Eurovision Renaissance and the Post-Balkan Baroque | kulturpunkt

English Essay

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Eurovision Renaissance and the Post-Balkan Baroque

While riotously mapping the wounds of post-Yugoslav society, Konstrakta connects the dots into a larger picture – a portrait of the post-Balkan in the neoliberal fog.

by: Mima Simić
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At the beginning of March, a friend from Belgrade sent me a YouTube link, her caps signaling a matter of utmost urgency: "YOU HAVE TO LISTEN TO THIS!" I took one quick look at the clip, noted it was 12 minutes long, thought to myself "are you fucking kidding me", and mentally archived it for some day when-I-find-a-minute. Fortunately, the pandemic has blessed us freelancers – the precariat of the world – with a significant surplus of free time, so I clicked on the link the very same afternoon, in a short break between obsessing over the war in Ukraine, experiencing PTSD flashbacks from our own Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, and scrolling for cute cat videos on Instagram.

And, from the moment I saw it, I’ve been playing it on repeat. Thanks to me, the three-part music video Triptych (made up of songs Nobl/Noble, In corpore sano, and Mekano/The Comfort Zone) by the pop singer Konstrakta soon counted tens of thousands views on YouTube. And when one of the songs from Triptych (In corpore sano) became Serbia’s candidate for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, I realized that I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm: in the days that followed, the fascination with Konstrakta snowballed all across the former Yugoslav region. YT views quickly surpassed a million, creating a rare regional sensation, with countless memes, quotes, and obsessive fans promoting Konstrakta’s work across all platforms, digital and analog alike. 

And, as countless other media analysts, I couldn’t help but wonder: what could be the cause of Konstrakta’s spectacular success? Was it the brilliant and catchy beats? Or did she conquer our hearts and minds with her hilarious and perfectly timed lyrics that vivisect our painful post-Yugoslav, post-socialist reality. Indeed, dark humor has served us as an invaluable tool of survival and the last line of defense against the absolute horror of human existence – thirty years ago in Yugoslavia as well as now, while we’re witnessing the war in Ukraine at a safe remove. As long as we can laugh, we won’t kill ourselves just yet.

With the opening shot and the first line of Triptych – "The piano makes my [tiny] place look noble"  – Konstrakta begins her ingenious, riotous mapping of the wounds left by the Yugoslav wars on the body of the former urban middle class, profoundly transformed in the ideological turn towards capitalism in the last quarter-century. Through three songs, representing three different stages of post-socialist grooming-for-capitalism, Konstrakta connects the dots into a larger picture—a portrait of the post-Balkan society in the neoliberal fog. 

In the first segment entitled Nobl/Noble, the female protagonist reflects the contemporary obsession with social status and the material realm – with objects as much as with the body. Just like Sharon Stone, one of the song’s main references and the protagonist’s alter ego, she looks at herself in the mirror and cries, struggling with the idea of aging and mortality, lamenting over it and denying its reality ("Me, die? Perhaps I just won’t"). In the next segment, In corpore sano, the artist-protagonist – tormented by economic precarity and her own invisibility – reluctantly resigns herself to her fate ("Things needn’t get better, the heart can beat on its own/ I place my trust in it, may it beat on its own"), only to sign her unconditional surrender to the forces of social conformism in the final piece, Mekano/Comfort Zone: ("We will leave no mark / Damn this comfort zone"). And although the setting is Serbia, "the Balkans" – Europe’s Southeastern and Orientalized periphery – and the language is Serbian, Konstrakta draws her beats and imagery from the western cultural repository. The geographical (and symbolic) spaces she references in her songs are Italy, France, and Paris, in particular, the United States (Sharon Stone, Meghan Markle), and classical Greece: these are her spaces of desire but also her sites of identification. If we were to reduce the artist’s images to a common denominator, we could say that Triptych deals with the (typically western) crisis of life in neoliberal capitalism, and the impossibility of negotiating with its structures, with a particular emphasis on the post-socialist, middle-class, cis-female experience. 

Indeed, in Konstrakta’s universe, the "Balkan" past and its cultural and symbolic references are abandoned and replaced with the bitter and unfulfilled promises of capitalist liberation. The only material connection with the Balkans, and its Yugoslav socialist past, is the brutalist Genex Tower in New Belgrade (opened in 1980), and Granny Desanka (born in 1912) "divining the future from chicken livers" in the Serbian village of Glibovac. All the other motifs effectively erase the symbolic line between "the Balkans" as we had known it, and the West, which we have become. This should be kept in mind for the analysis that follows.

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When In corpore sano, the second song in Konstrakta’s Triptych, was (shockingly!) selected to represent Serbia in the Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), the entire former Yugoslav region virtually exploded. But the international media, the Eurovision fans, as well as the bookies, seemed to prick up their ears as well. Konstrakta’s song will arrive to the Eurovision stage in Turin as a de-ethnicized alien, a queer inversion of the self-exoticizing shtick, a regular occurrence at the ESC events. Indeed, the music and lyrics of In corpore sano are more "western", more reflective of the West, than anything that the West has to offer, and thus far more politically progressive and provocative than anything that we’re used to seeing at such a massive televised spectacle. When Konstrakta is speaking about the fragility of the body, of health(care), and about the invisibility of (post-Yugoslav) women artists, she is speaking about every single western, supposedly "more civilized" part of the world. 

Weirdly west-claiming and west-mocking, impossible to label and (the horror!) to culturally pin down, Konstrakta’s Eurovision entry unsurprisingly garnered notable media coverage in the "West", too. Unsurprisingly, however, the treatment of the song in the foreign media revealed the failure (and laziness?) of the western commentators to read beyond the song’s reference to Meghan Markle. Newsweek, for instance, was sufficiently intrigued by the song to devote a full article to it, but stopped short of paying the song any proper attention, qualifying it as "bizarre", and suggesting that Meghan Markle’s hair is its central theme. Many others understood Konstrakta’s performance of hand washing on the stage as a commentary on the COVID-19 pandemic and on the importance of maintaining one’s mental health.

