Working in the region of the Former Yugoslavia for the past 15 years, I had heard of Marina Abramović, but never had the opportunity to see her work. But little could prepare me for the extent of both my pleasure and disappointment when I finally went to see the exhibition mounted by MoMA in spring of 2010. For many of us doing research in the region, in the wake of the violence and devastation of the 1990s, Abramović represented a different version of Yugoslavia: cosmopolitan, a place of artistic innovation and experimentation rather than extreme nationalism, civil war, and genocide. The country that produced Abramović was one of great complexity, a place which had long been seen as central to progressive global projects that imagined other ways of being in the world. And in that context, Abramović created new, if provisional, spaces that challenged taken-for-granted categories of human meaning and visual representation.
Yet in the wake of the violence of the 1990s, the narratives both in and about the former Yugoslavia had become claustrophobic, a story of essential ethnic hatreds that had bubbled up with the fall of European communism. The narrative when deployed by international media and policymakers masked a host of conditions and causes of violence in the region, as well as a long history of interethnic co-existence. But perhaps more importantly, the available narratives or frameworks for understanding the wars of the 1990s, especially in Serbia where I conducted my research, were also increasingly routinized and predictable. Reduced to either tropes of victimhood or rituals of forgetting, the available narratives for making sense of Yugoslavia’s dissolution became increasingly locked into place, rarely troubled by experiments in thinking otherwise about violence, responsibility, ethics of remembering pasts or imagining futures. It was in this context that I wondered whether Abramović, with her ability to sidestep the taken-for-granted in human communication and meaning-making, might open up some space that had seemed closed for too long.
The exhibit itself was divided up into several rooms, roughly chronologically ordered. Of course the centerpiece was a new piece, about which much has already been written: The Artist is Present, in which Abramović sat trancelike and unmoving for hours on end. A steady stream of supplicants had arranged themselves around her the morning that I was there. A handful of brave souls actually approached her, sitting for varying lengths at a chair placed opposite the artist. Some were quiet and contemplative, others anxious and squirming, but all of them seemed very small, and very human next to this monument of discipline and holy impassivity. I experienced The Artist is Present much like I experienced many of the works in the exhibit. The space between the artist and the viewer seemed vast and impossible to cross. Her concentration was unbreakable, she didn’t flinch or sweat, or remotely acknowledge the crowds that thronged her. And yet people kept coming, and sitting, seeking something. The space between her and her supplicants seemed charged with desire, a longing for connection, for human response, for acknowledgement that would never come.
I was deeply moved by that space of proximity and distance and the unrealizable longing for connection that it invited. That promise of connection that never comes struck me as both tragic and true. In piece after piece, Abramović seemed to invite intimacy while ultimately staying just out of reach. The price of engagement with her work was often witnessing her own suffering. For example in a video of her 1975 Freeing the Voice, Abramović screams until she passes out. As painful as it was to watch, it was also impossible to stop watching. Somewhere in that intense pain there just might be meaning. I wanted her to suffer, to see how far she could take it. But I also wanted her to communicate, to redeem that suffering. The twinned, or intertwined humanity and cruelty of those desires was shocking.
This interplay of complicity, desire, and the refusal of redemption appeared throughout many of the pieces in the exhibit. For example, one narrow passageway between two rooms in the exhibit was flanked by two naked bodies, one male, one female, through which attendees had to squeeze to pass to the next part of the exhibition. As I squeezed through the bodies I accidentally stepped on the bare toes of one of the artists. My body went warm, and I flooded with guilt. Had I hurt her? Did it matter? Was she not there to be stepped on, to be used, in some way, to provide passage? They were there for my consumption and observation, no doubt. And yet in confronting them, becoming part of the show, there was no way I wasn’t going to step on someone’s toes. Connectivity and objectification were inseparable. Under those conditions it became very hard to avoid the ethical dilemmas of being a spectator.
