Sunday, June 18, 2006

National Identity and Social Engagement [ENG]

The Problematic of National Identity and Social Engagement in the Contemporary Art Practice in the Balkans

[Bükreş kentinde bana dört ay kalma fırsatı veren New Europe College'a 2004 Şubat'ında verdiğim makale. Kaba bir yapıya sahip olsa da üzerinde çalıştığım doktora tezimin omurgasını oluşturuyor.]

Within a relatively short span of time, three major exhibitions based on the contemporary art practices from the Balkan geography has been organised in three cites of two German speaking countries, Austria and Germany. Besides gathering together examples of recent art practices, these events set out to offer a portrayal of the Balkan culture as a whole, with or without an irony. The titles attached to these representational framings give sufficient clue about the external perspective of the three well-known paternal figures of the European curatorship: In Search for Balkania (Peter Weibel with the collaborations of Eda Cufer and Roger Conover in Graz), Blood and Honey, Future’s in the Balkans (Harald Szeeman in Vienna) and In the Gorges of the Balkans, a Report (Rene Block in Kassel).

The trilogy has preceded by a series of extensive exhibitions covering the art production in geographies successively defined as Central Europe, East Europe and South East Europe and it can be seen as a further consequence of the increasing Western interest in the cultural dynamics released after the fall of the state socialism and the expansion of EU eastwards. The peculiar coincidence in timing of these events has raised suspicions about what the institutional and ideological motivations behind them might be. The search for the new hype in the art world has already lingered over a series of geographies considered as peripheral to the central nodes of the Western art system such as Glasgow, Scandinavia, China and Latin America.

The basic argument launched against these three art events by the critics from the framed geographies, is based on the argument that they do operate in line with the expansionist logic of the capital in retrieving new markets and labour force , and further as a postcolonial continuation of cultural colonialism through which cultural differences of some ‘exotic’ regions is to be brought forth. This latter argument seems to be in accordance with the recent academic studies on ‘Balkanism’, which elaborates the legacy of Edward Said’s groundbreaking Orientalism within the specificity of the never properly defined geography of the Balkans.

A rightly put objection for the representational character of these large-scale exhibitions is that they are only endorsing a certain type of visual production, works that respond, directly or not, to their local contexts, and that can be read mainly by some attached knowledge in the specificity of these contexts. Artworks that are merely based on the epistemology of the new visual media or the pure reflection on the institutional character of art have been excluded in favour of works that deal with social phenomena, traumas, political and cultural conflicts, asymmetries in power, urban problematics and so on. In fact, that sort of “ethnographic paradigm” has been the dominating tendency in the field of visual arts globally; yet even inclined to work thematically within specified social contexts, a large amount of artists invited to these shows feel indisposed by being reduced to the status of a context translator, an illustrator of cultural difference who reflects and reinterprets the paradigms and stereotypes of the cultural milieu s/he works in.

In addition, there is also the suspicion that this sort of exhibitions reflects “the displaced utopian and critical desires of the critics and curators in the centres they cannot find in their immediate surroundings “the centre’s longing for some kind of political specificity in the art coming from ‘out there’”. And is it not connected to the need of social democrat or third-way governments of Europe to “deal with the local, multicultural politicisation around immigrant communities”? (Kortun and Medina, 2003)

However, a shorthand equation between the historical construction of the Balkans from the Western European perspective and the scenarios and the motivations of the aforementioned exhibitions falls short of explaining the whole setting and remains reductive. To a certain extent, there is a danger here of reproducing the object of critique, that is homogenising a diverse set of cultural formations, and construing a fetishised Occidental entity, which will merely stick onto the historic, binary antagonism devised between Europe and non-Europe, (or in the context of the Balkans, ‘not-yet-Europe’). Besides, we have to bear in mind that what differentiates the ideology of Balkanism from historical Orientalism is that it “also functions as a mechanism of domination within the Balkan countries themselves”. (Močnik, 2002)

To step beyond the unproductive limits of constant complaining and self-victimisation, there is a need to pursue the newly emerged energies and modes of subjectivities as consequence of these recent geography-framing events. Retaining the critical distance to the representational character of these events we, artists, curators and critics could not resist to participate in them. On the basic level, they have offered the urge and material facilitation to produce works that are otherwise difficult to realise and exhibit at home. They have helped to build contacts to the art intelligentsia and audience in central geographies, which in the future will hopefully lead to the accession to non-representational collaborations.

A more serious gain however is the transversal conversation that has been attained between neighbouring art scenes of the region. As the location of these gatherings is slightly shifting from the central institutions of the Western Europe to the local art spaces of the East European/Balkan region, a new potential for theoretical speculation is emerging that would work on the convergences and divergences between the productions of the artists and their contexts –within a relational model of difference rather than binary structures of otherness.

The paralysing lack of a communication between the art scenes of the Balkans region prior to the transition phase after 1989 was engendered by the isolationist consequences of a century long nationalism as much as the complexities of Cold War politics. For this reason, most encounters between the contexts lead to lengthy explanations on the selves that have been largely shaped and conditioned by national histories. In the geographically framed exhibitions the artists and artworks are rarely exposed to national partitions, yet the catalogue texts gather these pieces scattered into the exhibit space back into their national context.

This paper commences with a paralysing paradox: it will pursue the conventional mode of categorisation of national contexts, but at the same attempt to look at the strategies by which the notion of national identity has been challenged, interrupted or subverted by the contemporary art practice in the Balkans. The use of the transversal links on the discursive ground of the recently enhanced conversation between the scenes, the heterogeneities between the generations within the countries and the differences between the cities of the same country are to be employed here strategically as a device to sidestep the reproduction of myths behind the national organisms.

(Counter-/Dis-/Non-/Over-) Identification

Two conventional methodologies of resistance to the power and authority have been the ‘inversion’ of the existing power relations in favour of the unprivileged segments of the society (exemplified by the struggle for constituting a state based on proletarian interests) and the ‘subversion’ of the whole power structure to overthrow the hierarchy altogether (defended by the anarchist theory in its classical phase). A Nieztschean critique on both of these radical strategies was based on the argument that “one cannot merely oppose authority by affirming its opposite: this is react to and, thus, affirm the domination one is supposedly resisting”. (Newman, 2001)

First half of the twentieth century witnessed a series of unorthodox reformisms within Marxism, developed by young Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin, Frankfurt school, and so on. One of the main figures of this group of thinkers was Henri Lefebvre, who tried to introduce the Nietzschean critique of Hegelian dialectics into Marxist theory. He forged a ‘thirding’ element into the binary logic of dialectics, a strategic position to open it up to the expanding field of alterity. This ‘trialectics’ aimed to attain a counterposed assemblage of multiple terms (symbolically starting with three), which are mutually dependent and relativise each other.

