Her Royal Academy of Arts exhibition may have been postponed until 2023, but that hasn’t stopped Marina Abramovic from taking London by storm.
For just three days last weekend (between 10-12 September)—in collaboration with We Present, the digital arts arm of WeTransfer—performance art’s best known figure marked her arrival by taking over the Old Truman Brewery in Whitechapel. There she immersed audiences in Traces, a five room extravaganza of video works, soundscapes, light pieces and sculpture which focused on some of her most significant objects and ideas. These included a giant quartz crystal, the writings of her late friend Susan Sontag, a stone from Mars and the miraculously resilient desert plant Rose of Jericho—all things she believes “we have to preserve for the future”.
More long lasting are her two shows at Lisson Gallery which also opened this week and run through into October. One is in the gallery’s main galleries in Lisson Street, and one in their temporary pop up space in Cork Street. Both revolve around her enduring passion for the Greek American soprano Maria Callas, whose voice the teenage Abramovic first heard on the airwaves in her grandmother’s Belgrade kitchen. “I started crying, I don’t know why—the voice was so emotional for me.” she remembers.
It might seem incongruous for the queen of radical performance to be drawn to the great diva of bel-canto, but Abramovic strongly identified with what she describes as Callas’s “mixture of stress and vulnerability: she was so strong on stage but so unhappy in her life. Also she really died for love,” she says adding that “once I was also so much in love in my life: I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t even think. And then my work saved me.” While strongly empathising with Callas, Abramovic also admits that, “I also kind of blame her—when you have the talent she had, you are not allowed to give up, because this talent doesn’t just belong to you, it belongs to all of us.”
These anomalies and complications run through her stunning high octane Seven Deaths, a new film work in which Abramovic acts out the tragic and sometimes grisly deaths of seven operatic heroines, each one performed to the soundtrack of Callas singing the original solo or aria. In each case Abramovic, working with the actor Willem Dafoe, complicates the notion of the tragic heroine often dying at the hands of a man by adding a new twist or interpretation.
Instead of being strangled at the hands of Othello, as in Verdi’s opera, in Abramovic’s version Desdemona is throttled by two boa constrictors that, with grim tenderness, Dafoe drapes around her neck; while the jealous murder of Carmen in Bizet’s opera is recreated with Dafoe and Abramovic—the latter in full matador rig—messing with the traditional power dynamic by staging their own torero involving Dafoe being reeled in at the end of a rope and Abramovic brandishing the knife that ultimately brings about her demise. Rather than leaping off castle battlements, Abramovic’s Tosca launches herself from a Manhattan skyscraper; while the ritual suicide of Madame Butterfly is replaced by the artist ripping off a Hazmat suit and exposing herself to radiation poisoning.
The climax of the film is Bellini’s Norma, sung by Callas more often than any other opera. Here the interchangeable personae of Maria/Marina is rendered even more complex with the spectacle of Willem Dafoe dressed in a full length gold sequinned gown and walking hand in hand into the fire with Abramovic, who wears a tuxedo and assumes the male role of the Roman Pollione. “When Norma decides to walk into the fire to sacrifice herself, the Roman General understands how stupid he is…he still loves her and how incredibly brave this woman is and so he comes to hold her hand in the fire together” says Abramovic. “So he’s in woman’s clothes and she’s the warrior.”
“Opera is boring…dying is much shorter” Abramovic told us at the opening of her Lisson shows. To this end she sees both the film Seven Deaths and also the accompanying ambitious live action opera-cum-performance The Seven Deaths of Maria Callas which debuted at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich and has just completed its Paris run with more dates this year and next in Athens, Berlin, and Naples (and which Abramovic fervently hopes will also make an appearance Covent Garden) as “the deconstruction of real opera.” “My public is very young and I am very happy about that” she says, declaring that “I wanted opera, this very ancient art form, to be changed into something else that the public can see.”
In LIsson Gallery’s Cork Street space, these seven dramatic denouments of her operatic alter egos assume a new form, captured in seven back lit portrait sculptures, each one taken from a still from Seven Deaths. These images of Marina-Maria, whether stabbed, strangled by a snake, or consumed by madness from Lucia di Lammermoor, are each carved from single blocks of alabaster, the result of seven years of research with Adam Lowe of Factum Arte.
This new-found monumentality is another unexpected departure for someone whose life work has been devoted to the ephemeral. “I said to Adam, performance is an immaterial form of art, making marble pieces will be a total contradiction for me,” says Abramovic, who declares herself very happy with the result. “I wanted to do something which has material and immaterial elements inside: life and death at the same time, and alabaster has that kind of transparency and fragility.” Certainly the effect is uncanny: what appears to be an illuminated photo-realist likeness at close quarters disintegrates into abstract peaks and cavities of stone.
Although Abramovic told us that, “I’m definitely finished with dying,” there is a decidedly deathly feel to her third London exhibition at Colnaghi. The title of the show is Humble Works and she is showing alongside two younger artists, the Italian artist and musician Nico Vascellari and Fyodor Pavlov-Andreevich, who lives and works between Moscow, London and Sao Paulo. All three met in 2009 when Abramovic filled Manchester’s Whitworth Gallery with performance art and at Colnaghi, one the world’s oldest commercial art galleries, each have made work in response to artworks and artefacts created across different cultures and eras.
The exhibition opens with Pavlov-Andreevich responding to a 6th-century BCE Etruscan burial urn with his own memento mori sculpture, fashioned from dust gathered from beneath the beds of his lovers; while Vascellari’s film of his prone, unconscious body suspended from a helicopter hovering perilously over forests and mountains is accompanied by a horned Corinthian helmet; with the combination of the two, intending to channel ideas of being engulfed in wild nature and the sublime.
Abramovic has the smallest room in the gallery and relishes the idea of today’s artists paying homage to great works of the past. “It’s not easy for an artist to be humble: ego is a huge obstacle,” she says. Nonetheless, it still takes some creative chuzpah to face up to Diego Velázquez’s magnificent full length early-17th-century portrait of the Spanish nun Mother Jeronima de la Fuete, rarely seen out of Spain and with a near identical copy in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Abramovic praises this “very strong nun” and pays her own homage to a historic Spanish nun with The Kitchen, her photograph taken from a 2009 series devoted to St Teresa of Avila, who coincidentally met Mother Jeronima in her lifetime and encouraged her to take the veil. Also filling Abramovic’s small, sombre, dimly-lit chapel-like chamber is a pair of dramatic backlit self-portraits, in which Abramovic holds a laughing skull. Like the alabaster works at Lisson, they appear to be photographic images but are in fact carvings in both negative and positive, this time made from corian, a material usually reserved for worktops.
But her show stopper is a glittering new work, The Table of 10,000 Tears, which is receiving hits first airing at Colnaghi. As per the title, it comprises a sparkling mass of glass droplets, each one hand blown by the artisan conservator who supplies the Prado with tears for its lachrymose wooden madonnas. This crystalline spread has a particular impact laid out like an impossibly opulent votive, offering under the implacable gaze of Velázquez’s austere nun, who—in manners even more extreme than those of Abramovic—was renowned for her extreme rites of self-mortification.
Other shows opened this week, but all attention was focused on Abramovic. The materials with which she expresses herself may be shifting, but all three of these shows pack a physical and psychological punch, which, although London relished her state visit, now does not necessarily need the artist herself to be present.
• Marina Abramovic Seven Deaths, Lisson Gallery, 22 Cork St and 27 Lisson St, until 30 October
• Humble Works, Colnaghi, London, until 22 November