CAKE and COFFE
curated by Michal Kolecek
Post-totalitarian Balkan and Central European visual art finds itself in an unstable environment full of perils but also powerful stories, intense relationships and dynamic turning points. This art represents a moderate pathos of the crucial social and political transformation, and at the same time, it is permeated with a natural scepticism (a kind of engaged distance) of individual standpoints in relation to systemic processes. A work of art in the social context often attains the character of a cultural and social sign, the essence of which is applying the tenets of documenting reality, of the confrontation of reality with artificiality.
Slaven Tolj "Nature & Society", 2002
The thematized reality is seen in the perspective of its specific historical, social, cultural and aesthetic aspects. There thus emerges an aesthetic code, the basic function of which lies in its ability to forge an authentic and at the same time tautological reference to a significant location and its social climate. The focus on the “otherness“ of one’s own position at the same time develops the critique of the dominance of the so-called Western world, and, in the context of Derrida’s “differénce“ also the tenets of deconstructionist theory. Contemporary Balkan and Central European visual arts often employ this “otherness“ in the process of signifying, giving preference within this framework to hybrid models of pseudo-documentarism, fiction, or representation. This gives rise to a specific discourse of aesthetic erroneousness, of visual unsettling and seduction, which is suffused with the critique of the dominance of globalization and the absence of a firm institutional framework as well as an intense supplementarity of meaning.
From the point of view of the means of artistic devices, the emphasis on the pseudo-documentary quality, or fictitiousness, in contemporary Balkan and Central European visual art is particularly accented in various forms of video art. In this respect, however, we must draw attention to a new understanding of dynamic digital technologies, which have expanded the province of the media for the technical production of images. We may find a number of reasons for such a massive expansion of technical pseudo-documentary images into the sphere of post-totalitarian visual art. For the sake of simplicity, we can divide these into external (responses to the theoretical and institutional trends in the global context of contemporary art), and internal (reflections on the local social and cultural situation) tendencies. Absolutely crucial in this context is the confrontation of the post-totalitarian cultural milieu with the position of the video medium within the overall context of the international art scene, which was heavily influenced itself by postmodernist impulses during the first half of the 1990s.
The incursion of the postmodern discourse into the raw post-totalitarian atmosphere brought about most importantly a general debate on the nature and limits of the technical mediums in contemporary art, similar to those taking place in the Euro-American context since the 1970s. In connection with this, a whole new area of questions opened, relating to the multicultural and sub-cultural structures of today’s society. Influenced by these external impulses, video also vigorously asserted itself in the realm of visual arts, in the form of so-called post-video, gender-art, and in particular, in the form of neo-conceptual video.
Neo-conceptual work within the dynamic technical media has asserted itself most notably in the process of reflecting the Central European political transformation and the dramatic events accompanying the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. In the post-totalitarian space, these explosive themes have not been treated from any clearly defined political position, as was (and often continues to be) the case in so-called Western European art, which is often influenced by new engagement art. Perhaps this is due to a certain inhibition regarding political engagement in art, which is a heritage from totalitarian policies towards culture, but at the same time it is evident that this more intimate and more individualized approach is better suited to the general communication strategies of the local audiences. With some degree of simplification we can say that post-totalitarian neo-conceptual video art deals with social themes chiefly out of the need to establish intimate principles of a shared social reality, rather then from a desire to contribute to the instrumentalization of its institutional reflection. And it is precisely straightforward, video that makes it possible to connect this subjectivity with principles of social as well as cultural appropriation.
This neo-conceptual video pseudo-documentarism naturally also became relevant in the process of the interpenetration of the local premises of contemporary post-totalitarian art by the global social and cultural context. Together with the destruction of socialist regimes, new themes began to appear in the local art discourse that due to the conditions of totalitarian society had either not been topical enough, or could not have been debated owing to political repression. Among the new areas of interest we may include the critique of the power of the media, the development of technologies, consumerist mechanisms and social violence, or examination of issues of gender, race, multiculturalism and ecology. In this respect, the clash of the transformation experiences of the representatives of the contemporary Balkan and Central European art scene with the rules of the functioning of a larger, global community proved to be a vital impulse.
In the list of crucial principles that define the shape of those contemporary Balkan and Central European video projects we must also note the deconstruction of modernism from the perspective of a late postmodern philosophical and cultural standpoint. A key moment in this process was the question about the form of an artwork and its projection into the norms of social hierarchy, as well as the examination of both the models and limits of communication between the artefact and the viewer (the public). Modern art within the framework of totalitarian societies vehemently extended its influence and dominance over the local cultural milieu, since the absolute freedom of creativity it proclaimed was often identified with political attitudes openly defining themselves in opposition to the ideology of power. With the fall of the European communist regimes, the visual arts find themselves in a condition of zero gravity, as it were. Mercilessly cast into a radically different political context, stripped of a privileged social position and comprehensible communication codes, the arts community was forced to redefine its very structure and character.
The last, but in a sense key theme of the contemporary Balkan and Central European video art, is the contemplation of the function of its own framework. The institutional framework of art represents an area of issues, among these the role of educational institutions, programmes supporting art activities, the production, presentation and museumization of artefacts, the art market, its reflection both in terms of popularization and elitism, the media presentation of the arts, and so on. It is clear that the conditions of this complex mechanism correspond to the hybrid transformation reality of the post-totalitarian society as a whole. The dynamic pseudo-documentary thematization of the process of institutionalization and socialization of contemporary visual arts serves as a suitable field for redefining the basic categories in the arts (the artist, the artefact, the audience, the social context, etc.), but can also be understood as a metaphor for the instrumentalization of the basic social bonds.