Having collaborated with Lefebvre for a while, the members of the Situationist International introduced the technique of détournement, the reuse of pre-existing artistic elements in new ensembles. For them, within the circulating plethora of signifiers in a world run by spectacle, there wasn’t a need for an absolute break and transgression to build up an ‘outside’ territory external to the system. A critical approach run by a subjective position would then appropriate the cultural products of the spectacle and modify them with subtle changes in meaning.

The structuralist objection on this subjective position opened up an extensive debate on the issue of self-formation, on the dilemma between agency and structure, between political engagement and anti-foundationalism, between metaphysics of an autonomous subject and dissolution of the subject into the language/discourse/inherited social codifications. After a long stalemate, one of the most prominent critics of the essential understandings of the self, human nature and anthropocentricism, Michel Foucault tried to sidestep the suffocating closure of the omnipotent discourse:

…We must make allowance for the complex and unstable process whereby discourse can be both an instrument and an effect of power, but also a hindrance, a stumbling-block, a point of resistance and a starting point for an opposing strategy. Discourse transmits and produces power; it reinforces it, but also undermines and exposes it, renders it fragile and makes it possible to thwart it. (Foucault, 1980)

The flexibility of moving within the discourse and playing with its inherent conflicts has been further elaborated by Judith Butler, the leading theoretician of performative theory. She proposed that, “although the subject is a cultural construction, a product of a prior signifying process, it is capable of resignification, of rewriting the script” (Butler, 1995). Any identity has to be performed continuously through citation and repetition of its signifiers; but each performance of identity opens a minute but crucial space of resignification in being disloyal to the signifier of that identity. This tiny bit of divergence in the ‘citational chain’ opens up a possibility of politicising performance. The task is to look at what escapes…

Elaborating on Butler’s investment in the notion of performance, Jose Esteban Muñoz develops the definition of the term ‘disidentification’. For him, the strategy of the ‘counteridentification’, the conventional strategy of resisting the symbolic system of ideology, does not only fail to overthrow the hegemony of the dominant discourses but it also reifies the bifurcating dialectic it has sought to undo, through its appeal to a “controlled symmetry of counterdetermination.” Disidentification, on the other hand, “works on and against dominant ideology”, and “transform[s] a cultural logic within” (Muñoz, 1999). Against the frontal struggles of inverting or subverting the hierarchies dominating the social field, it approached to the idea of ‘conversing’ the structure of these hierarchies:

The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded massage’s universalising and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its working to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture. (Muñoz, 1999)

Although clearly prioritised throughout the book, Muñoz concedes from the start that “disidentification is not always an adequate strategy of resistance or survival for all minority subjects; at times, resistance needs to be pronounced and direct.” In the following pages of the book, he does not refer back to the moments, in which disidentification remain a less effective and preferable tool than its fellow strategy counteridentification, and he does not specify the nature of the occasions for ‘direct’ resistance. Moments of crises, trauma and urgency, perhaps, which would not allow much time for cultivating a critical stance from the perpetual but slow attainments of the performative?

Muñoz’ problematisation of the notion of identification seems mainly to operate between the majoritarian hegemony of values and a pluralistic series of minoritarian resistance. Yet, there may be instances in which the process of identification between the individual and the collective identity fails without referencing a minoritarian alterity –a displacement without the need for another space. How would someone, for example, can experience a distantiation from his/her family; or from his/her national identity -supposedly given by nature- if s/he is not an apparent member of another national identity or of a minor ethnicity within the boundaries of that nation state? In that case, should we call this a process of ‘non-identification’?

This paper set out to speculate about the ways in which contemporary artist elaborate the notion of national identity in varying attitudes. Besides the two aforementioned strategies, I will also refer to the notions of ‘non-identification’ and ‘over-identification’. The former strategy can operate either critically, a strategic expulsion of the representational in art, or non-critically, as a disinterest in social engagement and loss of interest in anyhting political. Over-identification on the other hand works strategically, by appropriating the properties of the criticised ideology and pushing them to the limits of grotesque.

The Zone of Tension

The works of Sokol Beqiri, an artist based in Peja, Kosova, convey a stark contrasts between some mundane elements appropriated from the everyday life and entertainment industry, and some shocking, tragic or violent records taken from the ‘real life’. The artist has successfully combined luxuriously floating signifiers of the spectacle with disturbing scenes exemplifying the darker side of the human kind. Excerpts from a Milka advertisement, for instance, are fused with images of successive butchery of several cows; or, scenes from an advertisement with animated chicken running in the streets of Broadway, while Lisa Minelli is cheerfully singing “New York New York” at the background, are contrasted with scenes in which Beqiri axes the heads of a number of chicken in his backyard and leaving them flutter blindly to their death; a Western TV programme for kids filled with happily hopping figures of some alien puppets is being interrupted by extracts from an interview made with the artist himself in which he emotionally collapses and cries while trying to explain what producing art meant in a war-ridden Kosova. The latter interventions of Beqiri strategically irritate the audience and leave a sharp Verfremdungseffekt on the vanity of the former visual productions. This opposition also works metaphorically for underlining the asymmetry between the Western lives under safety and non-Western ones under constant threat of danger.

The artist employs the same edgy comment in his project End of Expressionism (Painted by a Madman). On the surface one can misjudge the two types of photographic images used in the composition as purely aesthetic elaborations; on the one hand some semi-abstract figurations and on the other the angelic look of a young boy lying contemplatively on a river’s shallow ground, his hairs floating lyrically in the stream. However, there is a tragedy hidden in these pictures: the former photographs document totally burnt human bodies wrapped in red blankets and a close inspection onto the picture of the boy in water becomes aware that his neck is broken and his body is lifeless. The immediate aestheticism on the surface is undone by the bitter content; artistic conventions are dismounted by the sheer tragedy of the artist’s social surrounding. Vaguely marked by a specified geography (that is the Balkans), Beqiri does nonetheless carefully avoid revealing the national or ethnical identity of the victims in these compositions.

The same generic quality is also present in his piece with the title When Angels Are Late (2001). On a panel we see an average, traditional painting from the Western art history with the religious theme of Abraham’s sacrifice of his son being interrupted by an angel descending from the heavens. Coming close the panel we discover a peephole in the middle of the painting, through which we see a very short, grainy and looped shoot of an unbearably shocking scene: a man lying on the ground, his head is pressed down with a military boot and his throat is being slit with a sword. Again the identity of the victim is mindfully avoided, the source of the documentary material is not revealed. Yet, there is a possibility to trace what the signification in the title is meant to be: when angels come too late… Being aware of the autobiographic information that Beqiri and whole his family were deported during the recent Kosova war, one can somehow link the title to the NATO intervention during the conflict -although the analogy between the Western troops and the figure of angel remains ironic.

