Two months before the opening of her first solo exhibition since 1975 in her native Belgrade, Marina Abramović published a letter to the Serbian people in the news weekly Nedeljnik. She professed her love for the city of Belgrade, explained the principles of her art, reached out to young people, and implored readers to be open to her work: “Without an audience, my art does not exist.”
“The Cleaner,” as the retrospective was titled, opened at Stockholm’s Moderna Museet in 2017 and concluded its tour of European institutions at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU) in Belgrade in January 2020. By Serbian standards, the exhibition was exceptionally well funded. The federal government supplied half a million dollars, equivalent to the state-run museum’s annual budget, to signal national pride in showcasing a native daughter as one of the world’s most important living artists. The generous support for the show elicited polemics in the local media and skepticism in the art scene. MSU reopened in 2017 after renovations that took a decade due to lack of funds, which means Abramović got the hometown retrospective that her contemporaries who live and work in Serbia could only dream of. Her return carried additional political weight because prime minister Ana Brnabić—an openly lesbian member of Serbia’s ruling center-right party—publicly invited the artist to bring “The Cleaner” to Belgrade. Brnabić is the right hand of president Aleksandar Vučić, whose nationalist policies and media censorship have prompted mass protests. To resist the encroachment of authoritarianism in the cultural sphere, artists protested the 2017 reopening of MSU wearing black-and-white masks with Vučić’s face. The conservative government’s control of the museum continues to provoke gossip and resentment.
This context intensified the fraught relationship Abramović has had with her homeland since her departure in 1975. In interviews she has repeatedly characterized Yugoslav socialism as artistically repressive and generally bleak—narratives that have been debunked by art historians and critics from the region, and that obscure her privileged origins as the child of powerful, politically active parents. At the 1997 Venice Biennale Abramović won the Golden Lion award for her performance and installation Balkan Baroque, presented in the central pavilion’s international group show. She had been invited to exhibit in the Yugoslav pavilion (then administered by Serbia and Montenegro), but her proposal was rejected in part because it did not adhere to the nationalist mood of the time. Abramović had been gone too long to be a representative. Furthermore, the explicit references to the genocidal violence of the Yugoslav Wars, the ethnic conflicts within and among the former constituent republics of Yugoslavia, made it too provocative for government support. Balkan Baroque has also been critiqued for exploiting negative ethnic stereotypes of the Balkans as an inherently violent backwater. The same charge was leveled even more aggressively at the video Balkan Erotic Epic (2005), which shows naked men fornicating with dirt, women in traditional dresses offering their bare breasts to the heavens while spreading their naked legs toward the earth, and men, also in traditional garb, flaunting erections.
As viewers entered MSU through a glass-walled antechamber, they heard the rapid blasts of machine guns. The audio work Sound Corridor (1971) had been presented at MSU before, in the 1972 exhibition “Young Artists, Young Critics ’71,” which featured works by Abramović and the other members of the group of six artists, an informal collective based at Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center (SKC): Zoran Popović, Raša Todosijević, Neša Paripović, Gergelj Urkom, and Era Milivojević. The year 1972 was an important one for Yugoslav performance art, as Scottish impresario Richard Demarco visited Belgrade and invited artists from the SKC to show their work in an exhibition called “Eight Yugoslav Artists” in Edinburgh in 1973. There, Abramović presented the first version of her work Rhythm 10, alongside pieces by Urkom and Todosijević, performed simultaneously. Kneeling on the floor, she stabbed the flesh between her fingers with a set of knives and used a tape recorder to capture and replay the sound of the cuts. “The Cleaner” included large black-and-white photographs of Abramović doing this performance at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rome in 1973, rather than at the Yugoslav group show in Edinburgh.
