental theatre directors like Jerzy Grotowski.”

Tarsia believes that the reason Abramović is one of the world’s most exciting contemporary artists is due to her “fearlessness”, “reinvention” and “generosity”. “Fearlessness not only in terms of the demands she has placed on herself with her work, but because she has ploughed her own path,” Tarsia says—a path of mental and bodily endurance paved with everyday actions. Another indication of her stature is that Abramović will be the first woman to take over the entirety of the Royal Academy’s main galleries.

Marina Abramović, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 23 September-1 January 2024

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