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Marina Abramovic at the Royal Academy REVIEW

Updated: Sep 29, 2023

The grande dame of performance art, Marina Abramovic, at the age of 76, is the first woman to get her own show in the main galleries at the RA. This retrospective certainly packs a punch.

It is not for littles. Not because of the naked bodies. Another first for the RA, some of Abramovic's iconic performance art is recreated here by specially selected nude artists. There is a woman lying, seemingly dead, with a skeleton on top of her. There is another woman suspended with her arms outstretched à la Da Vinci. You have to squeeze past two naked figures to get through a door. They make you look, look again, feel uncomfortable. But they are not shocking.

It is some of her earlier work that younger visitors might find upsetting. Abramovic's tool was her body and she was interested in pain and exploring the physical limits a human could endure. For the iconic Rhythm 0 (1974), a large table is laid out with various objects - knives, a pistol, whips, chains - and above it a video recording shows how visitors, shockingly, used the props on her. Elsewhere, we have Abramovic taking a knife and - fast as she can - stabbing the space between her splayed fingers until she cuts herself and then takes another knife. We have Abramovic cutting a five point star into her stomach. There is a room of collaborations with Ulay, her then-partner. The juxtaposed screens of them slapping each other, kissing each other, screaming, are like a horror movie. The performance element of all of these works is caught on video, a record of a moment in history, rather than a collaborative living work. But advisory red flag - they are extraordinarily powerful, deeply unsettling, potentially triggering pieces.

Her work with Ulay was meant to culminate in a marriage on top of the Great Wall of China, with each having walked towards the other from opposite ends of the Wall for 90 days. However, in the course of preparing for the walk, the two fell out and the meeting marks the end of their collaboration. There is something vaguely ridiculous about the pomp of this choreographed moment and the seriousness with which the alternative ending is undertaken.

The sense of Marina perhaps taking herself a bit TOO seriously continues into the second half of the exhibition, post Ulay, with an increasing focus on spirituality and energy drawn from nature. There are quite of lot of crystals. You are invited to engage with the 'Transitory Objects for Human Use' and "access the energy and curative power of the crystals and metal that form them" - ie. sit on them.

Abramovic very nearly died earlier this year. She says that the experience has, "brought humour back into [my] life" and that, "life now is about living and having fun." She is in London until at least the end of the year and is collaborating on various live performance pieces, including possibly something at the RA. Funny Abramovic, that would be worth seeing!

Marina Abramovic Royal Academy of Arts 23 Sept–1 Jan 2024.

Tickets: from £23, U16s free, half price tickets for ages 16–25.

Click here for the schedule of live performances.


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