Understanding Marina Abramovic

For a nation that takes immense pride in its famous sons and daughters, the Serbian public’s apparent disinterest in Marina Abramovic’s global success as an artist is an aberration.

Despite the fact that Abramovic is by far the most acclaimed living artist from the former Yugoslavia, the average Serb would probably not know her name. She is mostly absent from the Serbian press, there are no aircraft carrying her name (unlike in the case of tennis star Novak Djokovic), and, most shockingly for the Balkans, there are no heated discussions of her ethnic affiliation (like those sparked around any local celebrity from Nikola Tesla to Milla Jovovich).

To a large extent, that can be explained by the transgressive nature of Abramovic’s art that does not lend itself to easy appreciation or viewing.

From her early days at the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, SKC, in the late 1960s, Abramovic famously used her own body, often bloodied and nude, to convey her message, which has led to very polarised perceptions of her work and person both globally and locally. The power of her art makes her admired, feared, ridiculed and raged at.

The first perception of Abramovic is the one celebrated by the highest echelons of the art establishment. She is “the grandmother of performance art”, a trailblazer and martyr who made us see art differently through extraordinary physical and emotional exertions. She is praised by glitterati, ranging from Susan Sontag to Jay Z, for having bravely pushed the limits of art and body for almost half a century, and imbuing performances with almost mystical energy.

The other extreme is the more popular view which sees her as an almost demonic presence from Eastern Europe.

This came to the fore in one of the more bizarre episodes of the last US presidential campaign, when the right-wing part of the US public turned their sights on Abramovic after she invited Clinton’s presidential campaign manager, John Podesta, to a “spirit cooking” session. Drawing from her performance of the same name, the event was described in the sensationalist press as a Satanist feast on various human bodily fluids. Abramovic claims it was a much tamer affair involving traditional soups.

Somewhere in the middle is the satirical view of Abramovic and her art. A thinly-veiled jab at her in Sorrentino’s La Grande Bellezza included a bumbling artist with a penchant for self-harm whose mystique is eviscerated through pointed, logical questions from an intellectual world-wary protagonist.

Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade where Abramovic will have a retrospective in 2019

Essentially it depicts Abramovic as a silly attention-craving self-promoter who would balk at nothing to promote her vapid “art”, which is only really enjoyed either by the people who profit from it, or equally ridiculous art snobs.

Finally, there is the more local view of Abramovic as an exploiter of her roots. This is borne out of disdain for her depiction of Balkan culture which predominantly focuses on sexuality and violence and which is seen to pander to a negative image of this part of the world as essentially brutal and strange. These misgivings, as well as costs, were cited as the reason for withdrawal of Montenegrin state support for her powerful 1997 Venice Biennale-winning performance, Balkan Baroque, which involved Abramovic cleaning rotting meat from bovine bones, under a projector playing footage of her dancing and explaining a brutal way of killing rats in the Balkans.

The complexity of her public perception seems to be only exceeded by the complexity of her attitude to herself and life, which she reveals in her deliciously raw memoir Walk through Walls, published last November. She describes herself as a mix of a warrior trailblazer, an ascetic mystic drawn to the unknown and a deeply insecure person, obsessed by being wanted. The memoir plays with these facets, in what reads like an attempt to make sense of a turbulent life filled with the various ways in which Abramović tried to analyse love, death and self through her art. Unsurprisingly for an artist whose primary medium is her own self, the book has a very strong authorial voice which charts an extraordinary evolution from the painfully insecure young artist in Belgrade trying to push boundaries while living under practical house-arrest imposed by her domineering ex-Partisan mother, through her time wandering around Europe with her partner-lover in an old police van and, finally, to the celebrated artist who drew more than 800,000 visitors to her retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010.  Abramovic’s story alone is fascinating, but what makes the memoir a captivating read is that it does not balk at presenting missteps along the way, no matter how painful or embarrassing.

Breakdowns of her relationships with her loved ones are openly dissected, from a failed threesome, to her regret at refusing to make amends with an ailing parent.

Although there are allusions to occult, Abramovic thankfully avoids convoluted art-speak in describing motivations behind her work and even admits failures and self-obsession along the way.

For her detractors, the book also delivers. Parts of the memoir could easily be used for an Absolutely Fabulous-style satire of the contemporary art world. There are accounts of outlandish retreats in far-off locales, mystical powers, rooms dedicated to drinking water, and, of course, strange performances which variously included rolling around with snakes, copulating with the earth and touching various stones to sense their energy.

However, the fact that the memoir is in turns stunning, charming and ridiculous, shows its essential honesty about art and life.

In Serbia, the book made the news because of claims by Abramovic’s brother (who is presented in an unfavourable light in the memoir) that she misrepresented parts of her life for myth-making purposes. Some embellishments are obvious (e.g. she states that the old Yugoslav anthem she used in her work was banned in ex-Yugoslav states). Nevertheless, even in this myth-making, there is a strange authenticity as the reader can glimpse Abramovic’s propulsive personality that led her to perform feats from walking half of the Great Wall to sitting motionless for 736 hours in MoMA.

Abramovic’s portrayal of Belgrade will not earn her many fans in her native city, which she repeatedly describes as bleak and depressing. She mocks the local penchant for realist paintings, prudish attitudes to art and political influence in the art scene.

Nevertheless, Abramovic still acknowledges that her upbringing in socialist Yugoslavia shaped her art, especially by imbuing her with the belief that personal comfort should be sacrificed for an ideal.

With or without an Air Serbia plane bearing her name, in her memoir she stresses her strong connection to the city of her youth, to such an extent she even plans to organise one of her three funerals in Belgrade.

It is a shame that the city and country that are responsible for giving the world such a fascinating artist are not trying harder to help the wider public understand her unique worldview.

The least that we could do is to have Walk through Walls in Serbian, so that more of Serbia’s young artists understand the limits that they see around them were bulldozed over half a century ago by one determined young lady.

A version of this article appeared in Belgrade Insight and is available on Balkan Insight portal

Cover photo by Andrew Russeth

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