The Most Astonishing Piece Of Conceptual Art In London’s Marina Abramović Exhibition Is In The Gift Shop

My mate Big Dai was in town and it was raining. We needed something to do other than what we normally do, which is either walk our dogs or sit in a pub. So we went to the Marina Abramović retrospective at the Royal Academy in London.

Abramović, as Guardian readers doubtless know, is the grandmother of performance art. Finding her terrifying, I wouldn’t characterise her thus if it wasn’t how she has referred to herself. Her stuff is, in my inexpert opinion, mad, brilliant, silly, absurd, wonderful, moving, ridiculous, frightening, baffling and so on. There aren’t enough words in my thesaurus.

Among the most unsettling exhibits was Rhythm 0. On display were slides depicting a performance of this work. She stands next to a table on which are arrayed items associated with pleasure and pain, from a metal spear and razor blades to some grapes and olive oil. To quote her original written instructions: “There are 72 objects on the table that one can use on me as desired … I am the object. During this period I take full responsibility.”

The audience started off rather tamely, shyly feeding her the odd grape, anointing her with a dab of oil. But before long, they set about harming her with some relish. Abramović’s conclusion was devastatingly concise: “The experience I drew from this work was that in your own performances you can go very far, but if you leave decisions to the public, you can be killed.” Noted.

By now, Big Dai and I were clinging on to each other for support. But things were about to get yet more stressful. To move from one of the rooms to the next, visitors were invited to pass through a doorway in which two naked models stood facing each other. The gap between them was extremely narrow. After some nervous shuffling around, Dai declared: “I’m going in,” in the tone and accent of a Swansea copper about to enter a pub to break up a brawl. I held his coat to afford him – and the poor models – a little more breathing space. And through he went.

My turn. I was gripped with shame, fear, embarrassment and lots more besides and all but chickened out. In the end I braved it, worried sick about brushing the models’ bits as I squeezed my bulk between them. But at the moment I was the filling in the sandwich, so to speak, it dawned on me that my biggest concern should have been how to avoid crushing some or all of their 20 toes beneath my size 12s. I didn’t. Relief.

Was this the meaning of it? Worrying about the wrong thing? Worrying about anything? As with each exhibit, I was a dog looking at a card trick – aware there was something clever going on without being sure what it was.

My most profound emotional response was still to come. In the giftshop, Abramović pint glasses were available, upon them instructions: With your hand (I mean, how else would you?), hold a glass of pure water … drink in small sips, etc. By now, I had given up trying to work out whether anything was daft, absurd, moving or whatever. I took two to the checkout, one for me and one for Big Dai – mementoes of our visit. The sales assistant tapped her till a couple of times, looked up at me, and asked: “Are you OK with the price?” I looked at the screen to see they were 35 (thirty-five!) quid. Each. All I could manage was a choking gasp and a blushing nod of assent.

It has since occurred to me that my face at that moment might well have been filmed in closeup for inclusion in a future Abramović work called, if I may suggest a title, Empty Glass Half Full. If this is so, I hereby give my consent. It would be my pleasure and privilege, well worth £70 of any art aficionado’s money.

Adrian Chiles is a broadcaster, writer and Guardian columnist

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