Given the deftness of these pieces, I was surprised that someone so attuned to the ethics of watching and the limits and utopias of communicative acts would fail so epically just when I expected (and needed) her to come through most. As I entered the final room of the exhibit, a series of later pieces from the 1990s, I was confronted with a large pile of bones. This was the remains of Abramovic’s famous piece, Balkan Baroque, from the 1997 Venice Biennale. Above the bones was a video of Abramović standing ramrod straight in a white labcoat that hung to her knees. To the sides were video recordings of interviews with her parents. As the piece unfolded Abramović shrugged out of the coat to reveal a slinky, sleazy shift. She proceeded to dance, erotic and obscene movements framing the pile of bones below.
The piece would be disturbing, if it were not all too familiar as a visual and discursive trope I encountered many times in Serbia over the last 15 years. The image of the Balkan carnivalesque, at once brutal and seductive, violent and pathetic, is a commonplace in films, literature and even everyday conversation. It is a narrative that invites fascination and repulsion, but allows no space for connection with an audience, even under the guise of complicity. The story goes something along the lines of (as directed to a foreigner): there is something wrong with us, something dark, and violent and backwards about our mentality. We are victims of our own selves, and a world that can’t ever understand us. It says: we are fascinating surely, and you may even find it sparks desire. But don’t try to understand us (we barely understand ourselves). It implies: Simply watch our self-destruction and enjoy. The myth of Balkan (and here particularly) Serbian backwardness and barbarism on the one hand and victimhood on the other is perfectly crystallized in Balkan Baroque. It is a self-pitying narrative that somehow revels in degradation without ever really dealing with the violence to which it is putatively addressed. The grotesque becomes a kind of excuse-making, a pleasure in self-hatred that in the end only really focuses the viewer back on the subject without shedding any real light on the pile of bones that lies before it.
In the original piece Abramović sat in the Venice heat cleaning the bones, amid blood and stench. And yet with the video that framed it, the meaning of the impossible and bloody task seems to focus attention back on her suffering, the artist’s inability to express or comprehend the enormity of the crimes at hand. The piece stands in poignant contrast to Cleaning the Mirror, from 1995. Here Abramović gently, lovingly, and meticulously cleans a skeleton for hours on end. Only the hands are visible. The piece reveals an ethics of care that draws the viewer into the rhythms and intimacies of a nameless grief. The washing of the skeleton was performed in 1995, the same year the war in Bosnia ended, a war in which Serbian paramilitary groups committed grisly acts of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Bosnian Muslim population, leaving behind mass graves dotting the countryside. The anonymous skeleton, the rigorous cleaning and sterile white background call to mind the teams of forensic scientists who uncovered these mass graves of unidentified dead. To them fell the dirty work of sorting and cleaning bones, an army of scientists to take charge of acts of ritual morning, in the absence of family members dead or otherwise departed.
What is powerful about this piece, as opposed to Balkan Baroque, is that it resists an easy narrative in favor of an intimate action, one that unfolds over time, forging a connection between viewer, artist, and distant dead through unceasing, unsparing and unsentimental motion. It is not a false apology or a master narrative. It is an act of care (and an ethics of viewing, if not necessarily witnessing) that never ends. The piece holds out neither apology nor any real chance of redemption. Its subject is an impossible purification, rather than the elaborate victimhood of a guilty conscience. In refusing a narrative in this piece, unlike the easy tropes of Balkan barbarism, backwardness and obscenity, Abramović comes closest to something that few have achieved, a kind of ethical truth that might forge links rather than refuse responsibility. She offers the possibility for a space filled with some other kind of meaning, some other way of being, inconceivable perhaps in the present, but not impossible.
Jessica Greenberg is a cultural anthropologist who teaches in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. She is an expert on Serbia who has conducted extensive research on student activism in post-revolutionary Belgrade.
Tags: Chicago Humanities Festival, Serbian Performance Artist Marina Abramovic, Yugoslavia, Jessica Greenberg, Northwestern University, Former Yugoslavia, Freeing the Voice, The Artist is Present, Balkan Barogue, Cleaning the Mirror, War in Bosnia, Post-revolutionary Belgrade