In this ironic, peculiar account, writer Božidar Stanišić is asked about world-renowned performer Marina Abramović – and wants you to know he has no clue why
What do I think of world-renowned performer Marina Abramović? A guy from Udine, knowing where I am from, stunned me with this completely unexpected question during the last edition of the Festival vicino/lontano. I replied that I was not the right person to answer. To my amazement, he thought I was joking. He left, also wondering why the festival organisers have never invited Marina Abramović to participate! What was I supposed to do, tell him that the city of Udine's entire budget is a pittance compared to what Marina Abramović makes? And he was not even the first Italian person to ask me what I thought of Marina Abramović.
I finally begin to unroll the memories of an evening of late November 2018, spent in a small town near Vicenza. After presenting a book of mine in the city's library, I found myself in a pizzeria with a diverse group of people. I expected them to ask me several questions, including the almost inevitable one about the "situation in the Balkans", which makes the little hair left in my head stand up. Thankfully, however, nobody asked me anything; the organisers said they were happy because only two people had left the room before the meeting ended.
After a while, a very fit jock, straight as a candle, not one white hair on his head (maybe he dyes his hair?), 40-50 years old, who the hell knows – said he had noticed some of my articles dedicated to the painters of the former Yugoslavia on OBC Transeuropa. For about ten years, his job had often taken him to the Balkans, so he regularly visited the OBC Transeuropa website.
I told him that those were commemorative articles and that I was not an expert on the subject. I write above all about painters who are little or not at all known in Europe; painters from the periphery, from a marginal area of Europe, but who have influenced my life and my writing. So, in a way, I'm repaying my debt of gratitude to them.
My interlocutor appreciated this, but as an art lover was surprised by the fact that I had never written a single line about Marina Abramović. He expected that I might write something about her. I was puzzled, but I smiled to him and to his expectations beginning to flutter over the table – or not? He answered me with a curious smile.
And here comes the pizza, and the beer!
Slices of pizza were merrily exchanged across the table: taste mine and I taste yours. Smiling, I refused to take part in the exchange – I kept to the one I had ordered, rigorously from Puglia, with onions, even resembling a typical Balkan dish. And the art lover? He started talking about Marina again. I saw that the others also became curious about the subject: they kept devouring their pizza, but they were all ears.
Marina Abramović's admirer, now obsessed with the subject, could not understand why I had never paid any attention to this great – in his view, probably the greatest – artist of our time, while I did look at some painters of the former Yugoslavia, or what is now called the Balkan region. Those painters, according to my interlocutor, do not enjoy the same reputation as Marina Abramović, not to mention the influence exerted. There had to be a reason why I did not write about this artist, he tells me, but well, he would gladly hear my opinion about the one he saw as the greatest artist of our time. He could not see how someone could be indifferent to an artist who, in his opinion, had succeeded in the impossible – becoming a work of art herself. But before I told him my opinion, he wanted to tell me some things.
Two years earlier, he had visited the Moderna Museet (the museum of modern and contemporary art) in Stockholm, to see the exhibition "The Cleaner" by Marina Abramović. This retrospective embraced the artist's 55-year career, from the first paintings made during her studies to a performance made specifically for the occasion. He described the whole experience in great detail, explaining that Marina's performance, set in a former church located at short distance from the museum, lasted a whole week and saw the participation of about 30 artists, several choirs, and about 15 soloists, adding that according to him the artist tried to create "something" unrepeatable, that would link her to the other artists and the countless visitors who, with almost devotional patience, waited their turn to see the performance.
Then he stopped. He looked at me curiously, surprised by my question: "So what?". He looked at me suspiciously. He asked me if I, too, had I happened to be in the Swedish capital, would have waited in line to see and hear that "something" that he considered very important.
