LONDON — I feel thoroughly ashamed of myself on this rather dreary and gray London morning. Why has it taken me so long? Why such hesitation? It seems weeks ago that I’d agreed to write a bunch of well-tweezered words about Abramović: The Spectacle! That’s my name for the show at the Royal Academy of Arts on Piccadilly, by the way. The RA calls it nothing but Marina Abramović because the organizers think that it requires no explanatory subtitle. Nothing but her resounding name, noised abroad once again. She is who she is. And we all want a little piece of her. In their opinion.
But why so long in the idle gestating? Do any art critics worth their salt not release their words as swiftly as the arrow from the archer’s bow? Not this time, though.
I first encountered her in Frankfurt, in 2002. I sat opposite her at a dinner. She had physical presence in abundance. If we talked — we must have talked — I remember nothing of what was said. Most of all I remember the monumental stillness of her presence. Why were we there? The occasion was an exhibition called Blood, which did have a resounding subtitle: Art, Power, Politics and Pathology. Blood came pouring out of many in that show, from the blood of Jesus on the cross, conveniently emptying itself into a waiting jug with miraculous accuracy on a Medieval panel, to the masochistic self-lacerations of the Viennese Actionists of the 1960s. Abramović has had much to do with the spillage of blood herself, in her performance art. That’s why she was in that show, which was co-curated by a young man from the Schirn Kunsthalle, Frankfurt, called Max Hollein, who shuttled around liked a greased bullet, and looked to me as if he had a future in store.
Abramović at the RA is a bit of a puzzle. What would I say about it, my editor had asked me. I gave her a single word-response: shaman. Was that sufficient? Nobody said it wasn’t. Is she a shaman then? And what is a shaman anyway?
A shaman is one who exercises spiritual authority over us, a being, set apart from the rest, whom we dutifully follow because that being is the custodian and the bestower of wisdom. Were the attendees at the Royal Academy on the occasion of my visit in her thrall? Not really. The atmosphere was fairly jolly, if not downright boisterous. This was the first show of this size at the Royal Academy of a performance artist. Was it a little disappointing that she herself was not present, that it was almost all film documentation of her greatest hits? After all, this woman has put herself through it. She has not only lacerated her own body in the interests of art, but she has also sat opposite people at a table in museums for hours on end, enveloping them with her gaze. She has invited people to contemplate the spiritual merits of separating one small grain of rice (or some such) from another. Do we ascend to a level of rhapsodic disengagement when we humble ourselves to such ridiculously mind-numbing tasks? The work, you could also argue, is politically inflected — why else would we see her high on a white horse, streaming a Serbian flag in the air?
So she herself is absent in person. Young proxies are here doing her work for her, actors re-staging some of her past routines. That famous occasion, for example, when she and her former partner, Ulay, stood naked in a narrow doorway, and invited Joe and Jolene Public to squeeze through between them. I watch a young woman rising to the occasion. She goes at it at quite a lick, but just before her clothed body meets naked flesh, she grins back at her friend, who has her iPhone raised at the ready. What a hoot!
Spirituality or its monetization? You toss the coin.
Marina Abramović continues at the Royal Academy of Arts (Burlington House, Piccadilly, London, England) through January 1. The exhibition was organized by the Royal Academy of Arts, London, in close collaboration with the artist and curated by Andrea Tarsia, Director of Exhibitions, Royal Academy of Arts.