The body in action – Performative practices in photography and video from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s Collection
The performative practices referred to in the title combine actions, procedures and behaviours that the body performs before the spectator’s eyes, making no distinction between documenting a live performance in the public or museum and gallery space and works that were not preceded by a public performance, however, such a performance was an integral part of the process of their creation. As a separate topic and idea for a more extensive study, the exhibition presents some of these works from the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art’s Collection within the series of exhibitions Instructions for Watching – What the Body Wants? with the aim of putting a flexible permanent display to the test. Taking into account the spatial constraints (Vlasta Delimar’s, Zlatko Kopljar’s, Sandra Sterle’s, or Igor Grubić’s large installations have been excluded) and the task to present a meaningful whole in which the body is the bearer of the action, the exhibition covers the period from the early 1970s to date and presents thirteen works (fourteen artists) within the multi-genre corpus of conceptual, analytical and feminist approaches.
Whilst the majority of authors writing about performance mainly agree that performance is an art form characterized by transience and resistance to preservation, since the time of the neo-avant-garde there has been an awareness in Western culture of the need to document live art precisely due to the pressure of the art system which, for the purposes of historicization, needs to have evidence for the retroactive understanding of something that has already happened. The same logic of archives lies behind museum collections, however, this text aims to point to yet another phenomenon – performative procedures are increasingly being appropriated by other forms, mostly photography and video. In this kind of loose sense the performativity in the works of this exhibition is treated.
Željko Jerman’s photograph Exorcism (1972/73) is an example of the artist’s early manual ventures into photography. By experimenting with non-photographic processes – by drawing by hand, writing or letting chemicals affect the photographic paper – Jerman changed the paradigm of photography. He confirmed his non-photographic behaviour by calling his works ‘photo-paintings’ which were created as momentary actions without preconceived scenarios. He favours an unfinished, imperfect (non-) work, as a symbol of his position of a (non-) genius artist.
Mladen Stilinović’s photograph Body/for Antonin Artaud (1977) depicts a series of close-ups of his own body arranged in a strict, rectangular, collage-like structure, where each fragment shows a part of the body covered with a carnival mask. A reference in the title shows the appreciation for the radical aspirations which Artaud tried to implement in the theatre of cruelty, as an adversary to his own biology, seeing the body as a means of revolutionary social changes. With a foothold in the patterns of behaviour favoured by disobedience, Stilinović’s work can be seen as a prefiguration of Artaud’s critique of organs (and organism) that exercises the violence of control over the body (1).
Codification of the body as the topic of gender politics is present in Sanja Iveković’s and Dalibor Martinis’s video No end (1983). The sequence shows a female figure who is constantly dressing and undressing, but the camera does not show her whole body, her head, trunk or feet are alternately out of the frame. This seemingly random snapshot by the fixed camera, which prevents the possibility of exchanging glances with the viewer, also leaves the protagonist with no firm ground under her feet, makes the woman invisible, anonymous and suspended. By uttering the words There is no end, because I forgot the beginning she becomes displaced from the position of a mute body into a speaking body, but nonetheless she remains trapped in the nonsense of the statement in which we suspect there is irredeemable hopelessness. Yet, the nonsense offers itself as the only survival option in a place where it was deprived from achieving the status of the body per se, ‘without the addition of’ – clothing – which remains the backbone of the work (2).
A different interpretation of verbalization and muteness is given in Neli Ružić’s video work La cama de los abuelos/Grandparents’ Bed (2005) in which the mute performativity of licking the photograph of her grandparents’ martial bed shortens the path to the final resolution of temporal and physical distance: appropriating the bed as a place of family heritage (they used to be inherited) she achieves immediate intimacy. The act of licking is ambiguous – a place of initiation into matrilineal genealogy (mother-daughter) and an act of resistance to logocentrism, where the language has proved to be an ideological tool of the patriarchal system of representation. The mute body strengthens the action beyond regulatory control, it supports subversion. The performativity, which the artist often used, especially in the works dealing with individual (biographical) and collective memory (and oblivion), often omitted verbalization as superfluous.
Completely different, quite the opposite and welcome here is the logocentric, foul-mouthed video Fucking and Regret (2001) created by Marijan Crtalić as a verbal match between a couple. Sublimated into a monologue that does not reach a moment of reconciliation or catharsis, transforming a frenetic duration into a saturated ‘now’. This is a typical psychoanalytic rivalry of doubles that never leads to resolution, but perpetuates the conflict, which Crtalić manages to channel through comic relief.
