Undoubtedly one of the most iconic artists of the second half of the 20th century, Marina Abramović has produced an astonishing oeuvre by focusing on crossing the borders of physicality through bold and sometimes death threatening, ritual-based performances. Throughout the years, her fame raised to such an extent that she was featured in popular TV shows, became a sort of a fashion icon, an inspiration to the musicians such as Lady Gaga and Jay Z. The grandmother of performance art, a title she is often given for a reason, Abramović transcended from a legendary performance artist to a genuine pop phenomenon.
However, the main reason for her endorsement remains rooted in a compelling practice that shifted from abstract painting in the 1960s, sound installations and analytical works on paper, to pioneering performances and a love/collaboration oddity with the German artist Ulay during in 1970s and 1980s, some of the iconic durational works made in 1990s, to rootless commercialization throughout the 2000s.
Abramović’s iconic durational performance piece/exhibition called The Artist is Present at MoMA from 2010 was a milestone event in her career after which she became increasingly celebrated. Nevertheless, although the artist left her native country (then Yugoslavia, now Serbia) in the mid-1970s, years after she didn’t receive the required attention despite the fact some of the local art historians carefully tracked and thoroughly analyzed her oeuvre and progress.
Today, after more than forty years, the traveling European retrospective titled The Cleaner opened gracefully at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. Initially this exhibition was launched in 2017 at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm and has traveled to a few other cities since, but the Belgrade edition is of special importance for the local cultural context in which her last solo exhibition was on display in 1975 at the Salon of the same museum.
The Cleaner brought all the mentioned stages of her career to one place, in a cohesive but not very well mediated installment (something to be further expanded upon later in the text). After the press conference scheduled at 6.23 am, the time of the sunrise, the exhibition opened with huge excitement in an overcrowded museum.
Now, to better understand what Abramović ‘s practice is all about (a commonly asked question by many people due to a lack of mediation from the art institutions), it is mandatory to speak briefly about the context of the time. The momentous events for the generation of artists to which Abramović belongs were the student protests of 1968. This revolutionary reaction was primarily based on the ideas of feminism, pacifism and class struggle; the students demanded the freedom to express themselves, wanting to deconstruct the traditional canons and inherited social pattern and achieve sexual, racial, ethical, and political liberties.
Such an atmosphere reflected on visual art, especially giving wind to the rise of Conceptual art aimed to deconstruct the art institutions and the notion of artwork by proposing experimental and in some cases radical practices and working with new media such as installation, video and performance art.
Yugoslavia's student protests were furious, something which was perhaps unlikely in the Western (capitalist) countries based on a demand for a more righteous socialism, and shortly after the things settled the former students got a new institution called the Student Cultural Center, which quickly became a place of immense experimentation not only in the local but in international context with exhibitions, lectures, performances, concerts, etc. (some of the guest artists were Joseph Beuys and Gina Pane). In such a fruitful and expecting environment, Marina started producing her first sound pieces and during the early 1970s some of her first body performances.
Similarly to some other women present in other countries at the time like Valie Export (Austria), Rebecca Horn (Germany), or Yoko Ono (US), Abramović started using her own body as medium to explore various physical and mental boundaries, as well as the status of the female body in the male-dominated world . The unifying method was repetition – whether it was letting her voice out or screaming for hours, cutting herself, dancing in the rhythm of the drums, consuming different medicines at the same time, brushing her hair and other even more dangerous actions, Abramović worked with her body to transcend, contemplate, and deal with her frights.
Although the artist refused her practice to be categorized as feminist art, the spectrum of themes, regardless of her apparent yearning throughout the years to plunge fully in a ritualistic, and more shamanistic approach, indicate a definite focus on the female experience/body which is constantly looked over and judged by the society.
Many scholars wrote about the Abramović’s spiritual quest since she revisited various ancient practices of indigenous people (such as the Aborigines and Amazon tribes), and encompassed various aspects of the same, in what she later formed as The Abramović method. That implies that her body is no longer a matter of social or political implications, but rather a vehicle for transcendence or self-transformation.
The significant part of her practice is also the artist’s need to construct a myth of herself by reinterpreting certain aspect of her personal experience and presenting it differently. That is why Abramović started exploring her family (one consisting of highly ranked WW II Partisans), the local cultural heritage (local folklore), and the local history (the wars which took place on the Yugoslav territory).
Over one hundred artworks are positioned throughout the MOCAB, including her most important performances mostly presented in the form of video installations. On the ground floor, the visitors are welcomed with the installation box consisting of excerpts from the mentioned performance piece The Artist is Present and the reenactment of the famous 1976 six-hour performance Freeing the Body (throughout the exhibition this room will serve for the screening of the film program).
In a darkened atmosphere of the first floor primarily her early performances are on display such as Freeing The Voice, the Rhythm series, as well as a captivating selection of abstract paintings, analytic works, collages and sketches for sound and performances pieces made before the iconic performances focused solely on the artist’s body. Visitors are also able to see the works made in a collaboration with the German artist Ulay from their first public performance In Relation in Space from 1976 (the two ran into each other repeatedly for an hour), to the unforgettable performance 1988 Lovers (where they walked to meet each other from different points of the Great Wall of China).
The second floor features Abramović’s production from the 1990s with iconic durational pieces presented in a form of installations such as Balkan Baroque (1997), The Hero (2001), and Balkan Erotic Epic (2005).
The middle level features The House With The Ocean View alongside the documentation of Seven Easy Pieces (reenactments of famous performances by Gina Pane, Joseph Beuys, Bruce Nauman, etc.), and a few other works from the 2000s.
The third floor provides a nice insight into her recent production with far more engaging spiritual works such as Transitory Objects (1989-2015), The Chamber of Silence (2015), and Counting The Rice (2015).
Although the exhibition indeed includes all the major series and shows the full scope of Marina Abramović's practice, the impression is that it does not communicate well with the audience due to the lack of mediation. Namely, except the intro text positioned in front of the museum‘s main entrance, all the floors offer only separate explanations of the works leaving the observer clueless of the broader context of Abramović’s practice acting as if each visitor is already familiar with it.
Although The Cleaner was conceived by the curators Lena Essling (Moderna Museet), Tine Colstrup (Louisiana Museum of Modern Art) and Susanne Kleine (Bundeskunsthalle), the Belgrade edition was curated by Dejan Sretenović (MOCAB). The reasons for Abramović’s several decades' long absence from the Serbian context is quite complex and primarily has to do with the lack of finances for organizing such a grand and demanding retrospective. The artist expressed in several interviews that she is not particularly bound to Serbia, although she is attached to it as her place of birth, growing up and forming up the career which made her astoundingly famous.
Finally, despite all the possible and impossible obstacles, and few flows, The Cleaner is the most important exhibition not only for the local but the regional context. It shows Abramović’s artistic path without dealing with her media presence and an array of critiques the artist received for acting like a celebrity.
In other words, each visitor has a unique chance to explore, learn, and debate the artistic production of a leading contemporary artist, the one who unmistakably changed the way we see the limits of our body, mind, and soul.
Marina Abramović, The Cleaner will be on view at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade until 20 January 2020.
Featured images: Marina Abramović, The Cleaner, installation views, MOCAB Belgrade 2019. All images courtesy Widewalls.