Aleksandar Stankovski was a member of the Zero Group, an informal collective of artists, art historians, critics, theorists and philosophers who met together at “Gallery 7,” a Turkish tea house in the Old Town of Skopje, in the 1970s and 1980s. The venue became their default meeting space due to its proximity to the Academy of Arts, where many of them studied. Aleksandar told me that “thousands of performances” took place in this space, which functioned like a Cabaret Voltaire of Yugoslavia. The name of the group, he tells me, has connections with Zen Buddhism, as well as the Japanese Zero jets that were used in the Second World War. Mainly, however, they chose the term zero to represent the fact that they were open to everything, modest and unpretentious, starting from zero. This was one of the most significant underground artistic groups in Macedonia in the socialist era. In fact, their legacy was so strong that they even represented Macedonia at the Venice Biennale in 2011, in lieu of a new or contemporaneously working artist or artist group.
Stankovski continues to work in the performative tradition that began in Gallery 7. The recent works that he told me about deal with the contemporary social and political situation in which Macedonia finds itself today, commenting on the post-socialist condition as well as the pre-EU ambitions of the nation.
A recent and very vivid performance entitled Penetration in EU (2005), was Stankovski’s first performance after a period of silence. It graphically depicted the process of Macedonia acting on its desire to become a part of this union. His performance aimed to deconstruct this desire and expose it for what it actually represented for the Macedonian people. While the performance represented a sexual act, the artist exacerbated the desire by lecturing throughout the performance, delaying the final penetration through prolonged “foreplay,” in the form of the artist’s lecture. Seated at a table, with a large object in front of him, covered with a sheet (much like L’Enigme d’Isidore Ducasse), he eventually uncovered this mystery object to reveal a Macedonian flag with a dildo affixed to its center – “the largest dildo” he could find, he told me. Leaning up on the wall behind him was the EU flag, into which he cut a makeshift “vagina,” in order to enable the penetration of its ringed stars. Eventually, the artist placed the two flags together so that Macedonia could finally “penetrate” and become one with, or part of, the EU, realizing its desire. By presenting Macedonia’s desire in this overly graphic and vulgar way, he strips the people of their illusions about the paradise that is EU membership, and questions the price of this union for Macedonian citizens.
An equally critical performance was Stankovski’s selling of pumpkin seeds at the Museum of Modern Art in Skopje. The artist wrapped and sold 5 kilograms of pumpkin seeds – a common snack in the region, which leaves a trace of its consumption in the form of empty shells at the feet of anyone who eats them, a sight that is common in front of benches and outdoor seating areas in Skopje. The seeds are usually wrapped in newspapers, which are shaped like a cone to hold the seeds. Aleksandar wrapped his seeds in papers, containing a choice of three different texts: the EU constitution, a framework agreement between Albania and Macedonia, and the Macedonian constitution. Usually, the seeds are sold by those with fewer options for employment other than to wrap and hand out their seeds, exchanging them for a few cents, in front of cinemas and shopping malls where larger sums are spent. The artist is critical of the country’s current economic situation, and begs the question as to whether this will change or improve with EU accession, and whether this new status will, in fact, bring much awaited changes to the country’s citizens. Interestingly, when hearing of this performance I was reminded of a similar one by Latvian artist Miervaldis Polis, who sold sunflower seeds together with his colleague, Vilnis Zabers, while dressed as The Bronze Man, the artist’s statue-esque alter ego. Polis and Zabers created this performance in 1991, just before the advent of the Latvia’s regaining of independence and entry into the capitalist system. While their performance foreshadowed the advent of the free market, Stankovski’s raises questions about Macedonia’s eventual entrance into the Euro Zone. What unites the two performances across the decades, however, is the common local tradition, practiced in 1991 just as in the present day, of those on the economic margins of society selling and consuming this cheap and natural product, one that is necessary for growth, rebirth and development.
Aleksander Stankovski’s performances continue that critical underground stance that began in the 1980s with the Zero Group, commandeering the vivid action of performance and presence of the artist to raise questions about pertinent issues facing the greater society. His works function not as a protest, but as an invitation to consider and debate questions on a deeper level than they might normally be addressed in society. His work is a testament to the fact that the avant-garde spirit of performance art still lives on.