Tanja Ostojic is originally from Belgrade, but currently lives and works in Berlin. She is an artist who is not afraid to go to any length or extreme, or expose any aspect of herself or her body for the sake of her art, and her message. Consequently, many of us know her well – we have seen her naked, shaved body; watched her making out in a hot tub; and seen a close-up of her groin clothed in Europanties. We have also seen her cry, as she reads the heartbreaking stories of refugees. While her methods may appear extreme, she told me that “you have to be prepared to go all the way.” Since she does this in pursuit of an idea, the result is an efficacious body of work that challenges the institutions and foundations of society that we normally take for granted.
When I spoke to Tanja my first question for her related to the context in which she starting out as an artist – Belgrade, a city with such a strong history and tradition of performance art, going back to the Student Culture Centre days and its activities in the 1970s. She mentioned that she knew most of those artists, but wasn’t entirely familiar with their work. Nevertheless, she remembers being congratulated by Rasa Todosijevic after one of her first performances, which she considered a significant compliment.
In one of her earliest performances, in 1996, she foregrounds the body above all else, a theme that she will return to throughout her oeuvre – the body at the intersection of society, its rules and laws, and thus the gaze. In Personal Space, the artist became a sculpture, a tableau vivant, for others to gaze at. In a reverse Pygmalion, she covered her completely shaven body with marble dust and stood, immobile, for one hour. It was at this moment that she offered her body up for art, for the gaze of society, and she has never really moved away from that stance.
Other early performances by the artist really interest me. In 1997, in a nod to Joseph Beuys, she offered boxing gloves to police officers on the streets of Belgrade, asking them to fight, literally, for democracy. [In 1972, Beuys organized the Box Match for Direct Democracy with the Dean of the Dusseldorf Academy.] In Tanja’s piece, the police didn’t take the gloves, so the artist did, and boxed with a friend. In many ways, once she took up those gloves she never stopped fighting, not just for her country, but for the rights of all human beings who are marginalized because of their country of origin.
The reality of life as an artist of Serbian origin, following the NATO sanctions of the 1990s, hit hard as Tanja gained notoriety for her work, and the invitations to participate in international exhibitions that go along with that recognition. Frustrated by the complicated procedures that she had to go through to obtain a visa, she decided to take an alternative approach, one that would simultaneously benefit her – if it was successful – by giving her the status of a Westerner with free right of movement through the EU – but would also implicate the structures and mechanisms in place that prevent people from having access to “affluent geographies.” The project was entitled Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport (2000-2005), and started with an Internet campaign, where the artist advertised herself, by putting her body on display, and asked for prospective suitors to contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. The artist received a number of responses, and finally settled on one suitable mate, Klemens Golf, also an artist. Tanja said that she thought he was the most suitable because of the fact that he was well aware of the pragmatic element of the project, and knew what he was getting into – as opposed to having any romantic notions that the marriage would be anything but one of convenience. The artist emphasized that they did everything according to the law – it was, in fact, a legal marriage. But it was one that enabled her to get a marriage visa to come and live in Germany. By thwarting the system, the artist demonstrates its weaknesses and unsuitability on a human level.
This was not her first experience massaging the law. In fact, a work that coincided with the beginning of Looking for a Husband with an EU Passport involved the artist deliberately breaking the law, by crossing the border between Slovenia and Austria on foot, through the forests and mountains. Illegal Border Crossing (2000) was born out of necessity, as the artist had an exhibition to get to, and the visa process simply took too long.
More recently the artist has worked with the minority groups of the Roma and Sinti, Europe’s largest minority groups, and the discrimination they face, including racism and deportation. The ongoing project Naked Life (2004-2011) includes a video work of the same title, in which the artist reads out the fates of different Roma families from a report on their deportations, stripping of her clothing as she reads it, and crying occasionally, being overcome by the stories.
Tanja’s work is an example of an artist making the full commitment of both her life and her body to her art. She combines art and activism so closely that the line between the two becomes almost completely blurred.