Aleksandar Battista Ilic

 It was around 1992 that Aleksandar and his partner Ivana
Keser started to become friends with fellow Croatian artist Tomislav Gotovac.
Their friendship sprang from a mutual love of film, and Gotovac, who knew just
about everything about every film, was stumped by a question the pair had for
him about the film The Last Samurai.
Gotovac was impressed, and it was the start of a beautiful friendship.

In 1995 the three started taking walks up Sljeme, the
highest peak of Medvednica, a mountain
just outside Zagreb. The walks started simply as walks, without any artistic or
other intention. During the course of the ten hours of the day, the trio would
hike, wander, swim, have picnics and – most importantly – talk. These weekly
walks and conversations later became codified as an artwork, once curators and
art historians got wind of what they were doing, and the piece that comprises
these walks is called Weekend Art:
Hallelujah the Hill
. Although the official dates of the piece are
1996-2000, the dates are more suggestive than precise, as there is no fixed
starting and ending point for the walks. The title is part descriptive
(‘weekend art,’ when the walks took place), and part nod to Adolfas Mekas, and
his film Hallelujah the Hills, which
also took place in the hills – the mountains of upstate New York and Maine.

 The orientation of Zagreb is toward the mountains

The orientation of Zagreb is toward the mountains

When arriving in
Zagreb by plane, one drives through the outskirts of the city, over the Sava
River, and right up to the foothills of Medvednice, where the historic heart of
the city is located. This has always struck me as unusual – the fact that the
city is not oriented or built on the river, but rather at the foot of a
mountain. I can’t think of many other European cities that have this
orientation. The riverbank, in fact, is rather deserted; although surrounded by
pristine grasslands, only the rare jogger or pedestrian can be seen walking
along it. Aleksandar confirms this by telling me that the city’s orientation
has always been toward the mountains, and they play a significant role in the
city’s cultural scene, as well. For example, he told me that when John Cage
came to Zagreb he went to Sljeme, looking for mushrooms (Cage was an avid
mycologist), the Gorgona Group brought their paintings to the mountains (in
1964, Josip Vanista left one of his paintings there, in the snow, thus destroying
it), and many other artists communed with the mountain in their own way. In
fact, this was how the art world learned of “Weekend Art” before it was even
called that – by witnessing it when they were on the mountain, as well.

Aleksandar described
the significance of these walks and conversations as being in the gesture,
noting that that the actual exchange of experience that the three shared was
very important. By spending so much concentrated time together, they were each
testing the limits of their own self-censorship – of the type that we all
experience when communicating with another person – by pushing themselves
toward their limits, they were moving toward the border between art and
life.  Aleksandar talked of a belief in
activist art, and described this piece as belonging to that spirit – not “the
aestheticization of the activist gesture,” which activist and social art often
is, but rather an authenticity of being, which is an act in itself. Aleksandar
described the gesture of their artwork as completely “ephemeral,” and reminded
me that what is exhibited of these weekend walks – the photographs of the three
of them – is only about 2% of what the artwork actually is. The artwork was the
experience, the development of relationships, the personal and private moments
spent communing on Sljeme together. As a direct experience, it is not
transferable, but as a gesture, it was and is authentic, and exists in that
state as a work of art.

Gotovac was the
perfect collaborator for this piece, as he was the artist who lived and
breathed the idea of “life as art.” He also viewed everything through the lens
of film, and Aleksandar described the photos from the artwork as “frames” from
the film, with a huge ellipsis between each frame, of a film that lasted for ten
years.

The piece was both
about escape and return – the escape to the mountain, away from the
politicization of art and life during and after the war, as well as an escape
from an art world that had moved away from the ephemeral and conceptual in
order to “return to painting” in the 1980s and 1990s. But the artists sought a
different return, a reinvigoration of art with conceptualism, and a
reconnection between the artists of the 1960s and 1970s (which was strongly
oriented toward conceptual and performance art) and the artists of today. In
many ways, it seems as if this aim was achieved, as the great cohort of
contemporary performance artists in Croatia will attest to.

Weekend Art: Hallelujah the Hill is an interesting project in that it is one
that is almost completely unknowable. The only glimpses we have into the
artwork are the staged photographs that the artists took to capture various
moments or topics of conversation, and the legend that goes along with the
piece. It is a piece that takes the “art into life” tenet to the extreme, and
follows the performance and land art aim to remove art from the commercialized
and politicized space of the gallery. And perhaps owing to its complete
ephemerality, was largely successful.