Sitting with strangers and touching stomach soap: Reseaching Performance Art in Eastern Europe

by Dr. Amy Bryzgel

Imagine you walk into a stranger’s home and he shows you pictures of his stomach being operated on — skin pulled back, a layer of fat being removed. “I took the fat from my stomach, and made a soap from it — here, feel it,” he says, as he takes a piece of soap from the drawer and shows it to me. “Does anyone know I’m here?” I think to myself, “should I be here? Is this dangerous?”

Bryzgel - Albania

Amy Bryzgel meets with artists from the artistic and activist group Montenegrin Alternative Culture, Podgorica, June 2013

A few weeks later, I found myself in another stranger’s home. “Would you like a beer?” he asks. I take a sip from a freshly poured beer and he shows me some pictures. “Here, I tried to urinate into my mouth, and when I couldn’t, I urinated into my hand and drank it.” “Was this really beer on the table?” I thought to myself.

This is my research. For two years, I traveled across Eastern Europe, to 21 countries and countless more cities, and met with over 250 artists, curators, art historians, and arts practitioners to gather research for my forthcoming book, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960.

The man who had his stomach operated on is Zoran Todorović. He is contemporary artist from Serbia, and I met with him to talk about his art. He made the soap for a work called Agalma, the title being a reference to a Greek word meaning gift, and the work was a gesture of intimacy with his viewers—at the exhibition of the work, which documented the surgery and making of soap, he invited visitors to wash their hands with the soap. At one exhibition, visitors were given the opportunity to be bathed with the soap, by two curators, in a private room. The man who urinated into his hand is Siniša Labrović. This performance is called Perpetuum Mobile, and refers to the current position of artists in the neoliberal system, where artists struggle to make a living for themselves. Labrović created a way to be self-sustaining, by creating a performance that enabled him to feed himself

2.31.2 Todorovic-Agalma performance dokumentation photo - Beograd 2003

Zoran Todorovic, Agalma, documentation of performance, Belgrade, 2003. Courtesy of the artist

During the communist period in Eastern Europe, performance art—live art created by visual artists, also known as body art, live art, action art—usually developed unofficially. Painting and sculpture, the traditional art forms, were under government control, and were usually employed in the service of the state. Depending on the country in question, the state’s control over art varied. We are familiar with the propaganda paintings and cult of personality busts and statues from the former Soviet Union, however, in places such as Yugoslavia and Poland, artists had a bit more leeway. Artists were able to create experimental art in artist-run or student venues, but not in official state-run galleries, museums and institutions. Still, performance art was never really recognised as a legitimate art form as it was in Western Europe and North America, and developed, for the most part, underground.

It is for that reason that I had to spend two years traveling through the region to meet with and talk to artists, to gather the oral histories to create a written history that had not yet been written. How did the genre develop? Why did artists create performances? How did they create them? These were the questions I asked. I met with artists who worked both during the communist period and who are working now (and some artists whose work spans both the communist and post-communist periods), in order to gauge how the art form has developed before, during and since the transition.

As an undergraduate student in art history at Boston University in the 1990s, I rarely, if ever, encountered an artist from Eastern Europe in my courses. In fact, I would dare to say that I didn’t encounter one contemporary artist from the region in either my courses or my textbooks. For various reasons, the art of Eastern Europe was largely omitted from the history of art. During the Cold War, travel to the region was difficult, and most scholars lacked the language skills to do primary source research. Those who did would have found few, if any, primary sources for their research, because the state controlled the art history discourse as well. And with most art in the service of the state, the meaning was not open to interpretation—all art served the state ideology of building socialism. So while experimental art in the region developed underground, art history as a discipline was stalled, and art historians have been playing catch-up since the 1990s.

Eastern_Europe_Map

As a 3rd generation American with Polish roots, the omission of Eastern European artists from my discipline was personal. So I set out to fill this gap in my later research. Studying performance and body art from the region not only worked to fill a lamentable gap in the literature of 20th century and contemporary art, but also provides insight into the social and cultural conditions of late socialism in the region. Analysing the range of activities that were allowed and prohibited, where and when, has served as a litmus test for the limits of freedom in state sponsored socialism. For example, Yugoslav Croatia has a strong tradition of street art, public actions and performances in the 1970s and 1980s, yet this type of public display was virtually absent from the public sphere in Bucharest, in Ceaușescu’s Romania at the same time. In 1981, Tomislav Gotovac walked down the main street of Zagreb, completely naked, shouting “Zagreb, I Love You!” in a performance entitled Lying Naked on the Asphalt, kissing the asphalt (Zagreb, I love you!). In Bucharest, however, artists such as Geta Brătescu and Ion Grigorescu created body art and performances in the privacy of their studios, documenting the performances through photography or film. While Gotovac was arrested for public nudity, he was given the minimal sentence, because the judge was understanding of his artistic intentions. In Bucharest, however, an artist even attempting such a display would have faced more serious consequences—so serious that no one even dared try. This is just one example of the different manner in which state-sponsored socialism was implemented across Eastern Europe.

Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 will be the first comprehensive attempt to write the history, chronology and development of performance art in Eastern Europe.

It covers over 200 artists in 21 countries, working from the 1960s until today. It fills an unacceptable gap in the literature on performance and contemporary art, which traditionally only includes the history and development of performance art in Western Europe and North America. Beyond that, it tells a range of compelling stories of artists finding ways to create experimental art in unfavourable conditions—not only under censorship, but with a deficit of materials and support for their work. Putting this history together required months of travel to and through the “other side” of Europe, meetings with artists in their home, cafes, bars; numerous cups of coffee and glasses of beer, and hours of engaging conversation. And it was anything but boring.

 

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