When I walked into Zoran Todorovic’s studio, the first image of his work that he showed me was of his stomach. Covered by surgical sheets, only one area of his stomach was exposed. It was sliced open, and a layer of fat was being removed. From a drawer, he took out a bar of glycerine soap, which had been made from that stomach fat. I shrank back in my seat, wondering if I had told anyone I was going to meet him, and whether my body fat would also end up in a personal hygiene product. Next, he showed me a meal that he had made for the attendees of his exhibition, an aspic (gelatin with various food ingredients set into it) made from discarded human tissue – ligaments and fat left over from plastic surgeries. At this point, I really started to get scared.
But I need not have worried, because Zoran is one of the nicest artists I have met. His calm and friendly demeanor belies the extreme works of art that he creates. Agalma, the first piece mentioned, with the soap made from body fat, is in many ways a token of affection for his viewers. The title, in fact, is the Greek word for a gift offered to the gods. In fact, it is a gesture of intimacy, as the viewer is invited to become a participant and benefit from the artist’s pain by washing his hands with the soap. Artist and viewer could not be any closer following the latter’s consumption of the work. When Suncica Ostojic and Olga Majcen, two curators from Kontejner, a bureau of contemporary art praxis in Zagreb, invited Zoran to take part in an exhibition, he turned the tables by asking them to take part in his work. The two bathed with the soap, and offered to bathe visitors to the exhibition in a private bath in a hotel room, which was rented specifically for this purpose. The artist sees this as a sacrifice that he made for his audience. He had stitches from the operation for one month, and it was very painful. But without this pain, he told me, there would have been no sacrifice.
Assimilation, which involved the aspic made from human tissue, was not a sacrifice made by the artist. Instead, unwitting surgery patients offered up their discarded bits that ended up in a small feast for attendees of Zoran’s exhibition. Those attendees were aware of the contents of the food being offered them; some tasted it, and others did not. The recycling of these pieces of human bodies raises questions about contemporary notions of beauty, but in the gallery it also gave rise to question about cannibalism (which isn’t, incidentally, forbidden in the places where the exhibition was held…although the murder of humans for consumption certainly is!).
The artist tells me that he wants to challenge his viewers. He realized early on that there wasn’t much left to do with painting, so he began creating situations – he became “a designer of situations,” he told me, in which people were forced to confront taboos or even the limits of their own bodies.
Take, for example, his piece Laughter, which involved the artist filling the gallery space with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. Because the gas is meant to relax patients, it produced similar effects in the visitors to the gallery, causing them to lose their inhibitions – some even started to dance! Canon tested their limits in other ways: a device producing sound of 130dB at 10 and 20Hz is installed in the gallery. These reverberations can cause illness and nausea. It produces vibrations that you can feel in your stomach, but can’t hear, thus underscoring the physical limits of one’s body.
In 2009, the artist represented Serbia at the Venice Biennale with his project and installation Warmth, which consisted of 1,200 square meters of felt blankets made from discarded human hair. This hair was taken from a variety of places – hair salons, as well as prisons and even the army. While in the former, hair cutting is a matter of choice, relating to ideas of beauty and hygiene, in the latter two, hair is cut as a form of control, and to create uniformity. [I couldn’t help but be reminded of Danie Premec’s comments to the same effect.] The installation has obvious connotations with regard to Nazi concentration camps, but the significance of the piece reaches far beyond that: for example, the piece can be seen as a DNA map for the Serbian people, insofar as all of the hair came from within that nation; the work of art becomes something useful, made from the discarded and unwanted remnants of human life (unlike in the concentration camps, this hair was taken willingly, or, in the case of prisoners, humanely); it can also be bought and sold (£100/1 square meter) and turned into clothing (one fashion designer designed a dress using the felt). For the artist, it is the viewer of the piece who produces the final picture of the artwork – through his reactions and engagements with the piece, the associations made, and the dialogue raised. He simply creates a strange situation for the viewer to contend with, and leaves it out there for interpretations and meanings to be created.