I am writing in my Ljubljana home-prison which is perverted into my temporary oasis. Be it meaningfully or not, I have watched Homecoming, the film about Marina Abramović’s comeback to Belgrade, in the middle of researching films and videos about concentration camps. This essay is about being present here and now, there and nowhere, about presence in the regime of absence, and about the socializing art within anti-social reign of culture.
Ljubljana was the most western capital among six capitals of the former Yugoslavia’s republics. It used to be known by its alternative culture that—as showed over time—was neutralized into nothing more than Culture. Saying Culture I have in mind the “recognized” and explicitly visible art production that fits in the local nepotistic network. Nepotism of the powers that be is about blood over brotherhood. As we will see on the example I am writing about, genetics is the keyword of an attempt to unveil cultural oppression over art.
Mind the difference between art and culture. It is especially important in the Balkans. The brutally exclusiveness of the culture field (in terms of systemic erasure of rare non-aligned ones) is even more sad in these times of confinement—a scene of the emerging metamorphosis of the matrix. As far as I follow the situation in the rest of ex-Yugoslavia and its neighboring, there is the same symptom of cultural appropriation of art in all Balkan provinces, the appropriation that is otherwise typical for the West for a long time (if you are an artist, you are probably familiar with the crap called funds, calls, tenders, cultural contact points and partnerships).
While I am in the middle of a small but proud national culture (let’s not forget that culture is always tied to the nation-state paradigm) that does not even operate (public events have been banned for months), I want to talk about art and its need to escape from culture. After watching Homecoming you want to be in the mood that has nothing to do with culture.
Abramović’s hometown is the city of my student days and the city that I run away from during the 1999’s NATO bombing. The global reign of culture of destruction still causes a wish to escape; once again, the burning question is: Where to? An escape is a very physical gesture, as it is, first of all, an attempt to settle-in one’s bare life.
“It is incredible how fear is built into you, by your parents and others surrounding you,” says Abramović in the film intro; an important notion in these days of globalized fear in service of dispersed and technologically camouflaged authority. Her artistic path was determined by her decision to escape, and she actually run away from Belgrade to the West by train, hiding the decision to leave from her tough mother. Balkan mothers are often tenderly tough and it may be paradigmatic that breaking ties with them is a pure survival technique of their children. Rare individuals perform that breaking apart in a radical way; majority does not, as fear prevents them to take responsibility. Consequently, the epic Balkan Baroque situation, once embodied by Abramović in her performance with that title, literally perpetuates via genetics. The genetics is the core question when thinking about position of my blood and bones in today’s world; more precisely: the decision to cut genetical ties is crucial (besides other artistic/living techniques, which are not limited to the bodily rebellion within the biopolitical context).
There is a simple fact: in order to achieve high visibility, an author have to be immersed into western (global) cultural paradigm. Eastern kind of author usually has to move to the centre of Empire. Abramović moved to New York to finally, as she claims, put the performance art in the mainstream. I deeply understand such strategy, especially now, when I feel the balkanized variation of global oppression on my skin, once again. “Pakuj se i pali!,” as used to be said in Serbian slang (meaning Pack up and run!)—is, actually, the truest life strategy of an artist since always. So you go west to show them things from the bloody South that became bloody to the great extent thanks to the bloody western colonialism, performed around and around over time.
There are many epic associations that rise while projecting the picture of Balkan rooted art in the Western frame, from the horrific Jasenovac WW2 death camp based in Croatia, via legendary partisan march over the Igman mountain in Bosnia and Belgrade’s modern-conservative mainstream of socialism, to the present days of countless biennials and festivals. Yes, everything is interconnected, Abramović’s work also shows right that. And MoMA can be a public space, even. Not so much physically, more in a metaphysical way: the border between the artist who is present and the audience was abolished thanks to the gaze interaction that suggested that there are more than three dimensions. First three dimensions are a matter of curatorial management, the others are not.
Abramović’s comeback to Belgrade is simultaneously public and private. Both The Cleaner, exhibition in Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, and Homecoming are loosening the border between privacy and publicity.
