Ulay / Marina Abramović, Imponderabilia, 1977. Performance; 90 minutes. Galleria Communale d’Arte Moderna, Bologna. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Ulay / Marina Abramović
The Royal Academy of Arts presents the first major solo survey in the UK of the work of internationally acclaimed Serbian performance artist and Honorary Royal Academician, Marina Abramović (b. 1946). In a career that spans over five decades, Abramović has propelled performance art from its experimental beginnings to the mainstream. The exhibition, arranged in close collaboration with the artist, provides an overview of her extraordinary practice with photographs, videos, objects and installations. It features four of Abramović’s iconic performance pieces, which are reperformed by performance artists live in the galleries. Three of these performances are being reperformed in the UK for the first time: Imponderabilia, 1977, Nude with Skeleton, 2002, and The House with the Ocean View, 2002.
Originally trained as a painter at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade, Marina Abramović turned to performance in the early 1970s and established the hallmarks of her practice: every day actions ritualised through repetition and endurance. She is a pioneer in using the live body in her work and has consistently tested the limits of her own physical and mental tolerance. Abramović has continued to navigate a space between the personal and the social, the conceptual and the existential, the physical and the spiritual. From 1975–88, Abramović collaborated with her then partner, the German artist Ulay, exploring male and female dualities. Returning to solo performances in 1989, the artist further tested boundaries with the creation of performative objects, performances to camera and audience participation.
The exhibition opens with Public Participation, featuring two works in which Abramović famously engaged directly with her audience: from the radical physical interaction of Rhythm 0, 1974 to the quiet stillness of The Artist is Present, 2010. Held 36 years apart, the two works encapsulate the development of her practice. Following on, The Communist Body foregrounds Abramović’s origins in the former Yugoslavia and how Communist ideals, experienced socially as well as personally, have informed her practice. Works featured here include Rhythm 5, 1974 (London, Lisson Gallery) and The Hero, 2001. The artist has spoken of the Balkan mind as ‘baroque’, in reference to what she describes as dramatic extremes of expression and emotion. Also included is Balkan Baroque, 1997, a work related to the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Body Limits brings together Abramović’s key early performances, presented through video and photographs. Some focus on the use of her body and her physical stamina, while others represent a search for transformative release. Featured is Abramović’s work with Ulay, an intense exploration of human relations, including Imponderabilia, 1977, which is reperformed. The next section, Absence of the Body focuses on the break-up of Abramović and Ulay’s relationship and feature The Lovers, Great Wall Walk, 1988, a ritualised separation where the artists walked for 90 days across the Great Wall of China from opposite ends, meeting briefly before going their separate ways. During the Great Wall Walk Abramović became fascinated by the mythology of the wall, that it was built along the earth’s energy lines, and by her study of Chinese and Tibetan medicine. This gave rise to a series of Transitory Objects, displayed in Energy from Nature, with which Abramović sought to give shape to nature’s energy flows. The surfaces of the objects are polished through use, bearing witness to the passage of bodies in time.
In Coming and Going, Abramović equates the ephemerality of performance art with the transitory nature of our own lives. Inspired by Tibetan monks’ practice of sleeping alongside the dead, Nude with Skeleton, 2002, is reperformed here. Also featured is Four Crosses, 2019, which refers to the language of Slavic icons. Art making is a way of life for Abramović, and in using her own body as her medium she has literally lived her life through her work. Through her experiences of different cultures, Abramović became interested in how feats of endurance act as vehicles towards a mental leap of faith, a transcendence that goes beyond one’s own physical limitations. The final galleries focus on the transformative experience of performance art and equating this with different spiritual traditions, particularly giving shape to female spirituality, such as Bed for Aphrodite and her Lovers, 1990. Works are increasingly still, including Luminosity, 1997, which is reperformed. Abramović said: “I call it liquid knowledge. When the body is exhausted you reach a point where the body doesn’t exist anymore. Your connection with a universal knowledge is so acute, there is a state of luminosity.”
The exhibition concludes with The House with the Ocean View being reperformed. First performed by Abramović in 2002, she lived continuously for 12 days in a ‘home’ of only three spaces in the Sean Kelly Gallery in New York. Abramović fasted by only drinking water, while ritualising everyday actions to the bare conditions of living. Audiences were invited to witness it on the condition that they didn’t speak but established an energy dialogue with the artist. Held a year after 9/11, the work created a collective vigil.
The live performances in the exhibition will be reperformed by performance artists cast and trained by the Marina Abramović Institute.
Exhibition organised by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in close collaboration with the artist. The exhibition is curated by Andrea Tarsia, Director of Exhibitions, Royal Academy of Arts.