"You have no idea how emotionally excited I am," said Abramovic, best known for her piece "The Artist Is Present," which in 2010 saw her sit silent and motionless for 736½ hours opposite a parade of strangers at New York's Museum of Modern Art.
"I came to Belgrade with an open heart," Abramovic, who has visited Belgrade privately, said of her professional comeback. "It's not easy, lots of nostalgia and memories." Born in Belgrade, Abramovic studied and launched her career in the Serbian capital before moving abroad in 1975. Her show "The Cleaner" contains more than 100 videos, photographs, paintings and live re-creations of her performances over the past decades.
The show is concluding in Belgrade after touring seven cities in various countries since 2017. While hailed as a major cultural event for the Serbian capital following the crisis years in the 1990s, critics have argued that the exhibition is too expensive and is serving to boost the image of Serbia's populist authorities.
Abramovic said she hoped "The Cleaner" will help Serbia's art scene. "I am no politician, I am an artist," Abramovic said. "I believe this exhibition has shown to the politicians that if you invest money in culture you get high standards."
Carefully selected, Abramovic's retrospective focuses on what she says is her best art, some of which also drew inspiration from the Balkans — in a 1997 performance "Balkan Baroque," Abramovic sat among a heap of bloody animal bones in criticism of the ethnic carnage that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, earning her a Golden Lion award at the Venice Biennale.
In other performances, Abramovic cut her body, screamed, ate raw onions and covered her face with honey and golden leaves, seeking to test her own and the audience's limits. Young Serbian artists in the Belgrade museum revived a performance in which a naked man and woman stand in a doorway and visitors must slip between them to get through.
"I didn't really want to make a retrospective, a retrospective seemed like a very sad thing to me ... like retirement," Abramovic said. "Cleaning was like a metaphor ... you get rid of the bad work and keep only things you think you really should show."
As she opened the exhibition, Abramovic briefly sat down to re-enact her "The Artist is Present" performance that saw thousands lining up outside for a chance to sit opposite her. Now 72, Abramovic said "I have no intention to retire."
"I think I will die working," she smiled.