Puns, pop and provocation

“Bunny” by Sarah Lucas (1997).

In the penultimate room of the Marina Abramović exhibition currently at The Royal Academy, you’ll find a performance artist re-enacting her The House with the Ocean View, 2002. In the original work, Abramović lived in a specially constructed room for twelve days, in full view of gallery goers, never once leaving (or eating). Late one Friday evening in 2023, I find the reconstructed room in the RA packed. The wall text explains that the original performance had become a space for people to gather after 9/11, and I get the sense people were expecting the same sense of community from this new room.

But this time nothing really happens. We look, and the artist looks back. This anticlimactic revelation cements my sense that the success of Abramović’s new exhibition (and in particular her later work) has more to do with our desire to believe in something – anything – than any inherent qualities in the art. Much like the grifters of the online guru-sphere who promise they have “secret knowledge” to an army of desperate fans, all it really proves is a rudderless audience. By contrast, Sarah Lucas – who currently has an extensive exhibition at Tate Britain – doesn’t vouchsafe anything, but her seemingly simple works carefully deploy cliché, wit and provocation to deflate male chauvinism, among other things.

The mythical, saintly role Abramović wants the artist to play in a secular world

The RA has made sure to foreground the live aspect of Abramović’s work, keen to convey the visceral intensity that performance art can engender for both artist and viewer. We’re greeted in the first room not by Abramović herself, but by a large video-grid of faces in varying degrees of rapture, filling an entire wall. The videos show the expressions of those who sat opposite Abramović in her legendary The Artist is Present performance, which took place in MoMA in 2010. All day, every day, for three months, she sat in a chair and invited members of the audience to sit opposite her. In the videos, some are crying, some look moved to a place beyond tears and others seem simply overwhelmed. No one is indifferent. The work usefully sets up the themes of the exhibition: endurance, presence, audience interaction and the mythical, saintly role that Abramović wants the artist to play in a secular world.

The next room is given over to undoubtedly the most dizzying work of the exhibition, and the most defining of Abramović’s career: Rhythm 0, which took place in Naples one evening in 1974, for six hours. Here, through a few grainy videos, we see Abramović standing stock still, while her mainly male Neapolitan audience are invited to do whatever they want, with the help of 72 objects she’s placed on a table. (This table is recreated at the RA and far kinkier than I’d imagined from reading about it: whips and chains sit next to lipstick and a hairbrush.) Having declared herself an object, the men in the videos, where a loaded gun is also ominously present, gradually become vile and predatory, exposing their – and society’s – misogyny by viciously stripping and abusing her, including putting a knife between her legs.

Moving through to the central room, we are confronted with further unsettling works. A large projection of Abramović screaming until she’s hoarse sits next to a video showing her and Ulay (her long-time partner and collaborator) calmy but determinedly slapping each other, hard. All of these videos are looped, but with no obvious beginning or end, and so we’re cast into a dark cavern of screams and flinch-inducing scenes.

Much of the work contains an invitation for audience intervention: whether it’s an explicit invitation, as in Rhythm 0, or an implied one, given the many times she has passed out during a performance and needed saving from a fire or ice. This is art that provokes actions and reactions, and I’m glad to see the RA has carried over that intention for a new audience. Admittedly, much of it was straight-up alarm and confusion, but then it’s not easy to shock the average viewer into questioning the boundaries of art and life. Her success may be measured by the fact I can’t remember the last time an exhibition was so talked about or picked over by friends.

But though her earlier pieces continue to hold sway over a younger generation, Abramović’s later work is disappointing and indicative of her odd status as a shamanic artist-cum-influencer. Devoid of her physical presence, the works from gallery five onwards are made up of a hodge-podge of crystals, energy beds and portals. It’s as if Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop had been commissioned to do a self-care installation, complete with instructions on how to stand in the crystal shoes and imagine we’re levitating.

Once I’d seen the link to online guru culture, I couldn’t unsee it: Abramović employs the language of therapy and healing in all her new works, and her stoic commitment to endurance – manifesting as a strange mixture of eastern meditation, Christian martyrdom and feminism – continually reminded me of the wildly popular Wim Hof (aka The Ice Man). She has even trained a legion of performance artists in her “method”.

This in turn made me reconsider the seriousness of her earlier works – could we see her and Ulay as proto-TikTokers, their joint lifestyle the ’80s equivalent of a content house (a place where influencers live together to collaborate and compound their virality)? Was their 1988 break-up on the Great Wall of China, documented in The Lovers: The Great Wall Walk, the first public-art-world-break-up post? This isn’t, however, to deride Abramović. She is an artist who taps decisively into each generation’s “energy” – albeit overly enthralled to the tyranny of relevance.

Lucas has the status of cheeky national Gran: Hockney’s funnier, ballsier wife

Down at Tate Britain and Sarah Lucas’s not-quite-retrospective “Happy Gas” show (until 14 January), a very different artist emerges. A home-grown folk hero, there’s nothing online or immediately “relevant” about Lucas. In fact, most of the last room (of only four) is given over to the theme of smoking, something our prime minister has just said he’d ban, and which dwindling numbers of young people make the mistake of doing. The work feels dated, because much of it is: you can’t move for old chairs, old tabloid papers and long-faded stockings. At first, I couldn’t decide if this added to the exhibition’s charm by promoting Lucas to the status of cheeky national Grandmother (Hockney’s funnier, ballsier wife), or whether it signalled that her work could only truly evoke the more binary politics of its early 1990s debut.

Perhaps I am overestimating the amount of progress made on gender issues since the ’90s. Jokey title references such as Priapus, or the exhibit of a huge marrow, are wry takedowns of toxic masculinity that still feel readily applicable to a world in which Andrew Tate commands such devotion. There is also the long gallery room full of her trademark nylon stocking bodies, flopping objects propped up in chairs that teeter between abject and clownish – but that I ultimately read as a nonchalant riposte to the strictures imposed on women’s appearance. These bodies also occasionally transgress gender boundaries, revealing another odd synchronicity with the recent Tory conference, in which Sunak facetiously dismissed the notion of anyone with “common sense” having a transgender identity.

While I walked around Abramović’s show with a sense of awe giving way to confusion, I wore a permanent smirk for Lucas’s witty, quotidian poetry. Going from one to the other wasn’t quite the sublime to the ridiculous, but more the saintly to the silly. Notable by their absence were two of Lucas’s most defining works: Au Naturel, 1994 – the stained mattress propped against a wall with objects suggesting genitals – and her Self Portrait with Fried Eggs, 1996. Perhaps this was part of the exhibition’s stated goal to tell a broader story of Lucas than as just another YBA provocateur (Au Naturel was included in Freeze, the YBA’s first major group show), and this was something the exhibition did unexpectedly well. Works such as MumMum, 2012, with all its womb-like symbolism, situated Lucas within the wider lineage of Louis Bourgeois and other twentieth-century, surrealist-adjacent sculptors.

Much has rightly been made of the fact Abramović is the first woman to have a solo show in the RA’s main galleries. Less has been made of Lucas’s exhibition, or indeed the relative rarity of a woman occupying her position in the pantheon of living British artists. Despite this disparity – and despite Abramović’s fearless early work such as Rhythm 0 – it is Lucas’s unshowy work that has stayed with me.

Marina Abramović is at the RA, London, until 01 January, 2024
Sarah Lucas: Happy Gas is at Tate Britain until 14 January, 2024

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London

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Arts & Culture, Horizon Line, November 2023

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