Call for Papers: Subversive Practices and Imagined Realities

I just thought I’d post this in case there are any readers interested in submitting a paper proposal for a panel that I am co-organizing with Andrea Euringer-Batorova, at this year’s Association of Art Historians annual conference in Norwich, UK, in April 2014:

CFP: Subversive Practices and Imagined Realities in Central, Eastern and Southern Europe since 1945 (Norwich, UK, April 9-11, 2015)

Deadline: November 10, 2014

Session Convenors:

Amy Bryzgel, University of Aberdeen, a.bryzgel@abdn.ac.uk

Andrea Euringer-BátorováAcademy of Fine Arts and Design, Bratislava, Slovakia, euringer-batorova@vsvu.sk

 

AAH2015 41st Annual Conference & Bookfair Sainsbury Centre for Art, UEA, Norwich, April 9-11, 2015

In communist Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, the building of socialism had as its final endpoint a utopia that provided the ultimate motivation: sacrifice now, reward later. In its sheer impossibility, it was an elusive and illusory dream that formed the foundation for everyday life under totalitarian regime. Within this visionary world, artists such as Alexander Mlynarcik (Slovakia), Marko Kovacic  (Slovenia) or Mark Verlan (Moldova), created their own parallel worlds, utopias, dystopias, and fantastic domains. In many cases, alternative and nonofficial artists’ works served to carve out a unique space in the so-called “grey zone” of Europe, which offered an alternative not only to state-sponsored socialism, but also to Western capitalism, both of which many artists and dissidents viewed with equal suspicion. This panel will examine a range of artistic ideas, participative strategies, subversive practices, networks and projects (imaginary or real), which demonstrate an alternative sphere of thinking and modes of creative living, and which possibly attempt to move beyond the classical binary systems of West and East – all from within an everyday world order that seemed to be set in stone. We also invite papers that offer a more differentiated view, even extending to the post-socialist period, aiming to re-evaluate the nexus of aesthetics and politics and produce new interpretations and analytical approaches regarding counterculture and censorship, which explore the relational aspects of following binaries: official and unofficial, political and apolitical, permitted and prohibited – under totalitarian rule.

 

The deadline for abstracts is November 10, 2014. Paper proposals must be emailed directly to the session convenor(s). You must provide a 250 word abstract for a 30 minute paper. Include your name and institution affiliation (if any). Please follow the format found in the “Paper Proposal Guidelines” document found here: http://www.aah.org.uk/annual-conference/sessions2015

You should receive an acknowledgement of receipt of your submission within two weeks from the session convenor(s).  

Unfortunately no fee is payable to speakers; all speakers must register and pay to attend the conference. 

See more at: http://www.aah.org.uk/annual-conference/sessions2015  and http://www.aah.org.uk/annual-conference/sessions2015/session27

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East Meets West in Berlin

Berlin is a city that literalized the split between East and West during the Cold War. Nowadays, although the political divisions between both sides of the city no longer exist, the physical traces of the post-war era not only remain, but are being increasingly highlighted in an attempt at recuperation of the distant past, after being quickly swept away in the immediate post-Wall period. Nowadays, visitors to Berlin can observe traces of the Cold War all around, as they straddle brass markers on the sidewalks indicating where, in the currently free and open space, the physical barrier of the Wall once stood, and places such as the DDR Museum and the Palace of Tears, the former border crossing at the Friedrichstraße Train Station, offer a vivid glimpse into the socialist past.

I traveled to Berlin to meet some of the artists who had been involved in performance art in East Germany in the 1980s, and also to meet other artists who have relocated there from elsewhere in Eastern Europe, as the city is a veritable Mecca for artists across Europe. My trip also coincided with a conference on Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere, which brought together a range of scholars all focused on performance in Eastern Europe. So, it was a jam-packed week.

I began my stay in Berlin by traveling two hours south of the city, to Golßen, near the village where Micha Brendel, one of the Autoperforationsartisten, currently lives. I spent the better part of the day with him, listening to his stories about this performance art group from the 1980s and their work, looking through his archive of photographs, and even watching some videos. Later in the week I met with Else Gabriel and Via Lewandowsky to hear their side of these stories. Via also spoke in a round table at the Performing Arts in the Second Public Sphere conference.

I also had a long-awaited meeting with Tanja Ostojić, who is originally from Belgrade but currently lives in Berlin. We had a very performative meeting on the playground while her son climbed on the jungle gym in the background. At one point we took shelter under a slide as a rain shower started, together with another mom, who was pretty surprised at our in-depth conversation about art, politics and performance in the sand pit! My trusty notebook still bears traces of the drips and drops that tried to subvert my notetaking process as we spoke!

Tanja is an artist who has long been interested in borders and migration, so I found it an interesting coincidence when the Belarusian artist that I met in Berlin, Marina Naprushkina, asked me to meet her at a bar called Heimat. It was 11AM on a weekday morning, and I was surprised to be meeting at a bar, but when I arrived there I learned that she was the owner, and the bar was mainly closed during the day, but in the evenings it became a social meeting point for migrants and refugees from a local camp in the neighborhood. While the artist doesn’t necessarily see this social club as an artistic project, her artwork is very much political, so it is difficult to distinguish her work as an activist from her work as an artist. One of her main ongoing artistic projects is called Office for Anti-Propaganda, which she started in 2007, as a platform to examine various forms and manifestations of political propaganda. As Marina spoke to me about the real-life concerns for political and artistic freedom in contemporary Belarus, I was struck by the parallels between the current situation for her as an artist working in Minsk and the situation for East German artists just three decades prior.

I have been coming to Berlin for many years now, ever since my first visit to that city in 1994. Since then, the Wall that quickly disappeared in 1989 has been subtly re-erected, in the form of a brass zig-zag underfoot, reminding one of the dividing line that once was. Potsdamer Platz has been rebuilt into a shiny postmodern metropolis, complete with shopping mall and Cineplex. A few blocks down, you can visit the former headquarters of the Secret State Police, and see one of the last remaining chunks of the actual Wall still standing. Checkpoint Charlie has become a circus of tourists, and the former entrance to West Berlin at Friedrichstraße is now a museum. In may Eastern European cities nowadays, past and present coexist side by side, but in Berlin this juxtaposition is somehow more poignantly felt, perhaps because of its liminal space in the Soviet sphere – a redolent zone where East literally met West, and the Iron Curtain was visible in the form of a reinforced concrete wall.

 El Lissitzky's Proun Room in Berlinische Galerie El Lissitzky’s Proun Room in Berlinische Galerie

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Performing the East in Scotland

After I returned to the West from Romania and Moldova, I made a trip further (south)west from Aberdeen, to Edinburgh, to meet with Richard Demarco. I had first met him when I arrived at Aberdeen in 2009, promptly getting in touch with the man responsible for bringing Eastern European performance art to Scotland, the UK and the West nearly fifty years ago. Demarco is an artist, art enthusiast and patron, and as early as the 1960s he was traveling to Eastern Europe himself, visiting artists, and inviting them back to Edinburgh to exhibit or perform. He organized the first exhibition of Romanian painters in the UK, which was not only exhibited in Edinburgh, but also at the Aberdeen Art Gallery (!!!). Zoran Popovic, Rasa Todosijevic and even Marina Abramovic traveled from Belgrade to perform in Edinburgh. Demarco even befriended Joseph Beuys, who came to Scotland at his invitation to create an action on The Moor of Rannoch in the Highlands (1970).

