A Dedication to Living Art | kulturpunkt

English Review


A Dedication to Living Art

The Chronotope of Croatian Performance Art is the first comprehensive overview of Croatian performance art in the period from the 1920s to the 2010 death of Tomislav Gotovac.

by: Tihana Bertek

The Chronotope of Croatian Performance Art: from Traveleri to the Present Day by Suzana Marjanić, published in 2014 by the Institute of Etnology and Folklore Reasearch, White Wave Association (Udruga Bijeli val) and Školska knjiga, represents the first comprehensive overview of Croatian performance art in the period from the 1920s to the 2010 death of Tomislav Gotovac (and including a couple of references to events in 2011). Before I turn to the book, I'd like to point out that my reading is marked significantly by the specific relationship I've developed with The Chronotope in the past couple of months, during which I've had the hard-won review copy in my possession. My relationship with the gargantuan work, which was allotted an impressive 150 thousand kuna sum by the Ministry of Culture in 2014, was not exactly hostile, but it was uneasy, to say the least. After the enthusiastic initial browse, this three-volume monograph of intimidating proportions (both in terms of content and actual size) settled itself comfortably on my shelf, mocking my growing aversion and diminishing belief that I would ever be able to conquer such material. After all, with 2000 pages in front of you, reading seems like a losing battle. However, after testing several reading strategies, and encouraged by the imploring cries of Kulturpunkt's stern but just editors, I've managed to bring my struggle to an end. The Chronotope, which was the result of the author's long-time interest in Croatia's performance art scene, its protagonists and developments, is not the kind of book one reads from cover to cover. It is a book you browse through, pausing to investigate depending on your interests or needs, insert Post-its into, move through, leave and return to. So this text is not a sweeping, coherent review – it is based on my own interests and knowledge (and the holes in it). 

The book is divided into 15 imaginatively titled chapters, and each consists of the author's study on one side and interviews with artists, published primarily in Zarez magazine since 1999, on the other. The text alternates between facts, anecdotes, illuminating links to related areas (music, theatre, visual art) and the sociopolitical context, as well as the artists' comments, completed by footnotes with additional explanations, references and miscellanea. There are 149 interviews in total and they make approximately two thirds of the book, which, says the author, allows "the protagonists’ own words to outline the extremely important genre of live art in our region". Croatian performance art scene is examined in relation to performance centres (Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik, Pula/Labin, Rijeka, Osijek, Varaždin) and additionally in relation to the key performances or phenomena (Tomislav Gotovac, Peristil, feminist performance, re-enactment, art/activism). As for the concept, the author explains in the preface that instead of the term "history", she decided to use the term "chronotope" for her overview of this rich and often hermetic area; a term that Mikhail Bakhtin used to signify the time-space relation of the narrative text. Or, as Jan Assmann says and Marjanić quotes, "memory needs spaces, it tends towards spatialization". The merging of time and space is appropriate in this case because it contributes to, among other things, the decentralisation of the scene, spotlighting the rich, interesting and often lesser-known production outside the capital.

We should begin by addressing the problem of defining performance, which the author discusses in the first chapter. She does so by referring primarily to Nikola Batušić’s Introduction to Theatre Studies, which offers the first local attempt at construing performance as a genre ("a derivative of comedia dell’arte, which usually takes place outside theatre space") and which can introduce us to the theoretical discussion of the form, pertaining to the definition offered by RoseLee Goldberg in her influential 1979 book Performance Art: From Futurism to the Present. Goldberg says that it is impossible to define performance as anything but "live art by artists", adding that "each performer makes his or her own definition in the very process and manner of execution". This protean, imprecise definition, as Marjanić describes it, was accepted by many other theatrologists, who located the origin of performance primarily in the visual arts of the 1960s. Referring to Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason, Marjanić detects a kynical dimension in performance art and claims that performance is about a "kynical execution, a need to physically convey one’s idea". 

