Home Magazine Visiting Marina Abramovic's The Cleaner in Belgrade

The last time Marina Abramović had a solo exhibition in her homeland of Serbia was in 1975, when the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art lent its space in favor of her early works. Forty four years later, the most famous Serbian artist worldwide and “the grandmother of performance art” at large returns to Belgrade in what many on the local art scene describe as “a glorious return” and “an extravagant, eccentric show”. The Museum of Contemporary Art opened “The Cleaner” exhibition on September 21 in presence of the media, the members of the government (who was one of the show’s main funders), and the artist herself, who appeared to be very emotional about coming back to the place where it all began.

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If you are in Belgrade these days, chances are that you’ve seen the face of Marina Abramović everywhere you looked. From billboards and posters, newspaper front pages and tv screens, the artist is gazing at the audience in her red dress and wearing a side braid, the same way she did in her ground breaking MoMA show “The Artist is Present”. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade was closed for three months in preparation for this exhibition; the venue was symbolically the last stop of the traveling European retrospective, which had previously been shown at the Moderna Museet (Stockholm, Sweden), the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art (Humlebæk, Denmark), Henie Onstad Kunstsenter (Oslo, Norway), Bundeskunsthalle (Bonn, Germany), Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi (Florence, Italy) and the Centre of Contemporary Art “Znaki Czasu” (Toruń, Poland).



Returning to Belgrade

“You have no idea how emotional this is for me,” said Marina Abramović to the journalists at the press conference held in the early hours on the premises of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade. The artist has been to the Serbian capital many times since she left it in the 1970s to go to Amsterdam, but this time she is here on business. Her hometown is now finally hosting a solo exhibition of her works again, and the recently renovated MOCAB is the perfect place for that.

By her own admission, many people in her country, back when it was still Yugoslavia, did not understand her work. When she moved away, much of the Balkan spirit and the experiences from her upbringing stayed with her and was manifested through her work, primarily through exhausting, boundary-pushing, body-challenging performances which are now translated into video pieces. This is why now, in 2019, Abramović wants the younger audience to come to her show and be introduced to fifty years of her groundbreaking career. She will even hold a public lecture and a Master Class for young artists.



Marina Abramović - The Cleaner

Marina Abramović doesn’t like the word “retrospective”, because she doesn’t want people to think that she will stop making art, or die, once this traveling exhibition closes its doors in Belgrade. For her, this show justifies its title “The Cleaner” because it represents “the cleaning of the past and the memories,” but also of her entire oeuvre. Indeed, on view at The Museum of Contemporary Art is an expansive overview of a unique take on art that Abramović continues to offer, spanning from photographs, audios, videos, films, to paintings, drawings and objects as well.  

“The Cleaner” opens with what is most obviously Abramović’s most famous work - “The Artist is Present”. The exhibition of the same name held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2010 changed the course of her career, introducing her to an audience much wider than she could ever imagine, especially as a performance artist. Inside a black-walled space, the visitors can see fragments of her performance, Abramović on one side looking at the audience, and the audience looking back on the other. Outside this space, two chairs and a table are offered to the public, should they wish to reenact the performance themselves.

Speaking of participation, it is one of the important aspects of this exhibition. Continuing through, we see a nude female performer wearing a black scarf dancing, just like Abramović did in 1975 in her performance piece called “Freeing the Body”. This is only the first in a series of live performances held in practically every corner of the Museum, among others being the “Imponderabilia” from 1977 - in Bologna, Marina and Ulay used to stand at the museum door naked, looking at each other, while the visitors had to walk in between them in order to get to the other side.

On MOCAB’s upper floors, the journey carries on with the celebrated videos, first of Marina by herself - the “Rhythm” series (1973–4), the “Art Must Be Beautiful/Artist Must Be Beautiful” (1975) and “The Freeing Series” (Memory, Voice, Body, 1975). Through a series of photographs, we remember “Rhythm 5”, in which Marina frantically tried to hit the space between her fingers with a knife. On the level above, there are videos of her work with Ulay - the ‘AAA-AAA” from 1978, in which the artists scream at each other, or “Light/Dark” in which they take turns slapping each other. Unmissable is also the “House with The Ocean View” installed at the museum itself, which was famously referenced in “Sex and the City” TV show.

And while the works up until this point tell a more substantial segment of Abramović’s story in terms of her works that are perhaps more popular than others, what is certainly more interesting to the Serbian audience at this very moment is the work bearing historical references and directly quoting her life and experience while she was still living in the country. Here, we have the poignant “Balkan Baroque”, where an actual pile of bones is on display alongside the video presentation of Marina with her parents. The work was the artist’s response to the war in Bosnia, but it also encompasses a more personal narrative which she evokes herself in the central screen. “The Hero” sees Abramović sitting on a white horse holding a white flag; in the background one can hear the Yugoslav National Anthem, which is not in use anymore. In the vitrine in front of the screen where the video is played, we find artifacts from the lost country, old photographs, badges. In “Balkan Erotic Epic”, she digs deeper into the use of erotica in the Balkan culture.

What’s interesting about these pieces is that Abramović is finally showing them to the people that can understand them on a whole different level, compared to the public they were shown in countries like Sweden, Norway, Italy. With Belgrade, the artist is sharing the very experience on view, instead of just showing it, which is why this show holds such a special significance. Abramović takes a lot of pride in the way her art is rooted in these grounds and the events which took place here, and while to an international eye it all might be new, to us it is an artistic representation of a life lived, of a history learned.

In addition to this link between Abramović and Belgrade, the audience also has the opportunity to see her paintings and drawings, from the time she spent studying at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Belgrade in the early 1970s. These show the artist in a brand new, previously unseen light (at least in my case), showing a creative side that did not take, giving way to performance art instead. On view is a series of old Belgrade as well, in which Abramović painted the sky to give the scenery more openness. Her sketchbooks, notebooks and other artifacts from her student days can also be found, inside a glass vitrine in the middle of the room.

Perhaps those who are familiar with her work will not see anything new in this exhibition, and will only be reminded of some of the most iconic pieces of her art, but the prevailing impression seems to be that Abramović is coming back home to show her country that she made it in the big scary world. She is now a superstar in her own right, and the Serbs ought to not only finally be familiar with her work, but also be proud of her. 

"Marina Abramović, The Cleaner" is on display at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade until 20 January 2020.


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