Up(Date) with Art Practices: Serbia 2002-2009

During a search for a notion which would be a common denominator for the work of the Swiss Cultural Programme in the Western Balkans and the Ministry of Culture in Serbia, innovativeness appeared as an important point around which a concept of the exhibition Up(Date) with Art Practices: Serbia 2002-2009 has been developed, and which offers a certain retrospective overview in the activities and the significance of these two important factors of cultural life. In the programmes of both these institutions, it has been stressed that one of the main goals of their activities was investment in the innovative culture production in Serbia, which makes a suitable stronghold for further development of the most fundamental issues addressing current models of work in the art field.

Innovation is associated with a change in thoughts, products, organization or processes.  As continuation of life of an idea/invention, it represents repositioning in relation to the existing, but also implementation of a change generating value and influencing a positive reorganization of the context in which it has been used. The start of the millennium in Serbia, when speaking of the culture policy, represents a stabilization of innovative models of artistic practices generated during the 1990s. This last decade of the 20th century was marked by dissolution of the country, high inflation, decline of the standard of living, disturbance in perception of system of values, restrictions in travelling abroad, and interruption of information channels, which resulted in a local art scene being cut off from the international one, and in a slow disappearance of Serbia from the international map of cultural events. On the level of individual initiatives and insights, however, a compatibility with artistic trends in the world, in terms of innovative solutions, had been achieved. This was reflected in media nomadism, rehabilitation of experiences of the conceptual artistic practices from the 1970’s, increasingly frequent work with context within framework of artists’ activities. This way, an idea becomes crucial as a potential not connected only for one medium, but enabled for its simultaneous display in different technologies. This fact oblige artists to a  much greater responsibility in formulation of starting points and possible ways of concept realization, as well as to a thorough knowledge of different media languages.  Exactly this kind of approach is innovative, and recognized at the beginning of the 21st century by cultural institutions and foundations that turned their activities toward financial support to new artistic practices, and projects connecting and presenting them, on both local and international artistic scene. The significance of this support reflects in the ability for innovative models to take root in the local environment, to correspond to current trends on the world scene, and to regenerate their vitality, innovativeness, and dialogue with their surroundings.

The artworks included in this exhibition represent one of many possible presentations of innovative artistic practices, in terms of issues they deal with: approach to media; currentness of theoretical artistic position; role of artist on different levels – from initial idea to its realization – with constant need for reexamining authorship, thus recognizing observers themselves as active participants in a communication with an artwork. Artists belong to the young and middle generation, represented with works done in the framework of projects supported by the Belgrade office of the Swiss Cultural Programme in the Western Balkans and the Ministry of Culture of Republic of Serbia, in the period 2002 – 2009.

In his work Untitled Siniša Ilić addresses the relation between a drawing and a body. His commitment to the artistic medium with the longest history/tradition, at the time of stream of new media used for artistic expression, is not accidental.  The minimalistic drawings of a woman defending herself with her hands and keeping a distance, bodies drawing closer in intimate and erotic poses, two pairs of arms as if just understanding their function in the reciprocity of touching, speak of touch as the most primitive and basic way of communication. Neglecting or belittling of the value of this sense in the Western civilization has led to technological constitution of corporality in the wake of the end of its biological evolution, when “the biological substrate of human bodies is viewed as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life”. A drawing is very often chosen by this artist.  He expends its meaning also in relation to different backgrounds, first of all to wall surfaces, thus evoking the primary use of this medium in the most primitive phases of human development, the days of immediacy of contact and genuineness of bonding. That is why the artworks of Siniša Ilić can be interpreted in the context of a recent search for arguments for preserving humanity in a biological, psychological, and emotional sense.  They are reminiscent of authenticity of presence, warmth of unity, and feelings of mutuality, attachment, intimacy and connection, in other words “capacity to feel and experience a degree of intimacy”.

In her installation First love Milica Simonović sets successively four handmade paper screens, with multiple universal symbols of love cut on them by surgical knives, thus emphasizing all contradictories, ambivalences, and complexities within a relationship of intimacy. Additionally, the heart-shaped openings focus our gaze on a possibility to pass through a concealment of the screens, and on symbolic level reveal details of love relationship, allowing access to a person loved or desired, simultaneously being aware of a danger for eroticism to be lost due to excessive disclosure. This thin transition line, represented metaphorically with contrasting delicateness of the material and sharpness of the tool used by the artist in production of this work, is a possible intimate connection or breaking point, and indicates intensity of ambivalent feelings, simultaneous strength and vulnerability of the nature of love relationships.  The tradition of the Far East recognizes the emotional significance of the screen, and adds into its meaning a desirability of an object that keeps all its mystery thanks exactly to the hidden, displaced, remote gaze. It is about the functioning principle of desire, thus recognized in an erotic relation, a process of constant revealing of the hidden, postponing of enjoyment. The very game of rendering strange the given, characteristic also for the method of contemporary artistic practices, including the innovativeness in approach, implies pushing boundaries, breaking set customs, recognizing the new in the existing, and acknowledging or creating a difference.

