Blinks and Breaths – How To Live in the Contemporary World?
The contemporary art scene, dependent on interpersonal relations and the questionable interrelation between art works and reality, today prevails in the context of the contemporary social climate permeated with the manipulation of information, relativization of values and the struggle to maintain positions of power. The need for participation in discussions, facing contradictory opinions and attitudes, exchange of knowledge, innovation and instigation of alternative ideas and practices represent some of the challenges placed before contemporary authors. In the period of art contextualization, important questions include the reconstruction of established knowledge, phenomena and authorities, exploration of forgotten, censored and invisible stories, their clarification and analysis, introduction of hitherto unknown historical facts and personalities, but also critical investigation of mainstream attitudes, an analysis of possibly alterable situations and their consequences throughout time, chain reactions and mutual relationships up to the present time.
The current socio-political events are pointing to problems with migrant policies, the struggle for maintaining geo-political borders and positions of power, but are also instigating the questioning of historical traumas, population deportations and exiles, conditioned ideological strivings, wars and violence present throughout history.
Missing Stories, a project by the Goethe-Institut in Belgrade, reveals the issues of forced labour, concentration camps and Nazi politics during World War II, violence and traumas, which have had resounding repercussions on numerous generations in their socio-political, but also personal, family and collective memories. The issues of nationalism, fascism and imperialism, still present in today’s society, indicate the significance of their examination and critical analysis through contemporary artists’ art concepts.
Whether the issue at hand is analyzing live history – the one helping us understand the time we live in, the global spirit which precedes each historical event, that is, the one leading to the event itself, the process of attaining and achieving human freedoms, the way history was viewed by Hegel, or, rather, questioning the objectivity of history, its argumentation, and valorization, the need for pointing to individual forgotten stories, subjective interpretations used to construct a mutual network of relations and associations required for better understanding of the present, are the questions raised by many authors of the contemporary art scene, as well at the international exhibit Missing Stories, including Dragan Vojvodić and the art duo diSTRUKTURA.
Through his art practice, Dragan Vojvodić researches the memory phenomenon, personal and collective identity, as well as the relationship between art and society, the specific process of creative, art Nomadism,visible both in the aspiration for change, constant dislocation from one’s place of residence, establishing relations with different environments and actors of the art scene, and in the need for interdisciplinary research and application of diverse forms of media language, such as: performance, art action, video, photography, object, installation and intervention in space.
His starting point in the art project History Repeats Itself (2019) is research into understated, unknown family history, which influenced his everyday life and construction of personal identity, with an analysis into the issues of the importance of history, its repetition, and the possibilities of learning from it in the context of the socio-political situation, place of residence and specific spirit of the time.
Researching his own family, deeply connected to the history of the Balkans and Europe in the 20th century, left an indelible mark on the formative years and life of the author, but also an emptiness, due to a confrontation with a series of unknowns related to the lives of his ancestors and an unforeseeable (unclear) family identity, conditioned by personal and historical events, World War II, and the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia, which changed the course history of the countries in the region, but also led to a series of personal tragedies, population migrations, poverty and transitions determined by the changes in the political-ideological system.
The author emphasizes several elements which are key in the process of building an art concept, research in personal and family identity in the context of turbulent historical events, particularly the forced deportation of his grandfather, once an officer in the Royal Yugoslav Army, to a Nazi camp in Osnabrück during World War II and the departure of the author himself from Sarajevo under siege during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. The connection and entanglement of life stories permeated with a violent/forced change of the place of residence – exile as an inevitability, as alienation, isolation, and the new life marked by absence, interruption and trauma, are further analyzed by Dragan Vojvodić through the terms emptiness and history repeating itself.
Starting from original personal documentation (letters and photographs), the author forms an installation out of cold and industrially raw elements, empty metal shelves and boards made of plexiglass, which he lights by white LED neon pipe lights, connected by numerous black cables. The idea lies in the absence and emptiness. The constructions are in the “service of an absurd task – to light the empty shelves” in order to be emptied from any and all contents and the suggested absence, stressed by the author himself. The rhythmically blinking light, the contrast between the cold, white neon light, and the darkness of the dim space echoing only with the sound of the neon light’s turning on and off, emphasizes concern and fear of the unknown and unclear, the emptiness filling the space both of the past and the present.
The complex issues Dragan Vojvodić tackles in this project include the manner in which history influences memory and the construction of identity, whether it repeats itself, how much we learn from it, to what extent events, individual and collective fates depend on it, what its consequences and connection to the present are, how to view society today and understand its problems, which also builds upon his previous concepts and potential current art trends.
