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LONDON — Last week, tickets went on sale for the Royal Academy’s delayed retrospective of Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, in which important and iconic works from her 50-year career will be revisited, along with new site-specific creations. Her works, from “Rhythm 0” (1974) to “The Artist Is Present” (2010), are famous for hinging on both hers and the audience’s participation and endurance. In recent years, however, Abramović has been experimenting with more physically permanent — and therefore sellable — artworks. Working with Factum Arte in 2017, she produced “Five Stages of Mayan Dance,” alabaster reliefs of the artist pulling faces, as part of the London art and antique fair Masterpiece. That performance art as a medium can be purchased is not new; however, when the technology by which the performance is ‘captured’ is emphasized over the performance content itself — as appears to be the case with a 2019 piece titled “The Life” — one wonders whether Abramović’s interests lie more with perpetuating herself as a product than with what she actually expresses through the work.
“The Life,” which was exhibited at the Serpentine last year and is now the leading work for sale in Christie’s “20th Century: London to Paris” auction, uses a medium called Mixed Reality to overlay a virtual performance onto the existing experienced world via a headset. In it, the viewer is fitted with Magic Leap One headsets by lab coat-wearing assistants and led into an empty room with a roped-off, black circle in its centre. Through the headset visor, you can see Abramović in a red dress, step into the ring, and slowly wave her arms around with all the dedication of someone deadly earnest that this is not pretentious. Occasionally, she steps from the black circle “boundary,” and a white spotlight moves around the floor, projecting the shadow of her moving form.
As far as how ‘immersive’ the work is, the cushioned, vice-like helmet attached to my cranium felt more immediate than the actual performance. More inventive examples come to mind, like Icelandic musician Björk’s video for “Mouth Mantra,” experienced via VR headset, which posits the viewer inside the singer’s mouth. But it doesn’t really matter what Abramović does in her performance, for it is its medium — a more advanced form of technology than Björk’s — that is emphasized above all else: “The Life” was created by technology developer Tin Drum, and Christie’s labels the piece “The World’s First Mixed Reality Performance Artwork.”
Mixed Reality (MR), by definition, is a continuum encompassing Virtual Reality (VR) at one end and Augmented Reality (AR) at the other. VR is complete immersion in a fictional reality, wheras AR is the overlay of virtual elements onto the real world, like in Pokémon Go. The difference between MR and AR is that there is a greater degree of interaction between the augmented and real elements; Tin Dum CEO Todd Eckert has stated Pokémon “wouldn’t be mistaken for an actual thing happening in real time.” However, if one is to argue semantically, neither would this piece, given it is a recorded loop of 19 minutes. Nor does its content have much more interaction with its surroundings than Pokémon other than its ‘anchoring’ by a black circle and velvet rope. The very concept of Mixed Reality is far from new, with iterations existing as early as 1992. The piece is just the world’s first Mixed Reality performance artwork. Christie’s is selling it with a guide price of £400–800,000, which, in this light, is like paying a disproportionate premium for exclusivity over actual content: the privilege of being the first to purchase. Its website says, “To date, no auction house has ever sold a Mixed Reality artwork.”
Abramović’s work has long been about pushing the limits of physical performance, and she talks of pursuing technology as a means to preserve her performances beyond her own lifetime. Yet, at the same time, she has been perfectly fine perpetuating her performances as contrarily ephemeral experiences: in 2017, she collaborated with Laudrée to make an exclusive purchasable macaroon, linking her immaterial performance art to eating a pastry, in that both are limited by time and continue to exist only in memory. This is not a million miles from other contemporary artists collaborating with Veuve Clicquot or Louis Vuitton. There is, of course, nothing wrong with commercial collaboration between artists and products, except here it appears inconsistent with the artist’s claimed interest in the longevity of her work. Both kinds of projects are intoned with such grandiose, emphatic seriousness, and yet are completely incongruous. This, combined with the disingenuous feel which underpins “The Life,” indicates an artist less interested in what performance can do as a medium, and more in how performance can be manipulated to enhance Abramović as a brand.
Marina Abramović’s “The Life” is open to view by appointment at Christie’s London (8 King Street, London) through Thursday, October 22.