The last time I met Ricky, he came to Aberdeen, but this time I traveled to Edinburgh to visit him at his Demarco Art Foundation, now located at Summerhall, the current headquarters of the Edinburgh Festival. When I walked into the exhibition space I had a feeling similar to when I walked into the Moderna Galerija in Ljubljana – surrounded by familiar names, if not faces – Laibach, Kantor, Neagu, Abramovic. A few weeks after meeting my meeting with Ricky, I returned to Edinburgh to spend some time at the Demarco Archive at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. All of Demarco’s art collection prior to 1990, plus all of the paper documentation, is housed in this archive at the SNGMA. In addition to looking through the materials, I was eager to see if I could watch a video of Romanian artist Paul Neagu’s Gradually Going Tornado, which he performed – wait for it – at the Grampian TV Studios (now STV) in Aberdeen! I had first heard about this performance some time ago, and was aware that it had taken place in Aberdeen, but when I actually witnessed this Romanian artist doing a 25-minute performance in front of a live audience in a TV studio in Aberdeen, knowing that it had also been broadcast across Scotland (or at least the Northeast of Scotland), exactly 40 years ago this year – the excitement was indescribable. I can’t help but believe it was fate that brought me to Aberdeen, as opposed to anywhere else in the world, to teach and do research about performance art in Eastern Europe.

I was able to watch the video at the SNGMA. The most exciting part about it was the discussion that ensued afterward. Ricky, together with Fred Stibben, from Grey’s School of Art, and the art critic for The Guardian at the time, sat with the artist and discussed the piece with him. What was so interesting was listening to them try to come up with the language to describe the work of art that they had just witnessed. This was 1974, just eight years after Allan Kaprow had published Assemblages, Environments and Happenings, and five years before Roselee Goldberg’s Performance Art: from Futurism to the Present. While all of those present agreed that they had just witnessed something incredible, none had precisely the words to describe it yet.

Much has been written or speculated about the influence of Western art and artists on the art of Eastern Europe. A less-told story, however, and one that needs more investigation, is the impact that artists from the Eastern Bloc had on artists in Western Europe and North America. Many Western artists traveled East (Chris Burden, Gina Pane), but when artists from the East, such as those mentioned above, traveled to the West, they brought with them their artwork with its own unique innovations. The Demarco Archive is just one of many sources that can be use to examine these instances of artistic exchange, between East and West.

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Probably Moldova Does Exist

I have to admit, I didn’t know what to expect from my trip to Moldova. I didn’t know much about contemporary art in Moldova, other than what I had read about in East Art Map and Body and the East.  Before my arrival I was able to get in touch with one artist, but many of the other people that I wanted to meet seemed to have moved abroad. I took the Center for Contemporary Art as my usual starting point, and got in touch with the Director, Lilia Dragneva, whom I knew also as an artist. The response I got from Lilia made me suddenly very excited to come to Chisinau.

 K:SAK invites you in at  Bănulescu-Bodoni 5  K:SAK invites you in at Bănulescu-Bodoni 5

Instead of simply inviting me to use the resources of K:SAK (the Center for Contemporary Art), she also mentioned a number of different opportunities for things that I could get involved in during my time in Moldova. There was a conference taking place on Marxism and contemporary art that she invited me to participate in, and also offered to arrange for me to give a talk at Teatru Spalatorie, a new artist-run theatre and contemporary art space in the city. Lilia’s enthusiasm for collaboration set the tone for my impending trip, and it turned out to be just as exciting as I anticipated.

 Ghenadie and his Mamaliga Medal Ghenadie and his Mamaliga Medal

I started my week with a few meetings with artists. I had lunch with Pavel Braila, who introduced me to Zeama – a chicken soup that is one of Moldova’s national dishes – and told me about a performance that he did where he served the soup to his viewers. I also met Ghenadie Popescu, who introduced me to Mamaliga (polenta, also a national dish), although the mamaliga he showed me was not fit for consumption! Instead, he uses mamaliga as a symbol of national identity and covers ordinary objects with it, or makes objects out of it. He even made a gigantic mamaliga that he pulled, on a cart, from Chisinau, the capital of the Republic of Moldova, to Iasi, the capital of the region of Moldova in Romania. He uses his cart to bridge the gap between these two regions that are united by national cultural traditions, yet separated by a geo-political border.

I spent a lot of time at K:SAK, sifting through dusty file folders on artists and files on events hosted by the Center, which effectively contributed to the development of contemporary art in Moldova, which began, effectively, after 1991. Carbonart was an art camp that has been held regularly in summer since 1996, and provides opportunities for young artists to learn about and experiment with new techniques, for example, mixed media, installation and performance, which are not traditionally taught at the Art Academy. Pavel Braila told me about the significance of this camp in his development as an artist, and for many artists it was the first real contact with non-traditional genres. The title for this post is taken from one of his works, a poster he made in 2002, together with Manuel Raeder, showing a poster for Manifesta 4, which included a map that omitted Moldova from the geography. On top of the map, Braila posted a hand-written note: “Probably Moldova doesn’t exist.”

The conference that K:SAK hosted, “The paradigm of the marxist critique of modernism and the context of current approaches of contemporary art” offered another opportunity to learn not only about the development of contemporary art in Moldova, but also different topics related to art and culture in Hungary, Latvia, Russia and Romania, as well. Lilia Dragneva presented a talk on her work Kinovari (imitatzia), a fascinating project that she and Lucia Macari realized in 2000. Responding to the situation of contemporary art in Moldova, which began not spontaneously through the impetus of artists, but rather following the establishment of the Soros Center for Contemporary art in Chisinau (now K:SAK), these two  created a project wherein artists would self-consciously copy iconic works of art from the canon of art history. What I found particularly interesting about this project was that artist copied not only Western works of contemporary art, but also works by artists from Eastern Europe, such as Ilya Kabakov and Collective Actions (both from Russia). Thus struck me as poignant, indicating precisely the point of the project – while quite often the point of orientation for Eastern European artists has been toward the West, across the region, artists had nevertheless developed their own forms of contemporary art, so that by the year 2000 these works by Kabakov and Collective Actions, for example, were also considered iconic works of contemporary art. Moldova, however, was at that point still trying to catch up, and Lilia’s and Lucia’s project also had a didactic function: to provide artists the opportunity to work through the stage of copying and imitation, as is the traditional pattern for artists, and arrive eventually at their own solutions. As Lilia has written, the project was based on “a need to identify a place for contemporary art in order to enable its passage to a new stage of discovery” (East Art Map, 242).

 Teatru Spalatorie Teatru Spalatorie

That said, throughout the Soviet period contemporary art did develop in its own manner, however primarily through painting. A fascinating presentation by Dr. Ludmila Toma, an art critic and scholar at the Academy of Sciences in Moldova, led the audience through the development of painting in Moldova since the second World War. She did this not through a slide presentation, but by showing us books, many published – and financed – by her or her family, on individual artists, such as Valentina Rusu Ciobanu, Dimitrie Sevastionov, and Mihail Grecu. Nowadays, Grecu is one of Moldova’s most celebrated painters, but in the Soviet period, his experiments with different materials (for example, dripping glue on the canvas) and formalism made some of his work controversial. But as Dr. Toma told us, “life was more difficult for the critic than the artists during that time!” The scholar was actually dismissed from the Academy of Sciences for a text that she wrote about Grecu, and only able to return after 1990. I asked Dr. Toma if there was a book on contemporary Moldovan art or painting, so that others could have access to this information, which remains largely an oral history at this point, and she told me that she is currently working on it.