Closer to home, in the region of former Yugoslavia, Konstrakta was immediately recognized as a pop-cultural descendant, a spirited granddaughter, if you will, of the performance artist Marina Abramović. Konstrakta’s obsessive washing of hands and her repetition of the phrase, "Artist must be healthy", reminded regional commentators of Abramović’s 1975 Copenhagen performance piece Art must be Beautiful, Artist must be Beautiful in which the author obsessively combs her hair while repeating the sentence in the title of the piece. Given the cultural and educational background of Ana Đurić Konstrakta (b. 1978), and her degree in architecture, it’s very likely that her allusion to Marina Abramović’s work was deliberate. However, I believe that Konstrakta’s In corpore sano has a far more interesting companion piece and foil in one of Abramović’s most famous works, Balkan Baroque, a landmark spectacle which won Abramović the Golden Lion for Best Artist at the 1997 Venice Biennale. In this piece, the artist sings Yugoslav folksongs while sitting amidst a gigantic pile of freshly-butchered cattle bones, trying to scrub them clean with a single rag – in vain. Among other things, Balkan Baroque was an attempt to allegorize the bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 

The triumph of Balkan Baroque at one of the most important artistic manifestations wasn’t just a great success for Marina Abramović, it was also a groundbreaking moment for performance art as a whole – at the time a completely marginalized branch of the visual arts. Just a few years later, Abramović would receive the conformation of her global visibility and artistic significance when her performance The House with the Ocean View, became a key plot element in a Sex and the City episode (S6, E12), functioning as a catalyst for the romance between Carrie Bradshaw and Aleksandr Petrovsky (something we’ve all wanted to achieve, but none of us managed to accomplish). In a 2002 interview given shortly after the episode aired, Abramović stated that she saw herself "as a bridge, like the Balkans, between the West and the East."

The rest, as they say, is history. In 2010, Abramović received a major three-month-long retrospective at MoMA, where she staged a 726-and-a-half hour-long performance piece, The Artist is Present, which finally launched her into the realm of artistic royalty and celebrity superstardom, suggesting that the Balkans have finally been merged with the West. 

Like Abramović’s Balkan Baroque, Triptych also opens and closes over a grotesque pile of animal bones. Konstrakta’s piece, however, is pretty clear when it comes to the possibility of redemption or catharsis; cleansing is impossible, and the chicken boneyard is a commonplace aftermath of a meal consumed by the two protagonists (a married/romantic couple). Clinking their glasses in sync with a ticking clock and oblivious to the carnage on their plates, the couple in the video chomp on chicken wings in a scene transposed from an ordinary family portrait, framed by the door; an animated oil painting on the walls of each of our living rooms.

The horrors and the tragedy of the Yugoslav collective reflected in Abramović’s Balkan Baroque are invisible in Konstrakta’s piece – even though these horrors happened during Konstrakta’s lifetime. They are invisible, because they are, in a way, unrepeatable, because there is no more collective to speak of –the capitalist "liberation" has charted our new anti-socialist universe as a comfort zone; its sand-soft surface has absorbed any attempt at leaving a mark. "The Balkans" are dead; first they destroyed themselves, and then they were swallowed by the West. A quarter century after the Yugoslav wars and Abramović’s performance, Konstrakta addresses the horrors that followed in their wake, the horror of post-Balkan individualism – as we face the meaninglessness of everyday life, the trash churned out by the media, the aging and dying body, the interchangeability and hence impotence of every ideology (in both speech and movement). All of this while obsessively washing hands (instead of bones), denying any kind of (collective) responsibility, or agency, and repeating the capitalist mantra of individuality. Finally, in another (sardonic) inversion of Abramović, whose regal artistic presence at MoMA was witnessed by thousands, Konstrakta’s post-Balkan "artist is invisible," symbolically absent, and fundamentally unprotected. 
 
While most commentators were instantly drawn to Konstrakta’s line about "the secret of Meghan Markle’s hair,"[1] it is far more stimulating and instructive to read In corpore sano, and Triptych as a whole, as a humorous postscript – an epitaph even – to Abramović's work, a cynical[2] albeit liberating commentary on Abramović’s declaration that art has to be disturbing, that it has to predict the future, and ask questions. Because, after all of our desperate questions have been fired into the void, and after the future has been thoroughly divined from the liver of the innocents, and after art – including all the performances under the sun and under MoMA’s roof – have failed to prevent new wars and new horrors, I would give a thousand Marina Abramovićs for one Konstrakta, to play on repeat – so we can laugh, and cry, until the final beat. 
 
Translated from Croatian by Vlad Beronja and Mima Simić
 

[1] This line with Meghan Markle’s hair should be singled out as the blind spot of Konstrakta’s break with the Balkans. No white person in the West would so easily include the hair of a person with African-American origin, even if it’s partial, as a motif in a song, since it’s tied to a specific form of oppression and discrimination. This faux pas, unfortunately, could be most easily explained by "Balkan" ignorance, but to do so would entail sawing off the very branch I’m sitting on. Good Luck, Konstrakta!

[1] When it comes to humor, the closest reference to Konstrakta in the world of musical performance art would certainly be Laurie Anderson. The best storyteller among musicians and the best musician among storytellers, Anderson also uses humor as a weapon, especially in her masterpiece The Ugly One With the Jewels and Other Stories (1995), in which she, in one of the songs, also refers to Marina Abramović.

Objavio/la hana [at] kulturpunkt.hr 13.07.2022