Everything you need to know about the notorious Marina Abramovic

BY Kathleen Bondar

8th Oct 2023 Culture

4 min read

Everything you need to know about the notorious Marina Abramovic
Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is known for boundary-pushing stunts. Kathleen Bondar explores her most notorious work
Conceptual artist Marina Abramović (born 1946) has arrived in London this autumn with a long-awaited solo exhibition in the main galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts—a first for a performing artist. She is also staging performances at the South Bank Centre and an opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas at the English National Opera in November.  
Abramović’s work is highly experimental, much of it based on performance and audience participation, although sculpture, photography and video also feature in her work. Notably, a series of notorious and sometimes disturbing performances predominate since the 1970s. At the RA, she features in a range of installations which document these presentations over the past five decades whilst younger artists, trained at the Marina Abramović Institute in her method, replicate four of her works with live acts, some of them nude. 
Marina Abramović, Nude with Skeleton, 2005. Performance for Video; 15 minutes 46 seconds. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović
Although her work is seen as pioneering for a woman artist, Abramović does not define herself as according to gender. “Arts should not have any gender. It doesn’t matter all this. The only thing that matters is good arts.” 
For Abramović, the body is critical. In much of her work Abramović is in the frame. She presents herself impassively giving the audience space to react. She uses her body to test boundaries. She tests her own physical and psychological parameters, including starvation and pain, and she tests the audience response. “I don’t care what they’re going to see and say. I can’t predict. It’s not in my control anymore.”

Abramović's early work

In the early years, those reactions could be brutal. Abramović is not concerned with people pleasing: “It’s about understanding myself. Why should I please anybody? I need to surprise myself.”
Marina Abramović, Rhythm 0, 1974. Performance; 6 hours. Studio Morra, Naples. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović. Photo: Donatelli Sbarra
She presented Rhythm 0, 1974, in Naples, Italy, standing motionless for eight hours in a black top and jeans before a table of objects which included chains, scissors, a gun, fruit, wine, flowers, a feather boa and cosmetics. A sign which stated, “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired. I am the object. During this period, I take full responsibility.” At the RA the table is displayed before a series of projected photographs showing the original visitors’ response. Abramović was stripped to her waist and violently assaulted by several men exposing an alarming degree of misogyny in the demography at the time. 
"Abramovic’s work references a disciplined culture in which speech and behaviour was strictly regulated"
Rhythm 10 comes within this canon of what Abramović describes as “radical physical interaction”. Performed in 1973 at the Museo d’Arte Contemperance, Rome, Abramović uses knives to stab between her fingers with bloody results. Mercifully, this is not reconstructed at the RA, but the acts are graphically displayed in photographs. 
Originating from communist Yugoslavia, Abramović’s work references a disciplined culture in which speech and behaviour was strictly regulated. She is particularly wary of movements including feminism. “I am not a feminist. I do not want anything with isms. I come from a really hard Communist background.” In her early years the communist star was prevalent everywhere as a symbol of enforced doctrine. In Lips of Thomas, 1975, Abramović incised the symbol onto her stomach, scarring herself for life as a reminder and as an act of protest.

Exploring relationships, nature and spirituality

During the Seventies when Marina Abramović first caught worldwide attention she worked with her ex-partner the German artist Ulay (Frank Uwe Laysiepen, 1943–2020), exploring male and female dualities. The couple documented the end of their relationship by walking the Great Wall of China from opposite ends, meeting in the middle, embracing and walking on separately. The event was a performance entitled The Lover, The Great Wall Walk, 1988. Another joint performance, at the Bologna Galleria Comunale D’Arte Moderna, involved standing naked in front of each other permitting visitors to pass between them. Imponderabilia, 1977, is presented again at the RA by other performers with attendants close by to prohibit photography and the caveat, “we welcome respectful behaviour towards the performance artist”. 
Marina Abramović / Ulay, The Lovers, Great Wall Walk, 1988. Performance; 90 Days, the Great Wall of China. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović / Ulay
Over time Abramović has been drawn increasingly to nature and a more contemplative, existential and spiritual approach. Admittedly this was foregrounded in her early career when she travelled with Ulay across the outback in Australia living with the Pitjantjatjara people near Alice Springs for six months, a time which led her to mindfulness. In a section entitled Energy from Nature at the RA, Abramović uses materials including crystals and rocks as sculptures.
"Over time, Abramovic has been drawn to a more contemplative, existential and spiritual approach"
Her engagement with spirituality is underpinned by a childhood in which she was sent to live with her Serbian Orthodox grandmother, a stark contrast to the secular communist doctrines practiced by her mother, a high official at the Cultural Ministry. In a section entitled Spirit Body, Abramović engages with the idea of female spirituality, both Christian and mythological. In The Levitation of Saint Therese, from The Kitchen, 2009, she appears to levitate for 11 minutes 21 seconds on video in a black outfit reminiscent of a nun. 
Marina Abramović, The Artist is Present, 2010. Performance; 3 months. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović. Photo: Marco Anelli
Overtime Abramović's performance drive has not diminished. In The House with the Ocean View, 2002, Abramović sat for 12 days in a New York gallery not eating or speaking. The ocean view for Abramović was the sea of visitors and, she believed, their auras. The performance undertaken by other artists is included in shorter form (30–40 minutes) during the RA exhibition. 
The Artist is Present, 2010, is shown at the RA in a series of grid photographs. These replace the original performance in which Abramović stares impassively at dozens of visitors who are invited to sit silently for as long as they wish before the artist. Some reactions are equally impassive, others are surprisingly emotional, and in this instance, including her own, when Ulay made a surprise visit. Abramović is an artist pushing the boundaries of physical pain—“Everything is made from suffering. Suffering is the gateway to understanding the universe to understanding yourself.”  However, Abramović admits, “Emotional pain is difficult.”
The Marina Abramović exhibition is on at the Royal Academy until January 1, 2024
Cover image: Marina Abramović, Balkan Baroque, June 1997. Performance at XLVIII Venice Biennale; 4 days. Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives. © Marina Abramović
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