During my time in Moldova, I was lucky not only to visit Teatru Spalatorie, but was also able to see a performance there and give a talk myself. Teatru Spalatorie, which translates as “Laundry Theater” (and its logo has the look of a brand of laundry detergent), is an artist-run space, one of the few spaces for alternative theater, performance art and other contemporary art events. The performance I saw was entitled “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears” by Dumitru Stegarescu, a young theatre student. During this 20-minute performance, Dumitru appeared on stage before a pile of cement bricks. After donning a hard hat, he proceeded to arrange the bricks, leaving the audience in suspense as to what, exactly, he was building. In the end, he had constructed a giant man. Then he took off his workers’ clothes and started to tell us his story. It was a story that is quite common in Moldova, that of an absent father, working in Moscow in construction, coming home periodically to bring back his earnings to support his family and for a brief visit. At the end of the performance, Dumitru asked an audience member to take a picture of him with his “dad,” whom he had just built with the cement bricks. It was an interesting opportunity to see contemporary artwork being produced now in Moldova, and also the fact that, like much of the work I had seen, it continues to relate to, and shed light on, local national and cultural issues.

My talk was interesting for me (I can’t speak for the audience!), because it was the first time that I had ever given a talk with simultaneous interpretation. In many ways it felt like a performance, because I found myself thinking more about the interpreter sitting next to me and how and when she would translate my words. It was a very strange experience, and I had to force myself to make my statements very brief (not my greatest strength!), which in fact I found to be a quite useful exercise. It was also very interesting to be on stage and responding to a person next to me who wasn’t speaking English. Although I could pick out words here and there, I was mainly responding instinctively to gestures and sentiments, knowing when to stop, start and what was going on. I was able to continue this exercise and performance the next day, when I went to speak to Lilia’s class at the College of Plastic Arts about performance art. I was really excited to be able to talk to these high school students about performance art, a subject that is rarely taught in schools in the East or the West. I told them about the pre-history of performance art, for example Dada and Futurism, and then introduced John Cage and Alan Kaprow. I even reprised Cage’s 4’33” for them (although mine was more like 1 minute), and asked them what they heard. I told them that all of those noises – birds, laughter, breathing, the hum of the projector, etc. were sounds that Cage would have considered music, and part of the piece. During the break, a student came up to me and played me something that she had recorded on her phone – it was the sound of water dripping. She said that after hearing my talk, she thought to play it for me, because she had also thought those sounds were like music, which is why she recorded them. Perhaps in another few years, we will be hearing some interesting compositions from this budding young artist.

 Max Kuzmenko, Accidental Aesthetics Monument Max Kuzmenko, Accidental Aesthetics Monument

I spent so much time at K:SAK during my trip to Moldova that I eventually started to feel like I was a part of that place. It was only during the last few days that I was even able to talk to Lilia about her work, which involved not only the Kinovari project, but also some interesting experiments with the visualization of sound, a piece that was included in Body and the East, and other works, such as Invasion, which combined her background in fashion with the exploration of contemporary issues through mixed media. Throughout the conference, Max Kuzmenko, who also works at K:SAK and is an artist himself, functioned as our paparazzi, snapping photos of all of the participants at the conference as they gave their talks. It was only on my very last day in Moldova that I was able to sit down with Max and hear about his artwork. He told me about a project he did that was actually an intervention into the public space of the city of Chisinau. Noticing the tendency of the city to cut down the branches of trees (either to promote growth or because they are dying), he drew a parallel between these bare trees and an actual sculpture or monument, and decided to draw attention to them by placing signs or placards in front of them. Official signs such as these really exist in Chisinau, and I happened to see one on my way to K:SAK the morning that I spoke with Max about the project. The signs usually identify specific types of trees or specifically old ones. Max’s signs, however, identified these semi-cut trees as “Monuments for Accidental Aesthetics,” and he placed three of them around the city. One of them happened to be in front of a tree in front of Bier Platz, the restaurant where the farewell dinner for the conference was held.

From my first moment in Chisinau till my last, it was great to see that interesting contemporary art is happening in Moldova, and it is all around! Probably – no, definitely, Moldova does exist!

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Romania: In the Land of Tristan Tsara

 Dada is present in Romania... Dada is present in Romania…

It would almost be a cliché to say that I was excited about coming to Romania, because I feel like I always say that I am excited to come to each country I visit, for one reason or another. So the reason for the excitement this time was not so much the “Dada connection” of Romania, given that the infamous leader Tristan Tsara emigrated from Romania to Paris in 1919, but more so the very exciting tradition of performative activity in Romania in the 1970s and 1980s. Furthermore, following Dan Perjovschi on Facebook, I am treated to a daily dose of social and political commentary in the form of a witty and succinct drawing, which the artist regularly posts on social media. As I also know, from following Dan, the artist, who is currently based in Sibiu, has been in Romania rarely lately. Seeing posts of his from Germany, Greece, and other places, I wondered if we would be able to meet when I was in Bucharest. “You are lucky,” he replied to my email – by chance, his time in Bucharest coincided with mine! Lucky, indeed.

So, there were a lot of reasons to be excited about Bucharest. In the course of preparing for the trip, I came across an article online by Corina Apostol. At the end of the article, it listed her as a Dodge Fellow and PhD candidate at Rutgers University – my alma mater! Because I left New Jersey and graduated some time ago, I don’t really know many of the people who came through the program after me. This chance discovery (maybe there is a Dada presence in Romania!) gave me one more reason to look forward to coming to Bucharest.

A further chance encounter presided over my first day in Bucharest. Irina Cios, Director of the International Center for Contemporary Art in Bucharest, happened to be leaving the following day, so I was able to visit the Centre and talk to her about my work. From there I went to my “lucky” meeting with Dan, and ended the day meeting with the Bureau of Melodramatic Research.

The scene in Bucharest nowadays reminds me somewhat of that which I wrote about in Slovenia – there are a lot of artists working in collectives, as groups, and using an umbrella name which creates anonymity of the individual artist (Bureau of Melodramatic Research, Presidential Candidate, Postspectacle, etc.). The Bureau of Melodramatic Research is a project by two artists that I found really interesting, because the whole project started a workaround to a very specific problem they faced in their artistic environment. The two artists had wanted to do research on film noir in Romania from the 1930s and 1940s, but couldn’t gain access to the archive, not only because it was in such a state of disarray, but also because the archive charged a fee for viewing each film! Being art students, the cost was prohibitive, so they decided to create their own, alternative history. As they told me, since they couldn’t look at the history, they had to invent it. I think their project really represents an innovative spirit, a way of finding a solution by creating with the materials at hand, rather than lamenting their absence.

While I had already been in touch with several artists from the 1970s and 1980s, Corina generously provided me with contacts of the newer artists on the scene, and throughout the week I slowly came to grips with what was meant by Post-Spectacle, Presidential Candidate, Romanian Dance History, Paradis Garaj, etc. (more on these in individual posts), and how they overlapped, as many of the artists participate in more than one of these projects. I found it really difficult to comprehend the situation as an outsider, but once I started meeting with the artists and discussing the various aspects of the projects, it all started to make sense.

