Marina Abramović RA reviews: what the critics say
Updated: Oct 21
It's three year's late — due to Covid, what else? — but it’s finally here, and is one of the hottest London exhibitions of the year, and is also the first major solo exhibition of Abramović's work ever held in the UK.
Even more remarkably, it’s the first solo show by a woman in the RA’s main galleries. It’s only taken *checks notes* 250 years.
But the big question on everyone’s lips is: is it any good?
Well the reviews are in: and critics seem to love the Marina Abramović exhibition! Well, most of them do. But nearly all of them admit Abramović's later works on show here are weaker than what came before.
“Abramović’s retrospective at the Royal Academy is relentless’ says the Guardian art critic Adrian Searle. The headline of his four-star review sums up his thoughts extremely succinctly: “terrifying and vital.”
“There are so many Marinas here, but only one Abramović, in all her multiple guises” Searle says. “We are less an audience than witnesses to the best of her art.”
The exhibition gets the five-star treatment from Tabish Khan in Culture Whisper. "It’s intense, it’s discomfiting, it’s memorable and it’s performance art at its finest" he says.
Ben Luke in the Evening Standard agrees, calling the show “epic".
In an exhibition consisting of many rooms — it’s a huge show — visitors get to experience videos and photographs of some of her famous performances, and re-enactments of others, staged live and performed by artists cast and trained by the Marina Abramović Institute.
“The staging of this material on film and in photographs is exemplary” he writes. “There is no sense of padding. The pacing is great: it’s spare where it needs to be, busy and noisy at the right moments.”
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Luke admits it’s not a perfect exhibition — perhaps explaining ‘only’ the four stars. “After a tremendously prolific first 15 years or so, Abramović’s work grows increasingly uneven” and he highlights these later works as the weakest of the show. The abundance of crystals in later rooms “becomes wearing” he says.
Mark Hudson in the Independent agrees that later Abramović work doesn’t live up to the earlier pieces. He says the first half of the exhibition is “quite electrifying” but that “as her work strays further from her formative cultural territory, and from performance towards more object-based art, it loses some of its fierceness and tension.”
But Hudson is clear that this shouldn’t put you off. “This is the best performance art-related exhibition I’ve seen, by some distance.”
The Telegraph were one of the only reviews to ultimately judge that later work rendered the whole show of poor quality.
“Only the barest bones of her former talent remain” is the rather matter-of-fact headline on Alastair Sooke’s review. “Narcissistic art, devoid of risk, with none of the rigorous, visceral, blood-spattered toughness of old” and “melodramatic [and] superficial” is his assessment of the second half of the show. It’s no surprise the exhibition only gets two stars.
But Sooke is a lone voice. Nearly all the critics believe this is a landmark show of high quality, and that ultimately, as Eddy Frankel says in his Time Out review: “at its best, her work is still influential, pioneering and moving.”
maxwell museums’ verdict
🟦 💬 I loved the show. The first room is one of the best openings of an art exhibition this year. It begins with the spotlight on one of her most famous works, The Artist is Present (2010), where Abramović sat staring at members of the public facing her one-to-one across a desk at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for three months. On one wall you can see the volunteers’ faces — including some famous faces — while Abramović’s solemn and blank face is shown opposite. It’s atmospheric, and moving, and sets the scene for what is to come.
Yes, the later works are not quite of the same quality. And yes, that is because there are a few too many crystals. But ultimately this is a powerful and exciting show to experience. My only quibble is that the four ‘re-staged’ works aren’t all on at the same time. Just one was performed on my visit. Perhaps logistically it would be impossible. But knowing that you’ve missed the others just down to scheduling is a little disappointing.
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