"Oh no, never", I replied. First, going to Stockholm and waiting in line in front of that museum – I cannot remember what it's called – and in front of that former church to see a performance by Marina Abramović, I would never do it. Such situations remind me of those queues in front of bookshops for the release of Harry Potter books. Second, if I were to go to Stockholm, I would try to find some of my friends and acquaintances. So this city would become more familiar to me, take on the face of the people I know, people who fled to Sweden during and after the war in Bosnia.
Good heavens, my interlocutor would not let go! "Marina is a known and important face though, isn't she?", he asked. "I guess for many she is", I replied, "but I have no reason to pay attention to her". As if he hadn't heard me, Marina's admirer went on about his unrepeatable experience in Stockholm. When he finally managed to get into that former church, he immediately noticed Marina. She moved among the visitors like a goddess, touched them, smiled, even addressed some. And that's not all... if by chance I had been among those 750,000 people who participated in Marina Abramović's performance titled "The Artist is Present" (carried out at MoMA in New York in 2010) – in which Abramović, transformed into an "object of art", for three months, eight hours a day, remained seated staring into the eyes of every visitor who sat in front of her – I would have thought otherwise! At least according to my interlocutor. For him, it was a unique experience. I told him I was glad he took pleasure in all this.
Even a child would have understood what I meant, but he did not believe me! It didn't matter that my face had become serious – I swear – as well as my soul, tormented by his attempts at persuasion. Perhaps I should have told him what would happen to a poor man who stared in other people's eyes for eight hours, for example in a waiting room? Should I have asked him if it is enough to put a wet umbrella on a simple display stand to turn it into a work of art? Ah, who knows where we would have ended up if we were to enter into such a discussion.
This dilemma had already been solved by the directors of a three-episode Italian film titled "Where are you going on vacation?", in which a couple (played by Anna Longhi and Alberto Sordi) visits, among other things, the Venice Biennale. They are a small bourgeois couple, but – unlike professional art critics – they are not conformists. That's what I was thinking of as I looked at my Apulian pizza, which I had hardly touched. A voice was whispering to me that the time had come to get out of that pointless conversation, that increasingly resembled that anecdote about a rabbi and a priest.
The guy asked me if I realised the magnitude of the separation between Marina and her first husband, which took place on the Great Wall of China: they had left from opposite ends of the wall to meet about halfway along the route, where they said goodbye. The magnitude? Of the separation, media-wise, or aesthetic? I asked him. Ignoring my playful question, he said that that separation is a unique work of art. I asked him, I think kindly, if we could talk about something else. Maybe we were boring the others?
No, not at all! The others answered in chorus. Eh, it was easy for them... they got to eat their pizza in peace, drink their beer...
And my interlocutor? He was happy, he oozed satisfaction. He made a toast and drank his beer. I took this opportunity to take a few bites. My pizza had cooled – Salinger's young Holden would have said it was as cold as a witch's nipples.
No, Marina Abramović's admirer would not give up! He talked to me about the importance of her other "works of art", or performances. He believed that all of them are unrepeatable and original, especially the one with the arrow pointing towards the artist's heart. Then he asked me if I had heard about "Balkan Erotic Epic", an installation by Marina which also includes a documentary about Balkan peasants having sex with the earth. He also asked me if I had seen that performance with the bloody bones. And the one with the five-pointed star, in which the artist risked catching fire? She is pure energy!
In my interlocutor's view, the future belongs to artists like Marina Abramović, and her art is already of fundamental importance for people of the 21st century. Which people? I said in vain, he would not stop! He asked me if I knew that this artist, also born in the former Yugoslavia, is among the most influential people in the world. And then he wanted to know if he had been sufficiently convincing. So, after everything he had told me, would I wait in line in front of a museum? By the way, Marina is a regular guest at the Venice Biennale. Ah, he had almost forgotten... He asked me if I knew that even some famous people, like Lady Gaga, adore Marina!
It was late; I longed to hear the waiter say, "Gentlemen, it's late". Yet, since the time had not yet come to leave, I decided to reply to my interlocutor.
