A visitor (C) walks in between naked performers re-performing
A visitor walks between naked performers re-performing 'Imponderabilia' by Marina Abramovic and Ulay at the Art Basel fair in Basel in 2012 © Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Visitors to London’s Royal Academy of Arts in 2020 will be asked to squeeze sideways between two nude standing artists as part of an exhibition celebrating the work of the avant-garde performance artist Marina Abramovic.

The show, due to open next September, will be the biggest retrospective of the Serbian artist’s work in the UK, and the first occasion in which a female artist takes over the vast spaces of the RA’s main galleries at its Piccadilly base in Burlington House.

Among more than 50 works spanning the career of the 74-year-old Royal Academician will be a re-enactment of “Imponderabilia”, which Ms Abramovic performed with her then-partner, artist Ulay, in 1977. The couple stood naked in the doorway of a gallery in Bologna, Italy, forcing the public either to bypass the entrance or pass sideways through the narrow space between them, brushing past their bodies and requiring them to choose whether to face the man or the woman to get past.

“If there were no artists there would be no museums. So we are living doors,” Ms Abramovic said of the work, which was typical of her style in putting her live body at the centre of the action.

Andrea Tarsia, the curator of the show, said the piece would be re-enacted by performance art students for the duration of the three-month exhibition. “People will be able to choose whether to move through it or around it, as it was conceived originally,” he said.

When it was first performed, he said, people reacted in different ways, some charging through the gap at speed and others going round more than once. “Some people stood back and couldn’t quite handle it.” The local police put a stop to the performance after 300 to 400 people had experienced it.

Tim Marlow, RA artistic director, said the gallery would draw the line at performing some of Ms Abramovic’s other prominent pieces, such as “The Other: Rest Energy”, in which Ulay and Ms Abramovic faced each other, holding a taut bow and arrow that, if released, was aimed at directly at her heart and could have led to her death.

In another work to be depicted rather than re-enacted, she stood motionless by a table on which 72 objects were placed, including a rose, feathers, a knife, razor blades and a loaded gun — with the sole instruction to audiences that they could use the objects on her as they desired. At the 1974 performance visitors were initially calm and respectful, but after some time the work had to be abandoned when they became violent, stripping the artist and cutting her skin.

Pablo Picasso, Head of a Woman, Mougins, 4 December 1962 Pencil on cut and folded wove paper from an album sheet, 42 x 26.5 cm Musée national Picasso-Paris. Pablo Picasso gift in lieu, 1979. MP1850 Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée national Picasso-Paris) / Béatrice Hatala © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019
Pablo Picasso's 'Head of a Woman. Mougins, 4 December 1962' © Succession Picasso/DACS 2019

The show was revealed at the announcement of the RA’s programme for 2020. Highlights include an exhibition devoted to Picasso’s use of paper, which curators said he was “obsessed with” throughout his long career. He spent large sums on buying expensive laid paper dating from Napoleonic times, but was also happy to draw on napkins, cardboard and blotting paper, often later framing the results. The show includes a 4m wide collage, “Women at their Toilette”, he fashioned entirely from pieces of wallpaper.

Tracey Emin will feature in an exhibition focused on her interest in the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. Other shows will explore the work of the French Impressionists, Cezanne’s handling of rocky landscapes and the less well known Belgian artist Leon Spilliaert, creator of angst-ridden self-portraits and atmospheric landscapes.

Get alerts on UK arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article