Another work of Sokol Beqiri depicts seven persons in a row, sequenced from the oldest to youngest, holding Albanian flags in both of their hands and performing navy flag signs in different positions. The people in the picture, in fact the members of the artists family, seem to be in a joyous mood and celebration. The flag signs also hint at the arrival of some military troops and through the use of Albanian flag, one comes to the induction that the flag performance refers to the arriving of some Western convoys to Kosova –and most probably in a welcoming manner, as expected from them. Yet, realising the meaning of the sentence the people in the picture produce with their gestures the audience experiences a displacement: as it reads “FUCK YOU”. Edi Muka (2001) reads this work as follows:

[C]aught in between nationalism on one side and international dullness regarding the status of his people on the other, the artist is addressing both sides with a coded alphabet and smiling faces. It’s a call to everyone’s consciousness, as to how difficult it can be to understand each other if the walls of hatred and the sets of preconditions are not erased from people’s mind.

True that Beqiri bases his works on the vast platform between comfort and terror leaving the content open to interpretation, and it is also true that he mostly succeeds to reveal his traumatic experience without falling into the traps of various essentialism. Fuck You (2001), nevertheless, falls short in terms of displacing the appropriated image of the national icon and the related rhetoric shadow of nationalism. I am not very certain whether the discrepancy between the smiling faces in the picture and the provoking sentence they construct do play against each other.

In most of his earlier works characterised by their instinctively anthropologist approach, Erzen Shkololli, an artist also from Peja, grappled with the tension between traditional rituals, ceremonies and objects of his culture and the contemporary symbolic values imposed on them (Muka, 2001). The slightly readable political subtext in these works became the constitutive trait of Shkololli’s later production, in which he foregrounds the issue of identity in contemporary Kosova. In the Transition triptych (2001) a fragmented subjectivity between different sorts of identities is exemplified by three different, juxtaposed real life portraits of the artist himself: a picture taken during his circumcision ceremony, a studio photograph depicting him as a young pioneer and a recent passport photograph with the twelve stars of the EU in the background. Clad with adequate formal codifications, Shkololli’s body becomes the shifting surface on which Muslim faith, communist ideology and the construction of a new European identity try to hold.

The issue of national identity has been elaborated by the artist in two different works. In Hey You (2002) we see Skurte Fejza, a well-known Albanian folk singer, performing a song in her traditional costume. The lyrics start with an interpellation directed towards Europe:

Hey Europe / Hey Europe I’m addressing you a letter / As Albanian of Old Albania / How are my sons / You know well that they’re in emigration / Hey You grey-haired Europe / Do You remember my territories? / Do You remember Albanians in one homeland? / Why didn’t You consult the papers that You’ve in London? / How did you cut off our borders! / My brothers and sisters were left outside / My nephews and nieces they’re left behind / You have divided the Eagle’s sons in two parts / … / I’m pledging You for the God’s sake / Make them united , the George Castriota’s sons / That you’ve divided them long ago / We’ve never stopped crying/ At the end of this letter I’m writing / Don’t play the with the Albanians / If they break Eagle’s wing / Oh the whole Balkan will burn.

During the eighties Fejza was persecuted by the official authorities for the intensive nationalist agenda in her lyrics. The song she performs in Shkololli’s piece has again a contemporary political agenda in reproaching Europe for preventing the unity of a Great Albania and causing suffering and further risk in the Balkans. The striking convergence of the traditional values and actual politics is the leading dynamic in this piece, as it was in the artist’s earlier works of Shkololli. But, what about the lyrics? Should the artist not have distantiated himself from the immediate discourse inherent in the song, through an estrangement effect, an irony or whatever? Does the shining background on which Fejza was placed really mark her isolation, her inability to make her voice heard, as Shkololli argues? Or does it rather accentuate the contours of a national identity that is already full present on her traditional outfit?

Shkololli doesn’t subscribe to essentialist politics, without doubt. His other piece on the subject Albanian Flag on the Moon pursued an explicit strategy of ironising the representational character of national tropes: the image of a cosmonaut thrusting an Albanian flag into the soil of the moon is strategically grotesque, for sure. But in the case of Hey You has the content not been left without a trace of some distance or irony, which could short-circuit the process of identification? Can a radical pose function without a visible mark of criticality? Does my argument here impose a standardised principle of political correctness on the singularities of different geographies? Can the national identity of a country that is heavily under construction afford a certain sense of patriotism and identification with a representational ‘We’? Does the evaluation of national identity differ between the oppressor and the oppressed, cultures in safety and cultures in agony? Does a criticism launched against Europe (which can paradoxically tolerate this reproach with a masochistic ease)’ or West in general, open up a space for national identification in a new anti-imperialist gesture? Would we not run again the risk of occidentalising Europe?

In the year 2003, the project Balkan Konsulat organised by >rotor< gallery from Graz hosted a series of exhibitions based on of the cities of Southeast of Europe. Along the main events, the guest curators were asked to choose two artworks to be exhibited on one of the billboards placed in the city, which would then be later published in the Austrian daily newspaper der Standard and travel to other contributing cities. Stevan Vuković, the curator of the Belgrade exhibition invited Dejan Grba, and his work, The Deceased – Archive.

This archival image was actually preceded by a series of work titled The Deceased comprising photographs, in the artist description, “of (mostly younger) people who perform a scene of their own imagined death as if it would have happened in this period of their life.” Referring to Roland Barthes’ use of a photograph a young man sentenced to death and waiting for his execution, and to a general human tragedy by facing the death, the images in the series bore nevertheless the traces of a situated, locally specific fear of death in the young imaginations that have severely suffered from an irrationally bloody decade during the collapse of Yugoslavia. More than being about death, these performative enactments of one’s own death (or rather murder), in a relatively younger age, was aimed to pursue an intimate understanding of daily politics of being alive.

The Deceased – Archive designed to complement this previous series was actually operating with a methodology that was opposite to the previous photographs. This time the scene of death was based on archival material that unavoidably called back the notion of truth. The historical photograph employed here originated from the period of World War II. The depicted image is a corpse of a young boy lying on a table with his severed head placed besides his innocent body. A basic digital intervention of Grba was transferring the severed head back onto the decapitated torso, reconstituting the wholeness of the body, and bringing it back to life –yet by retaining also the severed head, that is the trauma, the horror, the visual affect in its place. In his concept description Grba made it clear that he was aware of the “potentially disturbing nature” of the work, and he invited the viewer to step beyond contextualising the image and to “overcome the possible (and quite probable) unease” through an appeal to “self-introspection”. However, there were some people who found the image disturbing and who were not in favour of dis-contextualising it. Der Standard stated that they would not publish the image on their papers, and the partner of the exhibition series in Sarajevo said that they would not display it on a billboard in their city.

