Perhaps more than any artist, Marina Abramović (b.1946) has pushed the limits of bodily capacity and endurance, both in and as the practice of art. She has also been successful in popularising, and arguably legitimising, performance art. The use of the body as raw material – to be framed, manipulated or reshaped over the course of a mediated action – is a key formal principle of many of the works in this retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, which encompasses video, photography and surrogated re-enactments. From her first solo performances in the early 1970s to her formative collaborations with Ulay (1943–2020) from 1976 to 1988 and more recent performances, Abramović’s body is often put through gruelling situations, which at times resemble trials of will and endurance, or subdued gladiatorial contests.
In her earliest performances Abramović subjects herself to injury or interpersonal violence: she pricks her fingers with a knife, slices a Communist star into her belly with a razor blade, consents to be slapped, is knocked down by the propulsive force of another running body or risks being set alight. In others, her body enters into painful situations, not by sudden or gruesome action, but by repeating or sustaining an activity that would otherwise be unremarkable, except when it is endured over an extended or anomalous duration. As a result, it becomes exhausting or excruciating: screaming until her voice is lost, walking the Great Wall of China or sitting every day for three months opposite audience-participants in The Artist is Present (2010). However, this exhibition, curated by Andrea Tarsia, also shows Abramović to be a more formally agile and innovative artist than she is typically reputed. In the twenty-nine small-scale collages in Freeing the Horizon (1971), for example, she has painted monochrome backgrounds over photographs of urban landscapes: here we see a rare but convincing sign of Abramović in a rigorous Conceptualist mode, an orientation that suits her.
Historical performance art documentation – familiar to many as small, grainy snapshots, videos on box monitors or bootlegged clips on a laptop – seems fresh and monumental here, especially in the gallery of works from the 1970s FIG.1. Projected onto large screens that have been installed to resemble a five-pointed star, or hung on the walls in large, gridded series, such works as Rest Energy (1980) – in which Ulay and Abramović hold a bow taut, with its arrow pointing at her heart and thus risking her death – or Relation in Space (1976), in which they run into each other over a sustained duration, are newly powerful. The visual layering of images is overwhelming – pleasingly so – as is the cacophony of loud slapping, whining, grunting and screaming that echoes throughout the room. It is an attack on the senses that summons the bone-shaking power of the live performances.
The curatorial commitment to recouping some of the dynamism that is inevitably lost in the reliance on documentation is usefully sustained in the restagings of four performances: Imponderabilia FIG.2, Nude with Skeleton FIG.3, Luminosity FIG.4 and The House with the Ocean View (2002/2023). Imponderabilia, when it was first performed in 1977 FIG.5, involved Ulay and Abramović, both nude, standing opposite one another in a gallery doorway, creating a narrow opening through which spectators had to squeeze to access the exhibition. In the new iteration, visitors are able to circumvent the piece through a strategically placed passageway, which many do. Others hesitate, fumble, laugh or grumble; one man, as though by habit, audibly utters ‘excuse me’. With a simple, reduced gesture, Ulay’s and Abramović’s original piece exposed a general prudishness, squeamishness, puritanical streak or failure of nerve, while also gesturing to the implicit gendering of space. Here, the bodies on show become odd prostheses of the architecture and moving through it, one needs to decide, on the fly, against whose exposed genitals one might choose to face. The terms of our participation are affecting, nuanced and complex.
Subsequent rooms demonstrate Abramović’s encounter, after her split with Ulay in 1988, with new age spirituality and her borrowings from Tibetan, Indian, Chinese and Indigenous Australian rituals, beliefs and cosmologies. Her Transitory Objects (1989–94) tend to combine wood or metal supports, such as chairs, beds or benches, with large crags of crystal or polished geodes, against which one is invited to lean, rest or press FIG.6. Interacting with objects in this way remains taboo in museum environments and the experience is enjoyable on these terms. They are also attractive settings for selfies: oases for superficial immersion and instruments of the guilty pleasure of self-absorption.
