A major new retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy explores the extraordinary career of none other than performance art pioneer Marina Abramovic. Curated in collaboration with the artist herself, the exhibition is a step forward in accomplishing Abramovic’s goal of creating a new type of documentation — one that will preserve her distinctive approach to performance and will allow later audiences to experience her oeuvre the way she had originally intended. The exhibition is open to the public until 1 January, 2024.
As the story goes, Abramovic was still a wide-eyed, aspiring artist, entirely unsuspecting of her future vocation-to-be, when she was suddenly taken aback by a dozen military jets piercing the blue skies she had set out to paint. A cascade of chemtrails calcified as swiftly as they dissolved into the vast atmosphere overlooking the grass fields of former Yugoslavia. It was this sibylline event that made young Abramovic recognise the insufficiency of object-based art in capturing the evanescence of life as it unfolds around us and through us. The solution to this exigent cultural pathology she found in raw, instantaneous performance, as neither the photograph nor the canvas had the faculty to express to the spectator what the body could communicate so adroitly. Since then, the Serbian artist has been dubbed the grande dame of performance art, with some of her most notable works including lengthy routines that require months of mental and physical preparation, acts of self-harm and pushing the limits of the human body to radical extremes.
For decades what defined the core of Abramovic’s oeuvre was its irreproducibility — a performance, unlike other traditional artistic mediums, is outstanding in its impermanence. Even the lengthiest show must eventually come to a denouement. The transient nature of performance art is instrumental in perpetuating the sense of exclusivity that surrounds the medium, as well as its agents. And while this indubitably holds true insofar as the assumption that one could only experience performance art as its physical spectator, Abramovic has since embraced a novel, more aberrant approach to showcasing her own work. In part a way to preserve her idiosyncratic method of tackling these arduous performances (which she later baptised as “The Abramovic Method”), in other respects — an attempt at enshrining the otherwise volatile culture surrounding performance art, Abramovic founded The Marina Abramovic Institute in 2007. This marked the beginning of a new period in her artistic unfolding, paving the way for an unconventional retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010. “The Artist Is Present” traced the exuberant career of Abramovic spanning over four decades via a collection of photographs, installations, sound pieces, and for the first time ever — live re-performances of her works by other artists.
What arose as a total precedent in the history of MoMA, as well as Marina’s own artistic tradition, laid the groundwork for future exhibitions of similar manner. Now the public has diverted its attention to yet another major revisiting of Abramovic’s artistic enterprise. The latest retrospective at the Royal Academy (its first ever for any female artist!) displays key moments from Marina’s career through archive footage, sculpture and installation, while others are being reperformed by prospective artists, trained at her eponymous institution. Standard to Marina’s shows, the RA has foreseeably put great emphasis on public participation throughout the exhibition. The live reperformances the audience will have the opportunity to engage with include “Imponderabilia”, originally performed in 1977 by Abramovic and her then partner Ulay, “Nude With Skeleton” (2002) and “Luminosity” (1997). In addition to these, visitors are also welcome to use the so-called Transitory Objects from “Transitory Objects For Human Use” — a series of works that marked the artist’s initial absence from the gallery space, rather making the audience the central participant of the artwork.
The retrospective is divided thematically, with each section defining a specific epoch that belongs to Abramovic’s artistic trajectory. These themes follow her creative frame of mind, commencing with her early works scrutinising the dangerous political ideologies that brought severe acts of brutality to the Balkans and extending all the way to her more recent preoccupation with time and mortality. But whatever the occasion, Abramovic’s work is one that warrants revisiting and conservation. Her acerbic, oftentimes unsettling opus tends to prompt feelings of animosity amongst a certain circle in her audience, but in the absence of prejudice inspires an enviable esprit de corps. This is especially coveted as we approach disuniting, worrisome times.
Get your tickets for the exhibition here.