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Nudity, blood and pain: Revisiting Marina Abramovic's work

September 22, 2023

The Serbian artist has pushed her body and mind to the limits to evoke both human empathy and cruelty. London's Royal Academy is now looking back at her cultural legacy with a new retrospective.

Marina Abramovic, portrait of a woman with a dark background, circled by luminous blocks forming a portal.
Marina Abramovic poses by her artwork 'Portal' (2022) at The Royal Academy's first exhibition of her worksImage: Justin NG/Photoshot/picture alliance

The UK's Royal Academy of Arts is dedicating a major exhibition to iconic Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic. It is the first retrospective to be given to a female artist in the institution's history.

The exhibition revisits Abramovic's artistic legacy through sculpture, video, installation and performance. Different works are re-staged through video archive footage; others are reperformed by a new generation of artists.

'Absolute freedom' through performance

Born in Belgrade, Serbia in 1946, Marina Abramovic studied art both in her hometown and in Zagreb, Croatia. Early on she developed an interest in performance art, including experiments with sound installations.

In 1973, the young artist was invited to Edinburgh, Scotland, for an international art festival, where she debuted her first provocative performance work.

Titled "Rhythm 10," Abramovic thrust 10 sharp knives between her splayed fingers — a daredevil act in which she occasionally missed and drew blood. In Edinburgh, where the young artist and occasional painter met iconic German performance artist Joseph Beuys, she also realized she had found her medium.

"I had experienced absolute freedom — I had felt that my body was without boundaries, limitless; that pain didn't matter, that nothing mattered at all — and it all intoxicated me," recalled Abramovic of that first performance in her 2016 autobiography, "Walk Through Walls."

"I was drunk from the overwhelming energy that I'd received. That was the moment I knew that I had found my medium. No painting, no object that I could make, could ever give me that kind of feeling, and it was a feeling I knew I would have to seek out, again and again and again."

Testing the limits

Abramovic has since carved a reputation as a pioneering performance artist who continues to test her physical and psychological limits.

Arguably her most provocative early work was 1974's "Rhythm 0," a performance in Italy, this time in Naples. In it, Abramovic directed the audience: "There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired."

The objects included razor blades, knives and a loaded gun. The artist sat motionless as people cut open her clothes or slashed her skin. One person aimed the loaded gun at her head. "If you leave it up to the audience, they can kill you," Abramovic said after the performance in which she sought to expose an inherent human cruelty.

Earlier that year, her performance "Rhythm 5" included a burning communist star. She laid herself in the middle of it after cutting and burning her hair and nails. When the fire had consumed all the oxygen, Abramovic passed out.

This career path was soon taken in tandem with German artist Frank "Ulay" Uwe Laysiepen, who in 1976 became Abramovic's lover and collaborator for 12 years.

The 1977 performance "Imponderabilia" was typical of their oeuvre; Abramovic and Ulay stood at the entrance of a Bologna museum naked, forcing visitors to squeeze past them to enter.

This work is now reperformed by other artists at the Royal Academy. Here too, visitors must squeeze between two nude models to enter the show. There is, however, a separate entrance for those who are uncomfortable with participating in the unusual performance.

Naked, Abramovic and Ulay perform in Venice in 1976
Marina Abramovic and Ulay perform 'Relation in Space' in Venice in 1976Image: Ulay/Marina Abramović

Marina Abramovic and Ulay lived as free spirits in their small Citroen bus for four years, traveling through Europe and performing.

Even their separation in 1988 was sealed with an elaborate performance. In a piece titled "The Lovers," they walked towards each other along the Great Wall of China, starting at opposite ends and meeting in the middle. After covering some 4,000 kilometers (2485 miles), they said goodbye.

Balkan Baroque

The separation inspired the artist to break new ground.

In 1997, she performed a work in the international section of the Venice Biennale titled "Balkan Baroque," a comment on the Yugoslav Wars, in which she spent seven hours a day washing a mountain of bloody cow bones. Her performance was awarded a Golden Lion.

Abramovic sits in a pile of bloody bones.
Marina Abramovic laid bare the horrors of the Yugoslav Wars in 'Balkan Baroque'Image: Marina Abramović , Courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2018

Since the 1990s, she has also been teaching her "Abramovic Method" to young performance artists. She moved to New York in 2000, where she developed theater pieces, performances and encounters with other artists, despite some local reticence to her work.

In "House with the Ocean View," the artist spent 12 days living without food in three open rooms, in which she created an intimate relationship between herself and viewers.

The theme continued in a 2010 performance at New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), "The Artist is Present," in which she locked eyes with audience members at a table from a wooden stool in which she sat for six hours a day for 75 days — stars like Sharon Stone, Tilda Swinton, Björk and Lady Gaga made use of the chair.

Former lover Ulay, who she had not spoken to in years, famously showed up without warning and stared across at the star artist. They both cried. 

Abramovic and man stare at each other across a table.
Performing 'The Artist is Present' in 2010, at the Museum of Modern Art New YorkImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Marco Anelli/Courtesy of Marina Abramovic

Deciding to be happy

In the decade since, her works have been characterized less by violence and more by asceticism and recollection. Her method is based on a mix of various esoteric and eastern relaxation and meditation exercises. She spends every year's end in a monastery in India to meditate and recharge her batteries. "We have to create situations where our bodies are healthy and function well," she said. 

The Serbian artist has been accused of trying to evolve from artist to shaman, though she has also suffered much worse throughout a provocative career. In 2018, for instance, she was attacked with a portrait of herself while she held a book signing for, "Marina Abramovic Interviews 1976-2018," in Florence, Italy. After the incident, she returned to her hometown of Belgrade to kick off her retrospective "The Cleaner."

A video of Abramovic with a snake around her neck and a woman singing on stage.
The project '7 seven deaths of Maria Callas' featured videos and opera scenesImage: Aris Messinis/AFP

In 2020, Abramovic debuted the operatic project, "7 Deaths of Maria Callas," at Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper. In it, she re-enacted seven of Callas' most famous on-stage deaths. "Like many of the opera heroines she created on stage, she, too, died of love. She died of a broken heart," said Abramovic of the star — whom she greatly admired. 

Pain as part of the human experience

Earlier this year, the performance artist had a brush with death that wasn't induced by one of her extreme performances.

During a minor operation at the hospital in May, she suffered a pulmonary embolism that led her to undergo three operations and nine blood transfusions. She was in intensive care for six weeks, spending some time in a coma. 

A person standing in a room with an art installation, featuring two crosses composed of different video displays of a person's face.
'Four Crosses' (2019) by Marina Abramovic at the Royal AcademyImage: Justin NG/Photoshot/picture alliance

To deal with the difficult episode, she used all the skills she had developed through her performances: "breathing, dealing with pain, working with consciousness," she explained at the inauguration of the exhibition at the Royal Academy. 

"We are so afraid of pain. I don't like pain, but I think that pain is such an important element in human life," she said. "Suffering is like a kind of gate in order to understand the universe, in order to understand yourself."

The exhibition "Marina Abramovic" is on show from September 23, 2023 to January 1, 2024 at the Royal Academy in London.

This article is an updated version of a previous profile, first published for Marina Abramovic's 75th birthday on November 30, 2021.

Edited by: Sarah Hucal

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.