For six hours a day over four consecutive days, in a dank basement in the heat of the summer, Marina Abramovic sat atop a massive pile of raw cow bones, laboriously scrubbing each one clean with a brush and a bucket of soapy water. Projected images of her parents framed her, reflected in copper bowls of water below, and a video showed the artist explaining how trapped rats will kill one another in order to survive. As Abramovic scrubbed, she sang Yugoslav folk tunes, and her white smock became soiled with dirt, blood, and flesh.
Performed at the 1997 Venice Biennale, Balkan Baroque won its top award, the Golden Lion. A public ritual, an act of mourning for the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, it was a visceral and grotesque affair: the overwhelming stench of the maggot-infested bones that increased over the course of the performance, the enormous presence of death and the need to grieve, and the absence of the violence to which the mass grave referred. In making no specific political statements, no attacks on nor claims to identity, the piece contained aspects of both victim and perpetrator, with no firm boundary between the two.
Abramovic is widely regarded as the godmother of performance art, and her reputation is towering.
Since the 1970s, she has been making work that deals with ceremony, spirituality, discipline, trust, witnessing, and the limits of the human body. She is also a woman of my mother’s generation who speaks the idiosyncratic dialect of the immigrant community I grew up in.
Abramovic emigrated from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in 1976—first to Amsterdam and later to New York. Despite her purposeful distancing from her homeland, her roots are consistently expressed in both her work ethic and subject matter. Balkan culture rests on a bedrock of sacrifice, stoicism, and struggle that predates the socialist era, and it was upon this bedrock that Josip Broz Tito and his Partisans engineered an astounding underdog resistance in defeating the Axis occupation to establish the SFRY, in 1945. A year later, Abramovic was born to two national heroes of Montenegrin origin who fought alongside Tito.
Five decades later, Balkan Baroque was performed during a time of precarious peace in the region: it hadn’t yet been two calendar years since the December 1995 signing of the Dayton Accords, which officially ended the war in Bosnia, one chapter of the Yugoslav Wars. However, violence broke out once more, in 1998, in Kosovo. Two decades after these events, it still feels too soon to talk about reckoning and reconciliation.
Balkan Baroque was a macabre homecoming: Abramovic had not made work directly related to the region since she’d left. For me, it is a deeply personal depiction of my conflicted feelings about the destruction of Yugoslavia, which is also my ancestral homeland. I have spent the better part of a decade fascinated by the work’s intricacies and by its proposal that embodied ritual might help to heal the scars of collectively shared violence. This piece is emblematic of her body of work: it is a universal proposition, a therapeutic act that calls both performer and witness to presence.
I got the chance to speak with Abramovic on the phone about Balkan Baroque, Yugonostalgia, and historical and ancestral pain, but she thought my focus on the past was nostalgic in the pejorative sense, and found my questions about belonging excessive. Instead, she acted like the spiritual matron that she is, and pointed me in the direction of the stars, toward our cosmic DNA, into the now.
THE BELIEVER: [In Serbian] Hello!
MARINA ABRAMOVIC: [Interrupting] It’s possible to speak English? Because I left my country forty years ago.
BLVR: [Laughing] Of course! [In Serbian] I wasn’t sure… [In English] Sorry, of course, of course!
MA: But where you was born?
BLVR: I was born in Canada.
MA: So you actually are the first generation, or—your parents were born also in Canada?
BLVR: My parents were both born in Belgrade. They left in the late ’60s, early ’70s, similar to you. So I have this broken narrative, the pervasive nostalgia for Tito’s Yugoslavia, which I’ve never been to.
MA: Don’t have nostalgia. Don’t ever look the past. We only have to live in present and for future.
I hate to look in past, because it’s very common for Slavic people to always complain and be so nostalgic about past and how it was wonderful and how everything is shit now, which is the completely wrong perspective. If we look at the past, we can never live the life properly.
So this is why, when I left, I really cut all the lines. This Slav thing, like [when locals say], “Jadransko more [the Adriatic Sea] is the best sea in the world”—it’s not true! Thai sea is better. “Our food is the best food,” you know, all these things—it’s so Slavic. Then they leave the country, and then they create Slavic community everywhere they go, you know?
