Marina Abramovic hardly needs introducing, as the grande dame of performance art has been the subject of a welcome media flurry over the past few weeks, coinciding with the first exhibition of her work in London at the Lisson Gallery. The artist, born in Belgrade, has been pushing and defining the boundaries of performance art since she began her practise living in the Northern Territories of Australia with Aborigine tribes in the desert for a year in the 1960s. Abramovic’s career is a tale of extreme endurance, self-control and masterful demonstrations of will power. Wild, but true, stories surround her, testifying to the extraordinary conditions she has experienced, and suffered, from etching pentograms into her stomach, fatally requisitioning control to the mercy of her audience members to being saved by an audience member from suffocation.
Abramovic is afforded totemic status, striking as a stalwart tragic heroine with her concentrated stare, seemingly impervious to the painful and dangerous situations she inflicts on her own body. Such mythologising is testament to Abramovic’s achievements, and illustrated, in part, by the compelling Lisson show. Divided across the two galleries on Bell Street, however, Abramovic’s milestone performances are charted separately to her most recent work. Consisting of a number of astoundingly alluring photographs of the artist in their large-scale and high resolution, accompanied by some new video works, the show presents a new chapter in Abramovic’s career.
Following her last performance, The Artist is Present, set over three gruelling months alongside her retrospective at MOMA this year, Abramovic felt she needed to reconnect with nature. Her body has always been central to her work, whether clothed or naked, decorated and violated by others, sliced, slapped or in a state of tense anticipation. Here, the pared down photographs of the artist weeping as she holds a flower, a bundle of firewood or a lamb, seem to draw upon the same innate resources that her video work has historically, despite the different aesthetics and activities on offer here. Her triumphant pose with a lamb held aloft over her head against a dramatic landscape, proffers a revelatory connection with her environment that in turn comments on Abramovic’s position within, and relying upon, nature and herself for sustenance. Similarly, Confession attests to the internalised process of Abramovic’s work and life, expressed through her work, and often made public through performance, but ultimately with the impetus from herself to a mute, albeit attendant, audience. This video shows Abramovic’s kneeling nose-to-nose with a donkey, a still, stubborn animal, and subsequently the ideal receptor for the artist’s shocking anecdotal recollections from her childhood.
In her recent lecture at Tate, Abramovic mentioned Leonard Cohen’s acknowledgement of entering the Third Act of his life, a sensibility that appeals to a similar state of mind for Abramovic at 64 years old. She noted that her major objectives break down into four categories: 1. Not to over-produce, 2. Not to be idle, 3. Know when to stop working and 4. Know when to die. Her humorous turn of phrase exudes warmth and presents a grounded, communicative figure, but beneath the comedy, the recent works on offer at Lisson ring true in their quiet reflexivity.