The world’s first Mixed Reality artwork – and the first of its kind to be presented at auction – Marina Abramovic’s The Life marks an extraordinary new chapter in the history of art. Premiered at the Serpentine Gallery in 2019, it offers a 19-minute digital encounter with the artist, taking her celebrated performance practice into thrilling uncharted territory. A dimensional photographic capture of the artist – like a hologram – appears before the viewer, performing a unique, meditative and altogether entrancing piece within a roped off five-metre circle, before evaporating into thin air. The subject of a major upcoming retrospective at the Royal Academy of Arts in 2021, where she will become the first woman to mount a solo exhibition in its main galleries, Abramovic has repeatedly exposed the limits of the human condition. Since the 1970s, her performances have often brought her within inches of her own death. Here, she broaches the dream of immortality, creating a real-time simulacrum in which her body and spirit are preserved for eternity. It is a poignant landmark for an artist who, for over half a century, has sought to show her audiences what it means to be alive.
Produced in collaboration with Tin Drum, The Life was created using volumetric capture: a complex imaging process currently possible in only a few studios worldwide. Abramovic was filmed using 32 moving cameras linked by a sophisticated algorithmic system. ‘You can imagine how much energy you capture with that,’ she explains, ‘it’s every molecule of your being. And when you capture the energy of an artist like that, you capture the soul, you actually stop time’ (M. Abramovic, quoted in E. Jane Dickson, ‘A New Reality’, Christie’s Magazine, July 2020, p. 105). Indeed, when viewed through the headset, the artist’s movements transcend their recorded status, appearing as a sequence of events unfolding in the present. Unlike Virtual Reality, Mixed Reality allows the surrounding environment to remain visible, thus creating a unique fusion of lived and projected experience. As Tin Drum’s founder Todd Eckert explains, ‘[we were] trying to create something that feels absolute, that feels human, that feels real. We want 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’ (T. Eckert, quoted in conversation with Christie’s, January 2020).
Born in Belgrade in 1946, Abramovic withstood a troubled and abusive childhood before discovering performance art. Using her own body and mind as tools, she began to explore thresholds of human endurance, dicing with sharp knives, fire, medication and loss of consciousness. In her seminal Rhythm O of 1974, she invited audience members to do whatever they wanted to her using a selection of objects – among them a loaded gun. Between 1976 and 1988, she collaborated with the West German performance artist Ulay, creating performances that frequently brought each other to the brink of expiration. Abramovic has often used her practice to address socio-political issues: her 1997 performance Balkan Baroque, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale, offered a visceral response to the ethnic cleansing that took place during the Bosnian War. Elsewhere, she has simply sought to induce a state of quiet reflection: in her legendary 2010 performance The Artist Is Present at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, she invited visitors to sit opposite her one by one, meeting their gaze in silent communion. This extraordinary essay in human connection, lasting over three months, reduced many of the 850,000 participants to tears.
Created almost a decade later, The Life extends the fundamental spirit of this performance. Indeed, seen together, the two works are indicative of a broader shift in Abramovic’s practice. In many of her early pieces, she explains, her goal was ‘to make something really disturbing and dangerous … that would shock the public’ (M. Abramovic, quoted in K. Stiles et al (eds.), Marina Abramovic, London 2008, p. 19). In both The Artist Is Present and The Life, by contrast, her message is one of affirmation, wordlessly extolling the simple act of being. This change of register was similarly apparent in her 2014 performance 512 Hours at the Serpentine Gallery, in which she took viewers by the hand and encouraged them to marvel at the empty space and silence around them. The desire to preserve this feeling – the primal, electric charge of being in another’s presence – ultimately underpins The Life. As Eckert concludes, ‘A hundred years beyond when anybody who ever knew [Marina] is alive, there will be people that will see her walk into the room and will feel that sense of connection, of human experience’ (T. Eckert, ibid.). As her form flickers, fade and reappears, it stirs a sense of hope: that life, even in the absence of the body, might go on.
Making The Life: An Interview with Marina Abramovic and Todd Eckert
AC: The Life is the first work of its kind. When did you first develop the idea, and what drew you to this medium?
MA: I had experimented with Virtual Reality before The Life and I felt limitations in this medium. One of the biggest problems I saw was that the experience isolates you. Everything’s happening in your head but your body is nonexistent. When I discovered Augmented or Mixed Reality, the fact that you can include surroundings in your experience made all the difference for me.
TE: Having worked in Mixed Reality since its earliest days in 2012 I always had the intention of using it to create a more authentic connection between artist and audience in recorded space. With Marina, we struck upon the ultimate connection of the medium’s potential from the very beginning – it was astonishing.
AC: How long did the filming process take? Did you experiment with timing and pacing?
TE: We didn’t impose any restrictions on Marina or her performance, and her decision to make something deliberately slow and contemplative resulted in our having to invent all sorts of post-production tools that didn’t exist before. So preparation took a while, shooting took very little time, and post-production took forever.
AC: Did your conception of the performance evolve throughout the process? If so, how did it change?
MA: I had a limited space for the performance and in my work I like restrictions. To me it’s a challenge to work within them and still not compromise the concept. I did exactly what I wanted within those limitations.
AC: What was it like seeing the work for the first time? What have you noticed about viewers’ reactions?
MA: There are two questions here to answer. For me it was a pretty shocking experience to see myself materialise in front of me. It’s something like seeing yourself after life, coming back into this fluid form. The feeling was uneasy, self-conscious and emotionally charged. The public has a very different reaction than I do, of course – it’s not them they’re seeing. The ones who don’t know my work have a fresh view and nothing to compare to. The public who know my work have a more emotional response because they are seeing beyond what is in front of them. But all of us have the same conclusion, that this new me in The Life has the potential to transmit the energy of real performance.
TE: Every time we’ve exhibited the work I’ve been struck by the fact that the audience, usually without thinking about it at all, cries and claps and engages just as if Marina was really in the room with them. It’s what I was most scared about before we showed the piece, and perhaps as a result one of the most gratifying things about it now that it’s out in the world.
AC: Do you see the work as a self-portrait?
MA: Yes, I do.
AC: How has working with Mixed Reality changed your ideas about performance art?
MA: It has changed my view of performance radically. Generally performance is an immaterial form of art. It’s time-based. You have to be present in the space when it happens. All the video recordings and photographs are just documentation but not the real thing. Augmented Reality gives the possibility to be the real thing. It has the power to capture time – to encapsulate it, to preserve it, and make it immortal. It becomes permanent presence.
TE: We deliberately present The Life in such a way as to make it feel like an event happening in the present despite being a recorded work. Since traditional film is an artefact of an event that has already happened, it is positioned in a different part of the brain from what we experience personally: it’s a memory of a memory. With this piece we wanted to convey the energy of Marina forever as a personally-experienced event.
AC: If The Life could be performed anywhere in the world, where would you like it to travel?
MA: My big dream – and hope – is for one day the work to not be limited to museums and institutions and enter people’s homes.
TE: I’d like to see The Life in non-traditional spaces all over the world – to feel how it differs depending upon the location.