During my time in Bucharest I also had the chance to meet with Geta Bratescu, an artist who, despite being in her 80s, still works for six hours a day. I was impressed by her youthful spirit, which can be seen in the artwork she is producing today, which is very bright, cheerful and colorful. It was particularly interesting to spend time with artists from such different generations – from those who remember the second World War and the communist period, to those who barely remember the revolution in 1989. This creates an interesting generational divide, and a lot of the younger artists told me that they started to work in performance without being fully aware of traditions started by the likes of Bratescu, (Ion) Girgorescu, etc. In fact, many first learned of performance art in the West through the Internet. This situation is not unlike those that I encountered in other places in Eastern Europe, and reflects where performance and contemporary art practices exist on an institutional level. Even to this day, performance art is rarely taught in institutions and academies across Eastern Europe.

 I managed to snap a picture of MNAC, despite my trepidations... I managed to snap a picture of MNAC, despite my trepidations…

I spent the better part of my week in Bucharest walking the vast expanses of this massive city, as often I had meetings on opposite ends of it, and no real knowledge of the bus or metro system. In between my meetings, I managed to visit the new National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC), which is part of the Palace of the Parliament, Ceausecu’s massive building project with a history of its own. Following a massive earthquake that destroyed a number of pre-war buildings in Bucharest in 1977, Ceausecu decided to rebuild the center of the city in a grant, Hausmannian manner, with a large, grand boulevard that led to the central administrative building of Romania, which he dubbed the “Palace of the People” as it was built for the people, by the people. In point of fact, several historic neighborhoods were razed in the building process, and 40% of Romania’s GDP per year went to its construction in the 1980s. So it is perhaps not the most likely spot for a contemporary art museum, especially considering the status of contemporary artists in the People’s Republic of Romania, when this was being built. The establishment of the museum was in fact controversial, with many in the arts opposing it. Nevertheless, it remains one of the few places for the exhibition of contemporary art in Bucharest. Considering the fact that it is open, functioning, and exhibiting contemporary art, this is indeed a positive factor, as readers will know from my other posts about the dire situation of contemporary art museums across the former Yugoslavia, for example.

My experience in visiting the museum was about as surreal as one could expect. Knowing the political and historical significance and situation surrounding the building, I arrived at the museum feeling rather tense, as if Ceausescu’s own surveillance was somehow monitoring my every move. To describe the building doesn’t do it justice; you have to walk around it to comprehend its vast expanse. It takes about an hour to walk around the entire building, and a half an hour to get to the entrance of MNAC if you approach from the center of the city. Even though I had looked at the map, I wasn’t exactly clear as to which of the gated entrances I should use to enter the compound. Since it still functions as a government building, there aren’t giant, blaring signs advertising the museum until you get to the entrance. So I had to ask one of the guards: “Muzeul?”… “Next entrance,” he replied gruffly. I was worried about annoying these armed guards who were there to protect government officials, not offer tourists directions. When I entered the museum I was beckoned to security. Not uncommon practice in a museum (f.e., the Louvre), but considering the building I was in, this only added to that heightened awareness of potential danger. I had wanted to snap a picture of the façade of the museum, but two guys (guards?) were standing outside, and I was afraid of violating some rule about photographing a government building. Needless to say, this is not really the state of mind you want to be in when you are entering an art museum…but maybe this was just me.

After security, a very kind attendant helped me purchase my ticket through the very modern ticket machine. I went in and was treated to a very nice exhibition of works by Romanian artist Mircea Cantor, installed on two floors. But what next? I saw a sign saying that there was a bookshop on the fourth floor, but I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use the elevator. There was no map of the museum, no signs leading you to the next room, and I was really afraid of crossing some invisible line that would send the armed guards of the palace after me! I decided to risk it, and took the elevator up to the subsequent floors, and thankfully no one stopped me, since it is in fact allowed – if not encouraged – to visit the other floors of the museum!

My visit to the National Museum of Art of Romania was much more relaxed. I was curious to see how the history of Romanian art was laid out, and whether any of the official painting from the communist period was exhibited. It was not, which I found an interesting curatorial choice. Judging from the display, one would think that landscape and flower painting prevailed in the 1960s-1980s, but that was really not the case.

I was also able to visit Tranzit, an NGO Supported by the ERSTE Foundation, dedicated to the promotion and examination of contemporary art, with spaces in the Czech Republic, Hungary, among others. Theirs is a relatively new space, not far from MNAC and the Contemporary Art Center in a very nice residential neighbourhood. I also stopped by the Ivan Gallery, a private gallery owned and run by Marian Ivan. The gallery is in Ivan’s home, also in a nice residential area, and I was told that he started the gallery simply because he had always wanted to have one. It is great little space, and has offered some interesting shows, for example this past winter he exhibited Paul Neagu’s Going Tornado, a performance that the artist did a number of times, one of which was in Aberdeen on Grampian TV (now STV) in 1974!

 30 means 40 in Romanian 30 means 40 in Romanian

By the end of my time in Bucharest I thought I had figured my way around the city. On my last day, I went to meet Teodor Graur, whose studio was on the same street as my hotel, about a 20-minute walk away. Arriving at the number he gave me – 30 – I found a very battered and uninviting door, but the sign above, saying that these were artist studios, reassured me. I entered the building, and proceeded to look for his studio. I found a precarious spiral staircase, which was mostly unlit, and climbed to the top, only to find the door at the top locked. I came back down and found a sculptor, told him who I was looking for, and asked where his studio was. He had no idea who I was talking about. I tried to explain what Graur did, but he still didn’t know. Finally, I asked “this is 30 Carol I Boulevard?” to which he responded, “no, it is ‘ex-30,’ now 40.” Apparently, no one had bothered to change the sign above the door! This Dada encounter only delayed me by a few minutes, and was just one more of those funny stories to tell about my performative adventures in the East.

After a very busy week in the nation’s capital, I took a brief detour to Timisoara, to meet with Ileana Pintilie, the art historian who was instrumental in documenting, analyzing and also promoting performance art in Romania. Her book Actionism in Romanian Art during the Communist Period remains the main source on the topic, and the Zone Festival that she organized in the early 1990s offered one of the first platforms for performance artists to present their work and develop as contemporary artists in the early post-communist period. In addition to meeting with Ileana, I was able to visit the Art Gallery in Timisoara, and see her installation of work by the Sigma Group, active in the 1970s in Timisoara in performance and installation. It was nice to see contemporary art practices represented here, if not in the National Gallery in Bucharest.

 Lovely Timisoara Lovely Timisoara

I really wish that I could have spent more time in Bucharest. As it was, my schedule was packed and running from meeting to meeting left little time for reflection in between. Nevertheless, all of the artists I met left such a positive impression, and it is nice to know that the tradition of performance art is still going strong in Romania.

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Funded PhD Project: Documenting Performance Art in Central and Eastern Europe, c. 1960-1989

Since starting this website, I have been contacted by a number of students who use it as a resource, which I think is great! It is a use for this site, and the information therein, that I had never anticipated or envisioned. So, if you are a student, thank you for reading! (thank you to everyone else who reads, too, of course).

With that in mind, I thought I would post this announcement, as it may be of interest to some. There is a new opportunity for a funded PhD project on the documentation of performance art in Eastern Europe that I will be supervising, starting in October 2014. So, if you are completing or have completed a master’s degree and have a research background in Eastern European contemporary art and/or performance art, and you have a project that might fit in with the call below, please do be in touch and consider applying!