The author highlights the fact that performance has its roots in the avant-garde, not just the conceptual strategies of the 1960s and 1970s, and that it can be retrospectively attributed to Futurist festivals, Dadaist cabaret and constructivist experiments. As examples, she cites Traveleri, a group of Zagreb high schoolers who were active in the 1920s (one of their performances was tipping their hats to greet horses), and the release of the first issue of Ljubomir Micić's Zenit magazine in 1921. However, after these first "theoretical performances", which questioned the status of the art world, there was a thirty-year long gap before the appearance of Gorgona Group. The following couple of chapters focus on what we might call "canonical" art history – from Gorgona Group, Group of Six Artists, SC Gallery and great interventionist projects of the 1970s, to the events that defined the 1990s and 2000s (Public body Performance Art Week, Book and society – 22%, and UrbanFestival). It is commendable that the author mentions the activities of groups and people who rarely appear in art historical overviews, like, for instance, the largely forgotten urbanism and architecture historian Antoaneta Pasinović, who tried to revitalise Tkalčićeva Street, or Goran Fruk’s Defenestrations, which included literally throwing things (or people) off a building. In this chapter the author’s firm grasp of the matter especially shines through, since at times the reader gets the impression she was present at the events she describes and spoke to their protagonists and audience.

Let us now take a step back, to the introductory part of The Chronotope, which consists of three texts (plus the chronotopic timeline), the final one being the author’s. The first one is a rather long and demanding text by Žarko Paić, dealing with the "performative-conceptual turn in contemporary art". Suffice it to say that Paić draws his definition of "performer" from Lyotard’s transformer, Foucault’s dispositif and Althusser’s apparatus; if you have no prior knowledge of these concepts, it will be no small feat getting into the matter. In that sense, instead of introducing the subject and offering some kind of a reading guideline, this text (which occasionally reads like a product of Postmodernism Generator) creates a barrier against a less expert audience, which is actually a shame because it offers some stimulating observations, like the one about the transfer of aura from the original to the reproduction, or the one about the radical alienation inherent to our time, which is both "ours" and "foreign", and which stems from the turn in the "aesthetic configuration of science and technology that constructs reality". Paić’s text is followed by a significantly more approachable and, in the context of this book, more appropriate text by Miško Šuvaković, which gives a good genesis of performance art and points to the complexity of the term and the problems of defining it. Finally, in her own introductory text, Marjanić explains the scope and concept of The Chronotope and presents a short overview of all the chapters. 

It seems to me that opening the book with texts by two men and placing the author's voice last is not the happiest choice. Before anyone accuses me of spreading gender ideology, I believe this remark is justified, not only because Marjanić is interested in the feminist perspective in her work (and in this book as well), but also because she is an established author and researcher with a wide range of interests, rich experience and knowledge that definitely needs no other authors to prop it up. But there seems to be a certain shyness or modesty regarding the authorial position, which I detect not only in the arrangement of the introductory part, but also in the hyper-citationality the book abounds with (more about that later) and, to some degree, in the chapter "A Licence to Perform", dedicated to female, feminist and anti-feminine performance.

What I find somewhat problematic about that chapter is the mention of "creative licence" in the context of "gender performance", since it implies (inadvertently, though) that women need some kind of special licence to engage in performance art. It should be noted, though, that the shorter version of this chapter previously appeared in Treća magazine, in an issue dedicated to "creative licences", which makes the use of this term more understandable. Marjanić herself explains that the licence refers to Vlasta Delimar, Sanja Iveković, Ksenija Kordić "daring to transfer their own life stories and ethical choices via performance". However, weren’t Tomislav Gotovac or Vladimir Dodig equally daring when transferring their own life stories and ethical choices? Of course they were, and both indisputably had problems with licences in one way or another – though neither of them, as far as I know, needed to "force" a curator to stress their engagement with feminist issues in an exhibition catalogue, like Iveković said she had done (and denied it later). This is indicative not only of auto-censorship – as Kordić, for instance, describes it – which would keep the problem at an individual level, but also, to a certain degree, of censorship – which implies a wider context of (im)possibility to act for women artists engaged in socially and politically unpopular subjects. I would therefore conclude that performance artists need nobody’s, not even their own, licence to perform, because transgression is inherent to performance, a form critical towards not only the art world, but social reality itself. If we want to be paradoxical, we might say that they gave themselves a licence to be transgressive.

