‘The Spirit in Any Condition, Does not Burn’: Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts

Culturalee attended the press preview of the Marina Abramović retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, the first time a woman or a performance artist has exhibited in the main galleries of the esteemed London arts institution since its foundation in the 18th Century. The Marina Abramović retrospectiveat the RA is the first major solo survey in the UK of the work of internationally acclaimed Serbian artist and Honorary Royal Academician, and is curated by Andrea Tarsia, Director of Exhibitions, Royal Academy of Arts.

At the press view Abramović enthralled a packed lecture room in the RA by recounting the dramatic experiences of recent months, when she had a terrifying near-death experience after an embolism, saying: “If I really die in May, I will be the first dead artist in 255 years of the Royal Academy. But guess what, I am here!”

Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts

Over a period of five decades, Marina Abramović (b. 1946) has pushed the boundaries of performance art and progressed the artform from its experimental beginnings to the mainstream contemporary art world. Abramović collaborated closely with the RA on the exhibition, which features photographs, videos, objects, installations representing her 50-year career, and includes seminal performance pieces.

After being rescheduled twice due to the pandemic, the Royal Academy is finally presenting the first major UK survey of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović. Known for her pushing her mental and physical endurance to the limit during with her work, such as living in a three-room home inside a NYC gallery for twelve days while fasting, Abramović is a performance art pioneer. This exhibition will showcase pieces from across the past 50 years, including video, sculpture, installation and performance – four of her performance pieces, ‘Nude with Skeleton’, ‘Imponderabilia’, ‘Luminosity’ and ‘The House with the Ocean View’, will be staged during the run by performance artists trained in the Marina Abramović method.

Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photo by Lee Sharrock

Abramović explained at the press view that ‘The House with the Ocean View’ was a particularly difficult performance to recreate, for it truly tests the physical and emotional limits of the performers, who are unable to eat or talk for a sustained period:

“You have the toilet, shower, table, chair, the bed.  Three ladders with knives that you never can come down. This is all that you do. You stay there for 12 days and 12 nights without interacting with the public. It’s a really important and difficult piece. The idea of the ocean was the ocean of the minds of the visitors coming and looking at the piece. You know really this performance changed the state of my consciousness and purified the space I was in.”

Marina Abramović studied painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade before becoming a performance artist in the 1970s.  Her performance art often includes every day actions ritualised through repetition and endurance and tests the limits of physical and mental tolerance. She navigates the space between conceptual and existential, physical and spiritual. She collaborated with the German artist Ulay (1943-2020) between 1975–88. Their work explored male and female dualities and was often given an extra emotional dynamism due to their romantic invovlement. After separating from Ulay she returned to solo performance in 1989.

Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photo by Lee Sharrock

The RA exhibition includes Public Participation, featuring two works in which Abramović engaged directly with her audience which were held 45 years apart: Rhythm 0 (1975) and The Artist is Present (2010). The Communist Body explores Abramović’s origins in the former Yugoslavia and how Communist ideals informed her practice.  Body Limits brings together Abramović’s key early performances, presented through photography and video.

The Serbian artist explores the limits of the human condition and the idea that without experiencing pain, discomfort and suffering, we can’t experience true happiness. Video and stills of some of her most iconic performances are exhibited at the Royal Academy, including ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a legendary exhibition attended by 150,000 people. Visitors queued up to sit across a table from the artist, and the resulting emotions that were triggered between the artist and visitors are now the stuff of legend, particularly the moment when her former romantic and creative partner Ulay attended the performance and sat opposite her in floods of tears. She reached across to hold his hands, breaking the protocol of her performance because of the depth of love and experiences they had shared, which included taking different routes to walk to the Great Wall of China on a mission to get married when they met, but deciding to break up when they were reunited on the wall. The record-breaking exhibition proved proved the power of performance art to connects with people on a deeply human level.

Abramovic cause a stir in the art world with a performance in Naples at the start of her career in 1974 when she invited members of the public to interact with her body with an eclectic and often terrifying array of 72 objects placed on a table, which included a loaded gun, a selection of knives, a hammer, saw, chains, flour, wine and gloves. She was left traumatised by the 6-hour performance, when the audience – who were timid at first – eventually became violet, with some of the men cutting, attacking and humiliating her. She recounts that the women in the audience didn’t hurt her, instead encouraging the men to, and only intervening to wipe her tears away with a cloth.

The exhibition also features a room dedicated to Abramovic’s art responding to the bloody Yugoslav civil wars, including a ‘Balkan Baroque’ artwork shown at the 1997 Venice Biennale, which features the artist wearing a white doctor’s coat and explaining how “…we, in Balkans, kill the rats …”

The RA retrospective presents important milestones from her career through visuals of the original performances, whilst some of her most iconic work is recreated by performance artists trained at the Marina Abramovic institute, including a controversial performance of Imponderabilia, a performance piece originally staged in Naples in 1977 by Abramović and Ulay, which invites gallery visitors to walk through a small space between a naked man and woman standing in a doorway.

Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy of Arts. Photo by Lee Sharrock

Shortly after the RA exhibition opened to the public, an anonymous letter was sent to the RA and Marina Abramovic in reaction to the naked performance artists, saying: “I felt that this exhibition was reaching a new low. I cannot understand why the Academy considers this as art. Even Tracey Emin never gets as low as this.”

The letter went on to describe the work as ‘soft porn’ and continued with: ‘Are you happy to contribute to the degradation of the nation?”  The reaction to the exhibition has ranged from critical acclaim to public disgust, proving that after a career spanning half a century, Abramovic has lost none of her ability to shock and provoke, and whether you love or hate performance art its undeniable that the RA retrospective leaves a lasting impression.

There is some respite in the last few rooms of the exhibition, after the intensity of the first galleries, and visitors can walk through a crystal portal leading to a room with two vast baths filled with sweet-smelling chamomile flowers, juxtaposed with a video installation of the artist lying on the sand with the waves of the sea in Stromboli lapping around her face, and lying on a bed as if almost levitating above a barren desert-like landscape.  

Marina Abramović is at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until 1st January 2024: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/marina-abramovic

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