For many years I have followed the work of performance artist Marina Abramovic. The first work I saw was her video installation at Centre Pompidou – “Art must be beautiful, Artist must be beautiful”. At that moment, I was transfixed, as she was furiously combing her hair.
Abramovic’s performances are raw, intense and full of perseverance. Most of her live performance art is perishable. It only exists in that very moment. On her own or with Ulay, her ex-partner and collaborator, Abramovic creates a fascinating body of work. Her work culminated at MoMA’s retrospective exhibition – “The Artist Is Present”. In 2010, more than 750,000 people stood in line at MoMA for the chance to sit across from her.
They communicated with her nonverbally in an unprecedented durational performance that lasted more than 700 hours. The artist was present. Without taking a break, Marina Abramovic sat during the exhibition hours and had the poignant eye contact with the museum visitors. That interaction profoundly impacted the audience and the artist herself.
MoMA’s retrospective exhibition celebrated nearly 50 years of her groundbreaking performance art. She trained 35 performers to reenact her work so that her iconic performances were accessible to a larger audience. Her collaborators include also Jay-Z and Lady Gaga.
During one of her fascinating lectures in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to meet Marina Abramovic. At this time, I would like to introduce our talented guest contributor Andrej Vidovic, with the review of the Marina Abramovic’s lectures in the latest exhibition “The Cleaner.” The Cleaner is the first major European retrospective of Marina Abramović. The exhibition debuted in 2017 at the Moderna Museet, Sweden, and has subsequently traveled all over Europe. The Belgrade exhibition is the last stop, and it holds unique significance because of the artist’s return to her place of birth. Belgrade is where her career began, and where she last had a solo exhibition in 1975.
Thank you, Andrej, for a compelling read.
Marina Abramovic is Back in Belgrade
The scale and scope of global artistic stardom achieved by Belgrade-born Marina Abramović is something I truly became aware of on the 28th of September 2019. I sat Indian-style, along with a crowd of fellow well-wishers, in front of a massive stage where the world’s most revered performance artist was set to appear that evening.
“An artist must make time for the long periods of solitude– excerpt from Marina Abramović’s “An Artist’s Life Manifesto”
Solitude is extremely important
Away from home, away from the studio, away from family, away from friends”
This epiphany did not strike me because her reputation here was somehow privileged – quite the contrary.
Upon first receiving news of Marina’s major career retrospective “The Cleaner” arriving at Belgrade, two conflictual feelings battled it out inside me. One was of sheer joy. The second, that of caution. For the saying that “nobody is a prophet in his own land” applies to her the most.
Her lecture and exhibition were announced as “a homecoming.” Sadly, I knew better and disagreed strongly with that notion.
Complicated Relationship with Past
Here, in Serbia, she is often despised and almost exclusively misunderstood. For the sake of the author’s integrity, I have to say that I too once belonged in this camp of nay-sayers. Although, I never fiercely dislike her.
As I got to know her life story and her actions, her genesis, both as a person and as an artist, I gradually began to comprehend the vitality, honesty and the point of her art. Now, I write from a standpoint of a denier turned fan.
I also worried that a mob of fanatical Abramović-haters might sabotage and mar the one final opportunity that she had – now at 73 – to establish contact with her long-estranged home.
Instead, it turned out to be a wonderfully affirmative spectacle of remembrance and wiping the slate clean. Quite appropriate, bearing the exhibition’s title in mind.
European Retrospective – The Cleaner
Clad in what resembled a Catholic nun’s robe (fittingly, I thought!), Marina’s on stage arrival at dusk was met with a standing ovation of the 6,000-strong congregation of enthusiasts. I finally sensed some relief at this point as the mass was about to begin.
Confident, serene, and visibly happy to address Belgraders after decades of self-imposed exile, her monologue touched upon the question of vulnerability early on. In my book, that is the decisive leitmotif and driving force of all that she ever did.
Vulnerability and endurance.
She showed us her most intimate childhood photos on two huge video displays and hopped from one stage of her life and career to the next. At that moment, I recalled her 2016 autobiography and memoir “Walk Through Walls” which provided a turning point for my understanding of her.
What Defines Marina Abramovic
What defines Marina Abramović? How to “get” and even appreciate her radical, subversive art? What is its pivotal ingredient?
Quite simply: her life.
Of all the present-day artists I can think of, she is the one who lived her art and made art out of her life the most. The suffering, the sacrifice, the torment, the disappointments, the fearlessness, the heart-break, the life-threatening situations, the starting from scratch, the voyage into the unknown. Moreover, these were the elements that constitute the very heart and soul of what she is.
Without knowing her life, there is no understanding of her art. Regardless of your stance on Marina’s work, this authenticity and philosophy of living what you preach should – nay, must be given credit.
Marina’s Life and Impact on Art
Difficult parents coupled with the gravity of traditionally difficult society in a communist-era make a particularly flammable cocktail. Additionally, life in a van with Ulay presented no guarantees for anything. Problematic relations arose with fellow artists and local powers-that-be. Terrifying “Rhythm 0” and “Rest Energy”. Then, the on-foot voyage across the Great Wall of China; only to break up with her long-time partner and lover Ulay when they met half-way. Days of uneasy life and artistic coming of age in Amsterdam and Paris. Finally, Marina found validation in New York (for me, her true spiritual home).
There was no experience that was beneath her, no reality that was not worth exploring. This all matured in her latter-day works such as “Cleaning the House,” “Balkan Baroque” (for which she won a Golden Lion at Venice Biennale in 1997), and “Balkan Erotic Epic”. Subsequently, the unavoidable “The Artist is Present” followed and the fascination with Brazil’s shamans in “The Space in Between.”
Marina Abramovic’s Manifesto
Back to the lectures. At first, the entire congregation was asked to reenact the AAA-AAA performance and scream their hearts out. Later on, towards the finale, Marina asked us to “spread unconditional love” among ourselves through seven minutes of silent meditation and holding our hands on the shoulders of people next to us.
As she reads through her Manifesto (“an artist must never fall in love with another artist”) Marina makes a couple of remarks about the funeral being an equally important piece of work and artist’s final statement. I recalled her saying in an interview that her funeral will be held simultaneously at Belgrade, Amsterdam and New York. But, no one will know where the body will be buried.
Then, the mass ended. The cleansing was complete, the audience – and the artist – absolved of their sins.
Marina Abramović is alive and well. Therefore, I have no desire to contemplate her final artistic statement yet.
by Andrej Vidovic