PhD Title:  Documenting Performance Art in Central and Eastern Europe, c. 1960-1989

Supervisor 1 – Dr Amy Bryzgel

Supervisor 2 – Professor Edward Welch

This project takes as its focus the documentation and dissemination of performance art from the former communist and socialist countries of Central, Eastern and Southern Europe, from the period of c. 1960-1989. Performance art in the West emerged as a self-conscious genre, and a deliberate alternative to the production of painting and sculpture for display in the gallery space. However, in Eastern Europe, artists such as Jiří Kovanda (Czechoslovakia), Andris Grīnbergs (Latvia), and Ion Grigorescu (Romania) often created performance art for a select group of friends and colleagues, and even sometimes only for themselves. If in the West, documentation was often an essential component of performance art, and necessary to exhibit the work in the gallery, in the East, the recording of performances, by video or photography, was more haphazard. At times, artists were intent on documenting their work for posterity, in the hope that someday, somewhere (outside of the totalitarian regime) it would have an audience. At others, photographs were taken simply as a record, without any thought that they would ever be seen.

While Peggy Phelan (1998) has argued that the documentation of a performance can in no way serve as a substitute for having witnessed it, this PhD project will seek to challenge that contention by nuancing understandings of the documentation of performance art in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War era. By examining the function of the recording and (after regime change at the end of the 1980s) dissemination of the work on the understanding and reception of performance art in the region, the study will explore what it means to document these ephemeral works merely as evidence that they occurred, instead of as an art object in its own right. How does this change the function of the photograph or video and its status as an art object? How does it change the relationship between performance and audience, and with what consequences? Projects that employ a comparative method, engaging several countries across Eastern Europe, are particularly welcome.

For more about the Elphinstone PhD Scholarships, and information on how to apply, click here. Please feel free to contact me at a.bryzgel (at) abdn.ac.uk if you have any questions!

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Performing the East in the West

Performing the East in the West

Performing the East has been on hiatus for much of the winter. Instead of traversing the mountains and coastlines of the former Yugoslavia, or bundling up for a Baltic winter, this writer has been knuckling down and catching up on all of the artist entries that time precluded me from making while in transit. I am pleased to say that I am more or less caught up with the backlog of artist entries from Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Estonia. Looking back, it may have been a bit ambitious to keep up with all of the amazing artists that I met while on the road…

Although I wasn’t traveling, I did, however, continue my interviews, although my flights took me West, instead of East. Last October, when I was in Lithuania, I wrote to one artist who told me that he no longer lived in Vilnius – he is now working as an Associate Professor at MIT. Knowing that I would be in Boston for the annual conference of the Association for the Advancement of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), I asked if I could meet with Gediminas Urbonas then. So, on rainy autumn day, I took the T out to Cambridge and met with him in his office, which happens to be right next to Joan Jonas’s. Although I am hesitant to overplay the proximity of their office spaces, I do think it is quite poignant that these two noteworthy performance artists, one from the East and one from the West, are now divided only by a concrete wall, and not by an Iron Curtain.

I spent a few days talking with Gediminas, who told me the story of his journey East to West, along with the story of his art, which he now creates together with his artistic partner and wife, Nomeda, who is currently a PhD candidate at MIT. Gedminas told me about his work with one of the first performance groups in Lithuania, Zalias Lapas (Green Leaf), followed by his creation of the artist-run platform, Jutempus, in the post-Soviet period, through to his current work with his partner and wife Nomeda, under the heading of Urbonas Studio.

This week, I will make another trip West, to the College Art Association’s annual conference in Chicago, where the “East” will also have a presence. Together with my colleague from Prague, Dr. Pavlina Morganova, we are co-chairing a session on Performance Art in Central and Eastern Europe, which features the following papers:

Fabiola G. P. Bierhoff, “Appropriation in East German Performance Art – the Legacy of Joseph Beuys”

Dr. Andrea Euringer-Bátorová, “Mapping the crossovers of tradition, neo-avantgarde and postmodern strategies in Slovak action art of 1960s and 1970s”

Katalin Cseh “Chained. Bodies and Monuments of Hierarchy in Hungarian Performance Art”

Nicoletta Rousseva, “A Stain on the Soul: Action and Ritual in Igor Grubić’s Black Peristyle.”

 The January 2014 edition of  Centropa : a special edition on Performance Art in Central and Eastern Europe The January 2014 edition of Centropa : a special edition on Performance Art in Central and Eastern Europe

This panel also coincides with two publications that may be of interest. Firstly, Pavlina and I co-edited a special edition of Centropa: a Journal of Central European Art, Architecture and Related Arts on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe that will be published this month. This edition presents seven articles by art historians working in the region: Maja Fowkes, writing on Hungarian performance art; Ivana Mance, Croatia; Ileana Pintilie, Romania; Zora Rusinova, Slovakia, Pavlina Morganova, Czech Republic; Petra Stegmann, Fluxus; as well as myself, writing on Poland.

Finally, Pavlina’s groundbreaking book, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, is now out in English, published by Karolinum Press. The first edition of the book was published in 1999 in Czech, and has only just recently been translated. Her text charts the development of performance art in the Czech Lands, and is an essential source for anyone interested in performance art in general or in the region. It will be available on the international market, though the University of Chicago Press, in June.

As the winter snow begins to melt, Performing the East will soon be on the road again, with more artists to meet, and more performances to track. Stay tuned!

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Performance Art Explodes in Estonia

After (literally) freezing in Vilnius, I was happy to have
such a warm welcome in Tallinn (both literally and figuratively). I was glad
that the cold weather had disappeared, but unfortunately, my voice seemed to
have gone along with it. Getting sick and losing my voice, just before a week
jam-packed with meetings in Tallinn, not to mention a talk scheduled at the
Centre for Contemporary Art, underscored just how “performative” my research
is. If all I had to do was sit in an archive or library and look through books,
I would have been fine. Instead, however, I had to try to find a way to have
conversations with the myriad Estonian performance artists I was yet to meet,
all while convincing them that I wasn’t contagious or going to infect them with
the autumn flu that I had brought with me from Vilnius.

Readers with a keen geographic sense will wonder why I
skipped over Latvia on my way to Estonia. The reason is simple – I used to live
there! In a former life I spent a few years there while I was completing my
PhD, with a focus on one Latvian painter and performance artist, Miervaldis
Polis. Needless to say, I spent quite a bit of time at the Latvia Center for
Contemporary Art and have already done research on performance art there. That’s
not to say that I couldn’t stand to learn more, but with so many countries to
visit, in the interest of time, I had to skip my former stomping grounds for
the moment.

 Kumu Kumu

I spent my first day in Estonia at Kumu, the country’s brand
new contemporary art museum (opened in 2006), a branch of the Art Museum of
Estonia
. One of the museum’s curators, Liisa Kaljula showed me some videos of
the early performances by Juri Okas, and some photographs of performances by
Jaan Toomik and Siim-Tanel Annus that the museum has in its collection. At 5PM,
I crossed the city to the Centre for Contemporary Arts, the former Soros Center,
to give a talk about this very research project. I was honored to be invited to
speak, and also eager to be able to share some of the conclusions I’ve reached
thus far. Although I was rather hoarse and still suffering from a nasty cough,
I managed to get through the talk, which was attended by a number of the
artists that I was later to meet during the week!

That week continued with virtually back to back meetings,
and thanks to the contacts and suggestions by Rebeka Poldsam at the Center for
Contemporary Arts, I met with a range of artists from different generations,
engaged in various forms of performance – from visceral body-based action art to
more subtle video performances and interventions. Performance art virtually
exploded in the 1990s, for reasons yet unknown to me (but that I hope to sort
through when I start to write about it…). Estonia had a strong tradition of
nonconformist or underground activity during the Soviet period, with artist
groups such as ANK and SOUP-69 creating a sensation in the art world and beyond.