The diSTRUKTURA art duo (Milica Milićević and Milan Bosnić) develops its intermedia art practice through research in the field of artistic, geo-political and environmental views and continuous investigation of the relationship between nature and urban environments, man and his surroundings, memory, the current situation and changes caused by the passage of time. They apply psycho-geographic analyses of natural and/or urban landscapes, using situationist strategies, walks, the principles of adventure, unexpectedness and reversals, in order to reveal hidden situations, places and stories. They combine different forms of media language (speech, text, video recording, frottage, painting, installation, etc) and present the final result of their research through sublimated expression.
The specific context of place, as well as the relationship between personal and political, are significant in their works implemented as part of the Missing Stories project, which originated from the exploration of the life story of Milan’s grandfather who spent World War II as a prisoner of the Mauthausen Nazi concentration camp. Using video material recorded earlier, the authors begin their exploration with an analysis of family history, narratives, memories and stories, and continue with a visit to Mauthausen.
During the visit, they create a series of frottages at the site by taking a direct print of each step of the so-called Stairs of Death (186 pieces), a symbolic place of violence, trauma and end for those who were forced to do hard physical labour, such as carrying massive stone blocks (up to 50kg) from the quarry located at the bottom of the stairs all the way to the top. The daily weight, ascent and exhaustion, as well as the aggressiveness of the guards meant death for many prisoners, and the stairs over time thus became a symbol of this camp as well as of brutal suffering. Apart from the drawings, the authors simultaneously make audio recordings of their own difficult ascent up the stairs, including the sound of heavy breathing, repetitive footsteps, their echo, but also the sounds of nature (birds, insects, wind, etc.). In the audio/wall installation 186 Breaths (2019) they present the notes on their stay, a total of 186 frottages installed in a scattered form, similar to the construction of the stairs, with a recording of the sound of the authors’ residence at this specific location.
The three-channel video-installation Staying Human (2019) is comprised of simultaneous video recordings made at different places during a prolonged period of time, appearing in succession: Milan’s grandfather talking about events from World War II, sitting at home, with a framed photo of Josip Broz Tito on the wall, Milan standing and looking at the monumental quarry wall, him taking prints of the stairs while kneeling, the landscapes around Mauthausen, but also those from Serbia – more specifically Majdanpek, the town where the grandfather grew up and lived as a young Communist, was wounded and then imprisoned, as well as the camp in Banjica to which he was first deported. The video recordings are accompanied by the stories of the grandfather and the author, who view historical events from different perspectives: witnesses and observers who, looking through the prism of contemporary developments, connect the events with their consequences and turns.
The need to observe, map and record the surroundings, as well as convey one’s own experience to an observer in a gallery space is apparent in the works produced at Mathausen and mirrors diSTRUKTURA’s earlier art practice, such as the face to face concept, with accentuated personal and memory content. A dialogue with the chosen landscape becomes a field of painful memories, conflicts and traumas, a place of family tragedy and dialogue of different generations, but also an attribute of personal identity.
Dragan Vojvodić and diSTRUKTURA place historical location and life stories within a context of globalization, the issues of capital, politics and ideology, but also of social change, where the personal acquires a universal meaning. Their research intertwines different dimensions, approaches and issues, past and present, aspects of moving/travelling, migration and exile, identity politics and unruly ideological positions. They point to the changing positions of power in society throughout history, the possibilities of changing sides and roles, various perspectives, and, therefore, the lack of a single truth and viewpoint. To what extent history repeats itself and influences individual decisions and aspirations, whether we are certain about our position and choices, when the personal is related to the political and how much we can really influence contemporary events are the principal questions raised by the authors, as well as where they leave space for the audience to investigate further.
Sanja Kojić Mladenov (1974), PhD, senior curator, art historian and researcher in the field of recent artistic practice, media and gender since 1995. Graduated from the History of Art department at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade and completed postgraduate master and PhD Interdisciplinary Gender Studies at the University of Novi Sad (ACIMSI). Director (2013-2016) and Senior Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, Novi Sad since 2006, where she runs the Department of Current Art Exhibitions and Center for Intermedia and Digital Art. Curator of the Serbian Pavilion at 54th Venice Biennale of Contemporary Art in 2011 and the exhibition “Light and Darkness of Symbols” by Dragoljub Raša Todosijević, winner of the UniCredit Venice Award. Winner of the “Lazar Trifunović” Award of the Society of Art Historians of Serbia, the Department of Art History – Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade and the Cultural Center of Belgrade for the best critical art practice and critical review of the contemporary scene in Serbia in 2016, as well as the award of the Society of Art Historians of Serbia for the best author exhibition in 2013. Author and curator of many thematic exhibitions and research projects in Serbia and abroad, as well as international and EU projects “Performing the Museum” and “Risk Change”. She has written and published more than 100 critical essays, exhibition reviews and scientific articles in monograph publications, encyclopedias, exhibition catalogues, specialized magazines, books and in electronic media. She has taken part in numerous professional presentations, symposiums and conferences in Serbia and abroad. She is a member of international associations – AICA, ICOM and CIMAM (Scholarship holder for 2011).