Gates and Portals: Marina Abramović brings new work to Modern Art Oxford and the Pitt Rivers Museum
Internationally famed for the physically and psychologically challenging nature of her work, Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović has long since been considered a pioneer of performance art. Back in 2010, she gained worldwide recognition for The Artist Is Present, held in the MOMA, New York over three months. Members of the public (including, memorably, her former partner and collaborator, Ulay) were given the chance to sit before a long table opposite a seated Abramović without being allowed to touch or speak to the artist. In the words of the Serbian, on completion of the performance, she “stood up from the chair” and was “transformed”, realising that “the public [had] become actually the main focus of [her] work.”
Abramović’s latest UK exhibition at Modern Art Oxford, organised in partnership with the Pitt Rivers Museum, in her words represents “an attempt to do something different, because in a normal exhibition you’re just a silent witness”. The artist is no longer satisfied with the structure of the museum, which she considers to have remained unchanged since the 18th century. Gates and Portals asks the public to participate in the performances as opposed to merely being, in Abramovic’s mind, passive observers. As they progress through the exhibition, visitors are gently escorted by a team of facilitators specially trained by the artist in the “Abramović method” to (and at times through) transitory objects made of copper, magnets and selenite, selected for the energy they are said to emit. Noise is cancelled out by headphones placed on participants’ ears.
Making an appearance at the press opening, Marina Abramović clarified how she wanted a degree of secrecy to remain about the details of the exhibition to enable visitors to participate with a blank slate. All present were asked to imagine a Hitchcock movie with her drawing the parallel: “If I tell you who the killer is, it’s going to spoil the story.” The artist also spoke about her intention to reduce distractions as far as public participants are concerned, with mobile phones and watches to be left at the entrance. For her, “Nothing is wrong with technology. It’s our addiction to technology that’s the problem.”
Abramović, having explored Tibetan Buddhism, aims to bring about a transition and a transformation of consciousness within the visitor. The separation from one’s mobile phone and watch certainly comes as some relief. Asked wordlessly to close their eyes and on one occasion blindfolded, the viewer becomes very aware of their own heartbeat and breathing. The calmness exuded by the facilitators and the quietly contemplative nature of the experience, which lasts around an hour, promises to relax many a visitor without necessarily providing spiritual transcendence.
Abramović’s exhibition at Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford (created following a research residency in summer 2021 in conjunction with Gates and Portals) involves the installation of a film and drawings made by the artist. During her time at the august Victorian institution, the Belgrade-born performance art pioneer became intrigued by the anthropology gallery, with its rich variety of cultural artefacts. A trail produced by Pitt Rivers permits the visitor to follow the artist’s research. She chose to interact with a small glass bottle, said to contain a witch, which has never been opened since entering the collection in 1915. What truly captured Abramović’s imagination, however, was a rope ladder with knotted feathers discovered in a Somerset house roof in the 19th century, where, allegedly, a witch had resided. Her film, Presence and Absence (2022) – exhibited in a cabinet coincidentally opposite a Buddha – sees the artist apparently conducting a seance with the artefact. Closing her eyes, she extends her arms over it, seemingly sensing energy flowing from it. Suddenly her eyes open as if in a shaman-like trance. A sensitive drawing of the witch ladder by the artist is shown in front of the film. When first entering Pitt Rivers, Abramović immediately picked up on the energies of objects and their original owners. This arresting exhibition has the artist engaging with these entrancing artefacts in line with the intense bodily practice she is acclaimed for.
Photo: Still from The Witch Ladder courtesy of Pitt Rivers Museum
Marina Abramović is exhibiting at Modern Art Oxford from 24th September 2022 until 5th March 2023 and at the Pitt Rivers Museum from 24th September 2022 until 2nd April 2023. For further information visit here and here.
Watch Marina Abramović discuss the exhibition here: