Božidar Jurjević is an artist who consistently engages his body in performance in order to achieve maximum expression regarding the issues concerning him. There are themes that he often returns to: life, death, energy, monumentality, crisis. More specifically, his work responds to particularly overwhelming events, such as the siege of his city of Dubrovnik, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and the global economic crisis. These are events that the artist feels profoundly, and he commandeers his art to achieve catharsis, for both him and his viewer.
A leitmotif in the artist’s work is a circular form, an object that he found in the ruins of Dubrovnik’s Imperial Hotel (now the Hilton) after it was bombed during the Siege. While rummaging through the gutted building, he came across a pile of towels that had been burnt and destroyed. The manner in which they burned left only a circular/oval form remaining, as if they had burned from the edges inward, and only the small round circle from the center of the towel remained. This white space, the artist told me, is “the space of our survival.” These white circles reappear in his two-dimensional and performative work. Laid out in a circle, for example, the artist performs a meditation on these sacred spaces, by moving around them as if they were stepping stones, constantly reversing directions and increasing speed, until he finally faints from the disorientation.
These white ‘spaces of survival’ can be found in a new flag that the artist hand-crafted, using a ‘borrowed’ towel from the new Hilton Hotel in Dubrovnik, which contains the same blue and white stripes as found in the American flag. Instead of stars, however, the artist included the white circle. The pairing of Greece and the US had to do with the global economic crisis, which began in the US and was profoundly felt in Greece. For Božo, the US is a potent and evocative symbol, and he often cites connections between Dubrovnik, and the USA – for example, the fact that both of strong symbols of liberty; in the US – the Statue of Liberty, and in Dubrovnik, the Libertas flag, which was the secondary flag of the Dubrovnik Republic.
Dubrovnik may be a symbol of freedom, but the city also evokes a different feeling for the artist, as well – that of confinement. The Old City itself is a walled city, perfectly self-contained in medieval times. It goes without saying that the war took its emotional and economic toll on the city, leaving this UNESCO World Heritage Site completely decimated. In some ways, artists there tell me, the city never really recovered from the Siege. During the period immediately following it, people were depressed and couldn’t see beyond the war to any kind of future. Eventually, the city was revived, but inhabitants decided to capitalize on the influx of tourists – many sold their homes, and now in winter the Old Town is virtually empty.
Božo created a performance meant to capture this feeling of living in Dubrovnik, entitled The Door. In 1997, the artist locked himself in an abandoned hospital on the island of Lokrum, just off the Croatian coast near Dubrovnik. He described this as similar to their position in Dubrovnik – “locked in.” The artist found a dry reservoir and jumped in, but he was unsure of how he would manage to get out – that was part of the performance. He struggled, grasping for things to grab onto that would take him out of the pit. Eventually, it was the vine of a fig plant – a very common plant in Croatia and typical of Dubrovnik – that enabled him to get out. (Maybe the message is that inhabitants of Dubrovnik possess the tools necessary to get themselves out of whatever difficult situation they find themselves in!)
A sense of being trapped also pervades Božo’s work. One day, when he was in his garden, he came across a wasp that was struggling in the flypaper hanging from the trellis. No matter how hard the wasp struggled, he couldn’t free himself. “This is life,” Božo tells me – a constant struggle. He carries this struggle into his 1997 performance Eclipse, and acts it out on the streets of Zagreb. There, he attaches himself to the sculpture Landed Sun by Croatian sculptor Ivan Kožarić. The sculpture was installed in the city in 1971, and later moved. Božo attempts to move it back to its original position with the help of the bungee cords connecting him with it. The task is ultimately futile. The artist struggles and struggles until, like the wasp, he becomes exhausted and gives up. The artist re-enacted this performance in 2007, and plans to re-enact it every ten years (perhaps until he finally succeeds?). But, as he tells me, what the performance demonstrates is the fact that “the destiny of every artist is death.”
Nevertheless, the artist still attempts to save himself. In 1991, when the Museum of Modern Art in Dubrovnik was packing its entire collection into boxes to preserve its fate, the artist himself climbed into one, asking the question why the city wasn’t packing its living artists into those boxes. For him, the city’s living inhabitants were just as important – most likely more – than the inanimate works of art that were being saved. The war was not the artist’s only brush with death. In a January 2009 performance, Wind Rose, the artist announced the global economic crisis by standing atop a mast on the pier. He then descended to the water’s edge and proceeded to walk into the sea with a rope attached to his waist, while blowing up black balloons (symbolizing the crisis). He chose this day in particular, because he had been in touch with meteorologists who told him that it would be extremely wavy that day. Indeed it was, and the artist nearly drowned trying to return to shore. The crashing waves represented not only the instability and drama of the economic crisis; the water also offered an opportunity for cleansing, and regeneration. This theme returns in the artist’s 2003 performance in Zaragosa, where he struggled in a waterfall, also while blowing balloons – this time, red ones.
Bozo’s struggle with nature is the eternal one that has plagued man, who becomes dwarfed in the overwhelmingly awesome powers of nature. Božo expanded on this contrast in Flight in the Monastery (2003), also in Zaragosa, where he uses the power of his own breath to move a feather around its monumental surroundings. For the artist, monumental architecture has its own energy field, and he wanted to create a contrast between that and the lightness of the feather.
That said, his work is by no means light, and consistently carries the heaviness of the world and its earthly burdens with it. The only release, it seems, comes from death. His video performance, Katerina’s Flight, was dedicated to his mother, who died of cancer after the war. In his garden, he takes on the role of the shaman, decorated with feathers, and communicating with the seagulls. In his dance, he attempts to become one of them, and fly away, in the ultimate escape from this closed situation – in Dubrovnik, and in life in general.
The artist has said that he feels that there is more potential to express with his body than with painting, and he engages his body not only to express and to feel his way through these situations, but to enable his viewer to feel them as well. In feeling them, the aim is catharsis and purging, a way out of the body and into the spiritual realm.