The artistic answer to “Should I stay or should I go?” is always: go! Move, walk, run, but first of all: introduce yourself with yourself; Abramović’s works are introspective in that way; they are not political in sense of rebellious criticism of a regime or so; they may be perceived as political only when we are immersed in the suffering they radiate to, perhaps, give us a clue about (universal) causes and consequences; that suffering somehow recalls the ancient hellenic pathos.
In the film she claims that the performance art is only possible with audience, which may further mean, when we talk about such specific work, that the audience paradigm is actually abolished—if you are immersed in a work, you are certainly not an observer. Seven minute meditation of the young crowd at Abramović’s public outdoor lecture at Ušće site (the word in Serbian means the confluence of two rivers) in Belgrade (during the exhibition in museum situated right near) is rather a socializing than an artistic gesture: touch and feel your neighbor, the nearest person in the crowd, close your eyes and give unconditional love. Yes, it is pathetic and no, it is not. It is both. It is confluent. Being in situ we are just there, alone not alone, both big and small. The situation recalls the song Imagine, it is art-not-art, it is beauty and certainty of gathered bodies who are only being(s). The constellation speaks leave me be (isn’t that one of artist’s overall messages?) and let it be; performing this group meditation is crucial part of artist’s appearance in Belgrade, as it actively turns the factual museum’s exhibition into a live event, but also relativizes the meaning of exhibiting; I like to believe that the meditation is a move away from representing towards being.
In the meantime (months after the exhibition) radically changed world introduced limitation of tactility. Mind the fact that the human touch is right now being aggressively removed from our habitual practice. Most of us are contributing to that restriction. As regards the performance art, it may be transposed through video and web, it may be totally cybernetic, too, yet its tactile attribute cannot be abolished without consequences.
The tactile expression of street riots is traditionally prosecuted in accordance to law, as our “democracies” pretend they do not accept violence. However, the tactility of a street performance is of a vital importance. We are getting together when preserving our universal (not same as legal) rights. But a genius-artist inventor often has no one to get together with, though has a power of gesture, voice, statement, presence and affectional influence.
Abramović’s work emerges from a surrounding that prosecutes expression which question a regulated normative. Being expressive on a level of intimacy and not so much on a level of verbal declaring, she bypassed prosecutions that targeted artists who dared to openly criticize the system. Psychology of the self is being popular in the West for some time, especially since 1968 onwards, and is now more and more globalized. Psychology of the self vs. psychology of the mass: what can we learn when comparing artist’s exposing to the burning five-pointed star in Rhythm 5 and the meditative ritual on Ušće? How the psychology of the self relates to the psychology of the mass? How do we face the contemporary corporative totalitarianism as individuals confined in our homes, as an abstract mass of consumers, workers, bots, and as embodied rebellions? Do we remember or do we at all have experience of protesting, collectivism, solidarity?
Breath in and touch your neighbor; breath out; repeat; dance; scream; cry; laugh.
What is home? For a nomad artist, which every artist is at some point, it is for sure not something fixated. But can a home be a fluid thing, a matter of permanent metamorphosis? The former Abramović’s Belgrade apartment is not her home any more, but it still has elements of a home, as we can see in the film. Facing one’s past is always related to memories from one’s previous homes. The inevitably emotional artist’s encounter with her former flat associates to relativity of our settlements; as we move away, we leave things behind, not only material stuff; however, leaving things behind allows for regeneration. The Artist is Present would not be possible without artist’s absence that actually begun with the absence from that very flat.
Escaping a context that we are integrated in is not only a part of survival tactics, but also an urgent step toward empowering our presence. Escaping is an expression of the desire to break with genetically backgrounded psychology of a community we (decide to not) belong to any more. Running away is a part of the process of defining our presence in the world based on fear that nurtures the need to run away in order to get rid of the fear.
