When Marina Abramovic left Yugoslavia as a young artist in the 1970s, she could have hardly imagined what the years ahead would bring. Her homeland—a communist state ruled for nearly 40 years by Marshal Josip Broz Tito—would dissolve amid the geopolitical reshuffling of the post-Cold War era, while Abramovic herself would go on to become one of the most acclaimed, influential, and, at times, divisive artists on the planet.
Her return to Belgrade, after more than four decades of self-imposed exile, is at the heart of “Homecoming: Marina Abramovic and Her Children,” director Boris Miljkovic’s intimate documentary portrait of the artist as she stages her retrospective, “The Cleaner,” in the city of her birth. Taskovski Films is handling world sales.
After making her name with a series of daring performance pieces in the 1970s, Abramovic left Belgrade for Amsterdam, the first stop in a peripatetic career that would find her restlessly circling the globe for more than four decades. It was during her years abroad—mounting bold exhibitions in Paris and New York, winning a Golden Lion at the Venice Biennale—that Abramovic rose to worldwide prominence, all the while finding a validation denied her in the former Yugoslavia.
“My generation of artists never really accepted me as an artist,” she told Variety. “For them, it’s impossible to understand that somebody sitting on a chair doing nothing can get all this attention. They don’t understand what it really means, conceptual art, what it means performance [art].”
While Serbia was no longer a physical presence in Abramovic’s life—she made just a few sporadic visits to Belgrade in the decades since her departure—it remained a fundamental part of her art. “You can’t take your country out of you,” she said. “Wherever you live, you have that background, you have this history, you have this tradition. With so many [of my] works, they relate to the country I come from, but I don’t need to have a connection. The connection is in your DNA.”
Abramovic visited Belgrade several years ago to celebrate a niece’s wedding. Among the guests at the reception was Prime Minister Ana Brnabić, who asked the artist why she had never returned to the Serbian capital to perform a piece. She replied, “You never invited me.” Brnabić extended an invitation on the spot, and plans were set in motion to make Belgrade the final stop for “The Cleaner,” which at the time had been touring Europe for more than two years.
“Homecoming” follows the artist as she prepares to unveil the exhibition at Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In the weeks leading up to the opening, the director Miljkovic traveled with Abramovic around Belgrade, using handheld cameras to capture the artist in intimate moments as she reflected on her life, her career, and the city of her youth.
Miljkovic meticulously planned the shoot, preparing a shooting board that spanned more than 100 pages, even as the improvised nature of documentary filming required his team to adapt on the fly. “Usually, when you do documentaries, every shooting day is a new story for you,” he said. “We reacted from day to day, from second to second, but in a certain way [we tried] to obey what we wanted to do from the very beginning.”
For the movie’s archival footage, Abramovic acquired the rights to a rich trove of videos capturing such iconic performance pieces as “The Artist is Present,” in which she sat silently across from strangers in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and “Lovers,” in which she and her long-time partner, the German performance artist Uwe Laysiepen, embarked on a spiritual journey to mark the end of their relationship, starting from opposite ends of the Great Wall of China and meeting in the middle. “She just got me the whole rights to use everything from her history…[and] said, ‘Do what you want,’” said Miljkovic.
The result is a sweeping catalog of nearly half a century in the life of an artist who is admittedly reluctant to look back. “I really don’t like to look in the past,” said Abramovic. “My generation is so sentimental. They always think the past is better. For me, it’s much more important what the future is going to bring me, and how much time I have left.”
This year Abramovic turns 74, which she described as a “serious” age. “I don’t feel 74, but it’s a fact,” she said. “I have to [avoid] being melancholic about the past. I should see how much important time is left for me to do some meaningful work.”
“Homecoming” includes scenes of Abramovic working with the young artists she trains to “reperform” her earlier pieces. Despite a life-long reluctance to have children—which she feared would “take away from my creativity, from my work”—the artist said it was “so important as a part of my work, my duty to society, that all the knowledge I had, I should unconditionally give to the young generation of artists.”
Miljkovic goes a step further. “Physically, she doesn’t have children. But you have a tribe of young people who are following Marina and behaving like [her] children, and she behaves like [their] mom. There’s a very deep connection between them.”
“The Cleaner” was unveiled in Belgrade last fall, with the Museum of Contemporary Art organizing a massive outdoor event to accommodate the unprecedented crowds. More than 6,500 attendees gathered in a field for what Abramovic described as an “art Woodstock,” with many guests traveling from across the former Yugoslavia to be there.
The crowd skewed young, which gave Abramovic a particular feeling of gratitude and fulfilment. “The most surprising [part] was this enormous acceptance of young artists, young audiences, and the people who are not related to art…who really were moved by my work,” she said.
The emotional return to Belgrade offered her a sense of a life come full circle—perhaps, even, a sense of closure. “Coming back for me is really [allowing] people in Belgrade to see what kind of art I’ve been doing all these years, and so much work was inspired by my country, and my background,” she said. “To me, it was a good thing to do it. And I think, actually, that’s it. I’ve done my duty to my country.”