The object Pink by Nikola Pešić is a visually attractive, sculpturally shaped union of different associations related to organic space of, first of all, visceral world, where little known yet important intestinal communications and activities take place. It is no coincidence that a heart motive is followed by a dominating wormlike shape, reminding of colon — the last element in the chain of food processors within the relentless activity of digestive system of a live human organism. Permanent functioning of a digestive system can, for sure, affect voluntary activities of an individual, especially when everyday operational activities are not coordinated with specificities of automatic processes of one’s own body, in terms of (dis)respect of their temporal quality, a period of readiness to accept content with the aim to process ingredients taken in efficiently, and of understanding of corporality in the context of a never-ending movement of matter. Assumed structural precariousness and inconsistency   of this pink object disappears suddenly in firmness and plasticity of the material and its artificial smoothness. The entire metaphysical fluidity of turmoil, flux, and elusiveness of matter has been constructed in a consistent, symmetrical, and harmonious form of excrement shaped as a children’s toy. This points to the acceptance, in the earliest age, of inevitability of elimination of products of own bodily processes and exploration of  corporal functions, through playing with voluntary aspects of retention, letting through, and discharge. The resemblance with phallic forms  of naked ancient Greek sculptures directs the interpretation of this artwork to the origins of the sentence “a healthy mind in a healthy body“, whose sense has again increasingly became relevant in the context of individual searches in different approaches to life and  balance with natural regularities.

In her work Chastity Belt  Milica Ružičić analyzes male-female relationships in the context of contemporary horizon of living, marked by ideologies and practices interweaving and influencing each other: from tendency of expansive sexual gender liberation and erasing their boundaries, to reactive orientations toward control of sexual life, feministic deconstructions of male position of power and looking for possible alternatives, to transition towards ever increasing colonization and objectification of naked male body in the field of advertising. The artwork Chastity Belt  includes an object made as a counterpart to the medieval chastity belts for women, except in this context it was meant for men, which defines the very morphological structure of the work produced of steel parts connected in a phallic form. It is followed by the two prints representing male figure posing while wearing the chastity belt, advertising a new product on market which is one the major areas of tracking and testing of the ruling system of values. Milica Ružičić, a sculptor by training, achieves with this work an innovative approach in treating sculpture in the context of the contemporary art, and then, connecting and transferring her idea into the medium of photography with elements of advertising, uses visual strategy and manages to grasp and cut through the flux of recent social trends. This strategy opens up a new view toward male sexuality and fidelity. In this process, a notion of freedom is inevitably related to restraint and torture of others, while the stereotype of the chastity belt as a sign of female subordination is, in an ironic and funny way, perverted in an emancipated wish of the liberated female sexuality.

The artwork Untitled  by Goran Micevski also puts naked male body in focus, de-tabooing it. He, however, uses it in a reflexive way, through examining the medium of photography and a construction of view, in order to analyze Western and Oriental cultural models, position of genders, as well as strategies of travesty.  In that respect, a naked, white, uncircumcised man stands in a bathroom in front of a mirror, with a towel over his head, holding it on his face so it creates a form of veil or head scarf worn by Muslim women in order to hide their faces. A person presented like this already combines, according to a dualistic principle, biological and cultural characteristics of both a male and a female sex and gender through a prism of a dualism of the East and the West, but with a potential for erasing boundaries, and a possibility of opening hybrid identities. The staged game of simultaneous “exaggerated” hiding and revealing of the body demonstrates the artist’s preoccupation with the phenomenon of constructing of an identity by reflecting oneself in a view of the other. Therefore, the reflexive quality in the work of Goran Micevski is especially underlined, or, to be more precise, tripled to endless  application of photography in everyday life (which is evident having in mind presence of mirrors, glass, and photo cameras as constituent elements of the work). The artist points out vividly to how the introduction of the photography as a medium contributed to development of research on identity, and brought to consciousness that, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, a subject in front of camera lenses is, in the same time: the one that thinks he is, the one that wants others to think he is, the one that the photographer thinks he is, and the one used for the purpose of his art. Exactly this exploratory moment and its incorporation in the very manner of treating the photography as a medium create the innovative aspect of the work Untitled.

Jelena Radić, in her video Everything Shines Here, uses the form of home video, and in the process she assumes the mediating role while recording a rehearsal of the performance which the main character, a girl, has created through her own choreography. There is a minimal intervention of the artists, who even lets the girl to set a camera, so she could watch herself while dancing. Fascination with the technology and with the act of self-observation is present in girl’s exalted mood and her pleasure while performing the choreography. Dressed in a rhythmic gymnastics costume with standard glittering ornaments, and wearing shiny eye- shadows, the girl embodies one of the ideals of femininity, and this impression is emphasized by grace and stylization of movements. Work of Jelena Radić deals with stereotypes of female ideal and strategies used for integration of this model during the process of creating individual identities, in the same time looking into gender characteristics of female identity as a role rehearsed since very young age, and followed with a subtle promise of shine and beauty. In this respect, the video Everything Shines Here deconstructs “natural” features of woman, which are, in fact, on all levels prescribed by culture. However, the very form of the work, realized as do it yourself –  a construction of  situation in which we, in a way, set our limits of freedom and a possibility of creating our own choreographies and pleasures – offers a  view to alternative possibilities for creation of identities that elude  ruling models, parody and subvert them.  This ambivalent relation toward examining every pre-positioned approach, even if it was the emancipated deconstructivistic one, which in this case has a potential of clearing up the territory, is one of the essential innovative elements of the work by Jelena Radić.