Thank you for trying to convince me of the value of the artistic and unrepeatable dimension of Marina Abramović's performances. However, I would never get in line to see a performance of hers in Stockholm, nor in New York, nor in Venice, nor in Florence... not to mention thinking about her influence and that list of the most influential people in the world, published every year by Time magazine (if they actually were influential, there would be fewer misfortunes and disasters in the world). Simply, if I included Abramović the performer in any book about great art, the other protagonists of the book would certainly complain: from the anonymous painters of Altamira to Van Gogh, from Fidia to Henry Moore, from Giotto to Andy Warhol. Or maybe I was wrong? Would the great artists be more tolerant? Perhaps some of them would propose to let time decide?
No, my interlocutor was unfazed. He asked me coldly if my opinion of Marina Abramović's art was definitely negative. I told him that I believed that the problem of art criticism, whether positive or negative, had been solved a long time ago by Denis Diderot. To paraphrase the French philosopher: art criticism is a critique of society. I think that a narcissistic society needs Marinas – it is constantly looking for them, in the same way that the selfish seek the approval of their own kind.
I could not be mistaken – I could see on the face of my interlocutor that he felt offended. He said that he didn't expect it, but he understood me: only people who have never witnessed a performance by Marina Abramović could think as I did. If I had participated in one of her performances I would have understood how she managed to transform herself into a work of art! Being close to her, we too become part of her work, and so on...
Did it make sense to inform him that I wanted to believe that the future would not belong to the likes of Marina, and more generally to the performers who grew up on the miserable ruins of Dadaism and pop art and to the multimedia "artists" who are very cleverly exploiting (including financially) the decline of art and our ability to receive works of art? And that, in this phase of decline, modern Neanderthals expect art to be reduced to a brief message, a slogan, a laconic phrase that can convince them that they, too, participate in the creation of "works of art"?
I did not argue that, but I said: Thomas Mann's literary work would be very poor if this writer had decided to reduce his books to three sentences or to invite readers with a single sentence to visit the clinic described in The magic mountain. Tolstoy's work would be very poor if Anna Karenina's suicide had been described with five words! Beethoven's music would be very poor if the composer had insisted that the audience participate in the composition of his Sinfonia n. 9. Michelangelo's sculpting would be very poor if, instead of picking up the chisel and putting himself to work, the artist had invited the citizens of Florence to observe his shadow stretched on a marble block! Michelangelo chose to concentrate on his work, and so today we can admire his David.
As for those bloody bones, that's our fault, of us Balkan citizens, of our irrational minds. However, Marina Abramović should have continued to gnaw and scrape the bones, because since the 1990s there have been many wars all over the world. As for those peasants and their sexual relations with the land, Marina Abramović, in interviews, keeps repeating that she "studied" the ancient traditions, but without ever mentioning a single source. Any poor student would eventually fail the exam if they could not quote the bibliography, but the artist goes ahead. Come on, ask Marina Abramović about her sources! It doesn't take much to realise that even those peasants are the mirror of her conformism: let's give the world the image of the Balkans it expects. In this image there is no place for artists from the former Yugoslavia, whose work has true artistic value. Try and submit some works by a great painter from the former Yugoslavia to a gallery or museum. All you will get is silence, or a more or less polite refusal. But give them Marina Abramović, and their eyes will shine.
Summing up, perhaps Marina Abramović was an artist once, when she was young, when she was still painting, and – they say – also sculpting. Honestly, I have not found much on that period of her career, only some mediocre works. Then the grotesque phase began, focusing on the slogan: "L’art c'est moi".
My interlocutor was shocked by my words. He asked me out loud if my statements were an expression of my personal opinion or a product of envy. Starting a conversation with me he had expected, quite modestly, that I had paid attention to and written something about Marina Abramović.
I remained silent. In my opinion it is the best reaction to nonsense. I counted up to five, refraining from saying that it is better not to expect anything from anyone, but rather to pick up the pen and try to write something.
And then, finally, we heard: "Gentlemen, it's late". That wonderful, salvific "it's late".
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