As opposed to actions in private, in performances in the public space, with the body of the performer fully present, the body acts as an inexhaustible and unpredictable inventory of experiential and intellectual knowledge, often challenging the suppressed and covered up body, which is not appropriate or common to show in a paved urban space. Counting precisely on that dimension, Tomislav Gotovac (Mummies, 1984) chose Zagreb’s main square as the venue for his artistic intervention of selling the weekly magazine Polet. With a bandaged head, as a death mask (mummy), he appeared as a phantom which could not be identified, or understood, however, with the aim to disturb public order and turn passing heads. Carrying a sign written in Chinese letters he declared himself, paradoxically, as a social mediator and the bearer of symbolic exchange (3). Opposed to the principles of advertising practice and methods that seduce buyers with flattery, Gotovac’s endeavour is related to the actions of situationalistic origin. In the relatively controlled space of the city’s everyday life his presence acted both as a mediator and a nuisance, stirring up restlessness and curiosity as fuel for critical reflection of a public space.
The action of signposting the exhibition venue performed by Zlatko Kutnjak on Rijeka’s Korzo in 1978 (Art Is – Art Is Not) (4) is a Fluxus-like act of inviting people to an exhibition in Kastav, which consisted of writing the word Kastav and putting up posters with information about the exhibition.5 The action clarified the possibility of impact and orientation in a public space, potentially a place of protest and reconciliation.
By transferring the views of an experiential body into video performances, Goran Škofić created a six-channel installation White (2009) performed by his animated doubles. The characters which were not computer generated, but created by manipulating the studio-filmed artist, are locked in a digital heaven doing what the physical body cannot – inexhaustible, they indefinitely persist in repetitive actions, achieving an alternative materiality of the body that survives on the edge of the physical body in motion and an inanimate object (6).
The vulnerable human being is going out of fashion, whereas precedence is given to a posthuman disjointed body. Not siding with critics or unconditional apologists of the digital rise, Škofić points to phantasms about erasing the boundaries of identity, where the denial of characteristics of the physical body, in line with the approval of weightless immateriality and uninhibitedness of the virtual body, become desirable. Thus any violence over the body – from coercion to self-harming – as well as the benumbing of empathy towards it, can be interpreted as an enforced reaction to the technologization of contemporary culture (7). The precisely identified gags in Škofić’s videos performed by a flexible, controlled and obedient player, are related to the actors in a digital performance, self-willed avatars who, in the name of uninhibitedness, conquer the territory of the non-physical.
With the intention of including performative practices in the widest sense, not referring solely to public performances or the energy of the body in action, this selection also includes acts and gestures created in the isolation of the workspace. In this sense, a borderline case is Boris Demur’s photographic series Analytical Sculpture (1977). In the spirit of researching analytical (primary) painting and sculpture, non-illusionistic, non-evocative and non-symbolic photographs of sculptural forms reveal a completely atypical approach to sculpture (8). Instead of exhibiting them as material objects, he photographed them and directly referred to Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs ( 1965), assuming that, although different in matter, in the idea they remain the same. Ultimately, the format of the photographs matches the rectangular sculptural forms. In doing so, the artist’s performativity remained hidden from the observer’s gaze, nevertheless precisely marked by the photograph as evidence of the materiality of sculpture and the work process.
In the early 1990s, evoking similar work procedures, Đorđe Jandrić created a composite photograph of a similar title 2nd Sculpture (1991) by standing in front of the camera and photographing the rotation on his axis. The sequence of his bust in nine stages depicts a full volume by instructing the viewers that they need to surround him if they want to see him. In accordance with the aforementioned conceptual and analytical thinking, in the background of the second (alternative) sculpture lies an attempt at identification with a foothold in the formula body=sculpture which no one can oppose (9).
The first performances and happenings in the late 1950s, created within the framework of the activities of the Fluxus and Situationist artists, inaugurated the respect for processuality and related temporalities as constitutive parts of an artwork. Conceptual art of the 1970s additionally articulated the importance of the process by superimposing it onto the imperative of materiality as the only legitimate result of visual artistic creation. Referring precisely to this issue, I have selected three Polaroid photographs by Fedor Vučemilović with the same title London 21, 22, 23 February 1977, created as photo-documents of the artist’s walk around London.
