I went to the Marina Abramović’s art exhibition to squeeze between two naked people… I’m not a prude but I couldn’t help blurting out ‘I’m so sorry’
It’s a sunny Autumn day in Central London and everywhere you look excited Londoners are making the most of the warm weather before the rolling Winter blues sweep in – everywhere that is except one dimly-lit room in the Royal Academy of Arts.
In this cold room everyone is looking straight at the floor, terrified to catch a lingering glimpse of ‘the subjects’ .
‘The subjects’ in this case are two young naked people, glaring at each other.
Why are they glaring at each other? We don’t know. Why are they naked? We don’t know. Are we supposed to look at their genitals? None of us know.
What is certain though, is that this is, apparently, art.
Room for a small one! MailOnline’s John James squeezed between two naked ‘subjects’ at the Royal Academy of Arts in London
The face of reporter John James – a man left stunned by the art world’s latest offering
Serbian artist Marina Abramović once had a loaded gun held to her head by a member of the public during one of performances
It’s an age old cliche that great art has the capacity to shock people into a different way of thinking and engaging with the world around them.
And if you ask me the best way to shock British people is quite simple. Get naked in public.
As a nation, we have a long and proud tradition of being uncomfortable with our bodies and those of strangers.
Although streakers are cheered on at the football ground, naturists have long been the object of a sort of mortified intrigue among Brits – far too prudish to throw off their own clothes, but often slightly envious of what that freedom may feel like.
Never was that more obvious than at the Marina Abramović exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts with prudish visitors offering polite ‘excuse mes’ as they squeezed between naked bodies… in the name of art.
Abramović – who previously invited visitors to slash her throat and scooped fake blood from a naked woman’s body with Lady Gaga – is putting on a new exhibition at the world renowned gallery, which will see 40 performers in the buff.
One performance involves a naked man and woman stood facing each, blocking the path of visitors who are forced to navigate between them.
Another sees a naked model lying prone on an altar with a skeleton resting on their bare flesh, with ticket-holders invited to gawp.
Perhaps the most jarring is the section where a naked woman in a crucifix pose sits suspended on a wall-mounted bicycle saddle with everything you’d imagine at eye level.
It all sounds a bit out there doesn’t it, and I’m sure it’s meant to mean something: but what?
I went to find out…
Marina Abramović, pictured with Lady Gaga in 2013 when she scooped fake blood from a naked woman’s body
The entrance forces a ‘confrontation between nakedness, and the gender, the sexuality, the desire’ – apparently
Art is entirely subjective, hence the ultimate quesiton: ‘What is art?’.
Take the case of Jens Haaning, a Danish artist who was given 70,000 euros in cash for art and delivered two blank canvasses for his appropriately titled exhibition ‘Take the money and run.’
Run he did, but he didn’t get far as a court ordered him to repay the full amount to the museum.
Then there was Marcell Duchamp’s mysterious ‘Fountain’. An actual signed urinal.
The piece from 1917 stunned the stuffy art world and there has been much speculation about who the mysterious R. Mutt. might have been.
And, here I was asking that same quesiton as I entered a dimly-lit room where videos of Abramović were arranged in a pattern on the ground, soundtracked to a chorus of animalistic howling.
Jens Haaning a Danish artist was given 70,000 euros in cash for art and delivered two blank canvasses
Marcell Duchamp’s mysterious 1917 ‘Fountain’ which is a literal signed urinal
Standing in the doorway like two naturist Kings Guards was a young man and woman, glaring at each other in silence.
To say I and the rest of the brigade were shocked was an understatement.
The intention of the piece, which is called Imponderabilia, has been described by one of the models as ‘a one-hour performance of mutual gazing with a partner as people pass through our naked bodies, as though it were a doorway to the art.’
READ MORE: The art of shocking: From drinking blood with Lady Gaga to butchering nude statues with Debbie Harry – the VERY controversial works of Marina Abramović
That’s all well and good as an intent for your work, but in my experience, everybody was thinking something else… just how low were our eyes allowed to creep?
