Over the course of six days in February 2019 the performance artist Marina Abramović (b. 1946) invited members of the public to London’s Serpentine Gallery to witness something that had never been done before. The Life — a 19-minute performance realised through volumetric capture and presented in Mixed Reality — was the first large-scale public exhibition of anything in this new medium. Tickets sold out in just over two hours.
It had been five years since Abramović staged her critically acclaimed 512 Hours at the same gallery. For that performance, the subject of the work became the energy collectively created by the visitors and the artist, who was in the gallery every day.
It was a natural extension of The Artist is Present at MoMA, which in 2010 set the record for attendance at the museum with 850,000 visitors over three months — a record that remains unsurpassed. For The Life the concept was altogether different: can presence be conveyed even when the artist is elsewhere? The implications were both universal and eternal.
After unburdening themselves from all connected devices (phones, watches, etc), participants in The Life don a pair of MR goggles and are escorted to viewing positions by attendants in lab coats. In front of the backdrop of the gallery’s actual walls, and the other visitors, a film-real Abramović — hair pulled back tightly and wearing a crimson dress — performs within a roped-off five-metre circle.
The event is choreographed to the specific capabilities of the technology — and feels absolutely real. This is the entirety of the artist, presented as if in the room with the audience. Talking to Christie’s in the short film above, Abramović explains that the work is about immortality: ‘Because you are there, preserved for ever.’
‘A hundred years beyond when anybody who ever knew [Marina] was alive, there will be people who will see her walk into the room and will feel that sense of connection, of human experience,’ adds Todd Eckert, the founder of Tin Drum, the Mixed Reality production team behind The Life.
For The Life, Tin Drum filmed Abramović at one of the few studios capable of such capture, using 32 cameras linked by a sophisticated algorithmic system within a green screen tent. The result is not only the world’s first piece of Mixed Reality performance art, it’s also the first foray into a recorded medium presented as happening in real time.
‘When we recorded Marina in her performance we knew that we would be staging it as something happening in the present time, not as an artefact of something that happened in the past,’ continues Eckert, who also directed the piece. ‘We wanted to take advantage of something that has never been possible before, which is the ability to convey the truth of a human being in the room.’
‘We are talking about something which is really capturing performance in its essence’ – Marina Abramović
Since the beginning of her career in Belgrade in the early 1970s, Abramović has pioneered performance art, creating some of the form’s most important works. Exploring her physical and mental limits, she has withstood pain, exhaustion and danger in her quest for emotional and spiritual transformation.
For her performance Rhythm 0 (1974) she laid out 72 objects on a long table including pens, scissors, chains, an axe and a loaded pistol, and invited participants to use the objects on her as they wished. For The Artist Is Present, Abramović sat in MoMA’s atrium and engaged in a mutual gaze with more than 1,000 museum visitors, one by one, in silence, for every hour the museum was open across three months.
Now aged 72, Abramović has created an authentic, alternative, digital version of herself for The Life. ‘Working with this new technology, finding out the endless possibilities — because we are talking about something which is really capturing performance in its essence — was for me, revolutionary,’ she says.
In October 2020, one of three editions of The Life will be offered for sale at Christie’s. To date, no auction house has ever sold a Mixed Reality artwork.
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This groundbreaking artwork will engage new audiences in a dedicated exhibition space within Christie’s, harnessing pioneering headsets, and Tin Drum’s visionary production, to bring the artist’s vision to life. The London view will be open to visitors by appointment from 8 to 22 October.