The title of this post derives not from the need to emphasize where I was for the last leg of my journey through the former Yugoslavia (plus Albania!), but references the 1991 text published by Marina Grzinic and Ales Erjavec, about art and culture in Slovenia in the 1980s. The book focuses on the alternative scene and subculture, which was so pervasive and so massively influential. That strong subculture persists until this day in Ljubljana, and very accurately describes my first impression of the city.
I found it quite fitting and poetic that the last stop on the journey of my summer travels would be Ljubljana. I didn’t exactly plan it this way – much of the planning of the trips had to do with logistics, flight schedules, and availability of those on the ground that I was trying to meet. Still, when I think of the contrast between the first city that I visited, Tirana, and this, the last stop on the outermost edge of what used to be Yugoslavia (as close to the West as you can get), I can’t help but think about how far I’ve come in so little time.
The National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, the first city of my route this summer, consisted primarily of socialist realist painting. Although that city does have a thriving contemporary art scene, which exists in spite of a lack of institutional support, Ljubljana boasts a fully-fledged museum of contemporary East European art. It was also host to the first and only exhibition dedicated to an examination of performance and body art in Eastern Europe – Body and the East (1998-1999), curated by Zdenka Badovinac, who is currently director of the Modern Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art. In fact, the catalogue to that exhibition is a permanent fixture on my desk, and continues to be my Bible – phone book, really – that guides me through my research. Body and the East is my starting point when I arrive in any city – these are the artists that I ask to see first, and then build my list of contacts from there. The amazing thing about that exhibition, and the catalogue, is that most of the artists selected for that show are still relevant, still active, and still form the core of the performance and body art scene in their respective countries. The other “directory” that I have been using to guide my research is East Art Map, published by IRWIN, an artistic collective that is also based in Ljubljana. So, you can imagine that I was pretty excited to be in Ljubljana. And that was just the tip of the iceberg…
My first day in Ljubljana was a Sunday, and I spent the entire day at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Modern Art Gallery. In the 1990s, the Modern Art Gallery split into two, with the Museum of Contemporary Art being created to house the Art East 2000+ collection of contemporary Eastern European Art – a collection that was created with the aim of making the case to create a separate museum of contemporary art. It was exhibited in a building that the Modern Gallery was given use of at Metelkova, a former army barracks near the railway station that became partly occupied by artists once the Yugoslav Army moved out, following Slovenian independence. The area currently contains a number of different cultural buildings, including the Applied Arts section of the National Museum, the Center for Contemporary Art, a number of artist’s studios, and the Ministry of Culture is nearby. The divide between official and unofficial is clearly demarcated – while the artist studios are no longer a squat, the buildings are covered in decorative and fanciful graffiti, shoes dangle from the power lines, and impromptu junk sculptures dot the landscape. I was intimidated to enter this “alternative zone” at first, because it didn’t really seem open to or accessible to the public. Even the stairs in the passageway between the Museum of Contemporary Art and Metelkova are uneven and wonky, and prepare the visitor to enter a different kind of space.
While the Museum of Contemporary Art is filled with all kinds of art historical eye candy for the scholar of Eastern Europe – works by OHO (Slovenia), Dalibor Martinis (Croatia), Ion Grigorescu (Romania), Adrian Paci (Albania), Aleksander Kosolapov (Russia), Braco Dimitrijevic (Bosnia) – the Modern Gallery focuses more on Slovenian artists. There I was most impressed by the room dedicated to the first avant-garde, especially a reconstruction of the Trieste Constructivist Cabinet, a Constructivist room created in 1927 (I later discovered that this reconstruction was organized by artists Dragan Zivadinov, whom I met during my time in Ljubljana), and a display of work by OHO, an artistic collective whose work forms the foundation of Slovenian performance and action art. Their performance Triglav, a literal and visual reconstruction of Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain, has been repeated at least twice – first by IRWIN and then by Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa and Janez Jansa (more on them later…).
The next day I met with Sasa Nabergoj, a curator at the Center for Contemporary Arts, whom I had met in London, at the Calvert 22 Gallery, where she gave a presentation on self-historicization, focused on Slovenia in the 1980s. Sasa provided me with a number of interesting connections and contacts, and I set off immediately that day to start meeting those that she recommended. Later, a meeting with Alenka Gregoric from the City Gallery (Mestna Galerija) provided further contacts, and my schedule rapidly filled up.
