Abramovic is Present

No one is doing performance art...and yet they are. I thought that this ashtray from the Berlin Cafe in Podgorica was a perfect illustration to this happy contradiction. 

No one is doing performance art...and yet they are. I thought that this ashtray from the Berlin Cafe in Podgorica was a perfect illustration to this happy contradiction. 

Throughout my trip in the Balkans, I was constantly told by artists, art historians, and people in the art world that “no one here is really doing performance.” I didn’t believe it, but then again, I didn’t really have a lot of examples of artists from these particular countries that worked in performance. Many of them, in fact, had left the region already. The Albanian artists I knew of who had done performances - Adrian Paci, Anri Sala and Flutura & Besnik Haxhillari - were living in Paris, Milan and Berlin, respectively, and the same goes for one artist from Kosovo, Sislej Xhafa (he lives in Italy). The only Montenegrin performance artist I knew of, Ilja Soskic, currently lives in Rome. So I took these people at their word, but also challenged that word.

“My definition of performance art is rather broad,” I started by telling people. I don’t have a very strict definition of performance, for the purposes of my research right now. This may change, and it probably will, as I refine and alter my definition according to what I find. Because that is precisely the point of the project. Performance art has hitherto been defined largely by North American writers on performance art – Amelia Jones, Peggy Phelan, Roselee Goldberg, to name a few. My research aims to challenge their definitions by examining performance art from the former Soviet, communist and socialist countries of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. Instead of starting with the rubric of performance as defined by the West, and seeing which artists fit into that framework, I am starting with the artists, with the aim of coming up with perhaps not one definition, but a nuanced understanding of what performance art, body art, action art, etc. is and means in this region. So this is why I am starting with a very broad definition.

After telling people about my loose attitude toward the genre, stories started to emerge. “Oh, well, this person does things that are kind of like performance…that person did a performance once….this person is doing photography, it is not really performance but they are photographed performances.” So, you see, there it is. Because I was not looking for the Marina Abramovic of each country, the one person who started doing performances as a teenager and never stopped, who only does performances, who always uses only his or her body and moves it, pushes it to the limits, and is always present. While that is great, there are all types of things that can be performative without the artist necessarily “present.”

The spirit of Marina Abramovic is alive and well in the Balkans. We all know that she got her start with the circle of artists at the Student Cultural Center in Belgrade. She was born there, although her parents were born in Montenegro. I think that virtually every person I spoke to on this trip referred to Abramovic. OK, maybe not every single person, but it really felt like it. I found this interesting, because the reference for Central and Northern (Eastern) European artists seems to be different. There, it was Fluxus, Joseph Beuys and the Viennese Actionists that seemed to be the reference point. But in the Balkans it is Marina.

And maybe this is the reason that people are reluctant to admit that they are doing performance. Maybe her presence is so overwhelming, the legend is too great, that no one thinks that their performative work could compare, or could come close to the magnitude that is Marina Abramovic. But I think it can. There is a lot of interesting and exciting performance art happening in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro, you just have to look for it, and you have to be persistent. The longer I was in each place, the more examples people found. By the end of my trip, the claim that “there are no artists working in performance here” was pretty much refuted, by the very people who told me that to begin with.

And this is where that Balkan flexibility came in handy for me. Until now, my research had been primarily historical. I am mainly interested in exploring and uncovering the artists who were working in performance in the 1960s and 1970s, during the heyday of that genre, both here and in the West. In the four countries I visited on this trip, there wasn’t really a strong tradition of performance during that time, mainly – I think – because these countries were on the so-called periphery. Some weren’t even countries at that time. Montenegro and Kosovo were part of Yugoslavia, and even after they weren’t, they were part of Serbia. Macedonia was also in Yugoslavia, and Hoxha distanced Albania from all of the socialist and communist countries in the region. In Albania, Hoxha ran such a tight regime that there wasn’t really any underground to speak of; most experiments that veered from the state-prescribed Socialist Realism took the form of unconventional colors or forms in painting. Furthermore, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro were on the periphery of Yugoslavia. Much of the state funding went to the larger hubs within that country – Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana, and that is where much of the artistic activity was concentrated at the time. People in Montenegro told me that most people went to Belgrade to study, because Titograd, as Podgorica was called during those days, didn’t have much to offer. Consequently, Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana developed thriving artistic scenes. That is not to say that art in these smaller countries did not thrive, but rather the scenes were smaller and less well-known – at least during the Yugoslav period.

So, just like in a performance, I had to adapt and change to the situation I found myself in, and to the reactions of the audience. Instead of artists from the Yugoslav era, I met with and discovered younger artists, fresh from art school, utilizing the medium of performance, along with other genres and techniques. Their sources were not only local (and by local I don’t only mean local performance artists, but also local and indigenous traditions, including folk traditions, as well as current trends and events), but also international, as younger generation artists travel frequently, and participate in residencies across Europe and in the US. Many of these artists spoke about the necessity of going abroad, to get ideas and develop as artists. By broadening their world view, they are able to enrich their own artistic creations back at home.

I am happy to report that the spirit of Marina Abramovic is alive and well in the Balkans. Most artists still speak of her with reverence. I only hope that they don’t allow the shadow of this amazing Balkan "grandmother of performance" art eclipse their equally wonderful and inspiring work.

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.