He got around the double role of performer-walker and cameraman with a simple gesture of self-identification – by showing his own palm with a date written on it, with a small patch of the urban landscape in the background, and a ritual three-day repetition of the action was emphasised using the same motif of the hand that was repeatedly placed in the foreground. In this way the designed process covers several instances – the temporality and processuality of walking were indexed by dates, by which he marked the performance as stretched in duration and restrained in unrelenting finality.
Completely opposite, without marking time or place, Dan Oki’s Undergorund Loop (1996) paradoxically transcends the first person and uniqueness implied by Vučemilović’s work. Fifteen sequences of a photographed loop on the crowded New York subway speak of Oki being tossed down the stream of life. Present in the moment that escapes strict supervision and control, with a ludic gesture he points to two facts, his own presence in the world and contingency by which this was not necessarily supposed to happen… Regardless of the fact that his image is almost iconically present in every photograph, amidst a film-like decomposition of the event, it is like the performer’s personality is being dematerialised in the experience of time on an axis of which now exists in the register of ‘the already happened’.
The body as an empirical fact related to perception is the topic of Ivan Šeremet’s photo-installation Seeing (Oneself) (2000). Three photocopies of his ID card, each of different resolution and clarity, are the basis of the viewpoint that there is no direct vision, one that is unmediated by a screen or obstacle. In his usual reflective and restrained manner, Šeremet presents instructions about how things are shown and how we are (not) able to see them. Putting it into a broader context, on each side (the one who is seeing and the one being seen) there is a body armed with a sensory apparatus with which we see and in which we hide. When Merleau-Ponty says that the body is a measure of things, he states that when we are thrown out into the world, we inevitably encounter somebody else’s body, we become faced with their fleshy structure like a blind that obstructs our view (10). A body in action, is therefore welcome, an active body that opens itself, whether it is ordinary, virtuoso, obedient or defeated.
1. Advocating the ‘body without organs’, Artaud anticipated G. Deleuze’s and F. Guattari’s philosophy elaborated in Anti-Oedipus.
2. Feminist criticism places the female or mute body in opposition to the male, speaking body. ‘The addition’ is mentioned as a substitute for her deficiency. See: Peggy Phelan, Unmarked, The Politics of Performance, Routledge, London, New York.
3. In Polet No. 282/12 April 1984, Željko Kipke stated that this was the first in a series of actions of Polet sales, and interpreted the mummy as a symbol of the renewal of life, change and dignity of the ritual.
4. Zlatko Kutnjak was one of the founders of the Kastav Circle (1976) along with Marijan Vejvoda, Ranko Dokmanović, Josip Butković, Darko Domović, Josip Bernić, Mauro Stipanov, Ivo Kalina and Vera Benić. The group united around the idea of the revitalisation of Kastav, where some of them lived. At that occasion they founded the Vincent Gallery. Branko Cerovac is seen as the pioneer of performative practices in the Rijeka scene, where he returned after graduating from the Academy. He performed the action Trampled Down Art, 1979 in the SC Gallery in Zagreb.
5. This was the exhibition of colleagues Ranko Dokmanović and Zlatko Kutnjak in the Vincent Gallery in Kastav. The action was documented by Dokmanović who, as a member of the Kastav Circle and Rijeka-based photographer-chronicler of many events in this small art scene, photographed Kutnjak’s action and even held solo exhibitions. He was listed as a collaborator in the action Art Is – Art Is Not.
6. The term ‘alternative body’ was introduced by the British artist Susan Kozel when considering a virtual body that is not completely separated from the physical. See: Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art and Installation, ed. Steve Dixon with contributions by Barry Smith, p. 218.
7. Johannes Birringer was quoted/cited in Digital Performance, p. 233.
8. These characteristics of an analytical stream are given by Zvonko Maković, Tabula rasa, Glyptotheque of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2014 p. 6
9. Precisely three decades ago Piero Manzoni exhibited a female nude and wrote his signature on the pediment (Living Sculpture, 1961).
10. Maurice Merlau-Ponty: Vidno in nevidno, Phainomena, Ljubljana, 2000, (orig. The Visible and Invisible, Northwestern University Press, 1968)