The objection of der Standard was probably related to their disinclination to bring haunting images of a horror experienced somewhere close by to the well-protected, family-based, social democrat households of their readers. But, the discomfort of the associates in Sarajevo was undoubtedly related to the direct, specific and deeply traumatic experience of the siege and terror inflicted on their city, rather than a generic visual disturbance by displaying human agony, disintegrated human bodies and so on. It was a statement about Sarajevo’s unpreparedness for being treated by a process of abreaction. The correct time to deal with that trauma will be decided by the city itself, they implied; -perhaps an unspoken suggestion whispered: and not by an artist coming from Serbia.

Was Grba’s plea for the audience inhabiting the public space not to over-contextualise his piece (that is, not to contextualise it through the overwhelming signifier of the country he originates from) bound to fail from the start? Should he have been more attentive to the extremely delicate fragilities of the region by pursuing a politically correct reservedness? Wasn’t there a danger of echoing the ideological rhetoric of the Milosević regime that constantly construed Serbians as the initial victims of the disintegration process of Yugoslavia and the following wave of ethnical cleansing and massacres? Should Grba have remained rather within the restrained, speechless posture of ‘shame’, which is something completely different than the sense of ‘guilt’? But, what about the trauma of the masses that are reductively clustered under the name of the oppressing state apparatus, the trauma of the victims of the Milosević regime within Serbia, of a generation that had to witness the demise of its own youth? In that circumstances, can we afford to ask for a "pre-conscious self-censorship, a way of obscuring a world that could no longer be presented in comprehensible terms?”

How far can we identify the content of an artwork with the burden of its historical references, and the artist with his/her national identity? To what extent can an artist distantiate or divorce him/herself from his/her national identity, and by which strategies? These are complex issues toward questioning to develop a creative strategy, which interacts with a new paradigm and lies another set of questions in examining how to remain operating on the social context of a particular region without being trapped by the centripetal force of the national identity? Do these lines belong merely to a conspiring ‘Turkish’ guy with the uncannily flag-like surname ‘Kosova’?

Engagement in Belgrade

The reason that somebody feels the need to engage in political art after all is then not so much a matter of art’s ability to change the world, but its ability to change itself in relation to the world, in its inability to exclude itself from the surrounding world, and, finally, in its desire to subvert and provoke the ideological mechanisms which threaten it. (Dimitrijević and Anđelković, 1997)

Until this point, I have tried to look at problematic social contexts in which even a contingent proximity to the representational scheme of national identity, intended or not, endangers the viability of a critical position. Within this framework, the process of identification is contrasted with its ‘outside’, a space for non-identification in regard to the idea of nation as the producer of belongingness. Yet, in some instances this process of non-identification is extended to the larger field of social engagement, so that any interest in social or political phenomena is ruled out from the start. But what would be the object of criticality, then, in that ‘interest-less’ space?

Art’s ideological release from the doctrine of socialistic realism has been accomplished in Yugoslavia in a relatively early phase. From the fifties on, this newly appropriated space of freedom from the ideologically imposed responsibility for social engagement was filled with the terms as ‘modernism’, ‘modernity’ and ‘modern’ that would promote notions as “progress, internationalism, cosmopolitanism and belief in the positive flow of history”. The escape from the local, national and traditional would paradoxically “fit in perfectly with the new imagery of the party bureaucracy [of the self-management socialism of Yugoslavia], which represented itself as the bearer of the new ideology of emancipation or modernity and progress”. (Blažević, 1999)

Against this moderate and ‘neutral’ ‘socialist aestheticism’, which “satisfied the new middle class taste” and kept the regime safe from social criticism, a new artistic ground has emerged in the aftermath of the global spirit of uprisings of 1968. In line with the neo-avant-garde movement that was changing the artistic paradigms in the West, this ‘radical modernism’ in Yugoslavia based itself on “a counter-culture that would integrate the utopian dimension of history/society with the artistic sphere” (Blažević, 1999) that would question the meaning and context of art along a general critique of the ruling system.

Yet, the escalation of tension in the country, which would lead to its final collapse, the successive traumas and civil wars didn’t find any enunciation on the artistic field. One decade long horror was received either by an ‘active escapism’ of the progressive elements of the scene (Vuković, 2001), a refashioning of the “politics of non-political art” through the terms of ‘Second Modernism’ or ‘Modernism after Postmodernism’ (Pejić, 1999a) within the mainstream, and by the conservative and official promotion of a Neo-Orthodoxist art based on anti-Western sentiments and essentialist politics of nationalism and religious identity.

Unions of artists, critics, curators and theoreticians abandoned the institutional territories and moved out into their parallel worlds, remaining, through a greater part of the last decade of the twentieth century, in a state of permanent internal exile, in a unique triple hoop of the lack of communicability, caused by their own refusal to participate in the reality that was forced upon them, then of the institutional blockade of art courses that were considered to be inadequate for the paradigm of the new establishment’s representation, as well as the blockade of state borders that referred to all forms of international cooperation … (Vuković, 2001)

What the thin layer of the bourgeoisie, the champions of the great game of psychological repression, especially identified with the never-lived ‘belle époque’ was the concept of culture, of Culture which in these ‘murky times’ was the only thing to remain depoliticised, non-partisan and above party politics, beautiful and autonomous, elevated and consoling. (Dimitrijević and Anđelković, 1997)

The edgy character of the radical modernism of the seventies was kept active only by the figure of Raša Todosijević through his “cynical comments to the identification processes used to establish the national ideology as well as to the slang of authenticity in local art” (Vuković, 2001) throughout the nineties. His lengthy series of installations under the title Gott liebt die Serben, initiated in 1989, was a persistent criticism of the collective myths prompted by the rising nationalist ideology in the disintegration phase of Yugoslavia. He has followed “a strategy of action through ambiguous slippage of meanings and ideological positions”
(Dimitrijević and Anđelković, 1997) by combining strong symbols (swastika, Yugoslavian flag, menorah) with everyday objects of politically suggestive quality (suitcases, bureau furniture, traditional Serbian meal, chairs); but beneath this ambiguity, he established a consistent and bitter ridiculisation of the totalitarian, racist and essentialist mind. The irony in the coupling of religious and nationalist rhetoric within the short title is enhanced by its germanisation. The series of Gott liebt die Serben remained for a while as one of the rare artistic expressions opening up potentialities for a re-politicisation, for an absolute rejection of identification, and a brave counter-stance to the various nationalisms dominating Serbia for a decade.

