In 2010, the Serbian artist Marina Abramović sat facing an empty wooden chair at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for a performance titled The Artist is Present. Clothed in long flowing dresses, for three months, the now 75-year-old invited exhibition-goers at the New York-based institution to sit across from her and spend time staring into each other's eyes. For many, the experience was so overwhelming that it moved them to tears, and it quickly became the work Abramović is most known for.
Now living and working in New York, Abramović is one of the most famous performance artists alive today, having created highly regarded pieces since the beginning of her career in Belgrade in the early 1970s. Many of these artworks have tested her own physical and mental limits.
At Studio Morra in Naples in 1974, she lay face down on a table surrounded by 72 different items for a piece titled Rhythm 0. Visitors were permitted to do what they wished to her body, which included scratching her and holding a gun with a single bullet in it to her head. 'I still have the scars', she told the Guardian 40 years later. 'I realised then that the public can kill you. If you give them total freedom, they will become frenzied enough to kill you.'
But in Abramović's latest collection of work shown in part at both Modern Art Oxford and Pitt Rivers Museum, those looking to catch a glimpse of or interact with the real-life artist are sure to be disappointed. As she has grown in popularity, she has taken increasingly more of a step back from being physically present in her artworks.
'The Serpentine Gallery [in London] did an exhibition called 512 Hours, which was an instruction-based exhibition where people were guided by herself and facilitators in the space,' says Emma Ridgway, chief curator at Modern Art Oxford. Visitors to the show in 2014 were directed around the room and encouraged to relax and reflect on their experience in the space. However, 'she found that because she was becoming far better known, she was a distraction,' Ridgway explains.
Consequently, at 'Gates and Portals', on until March 2023, Ambramovic's presence is only in a digital format—in a video where she explores the energy of particular objects in the Pitt Rivers archive. Instead, the spectator becomes the performer.
'It's not going to change their life, but this is an attempt to do something different because in a normal exhibition, you're just a silent witness,' Abramović says in the accompanying catalogue. In minimalist rooms, visitors led by facilitators trained in the 'Ambramovic method' are instructed to sit, stand and lie down for indefinite periods. In one instance, people are guided to stand under a Time Energizer (2000/2012), a copper and magnetic structure, for a 'conductive energy experience,' the artist says.
'Gates and Portals' is Abramović's second major solo show at Modern Art Oxford, and the latest one will be a vastly different experience for those who visited the first.
'Marina Abramović: Objects Performance Video Sound' in 1995 saw her develop video works in partnership with Pitt Rivers. This included pieces such as Cleaning the Mirror (1995), which consisted of five stacked monitors playing footage of a performance by the artist where she ferociously scrubbed a human skeleton on her lap. Abramović dedicated each monitor to one part of the skeleton. In contrast, this new exhibition is slow – not much happens, and there isn't much to see or do – but this is intentional.
That said, there are a few rules to follow for those hoping to get the performance right. This includes not bringing in phones or watches (or essentially anything that could become a distraction). 'You're taking part because you agree to think differently about your comfort and to have a different experience of yourself,' Abramović says. As a person enters, they are also provided with noise-cancelling headphones (and an eyemask at specific points) and are guided slowly by hand around the space. According to Ambramvic, her intention is for people to 'isolate themselves' and 'increase their self-awareness.' 'To do that, you need certain conditions, and you must accept those conditions.'
The exhibition is inspired by decades of extensive research by Abramović into spirituality, from Tibetan Buddhism to New Age concepts. According to Ridgway, there is a particular focus on how your body reacts to certain afflictions. 'It's a guided experience, but there's a discomfort to some of it because you don't quite know what's going to happen next or you're lying on something hard,' says Ridgway. 'A number of different religions, including Buddhism, put the body into states of discomfort or outside of everyday activity so that your mind and senses get to a different plane.'
For Abramović, performance is similar to a religious experience. '[The dancer and choreographer] Martha Graham once said that everywhere we dance is holy ground,' Abramović says, noting that she wants to change that statement. 'I want to say that wherever a performer is performing and wherever the public is standing is holy ground to me because the public and the performer complete the work together.'
Precious Adesina, freelance writer