Performing The East – A Western Anniversary, Salzburger Kunstverein Salzburg. April 22, 2009 – June 23, 2009
An anniversary year for Eastern Europe, 2009 signals the lapse of a significant amount of time since the fall of the Iron Curtain and the reunification of the European space, formerly divided into two opposing “blocs.” Concerning the visual arts, the unification of these two cultural spaces entailed the rediscovery of Central and Eastern European art, with which the West had been unfamiliar. Until then, it was believed that this territory had remained outside time, isolated from international artistic events, but reality revealed a lively and original artistic world, combining the great ideas and stylistic trends of the neo-avant-garde with their interpretation in a specifically regional context.
Among the genres of art that have been considered virtually nonexistent in the East, performance art is a rebellious phenomenon among traditional art forms, which preserve clear distinctions between the subject and the object. This genre had a problematic reception in the East because it was often associated with conceptualism and multi-media, making it rather hard to understand. Marginalized and sometimes even prohibited in Eastern Europe because it also came with a new perspective on the body (a taboo subject for totalitarian or post-totalitarian systems), performance art was practiced in this cultural space for various reasons, especially because it enabled the artists to communicate with their public directly.
The idea to commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the Eastern European revolutions stemmed from Kunstverein in Salzburg, whose exhibition, Performing the East, was supposed to present several important artistic stances, some of which today are already considered “classical” representations of the genre. The main contribution of the curator – Hemma Schmutz, who is well acquainted with the East and has significant curatorial experience and important artistic contracts – consisted of selecting the artists. Constrained by the process of borrowing works from public or private collections, she managed to capitalize on the artistic contribution of several important names, such as Marina Abramović, Raša Todosijević, Tomislav Gotovać, Ion Grigorescu, Julius Koller, Tibor Hajas, Sanja Iveković, Katarzyna Kozyra, Petr Stembera, Pawel Althamer, Lia and Dan Perjovschi, Tanja Ostojić, Roman Ondak, and Avdei Ter-Oganian. The exhibition was presented as capturing an ample amount of breadth, featuring photos, video films and other objects, enabling the visitor to get closer, to sit down and watch the films closely, and listen to the artist’s comments using earphones, thus entering the general atmosphere of the performances.
The selection of artists in the Salzburg exhibition featured important names of the mature generation concerned with film and performance equally, such as Tomislav Gotovać, a multimedia artist. He is, among other things, the author of the first street performance in the former Yugoslavia and the initiator of the so-called behavior art, displaying his own behavior in public. Simple gestures such as shaving his beard or his hair were turned into artistic behavior, stressing the complexity of the human body that was rediscovered and reassessed in the early 1960s. He was very interested in this attitude of weighing the relations between the public and the private, which became a constant motif of his creation. In this context, his intimate performances conducted in public were considered provocative and even scandalous.
Another legendary Eastern figure featured is the Czech conceptual artist Julius Koller, who chose to remain marginal, mocking the communist regime, especially after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. He is the author of a series of “anti-happenings,” short ironic performances without public attendance and conducted in unexpected places, such as using the skylight of a roof for a game of table tennis.
Members of the same generation as Koller and with a similar debut in Belgrade, Marina Abramović and Raša Todosijević are two internationally celebrated artists who combine performance art and politics. In Thomas’ Lips, Marina Abramović conceived an expressive performance, exploring the limits of her body’s stamina by drawing a star on her belly with a razor and laying down, as if “crucified,” on a cross-shaped ice block. Making references to her parents’ communist partisan past, the artist revisited recent history, which is now perceived and related to her own body.
Similarly considering himself excluded from the cultural-bureaucratic elites of Tito’s regime, Raša Todosijević launched the concept of the artist’s proletarian body as both a “working material” and an “instrument of socio-cultural intervention.” In the early 1970s, his politically engaged performances promoted a sort of a “drama of brutality” (a term coined by Antonin Artaud), where aggressiveness was directed towards his peers. One of his best known performances in this category, entitled Was ist Kunst?, channeled verbal and physical abuse towards a muted and immobile young woman, who puts up with this violence without making the smallest gesture. Todosijević’s conceptual performance was described as a repetition of several stereotypes, recreating a totalitarian context with its sole repetitive question – a question both manic and absurd, due to its high degree of abstraction and difficulty.
Also an important artist of the 1970s, Ioan Grigorescu’s presence in this exhibition was centered on a series of snapshots of a performance, which were recorded by a friend and presented as a documentary film. Trăisteni was one of Grigorescu’s performances conducted in the middle of nature, with the artist investigating an isolated, atemporal place in search of a ritual devoid of sacred valences. The pictures, dominated by melancholy, presented the artist as a unique “hero” setting out to explore outer space while still focusing on his relationship with the surrounding world. The deserted background empathically conveys the sense of isolation in which the artist worked, unable to communicate with an ever-absent audience.
Among the selected younger artists such as Roman Ondak, Tanja Ostojić, Katarzyna Kozyra, Pawel Althamer, Lia and Dan Perjovschi brought recent works to the exhibition. While Lia presented several performances in chronological evolution, as well as a large poster with her most significant performances since the late 1980s, Dan Perjovschi focused on a single performance, devoted to political events in Romania’s recent history. Presented as a documentary film, Monument (History 1 Hysterie 2), told the story of the miners’ arrival in Bucharest in 1990 as a paramilitary force putting pressure on civil society, which was unhappy with the results of the first free democratic elections, which were conducted in a highly irregular manner in Romania after 1989.
If the mature artists in this exhibition were already included in the history of contemporary art, the younger ones are not far from this achievement either: a good example is Tanja Ostojić, who conducted a series of performances entitled Strategies of Success / Curators Series together with other curators. These performances were stagings of immediate professional success, as the artist put it, ironically, gradually, and humorously recording the pains of the young artist who strives to be selected and appreciated in the world of contemporary art. An artist equally on the rise, Katarzyna Kozyra’s Appearance as Lou Salome was an aggressively feminist video performance which mocks two famous figures of European culture, Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Nietzsche, who are transformed into pets.
Of great value due to the wide range of material offered to the public and the promotion of a theme with which the West was less familiar– contemporary art in the East – the exhibition Performing the East was doubled by a dynamic program of performances and conferences, satisfying the public’s interest in a virtually unknown world that has only recently been discovered.