Here is Marina Abramović asking to be treated as an object, her audience provided with a hammer, a saw, chains, a whip and other frightening implements to do what they want with her.
And here she is wearing a doctor’s white coat as she tells us a story ‘about how we, in Balkans, kill the rats … ’, as she embarks on a blood-curdling video lecture, as part of her 1997 Balkan Baroque at the Venice Biennale, at the height of the Yugoslav civil wars. I remember it from then as one of the most gruelling and moving performances I have ever seen.
Here’s her face again, in positive and negative, and turned into a series of alabaster reliefs. Abramović contorts her face into the gamut of human emotions, eye-squeezing, tongue lolling, laughing and crying. Now she’s filmed in close-up, half-drowned on a beach on Lampedusa as the tide comes in.
Abramović’s retrospective at the Royal Academy is relentless. Shockingly, it is the first retrospective to be given to a woman artist in the institution’s history.
Then there’s Abramović and her partner, Ulay, slapping each other’s faces, screaming at one another, and performing a dangerous balancing act with an archer’s bow and arrow. In other circumstances, the extreme games these two accomplices once played might have led to the courts, at the very least.
Elsewhere we see her knitting, smoking, holding a candle and walking with infinite slowness, carrying a bowl of milk. Here she is lying naked under a skeleton in a kind of video sarcophagus, on top of which a naked live performer repeats the pose.
Other performers re-enact early works as we go from room to room. There are so many Marinas here, but only one Abramović, in all her multiple guises. Now she’s playing with knives, self-harming, cutting a five pointed star on her stomach with razor blades. Here she is in repeated back-lit stills, as she stares across a darkened gallery at several dozen images of some of the 1,545 members of the public (including Lou Reed and Lady Gaga and Ulay) who came and sat opposite her, in silence, during the 75 days of her performance The Artist is Present, at New York’s MoMA in 2010. There’s no getting away from her.
Redoubtable, indefatigable, brave and extreme, Abramović is an artist you’d want on your side in a battle. She terrifies me, and who knows what she’d do to the enemy. I speak as one who has been moved by her endurance and spirit and laughed at her mordant wit, and also as one who has both enjoyed a couple of her workshops, and run away from another. But who cares about the mumbo-jumbo, when the best of her art is so strong.
The RA show documents many of the best of her performances (“performance” is somehow an inadequate word), and restages others with the assistance of younger artists she has trained. Since the early 1970s, Abramović has at times risked her health, her sanity and even her life in what I can only think of as a series of self-imposed tests of human endurance and persistence.
She has burned herself, cut herself, drugged herself, taken on tasks that have stretched her physical and psychological limits to a degree most of us would refuse. She has also done silly things with copper baths, camomile flowers and crystals, and made some horribly slick sculptures with marble and onyx and quartz that audiences are invited to interact with.
There’s a whiff of New Age gloopyness about these, and many of her more sculptural objects are like highly polished relics or overblown symbols of the artist in her pomp. If Abramović is sculpting anything, it is her life, reworking it as an ongoing performance, with or without all the stand-ins, actors, theatre productions and films. Abramović persists, and she has created a tremendous legacy. Over the decades the now 76-year-old “grandmother of performance art” has both seduced audiences and produced an art of genuine confrontation. We are less an audience than witnesses to the best of her art. It isn’t over yet.
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