Dubrovnik is a spectacular gem of a city on Croatia’s stunning coastline. As a tourist destination, it has it all: beautiful beaches, scenic mountains, and a walled Old Town dating back to the 9th century. It also was once a thriving center of performance art, and there are still several artists still active there. Looking at the throngs of tourists pouring off cruise ships to wander the narrow alleys of the Old Town for an afternoon, one quickly forgets that this was a city under siege just over two decades ago. Dubrovnik has more than recovered from the war, but many artists bore witness to it with their work, some using performance art to navigate the destruction and violence being witnessed on a daily basis. Dubrovnik is also a place where one feels a strong connection with nature – not only the sea and the mountains, but also the nearby islands. This element is also present in much of the performative work that I saw.
One of the most significant figures for the genre of performance in Dubrovnik is one that I haven’t yet met, but hope to when I go to Rijeka later this summer – Slaven Tolj. A performance and multi-media artist himself, Tolj is also the founder of one of the most significant creative spaces in Dubrovnik – the Art Workshop Lazareti, a contemporary art center located just down the road from the Museum of Modern Art. Lazareti has existed in different locations in Dubrovnik since its inception, and in the beginning was even located in a building in the Old Town that was owned by the church. Tolj recently became director of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. Ilija Soskic, a performance artist originally from Montenegro, currently living in Italy, was active in the city around the time of the creation of Art Workshop Lazareti (the late 1980s), and contributed to the vibrant performance art scene there as well.
One of the most poignant performances that I hear about was Desert of Freedom (1990), a performance by Tolj, Bozidar Jurjevic and Maro Mitrovic on the terrace of the Museum of Modern Art. The performance took place just before the start of the war, and it is now considered to be a prophetic piece, foretelling the coming of that war. Demonstrating the fragility of life and uncertainty of the future, Jurjevic walked blindfolded on the balustrade of the Banac Mansion, which houses the museum, and in the courtyard, the artists exhibited a piece of a burnt tree from the wildfires that were present around the city that summer. Several people described the atmosphere at this time as ominous, with a sense that war was coming. Indeed, the war started the following year.
Across the street from the Museum of Modern Art is the Excelsior Hotel, where artist Pasko Burdzelez works as a gardener. His connection with the earth is manifest in his work, which can also be seen in the work of Bozidar Jurjevic. The latter lives just a short walk from the Old Town, and his home features a beautiful terrace garden, which features prominently in several of his performances. He can be found performing on the nearby islands, as well as in the gardens just outside his home, for example in Cvijeće i ja (Flowers and me).
Performative spaces exist even in the most unexpected places in this area. A short boat-ride from Dubrovnik is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Your black horizon Art Pavilion, located on the island of Lopud. The pavilion was commissioned as an “experimental environment,” wherein art and architecture would work together as one. Although a stationary installation, the piece is performative insofar as the artwork is in part created by the viewer. She or he enters the building and is greeted by almost complete blackness. Gradually, a horizon-line appears, created by a gap in the wall that allows light to enter. The light is actually a compilation of the light encountered on the island in a 24-hour period. Visitors are encouraged to remain in the building for at least ten minutes, after which that horizon line will be imprinted on their retinas, enabling them to take it out of the gallery with them, and view it in conjunction with the horizon present in the landscape.
It is not surprising that performance has played such an important role in this city. While I was in Dubrovnik, the Summer Festival was on – a one month festival of art, including theater, musical and dance performances that has been held every summer since 1950. During this time the walled city becomes a performative space itself, with outdoor concerts and street performances for passersby to behold. This year, the advertisement for the festival mapped a heart onto the plan of the Old Town, combined with the slogan “Walls of Stone/Heart of Art.” Indeed, this performative spirit can be felt around the city, not only during the days of the festival.