Belgrade and the Beginnings of Performance Art
I was really excited about coming to Belgrade, for several reasons. Firstly, after all of the difficulties I encountered in Sarajevo, it was a relief to already have some meetings set up in Serbia before I arrived, and it seemed like everyone I was in touch with was really receptive and eager to meet with me. The main reason I was excited to come, however, has to do with the history of this city and its strong connection with performance art. Within the context of the Belgrade International Theater Festival (BITEF), which started in 1967, art historian and curator Biljana Tomic organized programs that brought contemporary artists working in genres such as conceptual art, land art, and performance to Belgrade - artists such as Janis Kounnelis, Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, John Baldessari, and Joseph Kosuth, to name just a few. These collaborations continued in the "April Meetings," which were held at the Student Culture Center (SKC) from 1972, and brought both local (Yugoslav) and international artists to Belgrade for collaboration. Artists such as Joseph Beuys, Gina Pane and Ana Mendieta came from abroad, as well as the OHO Group from Slovenia, and Braco Dimitrijevic, Goran Trbuljak, Dalibor Martinis and Sanja Ivekovic from Croatia. SKC was one of several student culture centers established in cities across Yugoslavia following the student protests of 1968, as a way to contain the potentially rebellious activity of Yugoslav youth. Tito's approach was to give young people a place to express themselves, but in a controlled environment, which was not in the public domain. In the 1970s, SKC in Belgrade was the location of some of the most experimental art being produced, including performance art, conceptual art and installation. And of course it cannot be forgotten that it was at SKC where Marina Abramovic created some of her first performances, together with fellow artists Rada Todosijevic, Nesa Paripovic (her first husband), Zoran Popovic, Era Milivojevic, and Gergelj Urkom. SKC was not just a space where artists were free to experiment, and in which they held numerous exhibitions and performances, but it was a meeting point, a place where the artists came every day to talk about art, and where artists from abroad would also come and participate in that exchange of ideas. And this is the story that is not often told in "the West," at least not in any of the books on performance art that I've read - that these artists working in Belgrade (including those who came from other parts of Yugoslavia) were very much a part of the story of the development of the genre of performance art, right from the beginning - and they were really at the heart of that story. In a way, SKC was a "free space," but it was a type of controlled freedom, of which the artists were aware. They were also aware, however, that what they were doing was on the margins, and for that reason, the authorities and official institutions didn't take them seriously, and pretty much left them alone. And in that environment, for a very brief but shining moment, performance art and avant-garde activity thrived, especially during the period of 1972-1977, in the context of the April Meetings. The Student Culture Center is still open and active, but unfortunately the creative spirit that was generated there is now mostly a memory. Although the 1970s was the heyday of that center, many of the artists that were integral to that scene there are still here, and still active. Some have moved away from performance art – for example, Rasa Todosijevic mainly works in installation and mixed media now – but others are still active in the genre, such as Era Milvojevic. Others have left the city and country altogether – most notably, Marina Abramovic, who is based in New York, and Gera Urkom, who moved to London.
Despite this resplendent history, Belgrade is another city whose cultural scene is marred by the recent economic crisis. The Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in 1958, when it was a Museum of Modern Art, and the collection is focused on works produced since 1900. The building itself is a stunning example of modern architecture, a fabulous sculptural exhibition space of steel and glass, in a peaceful location just across from the historic city center in the Park of Friendship, on the banks of the Sava River. The museum has been closed since 2008, and no one knows when it will be reopened. [A recent announcement has made that it will be reopened in 2014, but many are skeptical.] Recently, in 2012, an exhibition was staged in the empty shell of a building, entitled What Happened to the Museum of Contemporary Art? (the museum's website is currently down, but you can read this interesting blog post on two visitors' experience of the exhibit), which invited artists to make installations from and with the rubble. The museum does, however, still function, and exists in a dislocated state: there is the Salon of Contemporary Art just off the main pedestrian street of Knez Mihailova, at Parizka 14, which stages temporary exhibitions, and the administrative offices and archive/library is located in a building just next to the Museum of Yugoslav History and the House of Flowers, where Josip Broz Tito is buried. The National Museum was closed in 2003; parts of the exhibitions have reopened, and it has been announced that it will be entirely reopened by autumn 2013.
Despite the museum closures and the legacy of the Student Culture Center, there is a lot of interesting art being produced in Serbia contemporaneously. I was fortunate enough to meet with some very interesting artists from the younger generation – Vladimir Nikolic, Zoran Todorovic, and Branko Miliskovic – who also use performance in their work. What surprised me most, however, was the disconnect between their work and that of their predecessors, artists such as those previously mentioned, along with others from the SKC days, such as Nesa Paripovic and Zoran Popovic. Younger artists tell me that they learned nothing about their work, not the activity in SKC, when they were studying. Most learned of their work afterward, from books or other sources. Branko even told me that he learned about the work of Marina Abramovic when he was passing by SKC one day, and saw posters on the façade of the building advertising a retrospective exhibition on body art.
This disconnect is both perplexing yet understandable. At the time, what those artists were doing wasn’t really considered art, or taken seriously in any real way by the professors at the art academy. In fact, many went to SKC because of the freedom that the space allowed – artists were able to experiment without thinking about or having to adhere to rules or traditions. Rasa Todosijevic told me that the artists working there in the 1970s, himself among them, felt that they were really trying to create a new type of art. While some might feel that they didn’t succeed, the fact artists of the younger generation are producing equally radical work nowadays, despite their more traditional education at the Fine Arts Academy, demonstrates that they have. And in some ways, the fact that their work didn’t become coopted and accepted by the academies is a testament to its radical nature.
Another reason for the disconnect is the political history of the country. After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. In the 1990s, Serbia saw a rise in nationalism, and artists responded to this not only with their work, but by creating the Center for Cultural Decontamination – another free space, not far from SKC, where artists could create and exhibit work freely, outside of hyper-politicized public space.
Although many of the cultural institutions may be closed to visitors, Belgrade is still a great city
to do research in. Everyone I met was willing and eager to meet with me, and
share the stories of the past – even despite the fact that it was summer, and,
for the majority of my stay, nearly 40C/100F.
Belgrade reminds me a lot of New York (in a good way) – it is crowded, busy, and dirty – so it is not surprizing that there is and was a lot of interesting art happening there. I tested out my impression on artist Vladimir Nikolic, who said that after visiting New York he realized that a city cannot be alive if it is clean and orderly – so in many ways it may be the chaos and grime of Belgrade that gives it its vibrancy as an artistic hub. The city has the artists – of this generation and the previous one – making art happen. Once the Museum of Contemporary Art reopens there’s no telling what is yet to come!