Maybe it just happened that my visit coincided with a lot going on in the city, or maybe Ljubljana is that way all the time. Anyway, I hardly had a minute to spare on this trip (and this explains to reader of Performing the East why I pretty much stopped posting anything at all…), and that includes evenings, because just about every person I met told me about a performance, event or opening that I should attend. I had somewhere to be just about every night of the week. But it was fun to see it all fit together, this magical network of people and places coming alive before my eyes.
One of the first days that I was in Ljubljana, I met with Marina Grzinic, a philosopher and video artist herself. She took me to a performance at the Glej Theater, which was an important venue for experimental and avant-garde productions since the 1970s. She also told me about the Mladi Lev festival that was taking place, featuring young performance artists. In conjunction with that, I attended a performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art later in the week, featuring a performance of noise music in the building’s elevator, among other things.
Noise music. That is one red thread that I saw running through the city. Many of the artists working there today are tinkerers, “mad scientists,” as one person I spoke to described it, quite lovingly, creating instruments, finding new and different ways to make sounds. That was what was going on at Cirkulacije, an artistic group/workshop that creates sound installations, among other things. When I went to their studio to meet them, I found myself in another artist squat, similar to Metelkova, although a true squat, as this one is without electricity or running water! Located in Rog, a former bicycle factory, the artists working there have been described as one person I met as the next or “fourth avant-garde” in Slovenia. (The first was the historical avant-garde, in the 1920s; the second, OHO in the 1970s, and the third, NSK or Neueu Slovenische Kunst, which comprises a number of artists and collectives in the 1980s, including Laibach, IRWIN, and Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater (also known as Red Pilot and Cosmokinetic Theater Noordung).
When I sat down to meet with the guys from Cirkulacije, there was a fourth person in the mix (I understood that I was to meet three people), and I was told that he worked with two of the artists in another group, 300,000 V.K. Then they said, “he’s also part of another group – Laibach. Have you heard of them?” At first I thought they were joking – that he was from Laibach. I mean, of course I’ve heard of them, but…Laibach? I never even imagined I would meet someone from Laibach. For those who don’t know, Laibach is a band, an avant-garde music group which started out doing industrial music and evolved into other genres. But their work is about much more than the music. To footnote very briefly, especially in their early performances, the group employed a totalitarian musical and visual style, which was later described as “over-identification” – an exaggerated adoption of those techniques and ideas without an overt or obvious critique. The group’s name is in fact that German term for Ljubljana, which creates a direct reference to times of occupation (by the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later by the Fascists), and they make use of visual symbols such as swastikas and, most notably, Malevich’s black cross. Their performances were even banned in Slovenia for several years, and they were prohibited from using the name Laibach, but nevertheless (or perhaps because of this), they became internationally successful and popular. So you can see why I was surprised at this chance encounter. I really never thought that I would meet anyone from the group, let alone Dejan Knez, one of its founders and the driving force behind the group. For me, that would be like going to London and expecting to meet Mick Jagger. But this is Ljubljana, a city of 300,000 people, where you can meet anyone and everyone! The other reason I was caught off-guard by this introduction is the fact that the face of Laibach (or rather, the faces) have changed considerably over the years. In fact, Dejan told me that he hoped that Laibach would live on for years – by constantly changing the group members, this is a way that the band, and the concept, can live on, even after all of the original members are gone.
During my stay in Ljubljana there was an opening of an exhibition by a Croatian artist, Nemanija Cvijanovic, who had just completed a residency at Tobacna 001, a cultural center connected with the City Gallery, on the outskirts of the city center. Nemanija was from Rijeka, which I found to be an interesting coincidence, since I was supposed to be going to Rijeka the following day to meet Slaven Tolj, one of the most influential Croatian performance artists. Tolj was central to the development of the contemporary and performance art scene in Dubrovnik, but has recently moved to Rijeka to take up a position as the director of the Contemporary Art Museum there. When I told Nemanija I would be going to meet Slaven, he offered me a ride to Rijeka.