That’s really kind of a nostalgic syndrome, you know, and then you don’t—especially if you’re an artist—you grow up there with restrictions, then you come somewhere else and there’s no restrictions and you become kind of lost because you don’t know how to deal with freedom.
BLVR: I think it has so much to do not actually with the war itself and how it happened, but with the memory of it, or the forgetting about it, rather.
MA: But I didn’t see any war myself, because I’m born 1946. I’m born just after the war. Tito was very much alive.
BLVR: I mean the wars in the 1990s. All of a sudden it’s a trend to be full of Titonostalgia and Yugonostalgia.
MA: I never saw this war, either. I mean, I never saw any war in my life. Like, ever.
BLVR: Well, that’s part of what I’m trying to understand: how can things like a war exist within individuals even if that individual has not experienced it? A war, a genocide, something collectively experienced by a whole identified group, even if you were not a combatant, even if you’re not geographically near the place where it’s happening. For me, I feel like I have experienced a thing that I know I haven’t actually experienced, because these wars have colored my whole life. And how can I uncover what that’s really about? And what to do about it? It always seemed like a totally unanswerable question, but when I found Balkan Baroque, I was struck by how you seemed to be asking similar questions. For you, was the idea behind the performance a personal processing of the war?
MA: No, this, first of all, when it came, this war, I felt deep shame. Over the night, the Serbs was bad guys and there was genocide and there was killing and there was all this stuff. Then so many artists immediately react on that, international artists, and I could not. It was too close to me and I have to find the right key, how I can approach this problem.
The right key for me was that I was invited to participate in Venice Biennale to represent Yugoslavia—then Serbia and Montenegro [Serbia and Montenegro were the last constituent republics of Yugoslavia to remain in the federation after the Yugsolav Wars; however, Yugoslavia as a name wasn’t shed until 2003]—and this invitation came on my birthday: I was fifty. I was very happy to accept it.
But then I proposed the project, the Balkan Baroque, and the minister of culture [of Montenegro] was strongly throwing me out. Not only me, but also the curator who proposed me, saying, “This is terrible. This is not art. This smells so bad. This was shame to show this kind of work,” that in our country there was much better artists. He shit on me in the newspapers, all over the place. I got so angry. You know, I’ve got Montenegro pride. I got so offended that I was not a part of this culture anymore.
And the director of the Biennale, the international section, said, “I have the space for you. Unfortunately, it’s so late, I only have basement in the main pavilion.” And I said, “This is the best space,” because the worst is the best, in my point of view. So I got the space and I win the Golden Lion. Minister of culture had to resign, basically, because of me.
MA: How I approached this piece was very simple: I looked into my own simple family structure. My mother and father were both Partisans, national heroes, fighting the people’s fight. I saw my father’s complete disappointment with what happened with communism afterward. My mother never fit into the communist years, actually, since she was always bourgeois. My mother is from very rich family, and father from very poor. My father was true communist who was already in prison in the ’30s for his communism; my mother was intellectual communist.
So when the war stops and I was born, I had a piano teacher, a French teacher, an English teacher. We had maids in the house. I never been doing anything at home; I’ve just been reading books and looking at theaters and movies, listening to music. This is my upbringing.
And then I spent most of the time with my grandmother who hated communism completely and was absolutely religious [Serbian Orthodox]. So there was a strange combination: the religion aspect, the social, the political. When I think about that piece, I was thinking, OK, I’m going to interview my mother, my father, and I interviewed the man who catch rats for thirty-six years of his life. And the man told me the story—you know the story of the rats?
BLVR: Yes, yes.
MA: The wolf rat.1 So that story actually became for me the answer. How is it possible for people to start killing their neighbors that they live their whole lives beside? I was always interested in the larger picture. This is just one example. But this war, you know, comes and goes. Yes, this one is related to me; yes, it’s about our country—but there are wars everywhere. My question is much more important: Why should killers have to kill, in general? It was interesting to me to create an unintelligible image of the washing bowls that can be used anywhere. We can put this image in Syria, we can put it in Afghanistan, in Iraq, Iran, wherever the war is. I just take this as example and create much larger question.
