Make no bones about it, nothing prepared me for this naked art show


HAVING a couple of hours to kill before going to see “Mrs Doubtfire” in London the other evening, I thought I’d take in a bit of that culture stuff (the sort of thing my ex-MP Nadine Dorries used to champion as Culture Secretary) and popped down the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly.

They were advertising a special exhibition by Abromović, which naturally I assumed would be all about that Russian oligarch Roman who had a big yacht and once owned Chelsea.

So imagine, my surprise — nay, absolute horror — when I found that to enter the gallery I had to squeeze past a bollock-naked man and woman who were standing there blocking the door.

For, unfortunately, it seems this exhibition wasn’t about football at all.

Instead, it was all to do with some 77-year-old Yugoslavian performance artist called Marina Abramović.

Now, I like to think I’m a man of the world. After all, I once spent a Saturday night trawling the fleshpots of Frinton.

But nothing prepared me for this.

Especially when I walked into one room and found a naked woman lying there holding hands with a skeleton which was positioned delicately between her legs.

Below her a lifesize video screen showed Marina, lying under another skeleton.

Her knees were bent and her hips slid rhythmically up and down, with her lips moving as if she was just about to reach a rather wonderful orgasm.

Now make no bones about it; the skeleton may have been dead, but he lasted a lot longer than I ever have.

Apparently, Marina likes to “consistently test the boundaries of her own physical and mental endurance, while embracing the collective experience of great intimacy between artist and audience”.

‍ So she once sat in a New York gallery in front of a table containing 72 different objects – including chains, belts, ropes, nails, a saw, several knives and axes, scissors, candles, lipstick, bottles and a gun

There was even, for some reason, an apple. Oh, and a mousetrap. And Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot, which I rather enjoyed reading some years ago.

Then for eight hours people were encouraged to use these various objects on her.

Marina was, she explained, “an object to be acted upon” and a notice said she accepted full responsibility for anything that might be done to her.

‍ At first, as photographs round the RA gallery showed, people were gentle. But then they became more “adventurous”. And more brutal.

Somebody stripped her to the waist. Others beat and cut her with various implements until she bled. 

‍ One man held the gun to her throat. Another kissed her. A third scrawled “Idiot” and “Vile” on her forehead and breasts. But one or two did comfort her and dress her wounds.

‍ All the time Marina stood or sat there meekly accepting this degradation. Then after eight hours, she moved. And the audience fled.

‍ So shocking was the experience that it turned part of her hair white.

‍ Now, I should point out, you didn’t have to squeeze between the naked couple on the way in. There was also a “safe entrance” next to it.

‍ Most visitors used that. But it was interesting to stand there watching for 30 minutes trying to guess which people would choose.

‍ And then to see whether, if they decided to push between the pair, they would face the man or the woman, both of whom remained totally expressionless.

Most females chose to face the women; with the men it was probably 50-50. I chose to face the woman – and hoped I wouldn’t feel a pain in the arse as I squeezed past.

‍ Then, later, when the naked pair had been replaced with a different duo, I went back and pushed through again.

‍ One gallery had a big screen showing Marina and a man taking it in turns to slap each other face. As the video played, the slaps became faster and harder.

Another showed a man pointing a bow and arrow at her as she held the bow’s limb and then leaned backwards, drawing the string tighter and tighter.

Nearby were a series of photographs showing what happened to her after she first took medication for people suffering from catatonia before swallowing another drug intended for schizophrenics.

Marina’s parents, it seems were partisan fighters during the second world war. Her mother was a strict disciplinarian who often inflicted physical punishments on her and the marriage was clearly unhappy.

Her dad left home when she was 17 and she spent much of her childhood being brought up by her “strongly religious and spiritual” grandmother.

I’m not sure just how relevant any of that is. But the exhibition was a truly shocking spectacle.

‍ In fact, I’m going back next week to have another look.

‍ *The exhibition runs at the Royal Academy of Arts in London until January 1.

22 October 2o23