The wall texts here are distracting, providing hollow rationales in their discursive framing. Works from the Dragon series (1989/1994), for example, are said to enable ‘energetic interactions’ or activate ‘the energy and curative power of the crystals and metal that form them’. Touching them brings ‘the possibility of reconnection and healing’. Despite Abramović’s sincerity, such claims resemble verbiage and limit the scope of our potential interactions with the sculptures. Moreover, this tends to neutralise any more nuanced or materially grounded claims that might be sought in our encounters. Where are the crystals sourced? Who mined them and under what labour conditions? What is the relationship between the immaterial claims made for the works, and the abstracted material conditions in which they are made? Engaging with these objects is less a transcendental experience than an invitation to commune with trophies of extractive capitalism. Can this relation be construed as a critical one? Probably not, for there is more information about the origins of crystals in the gift shop, where a voluminous display allows the visitor to purchase grey selenite wands sourced from Morocco or globs of Brazilian hematite ‘said to stimulate concentration’.
Many of the remaining works, including recent videos of actions – dozing, carrying milk, levitating – are given similarly doctrinal, esoteric framings. The deictic relation to ‘energetic’ forces or their de-particularised value in ‘other’ cultures requires, for this reviewer, too great an act of faith to be believable or reasonable. This relies, in part, on the cult of personality that has accrued to Abramović as a fashionably witchy (if not mildly ironic) ‘icon’ and sage. If the Transitory Objects require or invoke participation, it is in an affectively flat, convivial sense, which replaces one form of efficacy – the potential for new political or social relations – with another, the empty promise of spiritual growth. Whereas the former may ideally be evidenced and measured, the latter cannot. The shortcomings of the claim to the transformative power of Abramovic’s sculptures is thrown into bathetic relief in Portal FIG.7, a doorway studded with hefty shards of selenite and lit by powerful LED lights. Her stated homage to the ascetic prostrations of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who she encountered in Dharamsala is overwhelmed by the structure’s compulsive usage as a canny stage set for social media content. Indeed, if the piece means to provide an analogy for the profound threshold experience that is the attainment of states of bliss, this is neutralised by the fact that when most visitors dwell inside the portal, it is not to aim for the ‘Great Perfection’, but rather to acquire a well-lit shot for Instagram.
Where, more recently still, Abramović returns to her body as the subject of her work, there is a tendency for the resulting works to hover awkwardly between performance for the camera, portraiture and editorial styling, as is the case in Four Crosses FIG.8, which features composite images of her face in feigned postures of grief or rage, arranged in massive cruciform structures. In the kitsch self-portraits in laser-cut alabaster that comprise Five Stages of Maya Dance (2013/2016), any residual power relies on a series of factors: the rote reiteration of the artist’s image throughout the exhibition, her humility in showing herself looking craggy and crazed, and the auratic force of any celebrity’s face – and much less a deep or discerning relation to the Mayan ritual named in its title.
Nonetheless, the exhibition is bookended by brilliance, culminating with The House with the Ocean View FIG.9. The work is being restaged by three performers across the duration of the exhibition: Elke Luyten, Amanda Coogan and Kira O’Reilly. Each performs continuously for twelve days without reprieve, subject to strict rules set by Abramović, who forbids the performer to eat, talk, read or write and limits their actions to simple movements. What might seem draconian, totalitarian or punitive is in fact the use of constructive limitation in choreography or composition: there is freedom here. Choices may be made within the strict anti-logic of the piece. During this reviewer’s visit, Luyten takes one of three permitted daily showers. A highbacked chair with a crystal headrest has been overturned. There is little movement: slow dressing, drinking water, a loud burp. At one point, she lays down and raises an arm aloft, sending a silent, enigmatic signal, but not waving. Luyten looks gaunt and hollow-eyed, walks gingerly, slightly stooped. Her behaviour recalls that of hermits and anchorites, prisoners, hostages or captives on hunger strike: people who elect to deprive themselves of comforts, and those on whom deprivation is imposed. The wall text states that The House with the Ocean View aims to produce a state of ‘luminosity’ in which the body and its pains and privations may be transcended.
In addition to the disciplinary regime of the performance, the women encased within the tripartite architecture of The House with the Ocean View are barred from leaving by ladders with knives for rungs. It is a domestic space. It could be a prison cell, barrack or monastic chamber, but the naming of it as a ‘house’ strains at this – but for a prison cell with an ocean view. Luyten’s inhabitation of House demonstrates the vigour, dynamism and lasting power of Abramović’s work. It also reminds us that our duty is often to wrench a work or an œuvre from its given discursive framing to allow it to say more than an artist or museum might otherwise let it. Luyten is elevated by some eight feet, but looks attenuated. She stares out as if from a great distance, from a mountaintop or from deep in the abyss. She appears to be interminably patient, but diminished, as though waiting not for something, nor for nothing, but for the end of time.