When, in the late ’60s, many artists began shifting the emphasis from the end product to the process of making art, they became physically part of their work by actually using their body as a tool and subject. Performance or body art, which that kind of art came to be called, became synonymous with testing an artist’s physical and mental limits. Typically, it is about symbolic acts that involve self-control, discipline and, quite often, pain. A pioneer in this art form back then, the Serbia-born, internationally acclaimed artist Marina Abramovic continues the tradition to the present through her highly demanding performances. Having just turned 60, she continues exerting herself in acts of self-discipline and mental concentration, reminding us of the importance of immediacy and physical presence at a time of fleeting images and mediated reality. One of her objectives is, after all, to transmit to her public the «energy» that is built up during the performances. Most of those performances are documented in video and presented as autonomous video-installation works. Some of the most important are presented in «Balkan Epic» an impressive exhibition – essentially a 10-year retrospective – on the work of Marina Abramovic that opened recently in Milan at the Hangar Bicocca contemporary art space (a disused industrial space which Pirelli, a major sponsor of the exhibition, has converted to an exhibition space). The exhibition is curated and directed by international curator Adelina von Fürstenberg for «Art for the World,» a non-profit corporation for contemporary art that von Furstenberg established 10 years ago to organize international art projects on themes related to human rights. The largest exhibition of Abramovic in Italy to this day and a huge success (4,000 people attended on the night of the opening and 200 journalists were at the press conference), it presents for the first time to the public Abramovic’s new video installation, «Balkan Erotic Epic,» together with five other works: «Balkan Baroque,» which won the Golden Lion prize at the 1997 Venice Biennale; «Tesla Urn,» which is a tribute to the late Serbian scientist Nicola Tesla (a pioneer of electrical induction); «Count on Us,» which derides the help that international organizations offered to Yugoslavia during the recent war; «The Hero,» which is a tribute to the artist’s father, a partisan who fought in the Yugoslav resistance; and «Nude with a Skeleton.» All these works are somehow related to Balkan culture and contain allusions to the political situation of her country. In a way, they also mark a symbolic «return» of Abramovic to the country of her origin, which she left in 1974 to find acceptance for a form of art that was rejected back home. Working in collaboration with Ulay, an artist and partner in life, Abramovic staged performances all over the world. Among the most famous is the three-month itinerary along the China Wall: With each artist beginning from opposing departure points, the performance ended when they finally met. It was also a symbolic ending to their collaboration. A multicultural approach A traveler of the world ever since she left Serbia, Abramovic has spent months in Tibetan monasteries, has lived with aboriginals in Australia, worked in India and Brazil. Having developed a multicultural point of view, she considers her Balkan-related work as part of a broader approach that takes into account universal issues instead of limiting itself to the particular political situation of the Balkans. A true citizen of the world, she is not driven by a particular national identity. Although she regrets that Yugoslavia is no longer unified and retains strong national roots (both her parents were politically involved, yet Abramovic was raised by her religious grandmother), her self-identity transcends national borders. «I do not have any strong sense of national identity; I feel more like working with different cultures and crossing them all the time. This particular work may be on the Balkans, but I have done work with Tibetan monks, Indian culture, aborigines, with people from all over the world. I have this idea of seeing the world as one global unity. This mixing is very important and I always feel like a bridge between the East and the West. I believe in this cultural mobility, this nomadic way of looking at the world. I am a nomad,» Marina Abramovic told the English Edition of Kathimerini. In «Balkan Baroque,» Marina Abramovic sat on a pile of bones scraping the remaining meat off them for hours on end. Resembling a ritualistic act of purification from the violence of war, the work had direct connotations to the war yet also carried a broader spiritual message as well. «I always think that a work of art should have many different layers and that every society takes the layer it needs each time,» she said. These variations aside, her work is always based on pain, specifically on internalizing pain as a way of overcoming it. «I stage the pain in my performances in front of the public and I become like a mirror for the public to reflect their own pain on me and to understand what pain is. This is because we have to transcend pain, but in order to do so, we have to understand it and not be afraid of it. I have to go through extreme physical pain in order to achieve that. All the initiation rituals of the ancient cultures involved extreme physical conditions; what is important with suffering is that you are liberated from the fear of dying. And this is a very positive outlook on life,» said Abramovic. Transcending pain The notion of suffering and purging gives her work a universal message. Universality is also the idea behind «Balkan Erotic Epic.» The performance/video, which was made in Belgrade, shows women dressed in traditional costumes immersed in pagan rituals surrounding agricultural rites. In a «Dionysiac» state, they run around an open field lifting their skirts and holding their breasts, invoking mother nature and addressing the notion of sexuality. Although one could read connotations of patriotism in the work (the idea of the mother figure claiming the earth), Abramovic considers this particular piece as an assertion of sexuality in the primeval, archetypal and spiritual sense of the word. «Our world is so technological that it causes us to lose touch with the spirituality that exists in sexuality. All the beauty of sex, the whole ritual, the idea that there is this divine unity of man and woman, is forgotten. Sexuality is trivialized by television, made banal and vulgar. I wanted to give back to sexuality that power that it contains, its mystery, to show sexuality as an archetypal element. I took the Yugoslavs but all the cultures have rituals tied to sexuality. Bringing them into our time is done in order to remind people that the sexual can be a tool for a truly spiritual connection. This is why, when you see this work it is not vulgar and it is not pornographic,» Abramovic said. «Balkan Erotic Epic» looks back to tradition and the past, yet Abramovic is an artist who is not nostalgic about the past but very much concentrated on and optimistic about the present. «We constantly talk about the future or the past and forget the importance of the present. Our world is becoming more global and we cannot stop this. So let us look at the wider, global picture, concentrate on issues such as why we are destroying the earth. We might be losing the past and our cultural identity but we are getting something new; we have to look at it instead of developing nostalgia for the past,» she noted. Abramovic believes in the value of the present and of presence, yet is against the ephemerality that the fast pace of contemporary life has brought about. Her hourly performances show this, and the degree of concentration they demand is contrary to the Western style of life and thinking. «It is very interesting how some young artists, in their effort to accommodate a fast way of living, start making works that are easy and fast to absorb. I am completely the opposite, I want people to spend time in the works. I create performances that last for many days, for example in the piece ‘House with Ocean View’ where I did not eat for 10 days, I only drank water and just looked at people in the eyes, transmitting my energy. I thought that if I can purify myself and my space, I can affect the public and create something like a sense of timelessness,» Abramovic said. Influenced by Eastern philosophy, Abramovic expresses thoughts that bring her close to her coveted role as a «bridge between the East and the West.» Her works on the Balkans may carry some political connotations, yet their message is intended as something far more universal. More than anything else, Abramovic is an artist who concentrates on the power of the individual, its mental and spiritual power. It is this power that helps her pull off her demanding performances and it is this power that she would like to transmit to her audience. Maybe the emphasis that she places on the individual is her way of doubting political authority and institutional power – or of claiming that self-discipline and control over mind and body are the greatest power that each of us can ever hope for. «Balkan Epic» will be open through April 23. A publication by Skira is also available. For information visit www.artfortheworld.net.