Marina Abramović: Part Warrior Queen, Part Suffering Christ

At its best, the artist’s London survey is a ferocious display of courage, while at its worst, it feels like a tribute act

BY Tom Morton in Exhibition Reviews | 04 OCT 23

On a low, coffin-sized screen in London’s Royal Academy of Arts (RA), silent footage plays of Marina Abramović lying back against a gallery floor, a human skeleton resting face-up atop her naked body. The pioneering Serbian performance artist gurns and groans as though her pale, bony burden were an assailant or perhaps a lover, her theatrically laboured breathing making it rise and fall in a trembling imitation of life. This video documents her durational work Nude with Skeleton (2002), which is re-enacted on a shelf installed above the screen by a young live performer trained by Abramović. Unlike the artist, her proxy doesn’t chew the scenery. A calm, almost meditative presence, she appears to have made peace with the heavy memento mori resting on her ribcage. Perhaps she’s simply learned to blot out all exterior stimuli until she can sit up and stretch. The work’s running time is 16 minutes. By the standards of Abramović’s performances – which can famously last days, weeks, even months – this is a mere blinking of the eye. 

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Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, 1974. Performance; 6 hours. Studio Morra, Naples. Courtesy: Marina Abramović Archives; photograph: Donatelli Sbarra

Now 76, Abramović first employed younger performers to re-enact works from her oeuvre in her 2010 retrospective at MoMA, New York, the exhibition that transformed her from a celebrated art world figure into a global icon. Thousands of visitors (among them Lou Reed and Lady Gaga) queued daily to experience the show’s one new performance piece, The Artist is Present (2010). Those who made it to the front of the line were invited to sit down in a bare white gallery opposite Abramović, who would commune with them not through language, or gesture, but by staring deep into their eyes. Tears were shed, spiritual wounds were reportedly healed, and museum directors across the globe sensed box office gold. Fast forward to Abramović’s current, eponymously titled retrospective at the RA (incredibly, the first solo exhibition by a female artist in the Main Galleries of the institution), where the four live works on offer are all performed by youthful surrogates. The artist is present, here, only in a great hoard of videos and photographs documenting her historical performances, which comprise most of the show. 

At her best, Abramović is elemental, inordinate, a blazing beacon of sometimes foolhardy personal courage and ferocious dedication to her chosen form. A long, altar-like table in the RA’s galleries supports 72 objects, ranging from lipstick and a hairbrush to chains, knives and a loaded gun. For her 1974 work Rhythm 0, the artist invited her audience to use these items on her body however they saw fit. A series of interactions that began with her being gently sprayed with perfume and gallantly offered a rose soon took a darker turn. Her clothes were ripped off, her skin was cut until she bled, and the performance was only called off when a man held the gun to her head. Almost 50 years on, it remains an intensely potent reminder of how willing human beings are to reduce bodies (particularly female bodies) to the status of objects, and of the ugliness of group dynamics when ethics are placed on pause. 

Marina Abramović / Ulay, The Lovers, Great Wall Walk, 1988, performance; 90 Days, the Great Wall of China. Courtesy: Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović / Ulay

One of the most creatively fertile periods of Abramović’s career was the 12 years she spent working with her former partner, the German artist Ulay (Uwe Laysiepen). The RA’s vast central space is filled with recordings of their performances, in which they repeatedly slapped each other’s faces (Light/Dark, 1978), respired as a single organism, conjoined at the lips (Breathing In/Breathing Out, 1977), and engaged in a wordless, seemingly inexhaustible screaming match (AAA-AAA, 1978). Another gallery is devoted to documentation of the couple’s final work together, The Lovers, The Great Wall Walk (1988), in which they each spent three months hiking from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China. When the pair finally met at the structure’s mid-point, Ulay disclosed that he’d impregnated his translator en route, and they called an end to their artistic collaboration and troubled romance. For most of us, break-ups are shabby, shaming and, above all, private affairs. This public conscious uncoupling had the epic quality of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow. Displays of heroic dignity are central to Abramović’s persona, perhaps no more so than here. 

In the re-enactment of the pair’s Imponderabilia (1977) at the RA, two impassive young performers stand in for Abramović and Ulay, their naked bodies facing each other in a narrow doorway. The original work forced anybody crossing this threshold to brush uncomfortably close to the artists’ genitals. The RA, however, has also provided an alternate route that swerves this close encounter completely, and it’s perhaps a sign of our more interpersonally sensitive times that this was the preferred option of every gallery-goer I saw on my visit to the show. Maybe, though, performances such as this are just much less compelling without Abramović’s charisma, star wattage and near-tangible aura of physical and mental indomitability. Over her long career, she’s presented herself as a figure who breaks through the boundaries of human experience on our behalf – part fierce warrior queen, part suffering Christ. This has encouraged an unusual personal identification with the artist among her audience, and an almost cultish following.

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Ulay / Marina Abramović, Imponderabilia, 1977/2023. Performance reenactment. Courtesy: Marina Abramović Archives. © Ulay / Marina Abramović

Call me a stunted soul, but I’m not always wholly convinced of Abramović’s practice. The impregnable humourlessness of her performances ignores how funny bodies can often be, while her later sculptural works exhibited at the RA – for example, Portal (2022), a doorframe fitted with illuminated crystals that appears to have been included primarily as a backdrop for visitors’ selfies – are pure New Age guff. The show’s nadir comes in a room dedicated to the artist’s 1997 performance Balkan Baroque at the 47th Venice Biennale, during which she attempted to scrub clean some 1,500 bloodied cattle bones in response to the ethnic conflicts that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1992. The work is evoked (and unintentionally parodied) here by a comparatively modest pile of replica polyurethane bones, which have all the visceral impact and moral authority of kitschy Halloween decorations.  

Nevertheless, I mourned Abramović’s absence at the RA, where watching the re-acted performances felt like attending a gig by a tribute act to a seminal pop band. A chilling thought occurs: might some future Abramović retrospective employ the same technology as ABBA’s smash hit stage show ABBA Voyage (2022–ongoing) and project holographic, 1:1 scale avatars of the artist’s younger self into the gallery space, where they’d churn through a set list of her greatest hits? Let’s hope tomorrow’s museum directors can resist. 

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Marina Abramović, Balkan Baroque, 1997, performance documentation. Courtesy: Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović

Marina Abramović is at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 01 January 2024. Marina Abramović’s Institute Takeover is at the Southbank Centre, London, from 4–8 October. The work is a collaboration between the artist and Cassils, Collective Absentia, Carla Adra, Paula Garcia, Miles Greenberg, Carlos Martiel, Sandra Johnston, Yiannis Pappas, Paul Setúbal, Aleksandar Timotic and Despina Zacharopoulou, which will activate Queen Elizabeth Hall, backstage spaces and dressing rooms creating a self-led experience for audiences.  

Main image: Marina Abramović, Nude with Skeleton, 2005, performance for video. Courtesy: Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović

Tom Morton is a writer, curator and contributing editor of frieze, based in Rochester, UK.