In parallel to the rising anger to the Milosević regime, culminating in the 88 days long demonstrations in 1996/97, the shells of the inner exile of the art scene in Belgrade started to crack up. As Stefan Vuković puts it, “the idea of a new reality that would not just stand parallel with the imposed one, but one that would openly compete with it, became paradigmatic only in the mid-nineties” (2001). One of the figures, who could combine this shift towards social engagement with an experimental formal approach was Milica Tomić. Her video installation XY Ungelöst (1997) takes its name from a German TV programme from the seventies in which some selected crimes that had remained unsolved were briefly reconstructed and the viewers were invited to reflect on the possible perpetrators. At the outset of Tomić’s project the content is geo-culturally situated in a double bind. The date that appears at the beginning and the end, 28 March 1989, refers both to the declaration of statehood of the Republic of Serbia through a new constitution; and to the political murder of 33 people from Albanian origin in Kosova, which happened at the very same day. On the two screens of the project the audience sees 33 extras (figures from the Belgrade art scene) enacting the people killed in the aforementioned and unresolved incident, figures falling on a snow covered ground and leaving traces on it and the single figure of a women (the artist herself) apparently in an emotional and physical tension. As the title of the work implies Tomić’s objective here is to bring in a fictive platform to exhibit the willingness and the intention to investigate crimes that remained unaccounted for until now –not perhaps effective on the incidents in the past, but potentially enforcing for the future in supporting the public opinion against the state-perpetrated violence which became a self-assured practice in the Milosević era. Moreover, the motivation of the artist here “is not to make this crime a ‘universal’ one (or to abstract it all the way to the level of an irresponsible generalisation), but to make it a specific one, and identify it as a real but typical case, that turns out to be a general rule”. (Dimitrijević and Anđelković, 1997)

Todosijević’s series of Gott liebt die Serben proposes a strategy of avoidance of a homogenising and essentialising construction of a national identity through pushing the mythological rhetoric of it to its extreme until it becomes dysfunctional. The counter-identification process in Gott liebt die Serben remains critically and subversively in the field of national identity. It runs a deconstruction of the process of identification with an essentialised and fixed ‘we’. In XY Ungelöst Tomić devises the process of identification; yet, not with the ‘we’ that the family or the collective identity we live in asks us to identify with, the ‘we’ that we supposedly share similar traits with, but in a symbolic gesture, with the ‘we’ that we are supposed to counter-identify with, with the ‘others’, through which the difference of our supposed collectivity is defined. XY Ungelöst steps affirmatively out of the fixed borders of the national identity, in order to display the similarity we shared with the ones posed as the other. Additionally, through the use of extras from the Belgrade art scene, different sorts of collectivity models short-circuiting the national identity is proposed here, as the art community, the city of Belgrade itself, and the urban with its cosmopolitan nature.

Another work of the artist, I am Milica Tomić (1998-99) carries this ‘stepping out’ gesture further. In the video we see the rotating figure of the artist, who utters in the first turn the sentence “I am Milica Tomić – I am a Serbian”. Yet in the following turns, this equation between her subjectivity and her attached national identity is disassembled by the following utterances “I am Milica Tomić – I am a Korean”, “I am Milica Tomić – I am a Norwegian” and so on. The repetition of the expression in various languages relativises and denaturalises the equation at the beginning and underlines the arbitrary character of the process of national identification. Another project Milica Tomić and Róza El-Hassan Driving in the Porsche and Thinking about the Overpopulation (2000), in which the two artists, El-Hassan and Milica Tomić wearing her partisan uniform, hint at other levels of identification that cut across the national one. The problematic implied in the title (the so-called overpopulation of Europe with non-Europeans) is linked through the figure of Jörg Haider at the steer wheel of the sports car, the ultra-nationalist Austrian politician with a heavy anti-immigrationist agenda, to the economic power asymmetries on the globe with cultural consequences.

The pluralistic dispersion of singular subjectivities into different forms of identifications, which, from the start, circumvent the fixation of individuals to essentialist monolithic identities, is also the determinant motif in Uroš Djurić’s Populist Project. The concept of ‘populism’ has been appropriated by the artist in an affirmative twist in order to emphasise the impossibility of a full-scale assimilation of the dynamic and amorphous organism called ‘the people’ by a political programme (Vukoviæ, 2003). As in Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht’s approach to the positive use of mass media in their early, anarchistically optimist phases, Djurić re-evaluates the emancipatory potential residing in the mass culture and phantasmatic mobility between popular representations. The football arenas, for instance, are being considered as one of the most prominent social spaces, which shapes the nationalistic enunciation mingled with misogyny and homophobia. Nevertheless, at the same time, they are the space of an unbound fantasy, in which people want to see spectacular, world-famous football players from foreign countries in the clubs they support; or similarly, young footballers dream of playing in the foreign leagues that are better than their local ones.

God Loves the Dreams of Serbian Artists, a series photographs with the frame of the Populist Project, exemplifies the personal fantasy exceeding the borders of the nation-state. By an ironic twist, the title of the series fractures the aggressively exclusionary and xenophobic rhetoric of nationalism that is referred to. While Todosijević’s strategic use of the slogan aimed at ridiculing the closure advocated by this sort of thinking, Djurić’s appropriation exploits the inner conflicts of it and marks the openings and potential circulations within the tainted field of football. In the pictures, we see Djuric posing on the pitch along the eleven players of some West European football teams, wearing the same full uniform as them. In some other photographs, he sides to a number of famous footballers at the corridors of hotel or stadiums and haves a quick snap shot with, as a proper fanatic of football as such. Another series in the project entitles as Celebrities is following the same idea, in which the artist himself is being pictured along prominent artists , famous movie stars, politicians and son on.

The third part of the Populist Project, as series of cover designs of a fictional publication called Hometown Boys and promoted as “The First Serbian Porn, Art & Society magazine, brings together various visual items taken from hardcore pornography, radical politics, football matches, street clashes, techno nights, rock concerts and current political events. Stevan Vukovic (2003) rightly sees in Djuric’s project a free space for individuation, deliberation and interpretation on representations on the popular field, yet Djurić’s work also runs through the collective nature of the urban; habits, myths and symbolic consumptions (vinyl records, local rock concerts, porn circulation, trips to other geographies and bringing back goods from those places, and so on), which made Belgrade the locus of resistance to Milosevic regime, and which still keeps it unique and at the same time cosmopolitan, connected to other urban textures on the rest of the globe.