In my awkwardness other questions shot into my head. What happens if nature calls for the pair? Do they get a modesty break? Is this part of the performance What on earth are the rules in this bizarre and cold little room!?
If you’ve never been in a space with naked performers pretending to be statues, let me tell you this, it sucks the noise completely out of the room.
In fact, were it not for the endless howling you could have heard a pin drop.
I put this down to the fact that we were all internally wrestling with the aforementioned dilemma and also psyching ourselves up for ‘the big push’ past them.
In order to leave the howling room, we all had to slip as smoothly as we possibly could between the two naked sentries.
I loitered at the back of the crowd and watched a few old ladies navigate their way through the human cranny.
In typical British fashion, both ladies apologised as they brushed past the pair.
‘I’m not going to apologise’, I thought to myself, ‘I’ve paid for my ticket, and they have chosen to be naked.’
I got myself ready and began to slip as smoothly and as carefully as I could through the human jungle.
I was barely halfway though when I caught the eye of the man. He had a stern demeanour and it caught me hopelessly off guard.
‘I’m so sorry’, I blurted out as I fell into the hallway: I was just as bad as the rest of them.
My next stop was another dark room where a man was lying nude on an altar with a skeleton on top of him.
He had a beard and his face was turned to the side so he glared out into the audience.
He had a particularly aggressive gaze. A gaze that bore into me, made me feel small.
About a minute went by and I was beginning to sweat, the glare was all-consuming and completely uncompromising.
Imponderabilia has been described as as ‘a one-hour performance of mutual gazing with a partner as people pass through our naked bodies, as though it were a doorway to the art’
Marina Abramović performing Nude with Skeleton in 2005
Three women will occupy separate open platforms on the gallery wall for 24 hours a day over 12 days without talking and drinking only water
Thankfully the last display was empty during my visit – but you get the idea
‘Oh my god! What on earth is he doing to that skeleton!’, I heard.
More people had now arrived in the room and my trance was broken. The skeletal nudist’s eyes locked onto his next target. I was free.
The artwork, which is appropriately named ‘Nude with Skeleton’ apparently ‘equates the ephemerality of performance art with the transitory nature of our own lives.’
I can tell you first hand I didn’t get that: I was just scared.
Building up my courage, I advanced to the next room and my date with the final live performance: the wall mounted naked bicycle chair crucifix – or to give it its proper name, Luminosity.
The purpose of this peace is ostensibly to portray Abramović’s interpretation of ‘liquid knowledge.’
She says this is when ‘the body is exhausted [and] you reach a point where the body doesn’t exist anymore. Your connection with a universal knowledge is so acute, there is a state of luminosity.’
Again, all well and good but its quite hard to visualise this state of being when you are eye level with a stranger’s unmentionables.
Thankfully on my visit the live action element of this particular performance was on a break so I was confronted instead with just the empty harness frame.
That’s perhaps the true art? The absence of the subject? The contortion of expectation?
That performance art eh?
Also empty at the time of my visit was an imposing triple platform which will be the centerpiece of a grim sounding project called The House with the Ocean View.
This is a continuation of Belgrade-born Abramović’s own display where she lived in a house within a gallery and spectators were invited to watch her for 12 days.
This will be recreated as part of the exhibition with three women occupying separate open platforms on the gallery wall, for 24 hours a day over 12 days, without talking and drinking only water.
I can think of better ways to spend a fortnight – but I’ve learned this isn’t about me, this is about art, or rather, the British approach to art.
For hundreds of years when oil and canvas was the fashion, people would pay hundreds of guineas to adorn their walls with classical scenes of heroes from Greek mythology or Renaissance beauties sighing in heat.
In most of these paintings, the subjects would bare all: pink, fleshy and proud.
Fast forward to 2023 and we’re presented with the modern equivalent in 3D high definition living, breathing form… and to be honest, it was all a bit much.
The exhibition starts this weekend and will run until January 1, 2024.
Tickets cost between £25.50 and £27.50 and are available from the Royal Academy of Art’s website.
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