The Belgrade installation of Sound Corridor missed an opportunity to connect Abramović’s work to that of her contemporaries. But it was nevertheless a startling introduction to an exhibition with a haunting soundscape, evocative of melancholy, death, and nostalgic enchantment. Moving from the corridor of recorded gunfire into the lobby, one could hear Abramović’s screams from the video Freeing the Voice (1975) on the second floor. For that performance at the SKC, the artist lay on her back screaming for three hours, until she lost her voice. On the first floor, a large but quiet black-box installation featured video footage from The Artist Is Present (2010), the performance staged during her retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Opposite this installation stood Private Archaeology (1997–2015), a set of wooden cabinets holding a collection of sketches, collages, artifacts, and ephemera from Abramović’s archive, a deeply self-mythologizing installation that surprisingly did not include any reference to her SKC involvement. At the top of the stairs, large projections showed black-and-white footage of some of Abramović’s best-known works: Freeing the Voice, mentioned above; Freeing the Body (1976), in which she wrapped her head in a black scarf and danced for eight hours, until she collapsed; and several of her performances made in collaboration with German artist Ulay, including one where they slam their bodies together, and another where they sit opposite each other and scream. The volume of these videos was high, making a strenuous soundtrack for the viewing of Abramović’s early painting and sculpture, exhibited on the same floor, and the sounds echoed on the upper floors.
The striking soundscape on the third floor juxtaposed a Hungarian Romani folk song performed by singer Apollónia Kovács (used without credit in Balkan Baroque) with the angelic voices of children in Count on Us (2004). The latter work is an emotional one for local and diasporic viewers. The children wear black uniforms and stand against stunning red backgrounds that evoke Yugoslavia’s socialist, peaceful past. On two channels, projected on opposite screens, a boy and a girl sing ballads alone, while on a third channel projected between them, Abramović, with a skeleton on her back, directs a children’s choir in a performance of the United Nations anthem in Serbo-Croatian. In her essay for the traveling retrospective’s catalogue, art historian and curator Bojana Pejić notes Yugoslavia’s status as a founding member of the UN while also charting the nation’s denigration by the West as “the Balkans.” Her approach to Abramović’s work is generous but critical, with a strong implication that the artist perpetuates and exacerbates Western biases.
Abramović’s troubled relationship with her birthplace is expressed in what Pejić calls the “diasporic self,” a flexible identity that lets her assume different personas. This is most prominent in Balkan Baroque. The artist first appears in a white coat as a zoologist explaining how rats are tortured and trained to kill one another, a caricature of Western views of the Yugoslav Wars. At the end Abramović removes her lab coat, pulls a red scarf from her décolletage, and dances frantically to Kovács’s recording of the Romani folk song. Viewers familiar with these traditional dances could see that Abramović performs them clumsily, and conclude that, given her upbringing in an elite Yugoslav family (and her present affluent life in New York), she has never danced them among the lower classes of Southeastern Europe, who practice them as part of their culture. The awkward, messy, yet libidinal dance embodies the distressed connection to Balkan identity that makes Abramović’s return to Belgrade so potent and chaotic.
The museum’s top two floors hosted documentation of quieter works, such as The House with the Ocean View (2002), a durational performance for which Abramović lived and fasted in Sean Kelly gallery in New York for twelve days, and Seven Easy Pieces (2005), a series of reenactments of radical and painful performance works by other artists from the 1960s and ’70s at the Guggenheim Museum. “Transitory Objects for Human Use” (2015), on the top floor, invited visitors to rest on furniture made of wood and quartz. In these tranquil galleries, if not before, one felt that MSU had been transformed into a space of feminine vulnerability and pain, a rejoinder to the macho bravado associated with the Balkans and an expression of mourning for the loss of socialism. It is a paradoxical effect for an exhibition by an artist who has time and again proclaimed her antifeminist and anticommunist stances. Perhaps it is these contradictions that express Abramović’s remarkable singularity. In every inch of the museum, the artist is present—as the diasporic self, the one who left. She is never seen in the context of the Belgrade artists who were crucial to her training. It was no surprise that her letter to Serbia was addressed to the youth. Abramović looks forward to a new generation of artists who await her leadership.