My time in Ljubljana continued much in that fashion – chance encounters, path-crossings, invitations to performances, events and openings, and after having been there just a few days I was already recognizing faces at these events. I was struck by how active, lively and communal the art world here truly was. And what struck me even more is the fact that many of these working relationships were established in the 1980s or even earlier, and yet they are still going strong. There was very little gossip or intrigue. In fact, the art community in Ljubljana seemed like one big, happy family, which is a difficult feat in a town of this size, where everyone knows everyone else, not to mention everyone else’s business.
This another overriding impression I had about Ljubljana: communality, anonymity, collectivity…these are words that could apply to the scene here in several ways. With every other place I visited in the former Yugoslavia, the task was simple: go to said city, meet said artist(s). With Ljubljana, it was quite different. I knew I needed to meet people from NSK, which IRWIN, Laibach, Scipion Nasice Sisters (Noordung) were all a part of; also Borghesia, as well as Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa and Janez Jansa. But how do you meet a group? Moreover, how do you meet a group whose members have changed over the years? Do you meet them all together (and how the hell do you manage that?), do you meet just the spokesperson, the figurehead, the founder, or do you try to meet as many of the people as possible? I don’t really know the correct answer to that (and my solution, given the limited time I was there, was to just meet whomever I could), but the fact that such a situation exists in the Slovenian art scene seems to indicate, at least to me, that artists here have achieved what modern and contemporary artists have been trying to achieve for decades – an escape from authorship, the removal of the hand of the artist, and the elimination of the artist-ego, that myth of the genius artist working alone in the studio. I think that part of the reason that Slovenian art has such a thriving contemporary art scene is the fact that they do work in this way. If the old adage that two heads are better than one is correct, then five or twenty is even better.
But who is Janez Jansa? Or Janez Jansa? Or even Janez Jansa? These are three artists that I met, not the former prime minister. Their project is a fascinating one: three artists all changed their names, legally, to Janez Jansa. (One has recently changed his name again – not “back,” as I am told, but forward, to the same name that he had prior to being Janez Jansa). The name project is one that I will not go into here, but found it fascinated to be caught up in the complexities of their project by virtue of wanting to meet with them. I had two appointments with Janez Jansa in my diary. Before I met them, I had no idea what the difference was between them. People would ask me, “which one are you meeting?,” and the manner in which they identified them had to do with the institutions where they worked. One was connected with the Aksioma Gallery, the other, with an institute and performing arts journal called Maska (the third I met at an opening, by chance). Because I wasn’t familiar with their birth names, as others in Slovenia were, I could only know them as Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa, and Janez Jansa. So having to go through the process of meeting them helped me to understand the project in ways that I never would, had I only read about them remotely.
My final observation about Ljubljana is a simple one: bikes! They are everywhere in Ljubljana. It is such a manageable and compact city that it is so easy to get everywhere you need to go by bike. The city even has one of those bike exchange schemes where you can rent a bike on one side of the city and drop it off on the other. I didn’t do this, because I didn’t have time to figure out how to register for the it, but during the times when I was running across the city, from meeting to meeting, I wish that I had. And it makes sense that the location of the studios of the next avant-garde would find themselves in the former bicycle factory. Like I said, everything in Ljubljana is connected!
Art is everywhere in Ljubljana. At every turn, at every corner, you find a piece of it hidden, or brazenly exhibited, from a bold wall mural to an inconspicuous piece of graffiti (even in the bathrooms!). The artists are everywhere, too, as they stroll through the city market on a Saturday to do their shopping (some have told me that this is an errand that ends up taking hours, because they end up meeting so many people that they know!). The market buildings, in fact, should be mentioned, because it was designed by a Slovenian architect whose work could be described as postmodern before its time – Joze Plecnik. Even when I thought that I had left this artistic center, sitting at my departure gate at the Joze Pucnik Airport, some 15 miles outside the city center, I glanced up, only to notice a light installation by Jasmina Cibic, an artist who I had met a few days earlier, and who represented Slovenia at the Venice Biennale this year. Indeed, there are no limits when it comes to art in Slovenia.