Marina Abramović, the artist putting mind over matter
For the past five decades, performance artist Marina Abramović has been creating art that delves into self-sacrifice and emotional depth. Frequently using her body for her work, Abramović’s concepts push to change how we experience and digest art. An influence and icon in her own right, the Serbian artist is unveiling her first major exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London from September 23 to December 10, 2023. To celebrate the official launch date of the pandemic-delayed event, we’re exploring the works that make Abramović the hot topic of the art world.
Since 2016, Abramović has been accused of being a Satanist. The most talked-about example of this is when Abramović painted recipes on gallery walls using pig blood as part of her Spirit Cooking series. Many tied this interactive performance to witchery and black magic. Although Marina Abramović’s work can be brutal, bloody, and uncomfortable, it does the one thing art is supposed to — it makes you think.
Rest Energy, a collaboration between Abramović and longtime partner Ulay, reflects on the vulnerable state that intimate relationships bring, particularly for women. They both hold a bow between their bodies but the arrow points at her heart. A discreet microphone on their chests lets us hear their heartbeats. It was a performance centred on complete and total trust. This is one of the artist’s most famous and touching pieces.
Another dual performance by Ulay and Abramović, AAA AAA sees the pair stand opposite each other and make a long “AAA” sound with their mouths wide open. As time goes on they gradually move closer to each other, yelling into each other’s open mouths This is a prime example of some of the artists’ misunderstood bodies of work, with many people simply “not getting it” and finding it uncomfortable to watch the couple’s distorted faces. For every hater, there is always a fan, and this performance was also praised for its exploration of endurance, duration, and aggression.
The Self Portrait with Skeleton wass another bold move made by Abramović. This live performance depicted an anthropomorphized version of death, a concept many found confronting. Based on the Tibetan tradition in which monks are required to sleep in cemeteries near corpses, the fearless artist recreated this practice to reflect on the persistence of being while tackling the frightening, yet unavoidable, notion of death.
The early performance that secured Abramović’s reputation for being the most controversial artist, Rhythm 0 saw the performer stand for six hours in front of a table of various props. What sounds like a simple, if not mundane concept, turned out to be her most dangerous work to date. The props consisted of everyday items like bells, lipsticks and a comb alongside deadly weapons such as a gun, a kitchen knife and needles. Viewers were instructed “there are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired”.
At first the public would gently touch the artist and feed her cake from the prop table. This took a dark turn when attendees took off Abramović’s clothes and began to cut her skin. One man even tried to rape the performer. This piece truly tested the limits of how far people will go when there are no repercussions. It also highlighted how people treat a seemingly “unconscious” subject. The artist was shocked to find that once the six hours were over everybody ran away. She found that people could not confront her once she was a fully-functioning, conscious person.
Whether deemed a masochist or a genius, Marina Abramović has always been an object of fascination. She has created works of art that delve into the ideas of death, trauma and human experience. While that may be shocking to some, she is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally intelligent artists of the 21st century. We can’t wait to see what her 2023 exhibition brings.