Marina Abramovic is often hailed as the grandmother of performance art. Now seventy years old Abramovic is still creating new works, highlighting her position as perhaps the most prevalent performance artist in the world. Her latest performance (The Cleaner) was centered in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet. Unfortunately, Abramovic’s new act only ran until March 5th 2017 but the Moderna Museet still features an exhibit of her most prolific work and several re-performances until May 21st this year. Recently I had the uncomfortable pleasure of touring the eight rooms the Modern Art museum has designated to Abramovic’s collective works. The space unveils Abramovic’s extensive contribution to performance art, demonstrating the breadth and development of her art over four decades.
After you’ve paid the entrance fee of 160 krona (approximately £16) you enter the first room of the exhibit. Inside you’re introduced to Abramovic’s juvenalia, a gathering of sketches, paintings and letters that detail her subjects before the move into performance art. There is a fixation upon wagon crashes and disembodied legs. On first impressions the fixation on these macabre subjects is uncomfortable. Once accustomed to the images, it becomes evident (especially through the paintings) that even from an early age Abramovic was capable of finding beauty in a chaotic subject, capturing devastation and energy in a collision of colour.
Abramovic’s youthful darkness lays the foundation for the second room. The earliest performances, starting from 1973 are displayed here. Through the photographs, videos and slides we are shown the extremes Abramovic stretched her body to in her earliest performances. Overall the art in this section creates an uncomfortable tension. The artist is seen to be whipping and cutting herself; standing in pentagrams of fire; screaming until her voice breaks. The unease in these performances comes from the potential danger the artist is inflicting upon herself. Walking through makes the viewer consistently flinch away from the potential pain. A particularly disturbing feature are the recordings of Abramovic working with knives. In this performance she uses twelve knives to stab between the spaces in her fingers. The first attempt is recorded and listened to by the artist before attempting to replicate the previous stabbings, cuts included. Hearing Abramovic deliberately inflict wounds to demonstrate the difference in re-performance contracts the skin and takes a strong will to listen to. Overall her early performances places the viewer in a state of anticipation that borders on nausea. The pieces take the audience out of the traditional, controlled viewing of art and hangs them on a precipice of uncertainty.
The third room displays Abramovic’s work in collaboration with artistic and romantic partner Ulay. Whilst in partnership, Abramovic dropped the more violent aspects of her work, whilst still focusing on the extremes of the body. Together they are seen to be colliding, shouting, kissing and breathing as if the activities are feats of endurance. They had taken the everyday motions of the body and through effort and time turned them into events of aggression. Something as traditionally beautiful as kissing became almost combative, in which both artists attached their mouths until they could no longer breath. The pair explored the the utmost points of the body, nudity and endurance before their separation. Their last meeting, on the great wall of China, is displayed on several video screens. Both parties walked across the monument from opposite ends until they met in the middle. From the center they parted and never saw each other again.
After the separation with Ulay the exhibit returns to solo performances. There is a focus of life, death and sex that is explored through the artist’s Baltic roots. Through videos explaining the traditional Baltic rat extermination method and a re-performance of Cleaning the Mirror, Abramovic depicts death in quietly disturbing manner. The life cycle and sexual creation of the world treats the taboo subjects as everyday. Occasionally they are as uncomfortable as the earlier works. However, the tension is not created through danger but by confronting the fundamental aspects of existence that are often ignored.
Finally, the collection focuses on Abramovic’s most recent performances. In these the artist has become almost meta as she journeys past the traditions of her early works and begins to completely incorporate the audience into the art. The Artist is Present depicts over 700 hours of Abramovic making eye contact with hundreds of members of the public. The performance itself seems quiet in comparison to early pieces but maintains her foundation themes of endurance and the extremes of the body. It is evident that despite the less violent motion of her youthful performances Abramovic is still creating art that is physically and emotionally tasking.
In contrast to the performance art the exhibit is dotted with the artist’s sculptures in quartz crystal. These appear to have become a focus of Abarmovic’s work as she has aged and studied in Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Everyday objects such as brooms and chairs have been altered to accommodate the semiprecious rocks. The combination of pale wood and purple stone is calm, beautiful and completely impractical. After traversing the main exhibit it is worth peaking through the Moderna Museet’s permanent exhibition. Amongst the Picasso, Matisse and occasional Dali are a large pair of crystal boots. Rooted into the ground visitors can discard their footwear and become statues in Abramovic’s sculpture. After the intense images of the exhibit, the crystal sends cool up into the visitor. You are calmed as you look out into Stockholm, gentled on the stone and the view of the waves.