Performing the East in Scotland

After I returned to the West from Romania and Moldova, I made a trip further (south)west from Aberdeen, to Edinburgh, to meet with Richard Demarco. I had first met him when I arrived at Aberdeen in 2009, promptly getting in touch with the man responsible for bringing Eastern European performance art to Scotland, the UK and the West nearly fifty years ago. Demarco is an artist, art enthusiast and patron, and as early as the 1960s he was traveling to Eastern Europe himself, visiting artists, and inviting them back to Edinburgh to exhibit or perform. He organized the first exhibition of Romanian painters in the UK, which was not only exhibited in Edinburgh, but also at the Aberdeen Art Gallery (!!!). Zoran Popovic, Rasa Todosijevic and even Marina Abramovic traveled from Belgrade to perform in Edinburgh. Demarco even befriended Joseph Beuys, who came to Scotland at his invitation to create an action on The Moor of Rannoch in the Highlands (1970).

The last time I met Ricky, he came to Aberdeen, but this time I traveled to Edinburgh to visit him at his Demarco Art Foundation, now located at Summerhall, the current headquarters of the Edinburgh Festival. When I walked into the exhibition space I had a feeling similar to when I walked into the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana – surrounded by familiar names, if not faces – Laibach, Kantor, Neagu, Abramovic. A few weeks after meeting my meeting with Ricky, I returned to Edinburgh to spend some time at the Demarco Archive at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. All of Demarco’s art collection prior to 1990, plus all of the paper documentation, is housed in this archive at the SNGMA. In addition to looking through the materials, I was eager to see if I could watch a video of Romanian artist Paul Neagu’s Gradually Going Tornado, which he performed – wait for it – at the Grampian TV Studios (now STV) in Aberdeen! I had first heard about this performance some time ago, and was aware that it had taken place in Aberdeen, but when I actually witnessed this Romanian artist doing a 25-minute performance in front of a live audience in a TV studio in Aberdeen, knowing that it had also been broadcast across Scotland (or at least the Northeast of Scotland), exactly 40 years ago this year – the excitement was indescribable. I can’t help but believe it was fate that brought me to Aberdeen, as opposed to anywhere else in the world, to teach and do research about performance art in Eastern Europe.

I was able to watch the video at the SNGMA. The most exciting part about it was the discussion that ensued afterward. Ricky, together with Fred Stibben, from Grey’s School of Art, and the art critic for The Guardian at the time, sat with the artist and discussed the piece with him. What was so interesting was listening to them try to come up with the language to describe the work of art that they had just witnessed. This was 1974, just eight years after Allan Kaprow had published Assemblages, Environments and Happenings, and five years before Roselee Goldberg’s Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present. While all of those present agreed that they had just witnessed something incredible, none had precisely the words to describe it yet.

Much has been written or speculated about the influence of Western art and artists on the art of Eastern Europe. A less-told story, however, and one that needs more investigation, is the impact that artists from the Eastern Bloc had on artists in Western Europe and North America. Many Western artists traveled East (Chris Burden, Gina Pane), but when artists from the East, such as those mentioned above, traveled to the West, they brought with them their artwork with its own unique innovations. The Demarco Archive is just one of many sources that can be use to examine these instances of artistic exchange, between East and West.

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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.