Artificiality of the urban world is contrasted with the world’s rhizomatous scope which is not alienated from what we call nature or natural forces. Abramović is keeping in touch with these forces from the beginning of her path: blood, fire, water and, for instance, trees are mediums and referential matters of her work and, since recently, the work of young performers she is working with. Using these non-artificialities for the sake of art somehow opens up a perspective that is way different from the showcasing one; the film affirms that perspective, too. Footage of the workshops of youngster performers leaves an impression of socializing through re-performing (they claim it is not about reenacting) of Abramović and Ulay’s works; it is about a certain spreading of the lone and auto-reflective performers’ inner world via social ties that may be felt as a rhizome kind of structure; they are not untouched by the context of the art field (production, representation, neutralization, culturalization), yet they are exploring a communitarian dimension; it seems that the communitarian perspective of “Marina’s children” goes beyond the bare heritage-preserving dimension; isn’t this step toward youngsters, their involvement in artist’s (roughly said, pedagogical) activity, actually a reflection of an effort to cut personal genetical ties precisely by applying their symbolic within the work of the group? if so, that would also mean a manifestation of artist’s decision to relativize gravity of her own portfolio by allowing playing with it (hopefully not in terms of theatre reprises), which, furthermore, may allude to understanding of an artwork in context of life’s uncertainty and human mortality.
Film’s simplicity goes hand in hand with Abramović’s persistently reduced expression. The foundation is narrator’s voice and it is meaningful that Marina herself narrates; the sound designed by Petar Antonović allows for certain development of watching ambience. Film director and screenwriter Boris Miljković is appearing together with Marina while they travel Belgrade streets sitting in a car’s back seat. That personalization is, again, alluding to temporariness, as they drive around as if they were passengers in their own city. The film as a medium (not only this one) is a passenger; something like now or never can be felt while watching; pictures of packing up, unpacking and transporting exhibition items from one museum to another are confirming that everything is in a moving mode, that it is all about beginnings and endings, liveliness and mortality, showing and hiding.
The storytelling is balanced through contemplative editing mode realized by Nikola Purić, yet the audiovisual reflection of artist’s revival in Belgrade seems strongest in those parts of the film where the story is less frontal; director’s decision to let the facts talk extensively makes sense, whether we prefer such approach or not; interestingly, director of photography Andreja Leko underlines some off-motifs and in such way stresses the contemplative mood; the entirety is kept tidy and is therefore easily co-related with The Cleaner.
What do we emigrants feel about our Belgrade?, one may ask oneself after watching. It was there before everything that we created in our new lives, and it is there after all, with its big contrasts, being both provincial and metropolitan. That city is our emotional reference, like in Abramović’s case; it is in foundation of our personalities; it makes us nervous; it is a place that is best when you immerse in its psychedelic dimension; its surreality is in its misery, its inclusiveness is wrapped in its exclusiveness. They say the city is where East meets West, yet it is rather a negation or dilution of both categories. You may be living there wishing to leave as soon as possible, and you go back as soon as you wish to be a tourist in your former city for a while. Belgrade is temporariness, it is temporary permanent; heavy, yet light as feather; dangerously innocent; “Beograde, Beograde, na ušću dveju reka ispod Avale / sa nama i u nama živiš ti,” are verses of the city anthem (Belgrade, Belgrade, at the confluence of two rivers below Avala / you live with us and in us); simple as that, simple as artist’s emotional burden that is, luckily, diluted in her nomadism and latest cooperations, and, fortunately, stressed and expressed in her performances.
“No fixed living-place,” is the first statement of the Ulay and Abramović’s Art Vital manifesto. Search for a home is actually all about moving, about being flexible enough not only to survive, but to expand while doing what your desire deserves. Thinking about Homecoming, Belgrade, New York, and my Ljubljana-after-Belgrade experience, I am concluding with only possible and undoubtedly absurd statement at this very moment of confinement without borders: We are escaping to come back to runaway again, and again, and again… Art is all about escaping; certainly a matter of duration, it is about breaking apart our genetic chain, or, if you prefer Balkan folklore word—our curse.