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Marina Abramović - The Artist Does Not Need To Be Present

By Mathilda Drukier

Marina Abramović, The Kitchen I: Levitation of Saint Theresa,I 2009. Video installation detail from Galleria Lia Rumma.

Divided into 11 rooms, the long-awaited Marina Abramović exhibition––at the Royal Academy of Art until the 1st of January––has been one of controversy and wonder. The artist is at the forefront of performance art, pushing her body to extremes quite unlike any other artist. Despite this, many have made jokes about the absence of the artist’s presence throughout the show. Laura Cummings, for instance, proclaimed in her review for The Guardian that ‘the artist is not present’ in reference to Abramović’s 2010 exhibition, The Artist is Present. However, I would argue that the artist’s presence takes over every corner of the room in an almost Warholian manner. Abramović’s face is instantly recognisable, with a penetrating overpowering look that is impossible to avoid, confronting us with our very presence in her space.


Abramović is the first woman to take over the main space of the Royal Academy of Art in the 255 years since it was founded. Born into a very strict and traditional Orthodox Christian Household under communist Serbia, she often utilises her art to respond to her environment. With her great-uncle having an important role within the Serbian Orthodox church and her parents being awarded the ‘Order of the People’s Heroes’ following the Second World War, the artist lived in a very strict and regimented household. Abramović explores her identity alongside the human experience, by commenting on the Balkan’s history and exploring the limits of her body.


On my first visit of the exhibition, I could not take in much more than the first four rooms of the show. The first room covers the artist’s most famous work at the Museum of Modern Art (2010), where she sat for 716 hours and 30 minutes in silence, only communicating to those opposite her with her eyes and facial expressions. In this room, one of the walls was dedicated to multiple projections of the artist’s face, whereas the other side of the room displayed a selection of different visitors who attended the original performance. What I found particularly interesting was trying to identify the person she was interacting with on the opposite wall, and seeing how Abramović or her onlooker would absorb and react to each other’s emotions. A lot of the works throughout the exhibition ask us to stop and feel, whether it is by encouraging us to put our foreheads against a crystal slab or lie down on an oxidised copper slab (Room 6). Whether one believes in the spiritual benefits of these materials, these experiences force the viewer to actively close their eyes and feel the cold stone surface in a meditative act. The spectator is once again made to feel present and aware.


The rooms that follow explore the more violent experiments undertaken by the artist. The work Rhythm 0 challenges the role of the spectator and the binaries between active and passive. Here, Abramović reversed the role of the artist and that of the audience by letting herself be entirely at the mercy of her engaging and quickly hostile crowd. The work involved her standing still and passive for six hours next to a table of 72 objects ranging from markers to knives. The performance is perhaps best known for the moment in which a gun was held to Abramović’s head by a member of the crowd, an event so stressful that it would turn part of the artist’s hair white. Looking into Abramović’s eyes then, it is easy to see her distress. The longer one spent in the room, the more we too feel that we are being passive to the events unfolding before us. The theme of the spectator hesitating to be active is one that recurs in Abramović’s art, as she cuts herself with knives in Rhythm 10 or suffocates within a wooden star on fire in Rhythm 5. Abramović involves us in her performance even though she is at the centre of it, forcing us to revise our place as we choose to either be assertive or complacent in the face of violence. Like most of her works, it is not telling us to think or feel in a certain way but rather to be more aware of our emotions and actions (or lack thereof).


The room that shocked me the most was the one which contained her 1997 work Balkan Baroque, made for the Venice Biennale. Here, Abramović looks at the atrocities of the Yugoslav War by comparing it to how a rat catcher treats rats and causes them to turn on each other. Red walls enclose the viewer, imitating the blood, violence, fury of the rats in the cage and creating a nauseating sense of claustrophobia. Surrounded by troughs of water which parallel how a rat catcher corners rats, the viewer is placed in the centre. We are also confronted with a large pile of fake ox bones, which the artist cleaned at the Venice Biennale, imitating the washing of the body after death while also depicting the completely dehumanising slaughter of people which resulted from war. Abramović’s parents look over us peacefully while the artist narrates the story, ending on how the blind rat goes on to destroy its group. She then proceeds to dance a traditional Hungarian dance in a provocative and sensual way, as her parents switch to positions where her mother covers her eyes, and her father holds a gun imitating the blind rat going in to kill its own community. There is a sense of an inescapable massacre throughout these rooms, one that traps the spectator and forces them to look at the horrors of the Balkan Wars.


Marina Abramović’s exhibition is one of the most raw and disturbing shows that I have ever seen. There are also some works which shows her partnership and companionship with the German visual artist Ulay, as they pushed the limits of their bodies together. However, the parts which resonated the most with me highlights what I think that Abramović excels at: connecting directly with the viewer and making them conscious. Having spent years creating this monumental collection of works, this is an experience that she is able to communicate without even being present. I felt confronted with both my internal and external worlds and left to wonder how to place myself within it. It was terrifying to watch the artist explore the limits of her body but it also it made me evaluate my own passivity.


The exhibition will be on until the end of the year which allows for plenty of time not only to visit, but also to revisit it. It is an exhibition worth returning to, with my own past three visits leading to different results and reactions each time.

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