Happenings and performances took place as early as the 1960s
and 1970s, and the artist Juri Okas was fortunate enough to have a movie camera
so that he could document his performances, which took place outdoors, mostly
in the countryside, but sometimes penetrating into the public space. In the 1986,
Rühm T (Group T) came into being, a performance art group that
aimed to create a new, radical kind of art in a radical time period. In the
1990s, it seems that performance art was almost prescribed by the new
art scene in a new society, and artists were called on to create and present
performances, as one of the most avant-garde forms of art. I found this fact
quite interesting, because the same phenomenon did not really occur with
Estonia’s Baltic neighbors, Latvia and Lithuania. Maybe my research will reveal
just why that was.

 Watching videos at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Tallinn Watching videos at the Centre for Contemporary Arts in Tallinn  Look what I found in the library at Kumu!  Look what I found in the library at Kumu!

I realized how big a phenomenon performance art
is and was in Estonia when I began writing to curators and art historians in
Estonia. I think I sent two or three emails, both to the Center for
Contemporary Art and Kumu, and in response got double or triple that! People
were writing to me and copying in colleagues, and suggestions were flying as to
where to go, what to see, and whom to meet. It was perhaps the most
overwhelming response I had gotten to my queries on performance art yet.

Estonia packs a quite large performance art scene into a
relatively petite geographic area. Also refreshing is the fact that the scene
is not just concentrated in Tallinn. For example, I had an invitation to travel
to Tartu, to meet one of the people behind the project Oak Night, a kind of
religion/philosophical way of life centered on that city. Non Grata, a
performance art group active since the 1990s, also had its center in Parnu for
a while, which contributed in dispersing the center of performance art from
Tallinn.

It is interesting to see the connections and influence among
artists in an art scene of this size. For example, Jaan Toomik was the teacher
of some of the artists I met, and his influence on their work was apparent.
When we met, he showed me a short documentary film that he made, entitled Invisible Pearls, about a special
practice, common in prisons, of inserting small beads under
the foreskin of the penis
. He told me that he made the film after he had
brought his students to a prison to have them create performances for the
inmates. He wanted his students to consider alternative spaces, and communicate
with different audiences outside of the artistic ones. I asked Toomik if he had
taught Sandra Jogeva, an artist that I had met the day before, and who had
worked as a dominatrix for several years, later documenting that experience as
an artistic project. This interest in the margins is apparent in the work of
both.

 Freedom Square in Tallinn: location of Wabadus, where many of my meetings took place; the Centre for Contemporary Arts; and the Tallinn Art Hall. Freedom, indeed!  Freedom Square in Tallinn: location of Wabadus, where many of my meetings took place; the Centre for Contemporary Arts; and the Tallinn Art Hall. Freedom, indeed!

By the time my week in Estonia was over, my voice and health
were fully restored. Somehow I managed to still ‘perform’ my research despite
being under the weather. But that is how it is with live art – the show must go
on!

It was nice to end my travels for the year on the high
performance note that is Estonia. Performing the East is now on hiatus for the
winter, which will enable me to catch up with all of the artist’s entries, with
which I have fallen horribly behind!
Keep checking the page for new entries on artists, and then stay tuned
till next spring, when my next stop will be back in the Southern
Balkans…Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova…

 

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A Lunatic on the Loose in Lithuania

The title of this post comes from a 2012 exhibition commemorating
the 50th anniversary of Fluxus, The
Lunatics Are on the Loose… European Fluxus Festivals, 1962-1977
. I felt a
bit like a lunatic on the loose in Lithuania, slightly out-of-sorts after
exchanging Balkan for Baltic, 40C for 40F, and starting the next leg of my
adventure without having fully recovered from the last one.

Lithuania has a special connection with performance art in
that the founder of Fluxus, an international network of experimental artists
whose work was often performance-based, George Maciunas, was of Lithuanian
origin. He was born in Kaunas, and emigrated with his family in 1944. Possibly as
a result of his Eastern European origins, he was keen to spread his Fluxus
network through the region. Jonas Mekas, the experimental filmmaker, was also
from Lithuania, so this is a nation with a strong legacy of performance art
practices and avant-garde traditions.

The resonance of Maciunas and Mekas, however, was not strong
enough to completely penetrate the Iron Curtain, and the genre of performance art arrived rather late
in Lithuania. Two of the most historically significant and prominent
performance art manifestations come in the form of artist groups: Post Ars,
which was based in Kaunas, and Žalias Lapas (Green Leaf), which was
based in Vilnius. Both groups appeared on the scene in the late-1980s and
early-1990s, on the heels of perestroika
and glasnost.

 National Art Gallery of Lithuania and EU Presidency HQ National Art Gallery of Lithuania and EU Presidency HQ

That said, the Lunatics were on the Loose much earlier in
Vilnius, when in 1966 a Fluxus concert was organized by Vytautas Landsbergis (a
musician who later became a politician – the first head of state of independent
Lithuania) at the Pedagogical Institute. According to Petra Stegmann, it took
place with “no large audience, no press, no scandal.” Most of the people I
spoke to here said that they had heard something about it, but as it was such a
small and closed event when it occurred, it did not attract much wider
attention either at the time or later.

 Contemporary Art Centre   Contemporary Art Centre

In addition to the Fluxus legacy, Vilnius is a city replete
with museums and spaces dedicated to modern and contemporary art, including the
massive National Gallery of Art, on the banks of the Neris River, and the
Contemporary Art Centre, a hulking modernist building erected in 1968, in the
very heart of the Old Town and city center, just opposite the Town Hall. Such a
museum is unique in the Baltics, as Estonia’s Kumu was only recently opened in
2006. Latvia,
however, is unfortunately still without a contemporary art museum, although
plans are in the works. Additionally, there is the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts
Centre,
where works by Mekas and other Fluxus artists are exhibited. The Fluxus
Ministerija
used to be located in Vilnius, but has apparently relocated to
Kaunas.

 Viewing the video archive at the National Art Gallery of Lithuania Viewing the video archive at the National Art Gallery of Lithuania

I had a number of meetings set up for my first few days in
the city. My first stop was the National Gallery, which houses the archives of
the former Soros Center of Contemporary Art, including a video library. I spent
much of the day glued to the TV, watching performances by Post Ars and Green
Leaf, as well as artists such as Dainius
Liškevičius and Evaldas Jansas. I was unfortunately unable to view the museum’s
collections, however, because the powers that be decided that the National
Gallery would be a nice headquarters for the EU Presidency, which Lithuania
holds during the second half of 2013. I guess they figured no one would be
interested in looking at the nation’s art during that time.

 The Reading Room at the Lithuanian Contemporary Art Centre. It's very white!  The Reading Room at the Lithuanian Contemporary Art Centre. It’s very white!

I was, however, able to check out the massive exhibition
space at the Contemporary Art Centre, but what I found most intriguing there
was a small room tucked off to the side, the George Maciunas Fluxus Cabinet,
which housed a collection of Fluxus materials. The walls of the room are even
papered with a film still of Yoko Ono’s Flux film No. 4, which features a series close-ups of famous peoples’ bottoms
as they are walking. I also spent quite a bit of time in their reading room, making use of their extensive library of not only Lithuanian art, but also Eastern European and contemporary art in general.

