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New Exhibition Brings Marina Abramović to Life Via ‘Mixed’ Reality

The work places gallery visitors in dialogue with a three-dimensional digital version of the legendary performance artist

As visitors mill around the room, Abramović, standing in a roped-off five-meter circle, alternately stands still or makes small movements (Marina Abramović/Tin Drum)
smithsonian.com

The Life, now being marketed as the first mixed-reality art experience, appears to be at odds with the self-proclaimed grandmother of performance art Marina Abramović's decades-long focus on the corporeal. That's because visitors will not encounter the real-life Abramović at the show, staged in London’s Serpentine Galleries. Instead, they will find themselves face-to-face with her digital incarnate.

After gallery assistants escort you to the Serpentine’s central rotunda, you encounter the virtual Abramović, regally clothed in a red dress evocative of the one worn during her famous 2010 Museum of Modern Art exhibition. She stands in a roped-off five-meter circle, making gestures, and at certain points throughout the 19-minute work, drifting in and out of the circle, dissolving into light that leaves a wandering shadow, as Hettie Judah chronicles in her review of the week-long performance for I News.

To create the experience, which is powered by participants’ wearable augmented reality headsets, a press release notes Abramović was recorded with a “volumetric capture” system that enables the depiction of an individual in three dimensions. As Todd Eckert, director of mixed reality technology collective Tin Drum, which produced the new show, elaborates in an interview with Business Insider’s Kif Leswing, the process required upward of 32 cameras and a series of highly “specific lighting attributes.” Once the team acquired enough raw footage, producers worked to transform the recordings into a graphic capable of being integrated with the real world via a pair of AR glasses.

While Abramović’s digital presence may be the show’s main focus, according to Dazed’s Lexi Manatakis, the environment otherwise looks fairly “normal.” In large part, this is due to the work's emphasis on immersion over the fantastical. As I News' Judah adds, “You can see fellow visitors, your body, the quality of light in the room.”

Speaking with Naomi Rea for artnet News, Eckert explains that's because the goal of the show is not to project a virtual object onto the real world—think of the AR seen in Pokémon Go, for example—but to present “virtual content as an authentic part of the real world.” In other words, The Life aims to make visitors feel as if Abramović is actually in the room with them, separated only by the specter of a thin rope.

The artist's 2010 MoMA blockbuster found her silently sitting across from visitors for hours at a time (Andrew Russeth via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0)

Abramović tells Rea that she felt the show's technology offered a tantalizing method of preserving her legacy. “The point is authenticity—getting closer to the audience than any other recording methods have allowed me to before," she says.

In that past, Abramović has used her physical presence to establish that intimacy. Writing for The New York Times, Holland Cotter highlights several of the artist’s most revolutionary works to do so: “Rhythm 0,” a 1974 piece, found her standing passively for six hours as audience members invited to freely interact with her body wielded objects ranging from a rose to a whip, a scalpel and a gun, while “Imponderabilia,” a 1977 collaboration with fellow performance artist Ulay, invited museum visitors to squeeze their way through a door framed on either side by the artists’ nude bodies. In 2010, she logged more than 700 hours sitting at a table in New York City’s Museum of Modern Art, silently staring at an individual seated across from her.

Not everyone is ready for this new direction. In a biting one-star review, Guardian’s Jonathan Jones opines the performance is lacking everything Abramović is loved and renowned for, particularly “relating to her audience directly and uneasily, looking them in the eye.”

Unfortunately, if you were hoping to judge the success of The Life for yourself, you’re out of luck. As the Serpentine Gallery’s website states, the free show, on view through February 24, is fully booked.

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