Marina Abramović Takes Over London

Divisive, controversial, and powerful, today I am reviewing something a little different for Collins & Green Art, as it is impossible to ignore the monumental figure of Marina Abramović this season as she takes over London. Her work is currently being shown in both the Royal Academy in Piccadilly with her retrospective exhibition, as well as her opera '7 Deaths of Maria Callas' with the English National Opera in the London Coliseum. It is important as art enthusiasts to embrace the spectrum that art reaches, from vintage landscapes here at Collins & Green to the incredible performance art of Abramović. Her innovative use of the body as her main medium of expression reveals a lot about how we feel about the taboo of nudity, the limits of our sensuous experience, and what exactly our marvellous bodies are capable of. 

'Cross: The Evil' by Marina Abramović, 2019, on display at the RA

My experience of Abramović's London began with a visit to the Royal Academy exhibition of her work, which was, as many others have noted, a whirlwind, sublime event. The combination of video recording, photography, and real-life recreations of her performances showed a real reverence for her work. The exhibition's effects range from subtly evocative, to incredibly provoking to downright shocking, and it is this range which saves the showcase from any gimmicks or superficiality. This is what I was admittedly worried about before I went to the exhibition, hoping that the incredible artist would not just be reduced to shock-factor and that the art's depth would be revealed, and it is exactly this which the institution has achieved.

Recording of 'Rest Energy' by Abramović and ULAY, 1980, on display at the RA

Artworks which really resonated with me were the above 'Rest Energy' which portrayed Ambramović's then-partner ULAY as he pulls an arrow towards Marina's chest through a bow. The couple held this position for 4 minutes with microphones recording their increasing heartbeats. An intense exploration of the value of trust and our human fight against chance and fatigue.

This exhibtion also displayed objects from Ambramović's early, infamous work Rhythm 0 from 1974. Hosted in Naples, the artist stood above a table with 72 objects amongst an audience that were told that they had free rein over her body and the objects that lay in front of them. In the RA, a reconstruction of this is made with a video recording of the performance and a table with the same objects that were available in this piece, including food, glass, lipstick, and a loaded handgun. 

Overall, the exhibition was incredibly intense yet wonderfully fulfilling. The immersion into her work with real recreations of her performance pieces really did the artist justice, and I am pleased with the RA for taking on the challenge of exhibiting a performance artist.

The Curtain Call for Marina Ambramović's '7 Deaths of Maria Callas', English National Opera, London Coliseum

The second-half of this review will focus on my visiting of Marina's opera '7 Deaths of Maria Callas' with the English National Opera, shown at the London Coliseum. It was surreal to get the opportunity to see the artist in real-life, and the opera itself was a whirlwind montage of the singer's most famous arias. From Turandot to Carmen, brilliant opera singers from the ENO provided renditions from Maria's oeuvre. 

However, the selflessness of Abramović's practise is lost, in my opinion, in this piece. I could not get around the fact that it is this sense of selflessness that has been at the pinnacle of her brilliance as an artist, and here, instead of the 7 Deaths of Maria it was rather the 7 Deaths of Marina, as I walked away with no real sense at all of who the supposedly eponymous woman really was. With what could have been a profound and just tribute to the powerhouse that was Maria Callas, I instead experienced a greatest hits rendition of her most famous sonatas, with Marina's projected music videos as mere decoration. Albiet, this is not a comment on the wonderful talent of the singers and orchestra here who really brought the piece together, but instead a frustrating example of potentially groundbreaking ideas not being executed well in reality. With what seemed to be a bulletproof collaboration between two of the most iconic artists of the modern era, the gaps in narrative were hard to ignore.

Final Thoughts

Ambramović is situated in a unique position in the public sphere, where amongst art enthusiasts she is an obvious and monumental figure in the art world, yet for many she still remains an unknown figure. She continues to remain very much in the contemporary, and despite her career as an artist spanning more than 40 years, the impact of her work doesn't age. Her shocking ability to question the fundamental yet taboo elements of the human experience keeps her work fresh, interesting, and invigorating. Yet, I feel her opera falls short of these feelings, and perhaps infiltrating the new medium of music was a commendable case of ambition, but also result of overextending for the artist this time.

By Eloise Saggers, Collins & Green Art