 There is no shortage of Baroque architecture in Vilnius  There is no shortage of Baroque architecture in Vilnius

Aside from being impressed with all of the artists that I
met on this trip, I was also very cold – literally. Absolutely every room I had
a meeting in or needed to work in was freezing. During the day it was around
40C, getting down to freezing at night, yet the city hadn’t turned the heat on
yet. I remembered this unique phenomenon from when I lived in Latvia. But having
become accustomed to being able to control my own heat for the past several
years, I found it very difficult to function in this environment, and I guess
my body did, too. The result was that I got sick halfway through my trip, which
limited what I was able to complete during my remaining days in Vilnius.
Luckily, I had gotten most of my important meetings out of the way before this
happened, especially because at one point I lost my voice, but it also meant
that I wasn’t able to check out the Jonas Mekas Visual Arts Center or attend an
Open Studio, featuring a performance by the young artist Jurgis Paskevicius at
the Rupert Art and Education Centre. Although these weren’t essential to my
research, it was disappointing to miss out. That will teach me to travel in the
Baltics before they’ve turned on the heat!

Art historian Elona Lybute has described Lithuania’s art
from the early part of the twentieth century as A Quiet Modernism, and indeed that was my impression of the scene
here in general. There are definitely a lot of art venues, and several artists
have made very unique contributions to the genre of performance art, but
overall the city, and the scene, seemed to me very quiet, calm, serene. That is
neither a good nor bad thing, but just one person’s subjective observation
during a very short and abbreviated trip.

 

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Ljubljana, Ljubljana

The title of this post derives not from the need to
emphasize where I was for the last leg of my journey through the former
Yugoslavia (plus Albania!), but references the 1991 text published by Marina
Grzinic and Ales Erjavec
, about art and culture in Slovenia in the 1980s. The book
focuses on the alternative scene and subculture, which was so pervasive and so
massively influential. That strong subculture persists until this day in
Ljubljana, and very accurately describes my first impression of the city.

I found it quite fitting and poetic that the last stop on
the journey of my summer travels would be Ljubljana. I didn’t exactly plan it
this way – much of the planning of the trips had to do with logistics, flight
schedules, and availability of those on the ground that I was trying to meet.
Still, when I think of the contrast between the first city that I visited,
Tirana, and this, the last stop on the outermost edge of what used to be
Yugoslavia (as close to the West as you can get), I can’t help but think about
how far I’ve come in so little time.

 Museum of Contemporary Art Museum of Contemporary Art

The National Gallery of Arts in Tirana, the first city of my route this
summer, consisted primarily of socialist realist painting. Although that city
does have a thriving contemporary art scene, which exists in spite of a lack of
institutional support, Ljubljana boasts a fully-fledged museum of contemporary
East European art.
It was also host to the first and only exhibition dedicated
to an examination of performance and body art in Eastern Europe – Body and the East (1998-1999), curated
by Zdenka Badovinac, who is currently director of the Modern Gallery and Museum
of Contemporary Art. In fact, the catalogue to that exhibition is a permanent
fixture on my desk, and continues to be my Bible – phone book, really – that
guides me through my research. Body and
the East
is my starting point when I arrive in any city – these are the
artists that I ask to see first, and then build my list of contacts from there.
The amazing thing about that exhibition, and the catalogue, is that most of the
artists selected for that show are still relevant, still active, and still form
the core of the performance and body art scene in their respective countries.
The other “directory” that I have been using to guide my research is East Art Map, published by IRWIN, an
artistic collective that is also based in Ljubljana. So, you can imagine that I
was pretty excited to be in Ljubljana. And that was just the tip of the
iceberg…

 Modern Art Gallery Modern Art Gallery

My first day in Ljubljana was a Sunday, and I spent the
entire day at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Modern Art Gallery. In the
1990s, the Modern Art Gallery split into two, with the Museum of Contemporary
Art being created to house the Art East 2000+ collection of contemporary
Eastern European Art – a collection that was created with the aim of making the
case to create a separate museum of contemporary art. It was exhibited in a
building that the Modern Gallery was given use of at Metelkova, a former army
barracks near the railway station that became partly occupied by artists once
the Yugoslav Army moved out, following Slovenian independence. The area
currently contains a number of different cultural buildings, including the
Applied Arts section of the National Museum, the Center for Contemporary Art, a
number of artist’s studios
, and the Ministry of Culture is nearby. The divide
between official and unofficial is clearly demarcated – while the artist
studios are no longer a squat, the buildings are covered in decorative and
fanciful graffiti, shoes dangle from the power lines, and impromptu junk
sculptures dot the landscape. I was intimidated to enter this “alternative
zone” at first, because it didn’t really seem open to or accessible to the
public. Even the stairs in the passageway between the Museum of Contemporary
Art and Metelkova are uneven and wonky, and prepare the visitor to enter a
different kind of space.

 Studio space at Metelkova City Studio space at Metelkova City

While the Museum of Contemporary Art is filled with all
kinds of art historical eye candy for the scholar of Eastern Europe – works by
OHO (Slovenia), Dalibor Martinis (Croatia), Ion Grigorescu (Romania), Adrian Paci
(Albania), Aleksander Kosolapov (Russia), Braco Dimitrijevic (Bosnia) – the
Modern Gallery focuses more on Slovenian artists. There I was most impressed by
the room dedicated to the first avant-garde, especially a reconstruction of the
Trieste Constructivist Cabinet, a Constructivist room created in 1927 (I
later discovered that this reconstruction was organized by artists Dragan Zivadinov, whom I met during
my time in Ljubljana), and a display of work by OHO, an artistic collective
whose work forms the foundation of Slovenian performance and action art. Their
performance Triglav, a literal and
visual reconstruction of Mount Triglav, Slovenia’s highest mountain, has been
repeated at least twice – first by IRWIN and then by Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa
and Janez Jansa (more on them later…).

 City Gallery City Gallery

The next day I met with Sasa Nabergoj, a curator at the
Center for Contemporary Arts, whom I had met in London, at the Calvert 22 Gallery, where she
gave a presentation on self-historicization, focused on Slovenia in the 1980s.
Sasa provided me with a number of interesting connections and contacts, and I
set off immediately that day to start meeting those that she recommended.
Later, a meeting with Alenka Gregoric from the City Gallery (Mestna Galerija)
provided further contacts, and my schedule rapidly filled up.

Maybe it just happened that my visit coincided with a lot
going on in the city, or maybe Ljubljana is that way all the time. Anyway, I hardly
had a minute to spare on this trip (and this explains to reader of Performing
the East why I pretty much stopped posting anything at all…), and that includes
evenings, because just about every person I met told me about a performance,
event or opening that I should attend. I had somewhere to be just about every
night of the week. But it was fun to see it all fit together, this magical
network of people and places coming alive before my eyes.

One of the first days that I was in Ljubljana, I met with Marina
Grzinic, a philosopher and video artist herself. She took me to a performance
at the Glej Theater, which was an important venue for experimental and avant-garde productions
since the 1970s. She also told me about the Mladi Lev festival that was taking
place, featuring young performance artists. In conjunction with that, I
attended a performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art later in the week,
featuring a performance of noise music in the building’s elevator, among other
things.

Noise music. That is one red thread that I saw running
through the city. Many of the artists working there today are tinkerers, “mad
scientists,” as one person I spoke to described it, quite lovingly, creating
instruments, finding new and different ways to make sounds. That was what was
going on at Cirkulacije, an artistic group/workshop that creates sound
installations, among other things. When I went to their studio to meet them, I
found myself in another artist squat, similar to Metelkova, although a true
squat, as this one is without electricity or running water! Located in Rog, a
former bicycle factory, the artists working there have been described as one
person I met as the next or “fourth avant-garde” in Slovenia. (The first was
the historical avant-garde, in the 1920s; the second, OHO in the 1970s, and the
third, NSK or Neueu Slovenische Kunst, which comprises a number of artists and
collectives in the 1980s, including Laibach, IRWIN, and Scipion Nasice Sisters
Theater (also known as Red Pilot and Cosmokinetic Theater Noordung).

