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ICONS: Marina Abramović

The pioneer and “grand dame” of performance art, as Marina Abramović defines herself, has been captivating audiences for the past 50 years by pushing the boundaries of her body and mind. A recent retrospective exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London explores key moments in Abramović’s career through sculpture, video, installation, and performance. Works such as The Artist is Present will be re-staged using archival footage, while others will be re-enacted by the next generation of performance artists trained in Marina Abramović’s method.

The major exhibition, on display until 1 January, is the UK’s first major retrospective of the daring artist’s work, presenting more than 50 pieces spanning the breadth of the Serbian performance artist’s pervasive career. Astonishingly, it is the first retrospective in the history of the institution to be given to a female artist. In their defence, they have at least not been cautious: the exhibition is undoubtedly relentless and shocking. Included are, among other things, memories of the performance Rhythm 0 (1974), where the audience was invited to use the artist’s body as an unlimited canvas and paint, scalp, feather or even shoot her. The exhibition also includes scenes from the performance/feature film The Artist is Present (2010), literally a staring contest between Marina and anyone who wanted to sit down opposite her at MoMA in New York. In another memorable performance, Abramović and her partner Ulay slap each other’s faces, yell at each other, and perform a dangerous balancing act with a bow and arrow aimed at each other’s hearts.

Other performers in the exhibition re-enact early works as we move from room to room. There’s a lot of Marina here in her many guises: sometimes she’s playing with knives, self-mutilating, cutting a five-pointed star on her belly with a razor blade, and sometimes we walk into a darkened gallery where Lou Reed, Lady Gaga, Ulay, and 1,545 other viewers stare at the artist from the aforementioned MoMA exhibition.

The proximity of death is nothing new for Marina Abramović. But never was it closer than three months ago, when the 76-year-old performance artist suffered a pulmonary embolism and nearly died. At the opening of the exhibition, the Serbian artist recalled her health problems earlier this year, which included three operations and ten transfusions. “I was in incredible pain, they said it was a miracle I survived,” she told the press conference, attributing her perseverance to her practice. “I used every bit of knowledge and experience in my lectures: breathing, managing pain, working with mindfulness.”

Abramović is arguably the bravest and most extreme artist of recent decades, and one you want on your side in a battle. Throughout her unparalleled career, Abramović has pushed her physical and psychological limits on numerous occasions, risking her health, her sanity, and even her life. She has left behind a huge legacy, and we hope that she will continue to surprise her audience!