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Marina Abramović review

  • Art
  • Royal Academy of Arts, Piccadilly
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Gallery view of Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts.Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts
David ParryGallery view of Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photo: © David Parry/ Royal Academy of Arts

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

For Marina Abramović, the simple act of existence can be art. Just look at her now-iconic piece ‘The Artist Is Present’, performed at MOMA in 2010, where visitors were able to sit at a table in front of the Serbian performance pioneer in silence for as long as they wanted. All she had to do was sit there and stare back, exist, and it was enough to move hundreds of people to tears, to feel like they had formed some kind of spiritual connection.

Those visitors’ faces greet you like the world’s worst Zoom meeting as you walk into this long-delayed retrospective at the RA. There are stars of music, film and art (Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Klaus Biesenbach) and everyday schlubs like us too. Marina sits impassive, unmoving, but these mere mortals quiver and weep. They try to match her energy but they fail and collapse. Except Lou Reed who looks like he might already be dead.

And that’s Marina. For decades she has put her body on the line to make big, bold, sweeping, direct art about nothing less than life, death, sex and love. She is totally, utterly committed to the art – that’s why it works, even when it gets a bit silly.

It’s so intrusive that it’s almost stomach turning

A table is laid out here with knives and saws, whips and chains, objects of ecstasy and torture. All around are videos of the performance in 1974 they were originally laid out for, ‘Rhythm 0’, where Abramović stood still for eight hours and invited the public to do what they wanted. And they did. They stripped her to the waist, wrapped chains around her neck, stabbed her, used her. The mob went wild, feral. It was brutal, harrowing, traumatic. And again, that’s Marina. That’s her power; the ability to expose and evoke the basest of human instincts.

She can also evoke profound discomfort. Her 1977 performance ‘Imponderabilia’ with her then partner Ulay is recreated here (there are four actual performances in the exhibition, all reperformed by artists from the Marina Abramović Institute rather than Marina herself). A man and a woman stand in a doorway, fully nude. To pass, you have to choose who to face, figure out what to do with your hands. The couple are too close, you push them aside to pass, their balance gets shifted, their backs get pushed against the wall. It’s so intrusive, so full of questions of intimacy, misogyny and closeness, that it’s almost stomach turning. 

It was with Ulay that she created some of her most extreme acts of physical endurance. In videos here they breathe right into each other’s mouths, tie their hair together, scream at each other, slap each other, point arrows at each other. They push the limits not just of their bodies but of human interaction, of love, of codependency and trust. 

Marina and Ulay couldn’t last, it was all too intense, too much, too far, and they split up on the Great Wall of China, rubbings of which are framed on the wall here. That was the spark for a move away from her aggressively simple, confrontational, full-body performance style and a step towards an obsession with nature and energy. Things, in other words, become more esoteric.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Abramović got into stones and crystals as containers of history and energy. There’s a copper bed, quartz pillows screwed into the wall that you’re instructed to lie on or ‘press your heart, head and sex against’. I did. But instead of feeling a connection to nature and history, I just felt silly.

She pulls faces and carves them into alabaster or pastes them onto crucifixes, creates a portal out of crystals, copper baths filled with chamomile flowers, shoes made of stone. It’s just a bit silly, and the whole journey into New Age spiritualism and semi-Eastern mysticism just feels like one she fails to persuade you to join her on. 

Performances still figure, but their nature has changed. A performer lies underneath a skeleton, the bones rising and falling with her breath, another sits balanced on a bicycle seat with her arms and legs outstretched. They’re both more obvious and less successful than the earlier pieces. 

The videos fare a bit better, with Abramović swapping out physical intensity for quiet stillness, lying on a stormy beach, or balancing a too-full pot of water. This is the silent, contemplative, solemn Abramović of ‘The Artist Is Present’.

She recently had a heart attack so can’t perform here, but Marina Abramović is such a presence, so essential to her art, such a cult of her own personality, that her absence is unignorable. It makes it feel like a tribute to her art, rather than the actual art itself, which is a shame. None of her art really moves me, but I can see that at its best, her work is still influential, pioneering and moving, and still powerful enough to endure, to forge connections, maybe even to bring you to tears, even if the artist isn’t present.

Eddy Frankel
Written by
Eddy Frankel


Royal Academy of Arts
Burlington House, Piccadilly
Tube: Piccadilly Circus

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