As I stood impatiently on a crowded peak-hour Piccadilly train struggling to avoid any unnecessary human contact, my thoughts wandered back to the "Imponderabilia", Marina Abramović's performance experienced at the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) just an hour ago. Admittedly, both – the performance and London commute – raise questions about how we navigate personal space and the discomfort or intimacy that can result from close physical proximity.
While London's everyday life may be full of all sorts of unsurprising imponderabilias and there is no need to visit RA for it, the Marina Abramović exhibition presented me with ample other unimaginable but fairly authentic experiences. One of them was a conversation with a performance artist from the Marina Abramović Institute, genuinely interested in whether the 2-hour performance "Nude with Skeleton" had stirred anything inside of me. As she shared the sensations that flooded her body during and after the experience of lying under a heavy skeleton and watching a human skull being scrubbed scrupulously, I could only admit that sitting on the bench to stare at the performing artist for a few minutes didn't do justice.
She shared with me that when she lies beneath the heavy human skeleton, she feels how everything within her undergoes a process of regeneration. After spending two hours in this unique state, she feels completely present, her movements taking on a more deliberate and unhurried pace. It's as if the sand of the sea has found a quiet place to settle deep within her body. I then told her that probably every member of the audience should take active participation to really experience the same effect.
Many other well-known performances were available through captivating video footage installations, evocative photographs, and such experiential objects as mineral pillows, designed to affect human energy. To me, the whole exhibition appeared like a skilled illustration of Marina Abramović's memoirs which I had read with gusto. I was slightly saddened though that the artist herself wasn't physically present but probably no one in London is meant to see the grandmother of performance art perform live again – it would undoubtedly be the most audacious performance of all.
By the way, how did Marina Abramović become the grandmother of performance art? She began experimenting with performance art in the early 1970s when the medium was practically still not considered art. Her performances were often radical and challenging, pushing the boundaries of what art could be. The exhibition at RA convincingly and powerfully conveys how Marina Abramović used to subject herself to physical and emotional extremes, exploring themes of pain, endurance, vulnerability, transformation, and death.
Her groundbreaking, although sometimes conceptually simple, performances captured the imagination of audiences worldwide. During "Rhythm 0" (1974), for example, the audience used various objects to either pleasure or harm the artist, which resulted in her instantly getting extra grey hair. During the famous performance "The Artist is Present" (2010) she sat silently and motionless at a wooden table in MoMA's atrium for 75 days maintaining unbroken eye contact with every visitor who sat across from her. The very first video installation at RA displays an array of emotions from the latter performance which is proof of how transformative, although immensely uncomfortable, human contact can be.
Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, W1J 0BD, UK
Open until 1 January 2024