Artist Portrait with a Candle (A)’, from the series With Eyes Closed I See Happiness
It was a rainy night in March and thanks to typical London traffic, I was embarrassingly late for an evening with Marina Abromovic at the Royal Academy of Arts. The crowd was very small which made this mishap worse, but as I opened the door and made my way to my seat, the artist flashed me empathetic smile. I soon relaxed and was able to concentrate on this creative genius.
With perfect posture, the easily recognizable Marina Abramovic sat in between two video monitors displaying her work. In the cosy collector’s gallery of the RA, Abramovic’s audience was packed together, (pre- Covid19 of course,) on the edge of our seats. No one wanted to miss a word. Her signature straight jet black hair swept over one shoulder. She didn’t fidget or once lose her train of thought, but she was also incredibly genuine and organic. The artist discussed her childhood, life-story, passions, motivation, dedication, and overall practice, all with an endearing sense of humour, and a contagious kindness. The “Grandmother of Performance Art” immediately, and unsurprisingly, mesmerized us. At the time (Spring 2020,) the artist was working on a big upcoming exhibition at the Royal Academy, meant to open September 2020. Abramovic was solely focused on this show, preparing daily by fine-tuning her own performance skills, and by training her “re-performers.” At 74, the Serbian artist continues to execute her work flawlessly. Abramovic has always pushed herself to unimaginable limits and has no plans to stop. “I have done this for a long time,” she smiles, “but I am not finished yet.”
Although Abramovic may not go to the same extremes she has in the past, (not eating or drinking, standing/sitting totally still for days,) she is more committed than ever. The artist is determined to prove just how important and artistic her practice is, contrary to some schools of thought. The artist’s legacy is the “Abramovic Method” . The practice studies and teaches the importance of four main actions (breath, motion, stillness and concentration) in Performance Art. Over decades, Abramovic perfected the method, now it is taught around the world. An essential part of the method is also the audience. People travel from around the world to see this living legend in her element. In recent exhibitions she makes visitors leave their belongings outside her exhibition space. “You have to take things away from people to really bring them to themselves.” Wallets. phones, keys, etc. are forbidden. This would prove to be uncomfortable for many (myself included,) and that’s the point.
The artist needs her audience to be present. I know, you’ve heard this before, but she means truly, and completely, existent. “We need to sit with our life,” she says. “We must sit with our life and our silence.” Abramovic doesn’t assuage her own (or her audience’s) discomfort. Instead, she uses it. Humans constantly go through the hustle and bustle of life, often without taking time to process experiences, either because we are too busy or its too painful. So, overwhelming feelings of loss, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, become much harder to “sit with.” We quickly find ways to numb distress, pain, discomfort, isolation, anxiety etc. Abramovic takes these maladaptive coping mechanisms off the table. Relieved of constant bombardment from the outside world, participants are forced to not only observe, but also study, their physical and emotional states.
Abramovic has always had a profound relationship with her physical being. With each performance, though, this connection was seriously tested. Most exhibitions allow the audience to do and act as they pleased. In one very famous show, 72 objects (including a knife, a loaded gun, scissors, and a whip) were available to use on the artist, no restrictions. Of course there “is always fear.” Unsurprisingly Abramovic adapted. She stood still for hours after being cut and nearly shot. Truthfully, I am not sure what could derail this artist from her work. Abramovic sacrifices anything, (namely comfort,) for what looks best; “Aesthetically I like chairs without arms.” After hours of sitting with no support, her ribs cave into her body and she is “in intense pain.” Why? Because her work is all about pushing limits and boundaries. To do this “mind games” play an essential role. Instead of fleeing an uncomfortable or threatening situation, Abramovic takes advantage of physical discomfort and pain as tools. After hours of suffering, the artist convinces her “body and mind that I will not move.” Once she tricks her mind, “the pain goes away. It is like a game, and I always win.”
Abramovic’s work has always combined the personal and universal. Recently, however, her audience is gaining more importance. “Now the public is my work, it is no longer about me.”. She still makes the rules, and personally curates each minute of an exhibition. But she is now “focused on the public and not on myself.” Abramovic is absorbed with the ways in which her audience “influence my art.” It is still a ways away, but keep your eyes out for updates on Abramovic’s upcoming exhibition. The Royal Academy is of course extremely excited to be working with the artist, especially because this will be her first ever exhibition in the UK. Live re-performance of previous iconic routines will work in tandem with brand new material throughout the building’s large galleries. After listening to Abromovic , followed by a brief chat with her during the dinner, I know the show will be just as original, challenging, mesmerizing, serious, and stunning as the wonder woman herself.
Marina Abramovic: postponed until autumn 2021 Royal Academy royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/marina-abramovic