Marina Abramović at MoMA Art museum (Picture: Antonio Zugaldia)

It’s taken a mere 255 years for the Royal Academy of Arts to host an exhibition by a woman in its main galleries.

Now the mighty Marina Abramovic holds that dubious honour. And the major retrospective of the performance artist’s work, spanning some 50 years, is a truly electrifying experience.

Abramovic’s own body is at the centre of much of her work and is often used to explore the relationship between artist and audience.

Nowhere is this clearer—or arguably more uncomfortable—than Rhythm 0. Performed in 1974, some 72 objects were displayed on a table in front of a silent, stationary Abramovic, which visitors were invited to use as they wish.

They’re supposed to represent a spectrum of pleasure and pain so there’s wine, a delicious looking loaf of bread—but there are also various knives, an axe and chains.

A note assured everyone that she took “full responsibility” for anything that happened during the six-hour duration.

Over time, the crowd grew more confident—and more violent—going as far as to cut her skin, strip her upper body naked and point a gun at her.

The trauma from the experience turned part of her hair white. But this isn’t just an exercise in watching violence and suffering.

When the performance ended, Abramovic walked toward the crowd who promptly fled the gallery. It left me thinking about consent and control. The video footage of a silent but increasingly tearful Abramovic, projected throughout the room, was genuinely harrowing.

But if the audience was unable to face her, who was really in control of the performance?

Another theme running through some of her work is about her understanding the political history of her native Serbia, once part of Yugoslavia, which was ruled by the Communist Party. The symbolism isn’t particularly subtle. In one, she climbs inside a wooden star as its set alight. In another, she carves the same shape into her stomach.

1997’s Balkan Baroque is another deeply political work, where she washed blood from bones while singing Serbian folk songs. It was due to represent her home country during the Venice Biennale international art exhibition but was deemed too controversial by Serbian government.

“You can’t wash the blood from your hands as you can’t wash the shame from the war,” she has said in interviews since.

What I found particularly interesting was the lengths to which Abramovic has consistently gone to preserve her work—from training performers at the Marina Abramovic Institute, to the videos, photographs and her diaries.

It is treat that people in 2023 can be absorbed in performances undertaken decades earlier. There are performances happening throughout the gallery, so the air felt thick with tension.

For this reason, it perhaps not the wisest exhibition to bring a newborn baby to and not only because the pram didn’t fit through Imponderabilia—where two naked performers flank a narrow doorway.

If I had come across some of Abramovic’s pieces as a teenager, I probably would have laughed out loud. A cavernous room crammed full of ten-foot-high projections of her and her longtime partner and artistic collaborator Ulay doing strange things to each other was too intense for me.

But despite the intensity in general I find something truly absorbing in her work. Her later works that approach the relationship between humans, nature and energy were fascinating.

Abramovic’s incredible legacy has done much to shape the discipline of performance art and at times it pushes the limitations of the genre—and of her body.

And it’s no bad thing to be so challenged by an exhibition. Days after emerging, I’m trying to work out why I found it so powerful. There are different performances each day at the exhibition so every visit will look and feel different.

It’s great to see her work given the space it deserves, and hopefully the Royal Academy won’t wait another 255 years before giving another woman a shot.

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