At the age of 76 and still, as vital and provocative as ever, Marina Abramovic has taken over the hallowed galleries of the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly – the first woman to have a retrospective at the RA since its foundation in 1768.
No mean feat for a performance artist who has compared the public reception to her early work to walking on the moon:
When I started doing performances in the early 60s and beginning of the 70s, this was like the first woman walking on the moon. Nobody believed in this art form. Nobody believed this was any kind of art all, ever. But I just continued and continued. And now, 65 years later, and 7 years working on the show, and I’m the first woman here.
Several of her iconic performance pieces are recreated at the RA by a carefully selected group of the next generation of performance artists, who were trained by the Marina Abramovic Institute. At the press preview, it was a surprise to see a naked man and woman facing each other in a narrow doorway, a recreation of the 1977 performance artwork ‘Imponderabilia’, which sets the precedent for an exhibition that explores the human condition, pain and emotion, and often tests the endurance and comfort of the viewer.
During the original performance visitors were invited to walk through the narrow gap between the two naked bodies, although my reaction was typically British, and I found myself side-stepping the duo and walking around them into the adjoining gallery. Other iconic performances reimagined in the retrospective include ‘The House with the Ocean View’ (2002), which saw Abramovic spend 12 days in a New York gallery shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, existing only on water, and ‘Nude with Skeleton’ (2002), which features a naked woman lying face up, adorned by a skeleton, referencing the Tibetan Monks’ practice of sleeping adjacent to dead bodies in contemplation of death and mortality.
There is some respite and tranquillity to be found in two galleries that have a more spiritual slant, one dominated by a vast crystal portal emanating light, which visitors can walk through, leading to a gallery containing two copper baths brimming with dried chamomile flowers. Projected in the same gallery are films showing the artist lying on a metal bed frame in a desert-like landscape and surrounded by the waves of Stromboli with the calming sound of the waves lapping.
The legendary artist held court at a press conference with curator Andrea Tarsia and explained how her recent near-death experience following an embolism has given her a new lust for life, and she graciously declared that the RA should have given the first retrospective of a woman artist to Tracey Emin. She rejected the idea that she is a feminist and explained that
Art has no gender…there is just good art and bad art.
This important retrospective highlights key moments from Abramovic’s career in the form of installation, sculpture, video and performance art, reframing iconic performance pieces including The Artist is Present, which is re-staged with archive footage. Although not for the faint-hearted, the exhibition is truly an unmissable, engaging, thought-provoking, transformative and completely unique experience.
Marina Abramovic, 23rd September 2023 – 1st January 2024, Royal Academy of Arts