All in all, this chapter offers what may be the author's most obvious interpretative gesture, as she bases the discussion of our most famous women performance artists on categories female, feminist and feminine, which she borrows from theoretician Toril Moi. Female represents questions of biology and is applied to Vlasta Delimar’s opus, feminist stands for a political position and refers to Sanja Iveković’s work, and feminine implies a set of culturally defined characteristics and is applied to Ksenija Kordić. Unlike the feminist performance, which directly and consciously subverts sexism and patriarchy, female performance needn’t have any ideological engagement (Delimar distances herself from the term, stating that her performance is "female inasmuch as I am a woman"). Sanja Iveković, on the other hand, bases her work on a feminist rethinking of sociopolitical reality. Despite the fact that their first performances were similar (Delimar with Transformation of Personality Through Clothes, Make-up and Hairdo, and Iveković with Un jour violente), Marjanić is right to point out the differences between their conceptual frameworks. Kordić’s antifeminine performances subvert patriarchal constructs that equate social roles with biology, "questioning the truthfulness and singularity of sex(es) in art". She does so, among other things, through her performative gothic clothes, which Marjanić reads as a subversion of the feminine. Finally, as a post scriptum, the author describes the 1990s Attack scene, with groups like Not Your Bitch!, Théâtre des femmes, Ultraviolet and The Schizoid Wikler's, at a time when Zagreb had the reputation of being a gathering place for student and high-school performance groups trying out new models, including feminist ones. I find this part especially valuable, since these groups’ work is mostly unknown to younger generations and the public today. 

Another chapter I'd like to highlight is the one dedicated to interventions in the Peristil – Red, Green, Black, Yellow. Writing about Green Peristil, which aimed to warn about the lack of green areas in the city, the author underlines the fact that it left no serious mark on collective memory or art history, and attempts to reclaim its importance as both an intervention in its own right and part of this Split "microchronotope". Assessing these interventions from a detached position, Marjanić detects the aesthetic sensibility the public had developed between Red and Black Peristil, so that "while Red was declared an act of vandalism, the public instantly questioned whether Black was terrorism or art". Furthermore, she stresses the media’s role in constructing artwork, especially in the case of Black Peristil, when media reception and reactions of the public, as well as of the authorities (Igor Grubić had to visit the Department of terrorism and war crimes for a conversation), were as interesting and important as the intervention itself, and later became an integral part of the work’s "mythologeme", displayed alongside it. Speaking of mythologeme, the chapter is appropriately titled "The Actions’ Mythologeme" – appropriately, on one hand, because it describes the mythology that has developed over the years around these interventions, not without their protagonists’ help, and on the other because Marjanić herself contributes to this mythology by exhaustively retelling it. The overabundance of information, anecdotes, newspaper quotes and comments, while interesting (and at times almost bordering on gossip), has in this chapter the unfortunate effect of making the text less penetrable, and the frequent vagueness of sources ("it is usually stated", "some sources say"..) further intensifies the mystique.  

The idea of artist as a "perpetrator" who disrupts the status quo surfaces not only in this chapter, but also in the one dedicated to performative aspects of protest, which the author analyses using Varšavska street and anti-governmental protests. She explains that social movements can be viewed as a particular kind of performance, and an oppositional one at that, although it is often hard to differentiate between art and activism. This raises the expected question of art’s political effectiveness in general (the implied answer is not optimistic). Marjanić has an obvious affinity for marginalized and overlooked phenomena, so at the end of the chapter she mentions protest performances by Animal Friends Croatia, which definitely rarely appear in this kind of overview.

In conclusion – to return to my earlier remark about the author’s "modesty" – it seems like the one interpretation missing from all the different ones presented in the book is Suzana Marjanić’s. It seems as if, wanting to include as much as possible, Marjanić had forgotten to include herself, which is a real shame, since I feel that instead of the encyclopaedic (illusion of) objectivity, she should have embraced her position of a situated and involved researcher and introduced her own voice with a bit more gumption. Maybe we can pin this on the professional deformation of a researcher who is inclined to cultural anthropology methods in her work. Despite that, The Chronotope is an impressive work that collects a great segment of the author’s long-lasting studies of the performance art scene – from theoretical insights and praxis overview to interviews with protagonists themselves – which will undoubtedly serve as a significant reference for art history students and other researchers.

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić.

Objavio/la vatroslav [at] kulturpunkt.hr 12.11.2015