It has been hard to avoid Marina Abramović in London this autumn. Undeterred by a near-fatal pulmonary embolism in May, which made flying from New York impossible, the grande dame of performance art arrived for her London takeover on the Queen Mary ocean liner and remains in town until mid-December. The main attraction is her Royal Academy (RA) exhibition, which shockingly marks the first time in the RA’s 255-year history that a female artist has fully occupied its main galleries. But Abramović has also launched two books, staged a four-day multi-performance occupation of the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall—both backstage and front of house—and this month her opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, also has its UK premiere at the London Coliseum (3-11 November).
The RA show was postponed due to the pandemic and over the intervening three years has been radically reconfigured. “We literally changed the show 360 degrees,” Abramović told me just before the opening. Jettisoning conventional chronologies, works from different points during her 50-year career are now brought together to spark off and strike up conversations. More than three decades may lie between the first two pieces we encounter at the RA: The Artist is Present, in which Abramović sat facing a stream of visitors for the entire run of her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and the gruelling 1974 Rhythm O in Naples, where audience members were given 72 objects, including a loaded gun, to use on her as they pleased. But each powerfully illustrates her overarching belief that “by working with the public I don’t need anything else; I just need direct energy transmission between me and them. That’s it.”
In the light of Abramović’s recent brush with mortality, the gruelling, dangerous, death-obsessed elements in so much of her work are given extra poignancy and punch. Now, alongside such enduringly hardcore images of the artist whipping herself, cutting herself, lying on ice, scrubbing bones, embracing a skeleton and nearly expiring in the centre of a burning star, I cannot help but include the picture she showed me on her phone of the string of blood clots extracted from her lungs last May. “The doctor said I nearly died twice” she said, adding that “he also told me he had never seen such miraculous strength”.
Abramović is the first to acknowledge that this strength owes much to the unique powers of resilience she’s developed over half a century of self-punishing work—a strength now made manifest in her formidable range of London activities, which would floor many younger artists.
“I don’t want to deal with death anymore; I want to start making work from happiness,” she proclaims, and this new mindset received its first manifestation when, just after the opening of the RA show, she dealt another joyous blow to the academy’s patriarchy by hosting Marina Abramović’s Extraordinary Women’s Tea in its ornate Fine Rooms. First, she delivered a lecture on forgotten female performance artists and then she served champagne and a spread of Fortnum & Mason cakes to an illustrious gathering of more than 150 women from all sectors. Artists such as Rachel Jones, Eileen Cooper, Tai Shani and Fiona Banner were joined by the actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge; the human rights lawyer Baroness Helena Kennedy KC; Booker prize-winning writer Bernardine Evaristo and the Covid-19 vaccine pioneer Professor Sarah Gilbert.
At the RA and in many of her recent shows Abramović now uses younger performers trained in the ‘Abramović Method’. But arguably her greatest legacy lies in the way in which she has brought the physical intensity of live performance in from the margins to enter every aspect of today’s art world. “I have one good idea. And this is to take the body. The body has everything; it is like a macro cosmos and micro cosmos all together. It is a large area of experiment that is never ending,” she told me; and nowhere was this spirit of intense bodily experiment more in evidence than during Eve Stainton’s unforgettable Impact Driver, a spectacular, physically exacting live work commissioned by Sadler’s Wells and staged at London’s Institute of Contemporary Art a few days after Abramović hit town.
Stainton and their fellow gender non-conforming artists may come from different generations and alternative cultural hinterlands to the 76-year-old Abramović, but in their electrifying combination of live welding, choregraphed movement, thrashing electric guitars and reeling searchlights they took up the baton of the older artist’s category-defying bodily intensity as they blasted conventions around dance, performance and gender in a stunning aural and sensory assault. At times menacing, at times tender and funny, while also redolent with risk, suspense, danger and total sexiness, in this astonishing gesamtkunstwerk, the boundary-busting essence of Marina Abramović’s pioneering early performance work lives on. Impact Driver comes back to London next year; catch it if you can.
• Marina Abramović, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 1 January 2024
• 7 Deaths of Maria Callas, London Coliseum, 3-11 November