Marina Abramović: A Past to Celebrate and a Future to Watch
Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy, 23rd September 2023 – 1st January 2024.
Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography at Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Southbank Centre, 1st October 2023.
Marina Abramović Institute Takeover at Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Southbank Centre, 4th – 8th October 2023.
Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography, Marina Abramović with Katya Tylevich, Orion Books, 2023, pp. 496, £80.
A retrospective of Marina Abramović, one of the world’s most celebrated yet controversial artists is guaranteed to create shockwaves. She is an artist who forces you to pay attention, to think about the limits of the human body and its relationship to our environment in this world and beyond. The exhibition is revolutionary in and of itself with Abramović becoming the first female artist to have a retrospective at the Royal Academy in its 250-year history but the exhibition is certainly not defined by this factor. The retrospective shows Abramović at her best, thoughtfully displaying highlights of her career from the beginning and making a space for more recent pieces to shine. This retrospective does not feel like an obituary to a fading legacy; instead, it is a pleasing amalgamation of past and present, leaving visitors with a sense of excitement about things to come.
Splashed across the websites of major news outlets and the catalyst for incandescent debate on social media, one of the most controversial pieces in the exhibition: Imponderabilia (1977). First performed by Abramović and her partner Ulay in 1977 during a performance in Bologna, the piece involves a completely nude couple forming a doorway by standing opposite each other for hours on end. Visitors must then squeeze through the couple in order to view the rest of the gallery, creating stark moments of tension as visitors are invited to join the performance artists in throwing social convention to the wind by awkwardly nudging their way through two naked strangers. At the RA exhibition, the piece is no longer performed by Abramović but rather a new generation of performance artists trained in the Abramović method through the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). The fact that the piece has retained its former impact despite no longer being performed by Abramović herself is a credit to the artist’s legacy and the adaptability of her artwork. MAI performance artists act in place of Abramović in many pieces throughout the retrospective such as Nude With a Skeleton, The House with the Ocean View and Luminosity. They are tangible examples of her work surviving into the next generation, a satisfying contrast of past and present who reframe rather than dilute Abramović’s pieces.
Some critics have argued that Abramović’s impact has waned across the span of her career, with The Times exclaiming that ‘only the barest bones of her former talent remain’. Indeed, some of Abramović’s later work appears softer in appearance when compared to her pieces in decades gone by, furthermore, many of her newer works are objects rather than performances. However, these pieces still tie in with Abramović’s essence of her original work despite their difference in medium. Take for example, the Reprogramming Levitation Module taken from her 2000 exhibition ‘Soul Operation Rooms‘. It comprises two shining copper bathtubs filled with biodynamically grown chamomile flowers with a brilliant white quartz crystal suspended above each tub, a vessel used- according to Abramović – as a means of cleansing the soul. The piece is whimsical in appearance, a far cry from the eerie overtones associated with much of her work. It matches the huge quartz shoes in Shoes For Departure or Portal, a gateway formed of stunning backlit selenite encased in a black outline. A departure from the brutal aesthetics of her earlier work may seem regressive to some, indeed, the use of crystals in her work may even induce frustration if you view them as tedious, New Age whimsy. However, as an artist who has consistently shunned convention, why should Abramović stay within the confines of her early work? Surely an ability to produce art involving new mediums and different aesthetics that still align with core principles of spirituality and limits of the body proves Abramović’s rebellious flexibility when it comes to art. The ability to break through constraints is not limited to the ones placed by society but also some that have inadvertently appeared as a result of stereotypes associated with her own work. Her refusal to be placed into a single category reinforces that this is a retrospective which does not memorialise her career but compels you to look out for what she will do next.
Abramović’s blend of past and present can be seen outside of the RA’s exhibition through her collaboration with the Southbank Centre in their Autumn/Winter 2023/24 season. Abramović will celebrate her new book Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography by Marina Abramović and Katya Tylevich on October 1st as part of the Southbank Centre’s literature programme. The book will showcase her story and career through previously unseen images and interviews, allowing us to gain more insight not just into her career as an artist but also her personal relation to her work. However, the collaboration does not end there, from 4 – 8 October the Abramović and the MAI will be taking over the entirety of spaces within the Queen Elizabeth Hall. As well as using the conventional spaces, they will also be taking over behind-the-scenes areas to perform a variety of pieces which will all be open to the public. This fascinating exhibition will further highlight Abramović’s relevance as a contemporary artist as well as celebrating her legendary legacy moulding performance art into the genre as we know it today.
The RA’s retrospective is an inspiring journey through Abramović’s influential career. The exhibition explores her past while allowing room for the future to blossom in the form of newer work from Abramović herself and performances from a new generation of performance artists trained through the MAI. Her collaboration with the Southbank Centre next month is just another example of the continuous impact she has on the contemporary art scene. Abramović is an artist whose power has not diminished but rather evolved, she possesses a past which continues to create inspiration and we must not underestimate her in the coming years.
Becca Sheridan is a third-year English Literature student at Durham University specialising in medieval literature, feminist and Marxist literary theory and female Victorian writers. She also has a keen interest in the intersection between art and literature. In her spare time she enjoys exploring unconventional means of travel, such as catching local buses from London to Durham and cycling from Durham to Edinburgh. She is also a keen classical musician and rows competitively in her college boat club.
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