Marina Abramović: The Life review – ‘A pointless perversion that hurts your eyes’

Serpentine gallery, London
Why would anyone want to watch a hologram of the famous performance artist doing nothing? Abramović’s much vaunted show is tedious and trite

She was never really there … Marina Abramović (second right) poses ahead of her exhibition. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

People are standing around with hi-tech devices strapped to their heads. I am one of them. Through the lenses that protrude from my face, I can see how daft my fellow audience members look. We’re like a bunch of drunks playing that game where you have a word stuck to your forehead. This is Mixed Reality, which lets you see a virtual image within a real physical space. In the middle of the gallery stands the world-famous performance artist Marina Abramović, wearing a bright red dress with her dark hair tied back. She paces a bit. She holds out an arm and stares at it as if mystified. Then she dissolves in a cloud of blue dots.

Abramović, you see, is present only in digital form. She has been filmed by 36 cameras to create a mobile simulation of herself. This virtual animated sculpture seems to walk on the actual floor of the gallery. At times she vanishes, leaving just her shadow to move around the room, creeping towards audience members.

And that’s about it. At the press view, Abramović (the real one) explained how difficult Mixed Reality had been to make, how this 19-minute artwork had been forged at the whitehot edge of new technology. The most generous thing to say is that her passion for experiment has led her to use tech that isn’t yet capable of serious art – that this is a modest essay in what may work for artists one day.

Yet nothing here suggests modesty. The Life is presented as a wonder, a redemptive encounter. Before entering and being fitted with a headset by a white-coated attendant, you have to surrender “all your belongings”. Why all? It can’t be for security or safety. On the contrary, it is a step in a ritual: like a pilgrim who wishes to enter the inner sanctum, you must be prepared, cleansed, purged. Only then may you enter the Electric Presence.

Looking for art … good luck with that. Attendees at Marina Abramović: The Life. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

Abramović had a great-uncle who was patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox church and her performance art has always been quasi-religious. Throwing herself into a flaming star, losing consciousness, being potentially assaulted by her audience – the extreme performances that made her name in the 1970s were Joan of Arc-like martyrdoms.

The Life, too, is a sacral rite. As we stand about in our headsets, we seem to experience a spiritual vision. This is not the fleshly Abramović. It is her angelic, resurrected self. That’s why she is able to vanish and reappear, step in and out of our reality. She’s like the risen Christ, or Gandalf the White, or Tupac when he came back as a hologram.

The Tupac analogy is best, because this is celebrity art at its most empty, a piece of nonsense that takes the gallery into bathetic realms of pop-culture kitsch. The only reason to be thrilled by this digital Abramović is that you adore the real Abramović as a star. The work itself is too slight to hold the attention. I naively deduced from the title that Abramović‘s immaterial presence would tell her life story, that we’d get a confessional encounter of some kind. Yet she does not speak or engage in any way with the audience.

Everything Abramović is loved for is lacking. She is renowned for relating to her audience directly and uneasily, looking them in the eye. With her digital version, looking at her own hands is about as intense as it gets. Nor is there any sense of danger. Nothing is going to happen to the simulacrum Abramović, nor is anyone in the audience going to be challenged.

I’ve only experienced events this vacuous at really bad concerts, when you’re miles from a band watching them on screen as they perform mechanical versions of their hits. I kept watching it over again, waiting for some emotional or intellectual depth to materialise. Instead, the optical illusion got less and less convincing and the headset heavier. My eyes began to ache as Abramović’s dress melted in red blotches. There is no intimacy or human presence. This is a robotic perversion of performance art.

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