 Graffiti abounds in Ljubljana Graffiti abounds in Ljubljana

When I sat down to meet with the guys from Cirkulacije, there
was a fourth person in the mix (I understood that I was to meet three people),
and I was told that he worked with two of the artists in another group, 300,000
V.K. Then they said, “he’s also part of another group – Laibach. Have you heard
of them?” At first I thought they were joking – that he was from Laibach. I
mean, of course I’ve heard of them, but…Laibach? I never even imagined I would
meet someone from Laibach. For those who don’t know, Laibach is a band, an
avant-garde music group which started out doing industrial music and evolved
into other genres. But their work is about much more than the music. To
footnote very briefly, especially in their early performances, the group employed a totalitarian
musical and visual style, which was later described as “over-identification” –
an exaggerated adoption of those techniques and ideas without an overt or obvious
critique. The group’s name is in fact that German term for Ljubljana,
which creates a direct reference to times of occupation (by the
Austro-Hungarian Empire and later by the Fascists), and they make use of visual symbols such as swastikas
and, most notably, Malevich’s black cross.
Their performances were even
banned in Slovenia for several years, and they were prohibited from using the
name Laibach, but nevertheless (or perhaps because of this), they became
internationally successful and popular. So you can see why I was surprised at
this chance encounter. I really never thought that I would meet anyone from the
group, let alone Dejan Knez, one of its founders and the driving force behind
the group. For me, that would be like going to London and expecting to meet
Mick Jagger. But this is Ljubljana, a city of 300,000 people, where you can
meet anyone and everyone! The other reason I was caught off-guard by this
introduction is the fact that the face of Laibach (or rather, the faces) have
changed considerably over the years. In fact, Dejan told me that he hoped that
Laibach would live on for years – by constantly changing the group members,
this is a way that the band, and the concept, can live on, even after all of
the original members are gone.

During my stay in Ljubljana there was an opening of an
exhibition by a Croatian artist, Nemanija Cvijanovic, who had just completed a
residency at Tobacna 001, a cultural center connected with the City
Gallery, on the outskirts of the city center. Nemanija was
from Rijeka, which I found to be an interesting coincidence, since I was
supposed to be going to Rijeka the following day to meet Slaven Tolj, one of
the most influential Croatian performance artists. Tolj was central to the
development of the contemporary and performance art scene in Dubrovnik, but has
recently moved to Rijeka to take up a position as the director of the
Contemporary Art Museum there. When I told Nemanija I would be going to meet
Slaven, he offered me a ride to Rijeka.

My time in Ljubljana continued much in that fashion – chance
encounters, path-crossings, invitations to performances, events and openings,
and after having been there just a few days I was already recognizing faces at
these events. I was struck by how active, lively and communal the art world
here truly was. And what struck me even more is the fact that many of these
working relationships were established in the 1980s or even earlier, and yet they
are still going strong. There was very little gossip or intrigue. In fact, the
art community in Ljubljana seemed like one big, happy family, which is a
difficult feat in a town of this size, where everyone knows everyone else, not
to mention everyone else’s business.

This another overriding impression I had about Ljubljana:
communality, anonymity, collectivity…these are words that could apply to the
scene here in several ways. With every other place I visited in the former
Yugoslavia, the task was simple: go to said city, meet said artist(s). With
Ljubljana, it was quite different. I knew I needed to meet people from NSK,
which IRWIN, Laibach, Scipion Nasice Sisters (Noordung) were all a part of; also
Borghesia, as well as Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa and Janez Jansa. But how do you
meet a group? Moreover, how do you meet a group whose members have changed over
the years? Do you meet them all together (and how the hell do you manage
that?), do you meet just the spokesperson, the figurehead, the founder, or do you
try to meet as many of the people as possible? I don’t really know the correct
answer to that (and my solution, given the limited time I was there, was to
just meet whomever I could), but the fact that such a situation exists in the
Slovenian art scene seems to indicate, at least to me, that artists here have
achieved what modern and contemporary artists have been trying to achieve for
decades – an escape from authorship, the removal of the hand of the artist, and
the elimination of the artist-ego, that myth of the genius artist working alone
in the studio. I think that part of the reason that Slovenian art has such a
thriving contemporary art scene is the fact that they do work in this way. If
the old adage that two heads are better than one is correct, then five or
twenty is even better.

But who is Janez Jansa? Or Janez Jansa? Or even Janez Jansa?
These are three artists that I met, not the former prime minister. Their
project is a fascinating one: three artists all changed their names, legally,
to Janez Jansa
. (One has recently changed his name again – not “back,” as I am
told, but forward, to the same name that he had prior to being Janez Jansa).
The name project is one that I will not go into here, but found it fascinated
to be caught up in the complexities of their project by virtue of wanting to
meet with them. I had two appointments with Janez Jansa in my diary. Before I
met them, I had no idea what the difference was between them. People would ask
me, “which one are you meeting?,” and the manner in which they identified them
had to do with the institutions where they worked. One was connected with the
Aksioma Gallery, the other, with an institute and performing arts journal called Maska (the third I met at an
opening, by chance). Because I wasn’t familiar with their birth names, as
others in Slovenia were, I could only know them as Janez Jansa, Janez Jansa,
and Janez Jansa. So having to go through the process of meeting them helped me
to understand the project in ways that I never would, had I only read about
them remotely.

My final observation about Ljubljana is a simple one: bikes!
They are everywhere in Ljubljana. It is such a manageable and compact city that
it is so easy to get everywhere you need to go by bike. The city even has one
of those bike exchange schemes where you can rent a bike on one side of the
city and drop it off on the other. I didn’t do this, because I didn’t have time
to figure out how to register for the it, but during the times when I was
running across the city, from meeting to meeting, I wish that I had. And it
makes sense that the location of the studios of the next avant-garde would find
themselves in the former bicycle factory. Like I said, everything in Ljubljana
is connected!

 Art is even in the bathrooms! This is part of an installation/event by the artist Jasa in the basement of the Modern Art Gallery Art is even in the bathrooms! This is part of an installation/event by the artist Jasa in the basement of the Modern Art Gallery  Jasmina Cibic's installation at the airport Jasmina Cibic’s installation at the airport

Art is everywhere in Ljubljana. At every turn, at every
corner, you find a piece of it hidden, or brazenly exhibited, from a bold wall
mural to an inconspicuous piece of graffiti (even in the bathrooms!). The artists are everywhere, too,
as they stroll through the city market on a Saturday to do their shopping (some
have told me that this is an errand that ends up taking hours, because they end
up meeting so many people that they know!). The market buildings, in fact,
should be mentioned, because it was designed by a Slovenian architect whose
work could be described as postmodern before its time – Joze Plecnik. Even when
I thought that I had left this artistic center, sitting at my departure gate at
the Joze Pucnik Airport, some 15 miles outside the city center,
I glanced up, only to notice a light installation by Jasmina Cibic, an artist
who I had met a few days earlier, and who represented Slovenia at the Venice
Biennale this year. Indeed, there are no limits when it comes to art in
Slovenia.

 Wall mural at Metelkova Wall mural at Metelkova

 

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