Marina Abramovic

Royal Academy, Sep/23-Jan/24

Marina Abramović’s major retrospective, the largest in the UK to date, is currently on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until January 2024. From early performance pieces exploring her radical political origins in communist Yugoslavia to more recent works that challenge the boundaries of the mind, spirit, and body, the solo show spans Abramović’s fifty-decade career.

Though Abramović is well-known for her pioneering performance practice (and is often referred to as the ‘grandmother of performance art’), the exhibition also features installations, photography, videos, and sculptures. Iconic works such as Imponderabilia (1977), The House with the Ocean View (2002) and The Artist is Present (2010) are re-staged by the so-called next generation of performance artists, trained by the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI).

Marina Abramovic, The House with the Ocean View, 2002

A video installation of The Artist is Present (2010), the now infamous performance where the artist sat for three months in the atrium of New York’s MoMA, opens the gallery and sets the tone for the exhibition. Abramović is the subject of the gaze of hundreds of museum visitors, who were invited to sit silently across from her for eight hours a day. Here, the Serbian conceptual and performance artist attains celebrity status, becoming one of the most internationally acclaimed – and valuable – contemporary artists.

Marina Abramovic, Balkan Baroque, 1997

After this striking start, the exhibition goes back to the 1970s. Performances like Rhythm 0 (1974) and Rhythm 5 (1974) place Abramović’s body in contexts of violence, pain, and trauma while delving into themes of endurance and transcendence, which would later become central to her work. Pieces such as Balkan Baroque (1997), firstly presented at the 1997 Venice Biennale, and The Hero (2001) allude to the artist’s memories and experiences from the Bosnian War, the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the passing of her father, a former Yugoslav partisan during WWII.

A key moment in Abramović’s practice is her creative and romantic partnership with fellow artist Ulay. Together, they became ‘The Self’, a unified and fused entity that embodied their performative experiments. One of the most significant but bittersweet parts of the exhibition is the recording of the performance The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk (1988/2008). After walking for 90 days from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China, Abramović and Ulay met each other for the last time, a spiritual journey that marked their ultimate collaboration and the end of their 12-year relationship.

Marina Abramovic, The Current, 2017

The final rooms unveil Abramović’s latest dives into spirituality, showcasing her ever-growing interest in the spiritual traditions of Buddhism, Aboriginal communities, and Tibetan practices. These contemplative works offer some space for reflection and expand on Abramović’s states of mind. At this stage, the body of the artist is no longer the protagonist of the work, but the multiple energies, flows, and materials that interact with the audience. Making history as the first female artist to have a large survey exhibition at the RA, Marina Abramović is not simply present, she is everywhere.

Caroline Fucci for London Art Walk
October 2023