Marina Abramović, Royal Academy review: world-famous artist’s early work electrifies in this once-in-a-lifetime show

Naked performers recreate a confrontational route into this display of the Serbian’s compelling and sometimes life-risking work

Mark Hudson
Wednesday 20 September 2023 16:24 BST
<p>Gallery view of Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy</p>

Gallery view of Marina Abramović at the Royal Academy

That the first woman to be accorded the honour of a solo exhibition in the Royal Academy’s vast main galleries should be a Serbian performance artist might on the face of it seem surprising. Marina Abramović, however, isn’t just any Serbian performance artist. Where previous artists seen in this space have tended towards alpha male mega-egos of the order of Antony Gormley, Anish Kapoor and Anselm Kiefer, Abramović can give any of them a run for their money in terms of self-belief and charisma.

The 77-year-old, now New York-based artist has literally risked her life, not just for her art, but in it, through asphyxiation, stray arrows and knives wielded by audience members – at her invitation – in performances that can go on for days. And she hasn’t been shy about telling the world about it. Indeed, I’ve long suspected that her global renown is down to an art media-generated personality cult as much as real artistic substance.

This huge show then is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get a detailed overview view of Abramović’s art and assess her significance. It begins with images of her best-known work, The Artist is Present (2010), a three-month-long “durational” performance in which Abramović sat staring at members of the public facing her one-to-one across a desk at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The volunteers’ faces are seen on one wall, with Abramović’s reactions shown opposite. While their expressions are filled with a mixture of shyness, hope and expectations, with a surprising number in tears, her features betray little more than blankness and exhaustion. But after weeks confined to a single chair gawping at strangers, what do you expect? The theoretical niceties behind the work – including the need to make the audience as much participants as the artist – barely register beside the fact of Abramović’s raw artistic stamina.

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