More than 30 years after his avant-garde predecessors posed questions at the Student Culture Center in Belgrade, with regard to the nature and limits of art in the contemporary context, Vladimir Nikolic raises those questions again, in the same city, yet in an entirely different context. While the SKC artists were working within the international context of global conceptualism, within the confines of Yugoslavia, Nikolic is working in post-war Serbia, which by default presents a different set of challenges to the artist. While Rasa Todosijevic questioned the nature of art, and Nesa Paripovic circumscribed the actions of the artist, Nikolic questions what it means to be a Serbian artist, what it means to be a successful artist, and how to understand contemporary art in general.

The artist admits to foregrounding the struggle to become a well-known and great artists from the very beginning of his career.  But he had to figure out how to go about doing this. In his words, “entering the books and media was impossible, because I was nobody, and I had done nothing yet.” Instead of waiting until he was somebody, and had done something, he found ways to insert himself in the discourse surreptitiously. For example, using an ordinary crossword puzzle, the artist used the very mechanism of the puzzle in order to become inscribed on the page. He gets this result because of the nature of the game: when solving a puzzle, if a word or name is unfamiliar to you, you can simply fill in the answers to the questions you do know, and then the answers to the ones you don’t will appear, formed by the letters of the words you knew. Thus, in the end, the artist’s name will appear on the surface of the puzzle, even if the person solving it isn’t familiar with his name. Later, he performed a similar gesture when he inscribed his name on the landscape of the city by creating parking spaces for himself. In this way, he literally created a space for himself as an artist in the world.

One of the artist’s earlier video performances, created together with Vera Vecanski, outlines How to Become a Great Artist (2001). A young woman appears sheepishly before the camera, complaining that she would like to become a great artist, but simply doesn’t know how. The voice of one “great artist” speaks to her, telling her various things that she needs to do – one of which, is to know how to speak English. He sits beside her, paintbrush in hand, and asks her to repeat the phrases “I am a great artist. You are a great artist. He is not a great artist.” Furthermore, the video instructs that an artist must be focused and concentrated, and “keep pace with high art.” The two – master and apprentice – engage in a dance that shows them moving to the pace of the art world. In some ways, all of the above works by Nikolic reminded me of those by Goran Trbuljak, who also probed the issue of becoming a known and recognized artist in 1970s Croatia (Yugoslavia).

For Nikolic, the barrier between artist and art world is significantly different that that experienced by the Yugoslav artists of the 1970s. While on the one hard, artists complained of being isolated, they were indeed well connected with the rest of the art world. Travel in and out of Yugoslavia was much freer in comparison with the communist countries of Central Europe, for example. Still, artists lacked a real art market, and any significant institutional support for their art. The new millennium in Serbia, however, was a post-war environment. Following the war in Bosnia and the Milosevic regime, the Serbian reputation in an international context had been significantly altered. As an artist, Nikolic was very much aware of this “geopolitical burden,” as he calls it. This was a very common phenomenon throughout the former East, where artists were often expected to present work that reflected their socio-political origins. In the Balkans, this expectation was quite pointed, in that there was often the expectation that their work would somehow relate to war or individual ethnicity, which Westerners would find “exotic.” But one of the founding principles of modern art is that it is supposed to be decontextualized. The readymade, for example, is an object that it is taken from its original context and given a new meaning, by being placed in an art context. Nikolic addresses these contradictions in his performative piece, Death Anniversary (2004). About this piece, he said “Did you ever talk, but no one was listening? Felt like you were talking to a deaf person? In basic terms – Death Anniversary is a performance in which one is trying to communicate with a person who cannot hear him. I had that experience almost every time I was showing my work internationally.”

To create the piece, the artist hired a professional dirge singer from Montenegro to fly to France with him, take the train to Rouen, and sing at the grave of Marcel Duchamp. It was no small feat to accomplish this, and the full and incredible story can be read on the artist’s website. The artist has commented that this amazing back story often overshadows the work itself, which is ironic, considering that the piece is precisely about avoiding that type of social and “ethno-art,” but it nevertheless forms part of the work. In the end, the piece takes place with the dirge singer, the true Balkan artist, singing at the grave, literally positioned between Nikolic and Duchamp, his ethnicity and national origin preventing him from gaining access to the international and modern art world.

The artist takes an ironic approach to himself as an artist, and this is no more evident than in his three videos Land Art, Installation, and Performance (all from 2009), which feature either a video of a landscape (Land Art) or what appears to be a performance (Installation, Performance), with the voice-over of a journalist and art critic providing commentary as to what is going on. The commentary vacillates from pompous and pretentious to befuddled and perplexed, as the two attempt to figure our what the incredibly simple actions (or non-actions, in the case of Landscape) of the artist could mean. In Performance the critic interprets the piece as a reference to the 1970s, given the fact that it is in black and white, and given the way the artist is dressed. The journalist then asked whether this could just happen to be what the artist was wearing that day, as opposed to having any particular meaning, to which the critic responds, quite condescendingly, “no, no, no…” In these pieces, it is not only the artist’s action that is poked fun at, but the critics as well, who offer complex interpretations when simple explanations could suffice. For Nikolic, however, he is criticizing his own “inner” curator, the voice inside his head that asks him what he is doing and why. 

I was surprised to learn that Nikolic did not grow up heavily burdened by the  legacy of the performance artists at SKC in the 1970s. It is, however, a common story that that history and lineage was not well-preserved or passed on to subsequent generations. It certainly wasn’t taught at art school. Instead, Nikolic learned of these artist during a course on Art Theory and the History of the Image offered by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art in the 1990s, and that was when he learned of artists like Abramovic. His own personal trajectory through art is that he knew, when he finished art school, that he would not paint; he simply did not know what to do with this skill. So, he stopped painting, and he started talking. And since then, he has had a lot to say, about both artists and the institution.