An artist goes beyond pain

Her grandfather was patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church and was poisoned, along with King Peter I, by the monarch’s doctor in 1938. Her partisan father was a communist, an atheist and hero of the Second World War. Her mother became part of the Communist Party and during the 1960s was director of Belgrade’s Museum of Art and Revolution. She was recently buried with the honors of a general. It is almost ironic, but the family of Marina Abramovic, the famous art performer, is a microcosm of the recent history of Serbia. Born in 1946 from contradictory gene pools, Abramovic is one of the most important exponents of performance art, a priestess of the medium who knows how to give the acts of everyday life the character of a ritual. One of her most well-known performances was in 1988 in collaboration with Ulay, her partner in life for many years. Each of them started a three-month walk along the Great Wall of China. Their meeting at the end of the walk symbolically marked their separation. Almost 20 years since then, Abramovic retains her Balkan psyche untarnished and takes her performances to the edge as if there was no tomorrow. She has spent hours on end washing a human skeleton in a trough; she has consumed onions until her tears dried up; she has allowed the public at her performances to slash her body and point a gun at her; she has swallowed mental illness pills in front of her public and has fainted from lack of oxygen. In short, she has taken herself to extremes, not out of masochism but in order to help us realize certain fundamental things about life. Kathimerini’s Sunday supplement K spoke to the famous performer on the occasion of her retrospective exhibition being held at the Kappatos gallery. The 1999 exhibitions, also at the Kappatos, had drawn hundreds of visitors. What will you be presenting in the Athens exhibition? The exhibition is a mix of old and new works – videos and documentations of my performances – put together under the title «Present, Past, Present.» It coincides with a period in my life in which I am re-examining everything I have done until now. I have changed the way I work and have turned to performances that last much longer; my recent performances last days. You have said that you love Greece because it reminds you of your country, without the pain. It is true. Our psychology is similar. The religion, the food, the tendency to dramatize everything. I have made works that speak of the pain that I feel for my country. In «Balkan Baroque,» the work that was awarded at the 1997 Venice Biennale, I lamented by scraping the bones of animals for days on end. The work speaks of all countries that are faced with war, not just Serbia. Picasso’s «Guernica» is not Spanish but universal and timeless. Do you like living like a nomad and having no one country? I love airplanes and hotel rooms. My home is the planet. I have owned a house in Amsterdam for the past 30 years but have only spent eight months there. I go where my work takes me. For some people, having no country and constantly roaming the world feels chaotic. For me, living this way can be extremely creative and awakening. I think that the root of most problems we face is taking things for granted and obeying to the rules that come with living in one place for too long. How would you define a charismatic performer? Daring, sensitive to political issues, inventive? The role that artists should play in society has not changed since the time of Michelangelo. Artists have to experiment, to raise issues and to work with honesty. There were always artists who believed that recognition is the same as money and fame. I have always told my students at the School of Fine Arts that if this is their aim, they will never find the meaning of art and it is best that they drop out of school. True artists do not give a dime for money or fame but are only guided by a burning, fever-like passion. Art feels like breathing, it is as vital as that. Which do you see as your most important work? I cannot single out one particular performance. Anyway, I have never looked to the past. But since my mother died, I have been reflecting on it… I always had difficulty communicating with my mother. She was a war hero and, after she divorced my father, she had imposed something like military law at home. I lived with her until I was 29 and during that time I staged the most radical, dangerous performances. I would cut my body up on stage but I would never get home after 10.30 at night. My mother taught me discipline and self-command. With time, my mother became proud of me. What is the sense of family in the Balkans? It is much more emotional. You never think of throwing your grandparents into an old people’s home. At a time of globalization, we are fortunate to still keep the old-fashioned sense of morality. Why do you take your endurance to extremes? When we do things that please us, we usually stay the same. But when we are challenged with an extreme situation, death, an incurable illness or an accident, then we become witness to a radical change within us. Happiness has nothing to teach us. In contrast, pain, suffering and obstacles can transform us, making us stronger and better; they make us realize the vital importance of living now and here. Do you mean that we are absent from our own lives? Today, we suffer from not taking the time to reflect seriously upon our needs. Our lives are like zapping through the channels on television, and the greatest problem is that we have not realized this. Instead of living our lives, we consume them. It takes much time and great commitment to really find out our true selves. This is the reason that in my recent performance I have been placing greater emphasis on time. In recent years, the large international art exhibitions are full of works filled with cynicism and cruelty? What do you think of those works? Nowadays MTV and advertisements use the language of the art performances of the 1970s. Back then, piercing your body or cutting yourself up was something authentic. Today it is part of lifestyle, fashion. Shocking the audience does not suffice. The point is not to frighten the viewer but to help him feel a certain spirituality, to help him become better. Artist Bruce Nauman used to say that art has to speak of life and of death. It sounds melodramatic but it is the truth. If you make a work of art with the sense that this is the last day of your life, with a vigor, responsibility and force that springs from that realization, then you might be able to produce something strong, to truly move your audience. «Present, Past, Present» at the Kappatos Gallery (12 Athinas, 210.321.7931) to December 15.