The artist who once screamed at his wife in German, yelling “Was ist Kunst?!” over and over until he was hoarse, smearing her face with paint, quietly calls to her now in English: “Darling…,” followed by a question in Serbian, trying to recall a past event or name. Rasa Todosijevic is an artist whose work spans many genres, but my interest in his work focuses on the 1970s, when he was part of an informal group of artists active at the Student Culture Center in Belgrade (SKC). Together with artists such as Era Milivojevic, Nesa Paripovic, Gera Urkom, Zoran Popovic, and Marina Abramovic, these six artists formed the nucleus of the avant-garde activity that was happening in Belgrade at the time.
The Student Culture Center was a bi-product of the student revolutions of 1968. Understanding that students needed a place in which to express themselves, yet also wanting to keep that expression from “exploding” into the streets, Tito created these centers across Yugoslavia as a way to contain the rebellious activity of the nation’s youth. In these places, students were left to themselves, to experiment and create freely, outside of the more official art institutions, such as the art academies, which took a more traditional approach to art-making.
The heyday of SKC Belgrade was short-lived. For just a few short years, between around 1971 and 1978, artists gathered there – spent their entire days there – discussing and creating art, putting on exhibitions and performances. Because they existed completely on the margins, the powers that be didn’t take them seriously, Rasa told me. This gave them free reign to experiment, outside of the strict confines of the Art Academy. What they were doing was, for the most part, ephemeral, which is also why it escaped notice. Since performance, installations and conceptual works of art did not fit into the category of “high art,” as painting or sculpture did, artists were able to create their experimental works that were, in a way, "uncategorized." Avant-garde filmmakers however, for example those associated with the Black Wave, did have problems with the authorities in relation to their unconventional work precisely because of the fact that they were working in film – a genre that had the capability of wide distribution. The fact that the work of the artists at SKC was not only contained, but difficult to disseminate, made it tolerable. A consequence of this, however, is the sheer lack of documentation from that time. Very little artwork or records of the work exists, because there simply wasn’t a consciousness about the significance of documentation. Nevertheless, Rasa told me that they – the young artists active in that group – were certain that they were going to create a new type of art.
SKC connected artists with the contemporary art scene outside of Yugoslavia’s borders as well. In conjunction with the April Meetings for Expanded Media that were held there, many artists and critics were invited to the center to exchange ideas with the artists there. Joseph Beuys, Gina Pane and Germano Celant, among others, were present.
Much of Rasa’s performative work from the SKC days remains concerned with the nature and limits of art. For example, in Decision as Art (1973) he invokes the spirit of Duchamp by giving primacy to the thought-process behind the work of art. Two years earlier, he turned his wife, Marinela, into a readymade art object, by exhibiting her in the exhibition Drangularium at SKC, next to a small table with a bottle placed on it. From 1976-1981 he repeatedly posed the question “what is art?,” in German, to a female subject (in one of the performances, this female subject was his wife, Marinela Kozelj). The language used, he has often remarked, could not be anything other than German, as it is a “command” language. Aside from the fact that the artist is asking the unanswerable, he is also rehearses the subjugation of the female subject in a patriarchal society, which parallels the situation of all subjects in a totalitarian regime, who must submit to the control of the state.
In Water Drinking (1974), the artist attempts to create temporal limits for the performative act by involving another living being (a fish) and pushing his own body to its physical limits. He drinks 26 glasses of water in 35 minutes, attempting to synchronize his drinking with that of the fish, which has been taken out of the water and placed on dry land. Because of the quick tempo with which the artist must drink, he vomits, but does so on a table covered with a tablecloth, under which is a violet pigment. The piece would last until the entire tablecloth is colored purple. Thus the entire performance is defined by the rhythms and exhaustion of the body.
His 1975 performance, Art and Memory, involved the artist sitting and reciting all of the names of artists that he could recall, from memory. This performance brings to the fore the workings of the artist’s mind, once again establishing the limits of art, and the history of art, therein. This work recalls a similar approach by conceptual artist Robert Barry, who constructed works of art that only existed as ideas in his mind, unknown to the audience. Rasa chooses to share these ideas with the audience through communication. For Rasa, it is the conceptualization of the piece followed by the act of doing constitutes the art work. This was carried through in his 1976-77 project, Not a Day without a Line, which involved the artist drawing a line on the wall (the most basic element of artistic creation) in both public and private spaces.
During this time, Rasa Todosijevic was operating as an artist in an interesting and unique liminal space. As a Yugoslav artist, he was working in a place devoid of a real art market, with no space for avant-garde activity. However, the artist had traveled extensively throughout Europe, both as a teenager, hitchhiking through, and as a young artist – traveling to Edinburgh, for example, where he performed Decision as Art in 1973. Thus he was both part of and yet not part of the international dialogue concerning art and the market. He could criticize from an external position, which adds a unique element to his work. While his work certainly responds to questions of the commercialization and institutionalization of the art object, he was not necessarily subject to those pressures in a tangible way. As the artist himself described it, what theirs was a “homeless” art, being isolated within their own country, if they wanted to exhibit or sell their work, they had to do it abroad.