Moved by Marina Abramović

After three years of delays, Marina Abramović’s highly-anticipated retrospective just finally opened at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Filled with videos, objects, photographs, and installations, the exhibition surveys the artist’s 50-year career. Through her career, Abramović has pushed the limits of the body to explore the breadth of human behavior and existence, revealing both the enlightening and the dark sides. Something I experienced first hand at her show this week during Frieze London.

Marina Abramovic Royal Academy of Arts
Photograph by Donatelli Sbarra. Image courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives © Marina Abramović.

Abramović’s eponymous exhibition opens with large screens featuring footage from her groundbreaking 2010 MoMA exhibition, “The Artist Is Present,” where she sat at a table for 750 hours and invited visitors to sit across from her for as long as they desired. The next room highlighted Rhythm O, a 1974 performance where the artist presented herself as an object alongside a table filled with 72 items that could inflict pain or pleasure—a gun, scissors, chocolate cake, even a feather boa—and invited viewers to use the items on her as they wished. At first hesitant, the audience members ended up stripping her to her waist and cutting her. One brazen visitor even held a gun to her neck. When it was over, the spectators immediately left, leaving a section of the artist’s hair white from the trauma.

Abramović, who was born in Belgrade, Serbia, met the late performance artist Ulay in 1975, and the two embarked on a creative and romantic partnership, experimenting with human emotions like anger, fear, and happiness. A configuration of screens in the show highlight black-and-white footage of the pair screaming, making out, and slapping one another. 

Marina abramovic royal academy of arts
Photograph by David Parry. Image courtesy of the Marina Abramović Archives and the Royal Academy of Arts London.

I felt the power of Abramović’s art in the reenactment of Imponderabilia, a 1977 piece with Ulay in which the two originally stood across from one another in a doorway nude as visitors are invited to walk between them. I stood there in its second coming at the Royal Academy of Art, watching a white man stand across a Black woman, both naked and vulnerable. I looked at her facial expression, stoic, yet seemingly filled with rage, and tears immediately began to roll down my cheeks as I thought about what that represents—the power dynamics over time and history between men and women, and white and Black people. 

“Are you okay?” one of the museum employees asked me after I was told that I could enter the next room between them.

I declined, surprised at my unexpected reaction from watching two people simply stare at one anther, but that’s exactly what Abramović explores in her practice: the boundaries, possibility, and endurance of humanity.

“Marina Abramović” is on view at the Royal Academy of Arts at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1J 0BD through January 1, 2024.

Ann Binlot is a world-traveling arts and culture writer and editor who has contributed to T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Document Journal, The Wall Street Journal, and more.