Branko Dimitrijević (2002) is quite critical about this “invention” of urban culture of Belgrade which is portrayed “as something that is ‘good’ in itself … by the admirers of Serbian opposition movements, of the activities of Radio B92 and by all those who believed that there is such a thing as ‘the other Serbia’ visually manifest in rock’n’roll bands playing in smoky garages or ‘western-looking’ kids in gritty urban landscapes”. Dimitrejić’s objection to the ‘false’ dichotomy between the First Serbia, the one operated by the Milosević regime, and the Second/Other Serbia that resisted to it, seems to be based on the questionable political motivations of the latter, which pursued a covert mode of conservatism, inheriting elements from the anti-Titoist past, and which could not succeed to divorce itself from the ‘alternative’ nationalisms opposing the one in the government. In a parallel analysis, he also underlines the elitism, xenophobia and cultural racism surfacing occasionally among bourgeois segments of the urban. Yet, I would still insist on my investment in the concept of the urban, or at least in the progressive qualities of it as exemplified in the work of Uroš Djurić. Belongingness to the ideas that are less than a nation, such as a city, a neighbourhood, a football team, may accelerate the fragmentation of the contents of identification that is proffered or forced upon the subject and decentralise political power invested in them. The living in the bourg exceeds the values of the bourgeoisie.

Dimitrejić expressed his contention on the binary between the first and second Serbia in the context of Young Serbs (2001), the photograph series of the artist Phil Collins, which portrayed a number of young people from Belgrade. His review on the works detected a certain sense of narcissism reflected on the close-up shots of the faces of the portrayed figures, which he explained through an analysis based on the idea of a post-traumatic generation. This analysis triggered a succession of responses written by the portrayed people themselves. One of the crucial contention posed in these texts was about Dimitrijević’s phrase of ‘suspended adulthood’ which implied a distantiation of the young people in their twenties from the excessively laden political context of Serbia. As a ‘thirding’ element employed in bypassing the aforementioned dichotomy, it is not clear whether Dimitrejić discerns an emancipatory opening in it or a danger of apolitisation. Dušan Grlja, one of the contributors rightly observes that Dimitrejić’s appeal to the notion of ‘suspended adolescence’ aims to define a phenomenon specific to a geography and culture but ends up in portraying a global situation. So at the end, ‘the other Serbia’ becomes “a representation of the ‘globalized’ Serbia that takes part in ‘civilisational trends’’’ (Grlja, 2002). The contributors to this amazing discussion question the viability of an analysis based on the notion of generation, the (im)possibility of the construction of a ‘we’ and the need for a switch from the dysfunctional and in some cases apolitical mode of ‘protest’ (embodied as the Second Serbia) to a mode of engaged ‘criticism’.

România versus Non-Identitaire ?

In the second half of the sixties and later in the first couple of years of the seventies the restrictive grip of the state apparatus on the artistic production entered into a relatively relaxed atmosphere in comparison with the former two decades, which allowed a certain extent of re-‘synchronisation’ between the art productions in Romania and Western world. New art practices of a neo-avant-garde nature emerged in various central cities of the country, but due to economic difficulties and the lack of access to new visual technology this new experimentality remained rather within the frame of practices as happenings, performances and land-art. Yet, following the ideological hardening in the course of the seventies, these practices had to be realised in private spaces or on unpopulated sites, which stripped them from their constitutive part, the public. In order to distinguish these practices from the notions of happening and performance, Ileana Pintile (2002) names them as practices of ‘actionism’. The concept does signify the absence of communicability of these practices, but it also confer them a political tone. However politicality, the twin dynamic of conceptualisation in the recent art practice, was not enunciated in a manifest manner –it could not be. As Bojana Pejić (1999b) puts it, “in a fully politicised socialist society ruled by a Communist Party, any political art was seen as an ‘anti-Communist’ act”. The references to the social life were formulated through either universalised terms of humanism or spiritual terms of semi-religious sources. The topics were generally chosen from generic notions as birth, death, fertilisation, suffering and violence; the works were spatially situated mostly in open sites, and remained unspecified through social contexts; the signifiers of protestation were carried through carefully encoded symbolical acts, such as strategic passivity, destruction of the artwork, fire and to a certain degree, self-destructive gestures. “Any creation which [was] non-conformist charge[d] itself with political meaning, implicit or declared”, says Alexandra Titu (1997). Yet, as the Ceauşescu regime drifted to an increasingly irrational regime of paranoia and control, ‘declared’ references to the political life, iconography and representations of it, such as the cult figure of the leader or the flags of the nation or the party, remained scarce -of course, with some exceptions, as in some of the works of Ion Grigorescu, Paul Neagu and Teodor Graur, albeit “in a rather veiled and allusive form”. (Pintilie, 2002)

The 1989 revolution brought an immense opening in all senses; it also brought the “discovery of the social as a source for commentary” (Titu, 1997). It would be a difficult task to map out all the artists and works related to social and political thematisation and to place them in their specific contexts. The scenario I will offer here is surely a partial, personal and to a certain extent biased reading. But here it goes.

From 1991 onwards, Dan Perjovschi set out to produce drawings with political comments in alternative, oppositional publications such as Contrapunct and 22. The manifestly public character of his profession in these magazines slowly passed into his performances on the contemporary art field. In 1992, in a performance titled The Appropriation (of Land) Committee, Perjovschi sold fifty pieces of 6 x 8 cm portions of soil, symbolising land of Romania. The act was the indicator of a willingness to contribute to the transition phase from the remnants of the Ceauşescu regime to a democratic society. The fever for intensifying this process was illustrated by the symbolical re-privatisation of the land -which was collectivised by the previous regime, leading to terrible social and agricultural consequences. The performance did not suggest a wholesale privatisation towards the monopolist capitalism of an-ethical property speculation but rather a symbolically homogenised, humble re-distribution of possession and dignity. On the other hand, it also responded to its political context in which the newly defined nationalist paranoia conceived the process of land privatisation as a danger of intrusion of foreign elements (including the minorities within the country) and a threat to national integrity. The ‘sell-out’ in Perjovschi’s performance worked symbolically in favour of ‘the people’ but against the interests of ‘the nation’.

One year later, in a performance practiced in the frame of the festival Europe Zone East Perjovschi had his arm tattooed with the word ‘România’. Tattoo has been used as a tool of identification with certain cultural values. The inscribed skin becomes the site of inclusion and exclusion, a border between the social and the individual or the community s/he belongs to. It is widely used to signify identifications within minoritarian groups since the dominant majority does not need any additional marking to be exhibited on the social space. Minoritarian identities and subcultures use tattoo as an instrument for differentiation from the homogenous bulk of the masses and for facilitating the recognition phase between the members of these differentiated and marked communities. Perjovschi’s tattoo, on the other hand, rested on a tension. In order to irritate and displace the sterile and conformist quality of the contemporary art scene at that time, aesthetically and culturally (and tattoos were not that popular in Romania in this period), Perjovschi applied this technique of differentiation practiced by the groups as prisoners, gypsies or marine soldiers. Yet, the inscribed word on his arm was the signifier of the majoritorian belonging to a national identity. Can such a mode of identification be re-formulated as a minoritarian position? And if yes, against which higher identity? Here we face the second step of Perjovschi’s critique.