BLVR: All of your work interweaves the spiritual realm with the artistic realm. I wonder if you were also making a statement about the role of rituals in processing loss, grief, and collectively
MA: My work is full of this kind of stuff. It’s very global because I look at the other cultures. I travel all the time. You can’t place me, even if I come from what you call ex-Yugoslavia—because I don’t want to be from Serbia and Montenegro [Montenegro declared independence in 2006, and these are now two separate countries]. Because when I left, it was one country, and now it’s not one country, so I know this country in my mind only.
I don’t belong there 100 percent, because I really have this view that entire planet is my studio and I work and I get ideas from everywhere. I’m really against this nostalgia of, you know, this kind of Slavic soul, Slavic culture, Slavic, you know, drinking and singing songs and crying. The whole thing.
I mean, for me, I take it all as inspiration, but right now what I’m interested in in my work is so removed from that. I’m interested in community events, which are actually healing communities, and really on the planetary level, not just talking about one country.
Even if I’m born in ex-Yugoslavia, I don’t feel like a Slavic artist. Even if I live in Holland for thirty-five years, I’m not Dutch. I work in Germany, I’m not German. I’m now in America, I have green card, and I will never take passport. I never care if I touch passport. I don’t belong to any of this. I love to have this kind of freedom. I see myself as a modern nomad, that’s it.
So it’s very difficult to make interview with me, because you have certain ideas how to place this nostalgia, which I’m actually terribly against. [Laughs]
BLVR: But it’s interesting, because for me, growing up as the first generation born in a new country, I never identified with it. I was always identifying with this other place that actually didn’t exist anymore.
MA: But why you identify with that if it don’t exist? Why you don’t just actually accept the present? You know, this is the question: we lose so much time in looking to the past that we forget to live the present.
BLVR: Right, but there’s a very human inclination toward identification, no? We want to find where we belong and what is home. It’s also a spiritual question.
MA: But if I tell you, where we belong is such a larger question. We have galactic DNA. We belong to the stars. So much farther than the planet and so much farther than that one little country somewhere. You know, I always believed that one question you have to answer yourself is… Where do you live now—in Canada?
BLVR: No, I live in New York.
MA: OK. Can you do me a favor? I give you one present, now, that you have to do.
MA: But you promise me you are going to do?
MA: OK. You are going to go—don’t go on the weekend, because there’s too much crowd, but like Monday, Tuesday—go to the [American] Museum of Natural History. There is the observatorium [planetarium], which is made mostly for the kids. So you go there and they have different programs: one is about dark matter, one is about Milky Way. Go there, sit on this very comfortable seats, and the entire ceiling opens in a kind of, you know, the idea of the cosmic.
Then you have, like, a George Clooney or whoever voice coming in: And now this is our Planet Earth. And then you see this dot in the center of the Milky Way. We are like in a New Jersey of Milky Way; we are completely outskirts, suburbs, tiny little dot, can you imagine? And now you’re talking about, you know, my belonging, where I come from. This is invisible.
We have to see that we’re coming from this planet, this incredible magic place. My origins are galactic. I am more interested to see in that way. And to me it’s so incredibly narrowing to thinking about, you know, whether I’m coming from Slavic. When you go to the museum, you don’t even see that any country exists. It’s just a tiny little dot, which is the planet.
BLVR: That’s a great assignment.
MA: So you promise to go there?
BLVR: I do. I do.
MA: And then in your text can you also mention that I sent you there? But also you have to write your own report. How you felt. This is your homework from Dr. Abramovic.
BLVR: OK! Great!
MA: This is the question, this is exactly the question where we belong to, you know, and this is the perfect answer to where we belong to too.
BLVR: I used to actually really love going to the planetarium when I was younger. I haven’t been in, I don’t know, twenty years.
MA: We forgot to be child again. We forgot to see in the new way with the eyes, the world. You have to build your own new world.
BLVR: I think that’s an interesting segue to return to Balkan Baroque. One thing I haven’t been able to find anywhere in all the material that I’ve read about it is: What were the songs you were singing while cleaning the bones?
