Marina Abramovic

The conflict in the Balkans in the second half of the 1990s affected Marina Abramovic deeply, taking her back to her Serbian and Montenegrin origins. Her art has consequently become more allusive and symbolic. Until that time her performances had centered on the body and its limits, and had occasionally actually put her life at risk. For example, in Rhythm 5 in Belgrade in 1975, one of the first works in which she tested her physical resistance, she lay inside a wooden five-pointed star which was set on fire; she remained so long she fainted from lack of oxygen and had to be helped out by the audience.
War and death are themes at the center of Balkan Baroque, for which Marina Abramovic received the Golden Lion award for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale. During this performance she was seated on a pile of bones that she cleaned of their remaining meat and cartilage one at a time in a purification ritual for herself and the massacres taking place in the Balkans. In short, she added a dimension of human warmth to her work, though this did not replace the earlier themes of experimentation and physical resistance: on the contrary, in some way it threw new light onto her past works. The pain of her return to a homeland torn to pieces by war was perhaps more difficult to support than the purely physical pain she suffered in her early performances. This was made clear in The Hero (2001), a work in which the sorrow she felt at the war was compounded by that felt on the death of her father, hero of the Resistance during World War II. In this piece, sitting on a white horse, Marina Abramovic proudly held up a white flag: the only movement was that of the banner as it moved in the wind. The performance ended when the artist was no longer able to hold up the flag.
The difference between her early and more recent works becomes clearer when we compare Rhythm 5 with Count on Us (2003), in which the motif of the star was used once more 28 years later, also in Belgrade. In this the wooden star was replaced by one formed by a choir of children dressed in black, singing the praises of the United Nations to contrast the promises of help the organisation had made but which had not been acted upon. During the performance Abramovic held a neon tube in one hand that was not connected to any electrical source, but in front of her were two copper wires through which ran 35,000 volts of electricity. The energy irradiated by the wires passed through her body and was enough to light up the tube. The work is a tribute to the Yugoslav scientist and inventor, Nikola Tesla, who lived and died in New York in the second half of the nineteenth century. Tesla was a pioneer of electrical induction and the transmission of energy without wires. The video Tesla Urn is also dedicated to the scientist, in which the artist places her hands on the urn that holds the ashes of the scientist (sent from Belgrade) in an attempt to absorb their energy. During Count on Us the children sing, “Still there is energy and there is hope.”
Energy is a primary theme in Abramovic’s works, and it is energy that underlies the most recent of her Balkan Erotic Epic installations, however, it marks yet another difference with respect to her earlier works. In this, Serbian farmers in the countryside celebrate fertility rites by offering themselves, both men and women, to the rain falling from the sky. The purpose of the rites is to protect the crops from the fury of the storm. They try to chase the threat away with an act of imitative magic in which they bring their bodies into harmony with the primordial erotic force that governs the universe. In this latest installation Marina Abramovic turns to the sacred and mystical. She ascribes eroticism with a role in the harmonic composition of the cosmos because the human body—which here is run through by cosmic energy in the same way that her own body was by electricity in the performance Count on Us—is the means by which the rain becomes bountiful and meaningful when it comes into contact with the Earth.
The nudity in this work may seem offensive to our modern, Western sensibilities but these images are amply compensated by the innocence and spontaneity characteristic of a primitive and pagan civilization that no longer exists. The images talk to us about something buried deep in our consciousness —which is why they may seem scandalous—something primordial, archaic. In a certain way this last work sheds new light on everything the artist produced earlier by revealing the mystical value inherent in the nude body.
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