What Abramović’s call to young artists misses is that many of them draw on the Yugoslav legacy of collective resistance rather than hagiographies of individual artists. From December 5 to March 1, the group exhibition “The Nineties: A Glossary of Migrations” was on view at the newly renovated May 25 Museum, part of the Museum of Yugoslavia (which holds Tito’s grave and artifacts from the Yugoslav period). It was a research-driven show about performance and protest, with works by nearly thirty artists, activists, and collectives. “The Nineties” was organized in conjunction with New Mappings of Europe, a joint undertaking by museums and institutions across the continent to present diverse accounts of migration to and from Europe: the stories of refugees, asylum seekers, guest workers, and other migrants fleeing climatic, economic, and political crises. “The Nineties” was structured around key terms related to migration, such as Law and Safe Land. It was a labyrinthine, crowded exhibition packed with moving narratives. It highlighted the violence of nationalism and neoliberal capitalism, while demonstrating the rich history of Yugoslav feminism and anti-fascist resistance.
Tanja Ostojić exhibited her piece Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000–05), a participatory web and performance project in which she advertised herself for marriage and found a husband. The documentation of the work, presented at the May 25 Museum in the Law section, consists of a large poster of the artist’s shaved and naked body and blown-up prints of her passport pages with various restricted German visas. Ostojić’s radical performance speaks directly to stereotypes of mail-order brides and the precarity of Yugoslav women in the 1990s, while exposing the EU’s discriminatory immigration processes, which stigmatize single women and make them dependent on men for mobility. The familiar passport pages carry a charge for viewers who escaped to Germany during the Yugoslav Wars but were deported back to Serbia after.
The section titled Dignity/Solidarity/Internationalism highlighted the important work of Belgrade-based feminist and activist collectives such as škart and Women in Black, as well as US-based digital-media artist Vesna Pavlović. Reproductions of drawings and texts from I Remember, a 1995 anthology of women’s art and writing, were shown along with photographs of actions staged by Women in Black, one of the first and most important anti-war groups of the 1990s, where they used posters and banners designed by škart. Some of those texts from the book are read aloud in a video by Pavlović featuring protagonists from Women in Black, each delivering heart-wrenching testimonies of loss, love, and pain. While this installation is about personal stories and loss, the core of the work is solidarity among women survivors and activists, whose focus on internationalism above ethnic difference was and remains essential to undermining patriarchal violence in Southeastern Europe.
The glossary of migrations also highlighted the struggle of other ethnic minorities in the region. Rena Rädle and Vladan Jeremić point out the racism against ethnic Roma in Serbia, as well as the EU’s continued discriminatory policies against Roma from the Balkans. The latter are deported en masse to countries like Serbia and Kosovo, which Germany deems “safe,” even though Roma face especially intense discrimination there. In an installation in the form of a makeshift house, Rädle and Jeremić—using wall drawings, texts, and videos—share their research into police violence and housing inequalities, revealing the EU’s deportation policies to be irresponsible and racist. Milena Maksimović’s installation One-Way Ticket (2004) examines Chinese immigration to Serbia in the 1990s. This population movement was spurred by Communist-solidarity propaganda that Slobodan Milošević and his wife, Mira Marković, based on political alliances rather than cultural unity. While images of Chinese immigrants working the markets in Belgrade, sleeping inside the booths where they work, and eating in segregated groups are indicative of the discrimination and exclusions such migrants have experienced for decades, they also point to ongoing economic upheaval and inequality in Belgrade.
While the spectacle (and budget) of Abramović’s long overdue return to Belgrade will overshadow “The Nineties,” these two exhibitions exemplified the vibrant if divided contemporary forces at play in the city. But if we are to take Abramović’s call for participation by the audience seriously, then we must face the ways in which art is validated through broad publics: not only by habitual viewers, but by the everyday communities that enable art scenes—and the stars that emerge from them—to thrive. Indebted to the type of performance work Abramović did in the 1970s, the artists featured in “The Nineties” favor larger frames of reference than the-self-and-the-body or even artistic experimentation in general. These artists and collectives look for points of political accountability, solidarity, and collaboration. Their future builds on their multinational and multiethnic past: the anti-fascist foundation of socialist Yugoslavia, desperately relevant then and now.
This article appears under the title “Solo and Ensemble” in the March 2020 issue, pp. 60–65.