In contrast to the canons of happenings and performances that have reinstated “the traditional male role of the active subject” (Piotrowski, 2002), Perjovschi in that performance, is being exposed to an external act. He is sitting on a chair and extending his left arm and someone else is inscribing pigment onto his skin; the word Romania and the consequent representational branding are imposed onto an individual body by someone else. Is it the ‘master symbol’ of national identity imposed on him by the nationalist discourse of the Ceauşescu era? Or more accurately, by the more recent, re-invented “national history which [was] now being re-told without censorship” (Pejić, 1999b)? The ‘someone else’ referred here in this performance is perhaps Europe. In the political context at that time, Perjovschi let himself being “stamped as a cow” to indicate the objectivisation of any person living in Romania. This ironic passivity targets the power asymmetry between the West and the organic complexity, which it reduced into the single word of ‘România’. Yet, there is a hat on the first ‘a’ letter; a sign of indigenousness. In that case, can it be also a non-ironical identification with the country’s name –at least in front of the new Big Brother called Europe? But, what would we think of an artist from Belgrade, for example, who tattooed himself with the word ‘Serbia’ in the nineties, ironically or not?

Two years later, Perjovschi produced four montaged photographs, in which he, with his tattoo clearly visible on his arm, posed in front of some urban settings in Bucharest. The composition with a shabby hut used as a toilette in the open field was titled The Most Beautiful Country in the World. Another with a churched squeezed between two high buildings was called Always Between Two Empires. The one that depicts the infamous People’s House had the title A Tiny People with Such A Big House. The fourth composition that depicted a dozing old drunk sleeping in the public space was titled as Freedom Thirsty. We find here a bitter irony that displaces the boastful terminology of nationalism, but at the same time that retains an empathic link to and embeddedness in the geo-culture called Romania.

The extent of irony was more intensive in the projects of the art project SubREAL from the early nineties. The group was combining various stereotypes on being a Romanian in utterly subversive sarcasm, or in their words, in a “cynicism [operating as] an international trend in a nationalistic context”. They had two targets to displace: the rising nationalism and the negative exoticism of the European gaze in regard to Romania. Draculaland, for example, superimposed two historical images in a funny single composition. In the image we basically see the reproduction of the Mona Lisa of Leonardo; but the face of the figure is replaced by the hideous head of Vlad the Impaler. The displacing effect on looking something (or rather two things) familiar but in a completely uncanny fusion leads to mockery of both of what these images represent. A historical figure whose was recently re-honoured by the official authorities as one of the forerunners of national independence was put into a drag costume. On the other hand, one of the icons of aesthetic excellence of Western civilisation was transformed into a nightmarish appearance of Prince Dracula. The Western imagination that locates its fantasised monsters onto other (neighbouring) geographies, in that instance Bram Stroker’s novel, is being sabotaged by installing the nightmare back into the parts of that imagination that are considered to remain forever in harmony, beauty and order.

Another work of SubREAL, The Castle, is rich in its interconnected layers. The group was invited to an exhibition to be held in Ujazdowski Castle in Poland. And for that show the group decided to refer to the Jules Verne’s novel Le Château des Carpathes, which told the story of a noble living alone in his castle up on a hill and spying, through a complex set of strange auditory and optical devices, upon his subjects living down the hill. By constructing a miniature version of the People’s House, SubREAL made use of the connotation inherent in Verne’s novel that is easily extendable to ‘the Genius of the Carpatians’ who built a similarly paranoiac system of “Securitate”. A chair having long stakes instead of legs (another reference to Vlad the Impaler) was dangling on the miniature castle. Yet, more interestingly, the material they used for building up this replica was boxes of Carpaţi, the Romanian cigarettes that had became widely popular in the black markets in Poland during the eighties. Nationalist myths, myths on Romania fabricated by the colonialist conventions of the European literature, basic goods, versatile relations between the ex-socialist countries, antilegal commerce came together in a single rhizomatic composition.

The features employed in the SubREAL projects are mostly of representational character; and the humorous settings offered by the group between these elements point at the impossibility of getting beyond this representational level. There is no truth about a Romanian essence to discover. And there is no way to see the personal affiliations of the members of the group to the idea of Romania -except their personal pursuits of art production. Both of the members of the project, Călin Dan and Josif Kiraly have recently concentrated on contemporary the urban texture of Bucharest. Their photograph-based investigations on the city reveal willingness and an empathic attachment to record the current transitions in architecture, problems in urban planning, sociological dimensions of dwelling and so on. Josif Kiraly’s photograph series Re-constructions, compositions of multiple pictures shot in different times and slight varying perspectives allude also to the quest of attaining an integral meaning from the dizzying, fragmented experiences lived through the phase called ‘transition’.

It was impossible not to respond to the events of 1989. Yet what happened later? What was the art produced on, during the process of normalisation? In the frame of an exhibition they curated in France, Laurence Bosse and Hans Ulrich Obrist defined what they saw in Romania as “une scene postnationale et heterogene, emergente et nonidentitaire”. Post-national… “The shift from the local obsessions regarding national salvation to a desire for the fastest and most encompassing connection possible” (Balaci, 2003). It is perfectly understandable; but should the annexation to the global mean also a shift towards the post-political -deconnexion from the social?

The generation of my age, namely the people born in the first half of the seventies and lived the nineties in their twenties in a normalising Romania seem to have retreated from any interest in the social, if not from any critical art practice. Should we read it as a positive sign of being normalised, or more than that, of living in an attained normalcy? Is it about the gains of the previous generation that struggled to formulate the transition phase in a proper analysis? Is it about an optimist view about the contemporary Romania that says, it has already connected to the hyper-speed of global circulation of signifiers: cable television, MTV, internet, chic and sexy magazines from England? A ‘suspended adolescence’? The illusive cushion effect that was once produced by Soros foundation, a sense of safety and hope; and accession to EU on its way? Or just the opposite -pessimism about the future of the country, tiredness in waiting for the never coming normalcy in economic terms? To divert to other geographies or having already left the country. Starting some business or giving up any art production in the face of the seducing offers coming from the advertisement industry, broadcast companies, (graphic) design studios? Leaving the pitch empty?