In the work Shadows of the Past  by Irena Kelečević, a research foreseeing an insight into archive data, photographs, historic documents, and existing facts is incorporated in the artistic method itself, and in a reconstruction process as a special form of artistic work. The key event is related to the building of the ossuary for solders killed in the Čačak area in the period 1912-18, fighting in both warring parties. The work follows the destiny of this monument during the changes of historical circumstances. Main initiators of construction of this memorial, which was supposed to be a unique monument of reconciliation on the territory of the Yugoslavia of that time, were women from Čačak, gathered in the “Women’s Subsidiary” of the Association of Reserve Officers and Soldiers FIDAK. The monument designed as a pyramid, marked with four religious symbols, Orthodox and Catholic cross, Jewish star, and Islamic crescent, thus representing soldiers of all religions that were killed, was unveiled and consecrated in Čačak, on 23rd September, 1934. However, during the World War II, after a demand of the foreign occupiers, the Jewish and Islamic symbols were removed, and by the year 2007 only their traces remained. The preparation and the construction of the monument itself can be followed through the documents and historic narratives. Together with the data on participation of various segments of the society, we can get an overview on the complexity of historic relations on these territories spreading across one century, and their parallels, similarities, and differences, as well as an opportunity for examining possible differences in relation to recurrences. Irena Kelečević, precisely by initiating a reconstruction of the monument, in fact a reconstruction of the religious symbols on the ossuary, and later on with its formal unveiling on 23rd September, 2007, points out to the specific moment of the post-war period in today’s constellation of the states in the Balkans, and to a need for tolerance and reconciliation, a need for coexistence of differences.

Combining video and performance, Vladimir Nikolić realizes his work Death Anniversary  at the grave of Marcel Duchamp, the artist that, at the beginning of the 20th centery, shifted understanding of art toward   contemporary perception of a context in which an artwork is produced and received. On thirty-fourth anniversary of his death, the young artists from Serbia decides to pay tribute to him, according to the disappearing Serb funeral customs and tradition of wailing, in which a woman keeps the dead from oblivion and remembers him and his contribution in this world by means of a special thanatotic lamentation. The Duchampian method of witty association of non-artistic objects and situations into artistic context, and leveling of their status with official/accepted notions of art, has been reactivated here, emphasizing the seriousness of the game of disruption of the artistic system inertia The wailing, in the case of this significant artist of the 20th century, finds or creates its reason at the very beginning of the new millennium in the context of a contemporary artistic system, a West European theoretical and curatorial practice tending to incorporate artists and artworks into a wider international framework only through geopolitical theoretic matrix and discourse of the Other, at that point examined on the territory of the Balkans. The very concept of the work by Vladimir Nikolić is based on a simple approaching of two remote contexts by establishing their relational balance, which in any case enables the artist to shift the initial viewpoint to the local environment. Hence it could be said that the innovativeness of this work is demonstrated in an effort to examine then present relation between the centre and the periphery, to underline decentralized logic of networking, and to point to a necessity/inevitability of taking over the initiative of the Other thus realizing entirely a network potential.

In her work A-P-O-1 Branka Kuzmanović deals with the issue of space, examining process of perception by destabilizing and deconstruction of a universal viewpoint. Her artistic strategy is based on precise combinations, and connecting of different views by a formal approach that creates seemingly abstract forms. However, if we look more carefully, basic units creating the work are photographs of a real space criss-crossed with light and shadow which are the elements participating in a dynamic game of creation of multidimensions. The process of creation and perceiving of the work – from the concrete to the abstract and vice versa – points to wider understanding of space: not only as external, objective, Euclidian, consensual, but also internal, intuitive, diverse, subjective space. With interweaving of plans and breaking up the space defined by three dimensions, the artist wants to bring to consciousness the very conditions constituting our perception as incontestable objective look. While connecting  a large number of planes, perspectives, and angles of observation in a discontinuous fashion, Branka Kuzmanović creates a dynamic, non-linear, and esthetically open composition, offering an illustration of a statement that takes into account the awareness of endless possibilities, connections, combinations, and relations. The work presented is a part of a larger series of works where photographs, that is, views of fragments of the same space are used as a starting point. This shifts the accent from the artwork to the work process itself that enables, through an open approach constantly focused toward new innovative combinations, new surprising models of perception to be found.

Maida Gruden and Mara Prohaska Marković

curator duo maramaida