Marina Abramovic

Museum of Modern Art/Victoria Miro

Marina Abramovic’s work can be divided into three phases: the early sound environments and performances, the long, central collaboration with Ulay, and the post-1988 “transitional objects.” The formal range and variety of materials in this body of work, which stretches over a period of more than 25 years, is immense. Early pieces such as a metronome ticking away in an otherwise empty room give way to performances in which the artist’s body is cut, whipped, frozen, burned, bled, drugged, exhausted, used/abused, or in which the body enters an intense partnership of brutal physical contact. These performances were followed by staged periods without talk or sustenance (a day, a week, sometimes longer ), or huge, elaborately planned journeys. Recently, she has designed wall-mounted and furniturelike objects to accommodate the body of the viewer/participant. There are great differences among what Abramovic’s works look like, but there are also strong similarities. The intensity and physical privation of the performances is mirrored in the second phase—in the long, motionless silences of Nightsea Crossing, 1981–86, and the walk along the Great Wall of China—while the religious and ritual explorations undertaken with Ulay ground the more recent, contemplative pieces that incorporate various crystals.

The journey through the show at Oxford began with what might be called a process of cleansing or stripping away, and ended with a kind of investment. To gain access to the show one had to walk down the Sound Corridor, 1972, one of Abramovic’s earliest sound works. As one entered the white passageway, there was a deafening burst of gunfire. This violent assault on the senses was intended to envelop and purge the body, preparing it for the meditative requirements of the remainder of the exhibition. What one found was something that was not quite a retrospective, even though the work shown ranged from the early ’70s to the present. It did, however, provide enough to draw out the common threads that run through Abramovic’s work.

Echoing Nightsea Crossing (in which Abramovic and Ulay sat facing each other at either end of a table), Wounded Geode, 1994, provided two chairs for visitors to use when studying and considering the rock that lay on the table. The chair legs were long, too long for your feet to reach the ground. In individual cells upstairs stood a bed, a chair, and a mirror, all works from 1994. You could walk in, close the door behind you and spend some time resting, sitting, or standing looking at your reflection in a crystal. Quiet and meditative, works like these can, as Abramovic has said of other crystal pieces, last forever. There were works from the series “Black Dragon,” 1990–95, too, pillows in different materials mounted on the wall against which to rest head, heart, and sex. A vestibule containing clay pillows and Mirrors for Departure, 1994—clay ovals bearing the imprint of a human face—led to the final room containing “objects for nonhuman use.” The spectator, by now, was presumed to be fully attuned to almost imperceptible influences and forces, fully participant in the environment in a way that transcends ordinary conscious of the body.

Before all this, though, there was photodocumentation (shown concurrently at Victoria Miro in London) of Abramovic’s early performances reminding us of quite other extremes. In the series entitled “Rhythm,” 1973–74, for example, Abramovic became unconscious on several occasions, cut herself and, famously in Rhythm O, 1974, allowed herself to be stripped, cut, and generally abused by an audience for several hours, actions that culminated in a loaded gun being placed in her hand and pointed at her head. In these and subsequent works such as the sequence of “freeing” performances—Freeing the Voice, Freeing the Memory, and Freeing the Body, 1975–76—Abramovic undertook the emptying and reawakening of the self that post-Ulay work has invited the audience to attempt. Throughout, though, there has been a trust, almost a faith in her audience. The polarities of these early works—an implacable determination to see something through once it was conceived combined with an open acceptance of whatever transpired—could not have been effectively brought together without the enormous emotional investment of an audience. Her work has the mix that she attributes to Ulay, whom she describes as someone who was man/woman—long hair and makeup on one half of his face, short hair and a beard on the other. The final piece in the exhibition was a recent fetishlike object, two figures joined in what might be sexual struggle or physical combat and swathed in blood-soaked strips of cloth. This is the first of Abramovic’s new “power objects,” successors to the “transitional objects.” The two wax figures are, in fact, joined by a small crystal, but you can’t see that.

Michael Archer