MA: I was singing very old childhood songs that I remember, folk songs. One song is—it’s one my grandma was singing; I don’t know the name but I know the words—it’s “Ajde, Kato. Ajde, zlato. Ajde sa mnom celer brati. Ne mogu ti, gospodine, nema sjajne mesecine” [Come along, Kata. Come along, my dear. Come pick celery with me. I can’t, sir, there isn’t a large moon]. This is one song I repeat all the time. [Repeats words, singing] This is one.
And then another one [singing], “Čamac vodi sat, ti si mene ništa ni si, al te jošuvek volim ja.” “The boat is floating on the River Tisza, but you are not next to me, but I always love you.” This kind of stuff, you know? Very little songs that my grandmother sang from memory. “Kad smo stali kod poznato stablo,” “When we stop next to the white tree, the snow has covered everything.” [Sings unintelligibly to herself in Serbian] You know, very, very kind of little memory songs, and from that period.
With the repetition of washing the blood that you can’t ever wash because you can never wash the guilt. You can never wash the blood; you can never wash your hands from killing somebody else. That’s the premise.
BLVR: One thing I do find attractive about this Yugonostalgia business is that people are nostalgic about a place that doesn’t exist. As in, the nostalgia refers to no place, and perhaps, therefore, is anti-nationalist by nature. Or longing for a time before the present forms of nationalism in the Balkans existed, at least. Maybe this narrative links to your more universal sense of belonging?
MA: But do you see the sentimentality? It’s a very big obstacle, you know! A big using of precious time for living! Life is a miracle and death comes any minute, we don’t know when. Losing this energy of going to the past is why I am so much against looking to the past.
You know, that was my reaction immediately to the war, but still, I want this piece to have many different lives. You know, it was not really dated. We should not be dated. Once you make a self that is dated, the dates pass.
BLVR: I think what really attracts me to the piece is that it feels like shame is not so much a question for you as an experience. Instead of asking, “What do we do with this feeling of shame?,” you’re just in the shame, in the experience. I think that’s really pertinent also to the current political moment in the United States. Everyone’s busy running in circles instead of just sitting in how painful it is to acknowledge the violence that exists here. Not only past but present violence. And how difficult it is to acknowledge that you’re identified with a group perpetrating it, whether you agree with it or not.
MA: The thing is that—what I hate about this whole thing is that it’s so easy to look at things as they are and feel shame for it and also for the past, but I ask everybody the same question, “What you do in your own personal way, in your own lives, to make a difference?” And I think everybody have to ask this kind of question. If we all do something to create difference, all will be different, you know? It’s about changing consciousness.
When people ask me about the political situation—“What do you suggest? What should we do?”—I say, “We change things by changing ourselves.” By changing ourselves, we can change thousands. And this is the way, you know? It’s not about them, not somebody else, not somebody outside you. It’s just about us.
BLVR: I was just re-reading the quote from your acceptance speech for the Golden Lion this morning. You said, “I’m only interested in an art which can change the ideology of a society.”
MA: Wow. I said this long time ago. [Laughing] I still really think the same. But, you know, you should interview the other Slavic artists of my generation. You will have such a different answer, especially the ones who never left. They are sitting in the same café, they are drinking the same drinks, they are all for bitterness and criticism, and they don’t see their own life, and that’s so sad. That’s really sad, you know? Time don’t exist. Everything—they live in the past completely. So this is why I cut all relationships. I don’t want any of my generation. They just depress me. I want to see young generation, new point of view, what’s happening now.
I hope I helped with my negativity about past. Today is the only reality we have. That’s it.
An excerpt from Prelević’s response to Abramovic’s homework:
I feel a certain terror inside the planetarium.
3-D images coming toward me from overhead, not asking for consent. Demanding it.
The enormity of the universe.
What is the terror feeling: existence within that enormity?
A sense of responsibility? Or a total shedding of it? I watch twice in a row, trying to find out. They let me sit inside the darkened dome alone for the moment between screenings. The second run of Dark Universe is much less terrifying, much more normalized. Of course, there we are, glued by gravity onto that speck of glow, in that whirl within the scattered, infinite sky. There we are.
Afterward, when I leave the room, I feel a powerful sense of calm.
I walk through the park northward, all the way to Harlem, with no particular aim in mind.