Montenegrin Alternative Culture
One of the drives behind the development of performance art
in the West was the desire to involve the viewer or spectator in the artwork.
Performance artists relinquished their control over the work to the viewer,
by inviting him, and sometimes forcing him, to participate. Joseph Beuys
proclaimed that “everyone is an artist,” a claim similar to that made by Dada
and Postmodern artist avant la lettre,
Marcel Duchamp. So it is quite fitting that there is an activist performance
art group in Montenegro composed entirely of “non-artists” – those with no
artistic training, but equipped with a desire to “change the system” (or at least some ways of
thinking) by using performance and interventions into the everyday to do so.
The people behind Montenegrin Alternative Culture all have day jobs – one is a
lawyer, another a journalist, and one is a sociologist. They came together to
form this NGO not primarily to make art, but to change things in the greater
society by using art to call attention to the issues that they feel need
The group has received some criticism from those in the art
world. “That isn’t art,” I’ve heard people say. But I have to wonder what
Joseph Beuys would think, and I think he would recognize what Montenegrin
Alternative Culture does as art. After all, he was interested in “social
sculpture” – the idea that discussion and conversation could be art. He wanted
to change society, and so does this NGO.
The main point of criticism for the group is the patriarchal
nature of Montenegrin society, one that is based on parochial and rural
traditions that may no longer have meaning in contemporary society. More
importantly, they challenge the fact that many of the traditions that are
adhered to are ones that people no longer think about – they just do them
mechanically because it is customary to do so. The performances of Montenegrin
Alternative Culture challenge their viewers to do otherwise. It is the hypocrisy
of society that they object to – these false traditions that remain unchecked.
For example, they staged a mock funeral/exhibition opening,
drawing parallels between the rituals involved in the two acts. At this funeral, there was a coffin, which was
empty, but above it was a mirror, so in paying your respects, you are forced to honor yourself, not the
dead. Both funerals and exhibition openings involve standing around and
drinking alcohol, but not necessarily paying attention to the “main
attraction,” so to speak (the deceased or the artwork, respectively). Both also
involve empty and vapid speeches about the main subject, regardless of one’s
real opinion about the person who has died or the artwork on display. The group
find these parallels interesting, and an example of how the rural traditions of
the funeral have been transformed into the urban tradition of an exhibition opening.
As is customary with performance, the element of chance brought an additional
twist to the piece – the person from whom they rented the casket showed up
early to take it away, and the audience was none the wiser. The group played
along, and acted as if they were removing the deceased from the room, just as
at a funeral.
Historically, performance art also developed as a way for
artists to challenge the market system and the commercialization of art.
Likewise, the Montenegrin Alternative Culture group use performance to challenge
commercialism in everyday society – especially the commercialization of
religion. They talk about the fact that most churches have a small kiosk where
one can buy not only icons and religious paraphernalia, but also souvenirs of
football clubs and photographs of war criminals.
Furthermore, they observed how
religious symbols penetrate every aspect of society – they can be found hanging
from the rear-view mirror in a taxi, on the wall of a café or in a barber shop.
Their recent event, “Pop Ikona” (Pop means “Pope” in Montenegrin), attempted to draw attention to the
interpenetration between the religious and commercial spheres. They created a
picture of a saint with a cloak emblazoned with the Chanel logo. They filled
perfume bottles with holy water (surreptitiously taken from a church), and the
bottles were labelled “Heresy,” their new brand of perfume. It has no scent,
but it supposedly had a religious aura. At the event, girls wearing Heresy
t-shirts walked around and spritzed the viewers with this new perfume.
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While the group may not be officially trained artists, they
are certainly aware of the traditions in which they are working. When I met
with them, they spoke passionately about Marina Abramovic (as I’ve said before,
she is very much present here in the Balkans), and the shamanistic role she
plays as an artist in society. For them it is the spiritual component of her
work that makes it effective. While not every artist can be a shaman, this
group certainly has passion. They declare that they are not “haters,” and feel
that one cannot accomplish change with negative energy. They decry empty
political activism that is without any real goal or aim, other than to protest.
They create their work in their free time, not for profit, but because they
enjoy it, and really feel that with their work, they can make a difference,
even if it is just changing one small aspect of society or way of thinking. And
that sounds like the true spirit of an avant-garde artist to me.