Dubrovnik: Heart of (performance) Art

Dubrovnik is a spectacular gem of a city on Croatia’s
stunning coastline. As a tourist destination, it has it all: beautiful beaches,
scenic mountains, and a walled Old Town dating back to the 9th
century. It also was once a thriving center of performance art, and there are
still several artists still active there. Looking at the throngs of tourists
pouring off cruise ships to wander the narrow alleys of the Old Town for an
afternoon, one quickly forgets that this was a city under siege just over two
decades ago. Dubrovnik has more than recovered from the war, but many artists
bore witness to it with their work, some using performance art to navigate the
destruction and violence being witnessed on a daily basis. Dubrovnik is also a
place where one feels a strong connection with nature – not only the sea and
the mountains, but also the nearby islands. This element is also present in
much of the performative work that I saw.

 View of Dubrovnik from the Museum of Modern Art View of Dubrovnik from the Museum of Modern Art

One of the most significant figures for the genre of performance
in Dubrovnik is one that I haven’t yet met, but hope to when I go to Rijeka
later this summer – Slaven Tolj. A performance and multi-media artist himself, Tolj
is also the founder of one of the most significant creative spaces in Dubrovnik
– the Art Workshop Lazareti, a contemporary art center located just down the
road from the Museum of Modern Art. Lazareti has existed in different locations in Dubrovnik since its inception, and in the beginning was even located in a building in the Old Town that was owned by the church. Tolj recently became director of
the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. Ilija Soskic, a
performance artist originally from Montenegro, currently living in Italy, was
active in the city around the time of the creation of Art Workshop Lazareti
(the late 1980s), and contributed to the vibrant performance art scene there as

One of the most poignant performances that I hear about was Desert of Freedom (1990), a performance
by Tolj, Bozidar Jurjevic and Maro Mitrovic on the terrace of the Museum of
Modern Art
. The performance took place just before the start of the war, and it
is now considered to be a prophetic piece, foretelling the coming of that war.
Demonstrating the fragility of life and uncertainty of the future, Jurjevic
walked blindfolded on the balustrade of the Banac Mansion, which houses the
museum, and in the courtyard, the artists exhibited a piece of a burnt tree from
the wildfires that were present around the city that summer. Several people
described the atmosphere at this time as ominous, with a sense that war was
coming. Indeed, the war started the following year.

Across the street from the Museum of Modern Art is the Excelsior
Hotel, where artist Pasko Burdzelez works as a gardener. His connection with
the earth is manifest in his work, which can also be seen in the work of
Bozidar Jurjevic. The latter lives just a short walk from the Old Town, and his
home features a beautiful terrace garden, which features prominently in several
of his performances. He can be found performing on the nearby islands, as well
as in the gardens just outside his home, for example in Cvijeće i ja (Flowers
and me

 Your black horizon Your black horizon

Performative spaces exist even in the most unexpected places
in this area. A short boat-ride from Dubrovnik is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Your black
horizon Art Pavilion
, located on the
island of Lopud. The pavilion was commissioned as an “experimental
environment,” wherein art and architecture would work together as one. Although
a stationary installation, the piece is performative insofar as the artwork is
in part created by the viewer. She or he enters the building and is greeted by
almost complete blackness. Gradually, a horizon-line appears, created by a gap
in the wall that allows light to enter. The light is actually a compilation of
the light encountered on the island in a 24-hour period. Visitors are
encouraged to remain in the building for at least ten minutes, after which that
horizon line will be imprinted on their retinas, enabling them to take it out
of the gallery with them, and view it in conjunction with the horizon present
in the landscape.

It is not surprising that performance has
played such an important role in this city. While I was in Dubrovnik, the
Summer Festival was on – a one month festival of art, including theater,
musical and dance performances that has been held every summer since 1950.
During this time the walled city becomes a performative space itself, with outdoor concerts and street performances for passersby to behold. This
year, the advertisement for the festival mapped a heart onto the plan of the
Old Town, combined with the slogan “Walls of Stone/Heart of Art.” Indeed, this
performative spirit can be felt around the city, not only during the days of
the festival.


 The performative spaces of Dubrovnik The performative spaces of Dubrovnik

About Amy Bryzgel

I am Professor in Film and Visual Culture at the University of Aberdeen, where I specialise in modern and contemporary art from Eastern Europe.
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