Cosmin Gradinaru is an interesting name for understanding this generation in transition. In a series of photographs he visualised a traumatic event he experienced in his past. When he was only ten, he came across to an aborted foetus thrown out into the woods. More than facing a human being disallowed of life and falling into the midst of existential questions about life and death in an early age, Gradinaru was traumatised by the reaction of his mother who chastised him for reporting the found foetus to the local police. She knew that the authorities would trace the mother of the baby in order to persecute her bitterly. The force used to stick to the ideological regime on demographic targets of the nation had produced an unspoken but daily terror on the people. Gradinaru was perplexed about this discrepancy between what he was taught on behaving as a proper citizen and the teachings of his own mother. Thirteen years later when he came across to yet another disposed foetus he could not resist taking pictures of it. The haunting image of the previous one, a death inflicted by a so-called communism, re-surfaced –but this time in front of a setting prepared by another ideological regime. Normalisation accomplished, but not the normalcy.

In the description of another series of photographs depicting the steel recycling gypsies, Gradinaru wrote “First of all this series of photos is not about an exotic and backward Romania, it is about a nomad community that has kept its tradition alive over the years, despite all the social and political pressures during the communist period.” His resistance to a reception of his work that would reduce it into a national allegory is quite telling. For sure, it is primarily a shield used against the exotising gaze of the European, but it also illustrates the ways in which one can deal with the social without falling into the traps of thinking in the terms of the nation. The content of Gradinaru’s works is very atypical for his generation, but his ongoing distantiation from art production in favour of an entrepreneurship of subcultural fashion design seems to be symptomatic.

Young people in their early twenties are about to take the stage. They have already inherited the thematics of the previous generation: psychologism, the use of everyday life occurrences, depiction of the ‘misery of student life’, quotidian objects, subcultural iconography (hip-hop, graffiti, stencils). Yet, there is a recent vague but perceivable twist in approaching local or political issues, conceiving Romania as a whole and defining a common enunciative field, perhaps as a generation; the last one that will have the Ceauşescu disaster in its memory.

In a recent exhibition held in his private apartment flat Vlad Nanca brought together works that relate to the figures or figurations representative for the Romanian national life, such as the national product Dacia, the national poet Eminescu, the national artist Brancuşi and so on. The title of the exhibition is itself a clear declaration of situatedness: Vlad Nanca, Lives and Works in Bucharest (2003). On the humorous flier image we see a man on ground trying to repair a broken Dacia. One of works in the exhibition Original Adidas deals with daily suffering in the eighties in which finding and buying meat was quite difficult and the complementary parts of the animals that are bought instead were named by the general population ironically after luxurious goods to be found in the West. Thus, the flimsy claws if chicken were called ‘cutlery’, the pork head ‘computer’ and the meatless feet of the pork ‘adidas’. The latter anonymous metaphor is literalised here by Nanca through the three stripes of the famous brand placed onto a pork feet.

Another work in the exhibition illustrates the confusion between the continuities and ruptures of Romanian near past and future. The dizzying shift between the two, once warring ideological continents, the state-communism of Eastern Europe and liberal social democracy of Western Europe is being represented in that piece by two flags. One of the them bares the sickle and hammer combination used by the USSR and the other bares the circular twelve stars of the EU. Will the latter truly replace the former? Is the EU really the only viable alternative for Romania still trying to heal the traumas of its nightmarish past? Nanca’s sardonic swap between the colours of the two flags (blue & yellow USSR flag and red & yellow) points at that confusion among the Romanian minds -the split of the national tricolour into two trans-national entities.

The national tricolour of the Romanian flag has another signification in the city of Cluj. The fetishisation of it by the ultra-nationalist mayor of the city, furnishing the whole of the city centre with small flags, spreading it onto every kind of urban furniture (litter bins, benches, street posts, electricity posts, flowers in the parks) create a grotesque festivity of colour but also a frightening paranoiac space defined against the Hungarian population in the city and in Transylvania in general. Mircea Cantor and Ciprian Mureşan’ series of photographs titled New Species is a deconstructive mockery on this weird situation. We see both of the artists watering meticulously the coloured street posts. It is on one hand a parodic gesture for doubling the absurdity of the cityscape and on the other a ridicule of the nationalist attribution of ‘organic’ quality to inanimate things and representations.

The recent emergence of direct interest in the issues around social, national or local problems has been criticised of being conformist responses to the expectations of the Western art system that favours art practices of that kind. Not only in Romania, but in all peripheral cultures, the artists presenting ethnographic works on their local experience are being frequently accused of self-exotisation. Through that perspective, results of that sort of art practice exhibit a fake occupation on politicality and resume the ideological patronage of an external gaze.

Mircea Cantor’s piece Double Headed Matches has been examined in that context. At the outset of the project, Cantor planned to distribute boxes of specially designed double headed matches to the passers-by on the streets of Brussels. The concept of the project was cleverly linked to the Duchampian problematisation of authorship, pop-art conventions of commodity use, arte-povera’s appeal to cheap material and presentational techniques of relational aesthetics. For the production of the matches Cantor applied to a factory based near Cluj. The factory directors told him that they their machinery was technically not capable to produce the second head of the matches, but the workers in the factory could instead do the job with their own hands for the agreed payment. This interesting procedure was filmed by Cantor and later displayed along the initially planned performance. Later, though, during the last Venice Biennale the project was re-presented only by the video material. The truly interesting local context of the matches’ production somehow overshadowed the initial idea of Cantor, which was not based on this social specificity but on a series of art-historical references. Can social engagement, willingly or not, fall prey to other ideological agendas? Are we again over-contextualising things? Can we insist on a radical positioning in terms of politicality without being manipulated by a ‘foreign invention’? Who is the audience of that sort of work; and to whom do we tell ‘our stories’? Do these practices truly ‘work’ at home?

Instead of a Conclusion

At the end of this paper, which set out to speculate about the problematic ground between national identity and social engagement, between interest in and distance to the social problems, and about the different critical registers to the process of identification, I want to go back to the tattoo performance of Dan Perjovschi. In the frame of In den Schluchten des Balkan exhibition, the artist have received ten sessions of laser treatment for erasing the tattoo on his left arm. If we remember the original intentions invested in the first tattoo performance, we can perceive a symmetrical twist in methodology. It was aimed to be a symbolical repetition of the European branding of the people of a country with a single word. It had irony –it said something and it meant the opposite. In the second instance, however, the irony disappears: the branding is this time straightforwardly denied –in an exhibition that could not completely escape the representational categorisation of a geography.

Another interesting aspect about the laser treatment is the fact that it actually doesn’t get the pigment out of the skin. It rather dissolves and spreads it onto the texture of it. So, the word ROMÂNIA is not to be read as a whole anymore, but it stays somewhere in the body; it is stripped out of its political power on the body of its bearer but kept somewhere inside and aside. A perfect example of disidentification…


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