At the same time, contemporary Balkan and Central European video art, adrift in the vortex of the multicultural society influences, only with difficulty finds a striking originality. That which in general still draws us to the art is above all a mutual communication. Dynamized, visualized and aestheticized individual stories from various parts of our planet expand the limits of our perception. These local shifts may be chaste, but they always bring about new experiences.
Slaven Tolj "Nature & Society", 2002 (3:58 min)
Born 1964 in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Lives in Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Nature & Society performance was realized at the opening of the exhibition Here Tomorrow in Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb on October 4th, 2002.
These horns are the only thing that I have inherited from my grandfather – The horns are 58 years old and were intended to be a present from the Italian governor of Dalmatia to the Fascist Italian leader Benito Mussolini. My grandfather, who was working in 1944 at the railway post office decided to exchange to gift; he sent a smaller pair of horns to Mussolini and kept these to himself. By crashing the horns I deliberate myself from all these connotations – to crash them, to destroy them is an attempt to fight or to come up against
all the correlations of nature and society, desire and rules, implicit in the symbolism of the horns within society, family, expectations of one’s own, projections of one’s own. To crash them against the wall is an attempt, a need, a wish, a plea to leave behind male ideology of the society and family – to leave behind, to stop, to finish, to define one male history (misfortune) that transfers from one generation to another.
The video projection Nature & Society by the multimedia artist Slaven Tolj can be interpreted as an example of reflection of the painful process to entrench a new social identity responding the political changes in the post-totalitarian environment. It is in fact a record of the performance realized on 4 October 2002 in Zagreb. In this performance the author destroyed a pair of deer antlers that he had inherited from his grandfather. The grandfather acquired them in 1944 when he was working at the railway post office in Dubrovnik, Dalmatia. The governor of Dalmatia wanted to send these antlers as a tribute to the Fascist leader Benito Mussolini, but Slaven Tolj's grandfather exchanged them for a smaller pair and hid that unique trophy in his house. In the imitated duel, when the naked author is fighting his own shadow on the wall, and bit by bit is destroying the symbolic family heritage we feel both the deep absurdity and tragedy of the Balkan conflict. However, Tolj's exploration of limits of both individual and social tolerance does not only focus on the exceptionality of the war situation, as together with pieces of antlers falling down, he above all dismantles his own mimicry and clichés. The author thus makes himself, his masculinity and all relations tying him together with the unidirectional understanding of the social hierarchy relative, and only in this symbolic self-destruction finds a new hope.
Erzen Shkololli Hey You..., 2002 (4:27 min)
Born 1976 in Peje, Kosovo.
Lives in Peje, Kosovo.
Erzen Shkololli completed his university studies within the parallel and unofficial educational system organized by the Kosovan Albanians as a reaction to the political and institutional dominance of Serbians just before outbreak of the armed conflict between these two ethnics in 1998. Erzen Shkololli's artistic strategy is based on the semantic combination of the documentary principle, which is indicated by patient recording of common, yet with no doubt significant situations, and aesthetic manipulation eroding the steady mechanisms of reading (decoding) these events.
In 1999, the installation called "Bed" became one of the first internationally successful works by Erzen Shkololli. This postmodern ready-made in the form of a Muslim ritual funeral bed thematized the level of personal mythology, as it was made up of bed linen being enshrined by generations of the author's family, and of the social catharsis caused by the ethnic violence during the war in Kosovo. In "Blankets" (2004), the latest project finished so far, Erzen Shkololli resumes this issue, when using the process of reproducing documentation of fabrics and dresses found in mass graves after the war events finished. This documentation published in an extensive book at present helps gradual identification of the Kosovo genocide victims.
“Transition” triptych comprises of three Shkololli´s portraits representing various forms of ethnic, religious or political predestination and manipulation. Affiliation to the Muslim community, membership in the totalitarian pioneer organization, and the ambivalent relation to the European Union, which now is the Kosovo protector actually, symbolize the dramatic changes of the local social structures. The project "Albanian Flag on the Moon" torpedoes the exorbitant national projection connected with the concept of Great Albany from a detached point of view, by means of fictive intervention in the widespread visual message. The video "Hey you…" is in fact a simple documentation of a music performance by the legendary Alban singer, Shkurte Fejza, who in her production mixes elements of folk and pop music, and who, especially in the 1980's, became a symbol of the national resistance.
Erzen Shkololli reflects in his projects particular events symbolizing the contrast social situation in his homeland. The richness of his artistic strategy consists just in the focusing on the periphery background, but also in the ability to generalize the selected marginality on both the communication and aesthetical levels.
Isa Rosenberger "Sarajevo Guided Tours", 2001 (25 min)
Born 1969 in Salzburg, Austria.
Lives in Vienna, Austria.
The usual tourist exploration of a city is generally known. Equipped with city map and photo camera, sometimes also a video camera, you follow autlined routes and selected places, depending on how much time your vacation offers. What remains are snapshots, impressions from talks led with citizens in passing and pictures in your head.
Isa Rosenberger follows a different route during her stay as artist in residence in Sarajevo. She is beeing led. Not by trained tourist guides who hint at the usual sights and maybe reveal some anecdotes from the city‘s history. Eight citizens lead her to a certain place, which has a special meaning to them. Whether the pastry shop „Champs Elysees,“ the football stadium, a cemetery, the train station, or simply a rock above the city – the places recorded with a video camera are public, the stories which are told, private. Eight images and eight texts were created, turning the different perceptions of Sarajevo‘s recent past into a complex picture. While one person attaches importance to the busy crossroads where he was shot by snipers during the war, the another tells about his recollections of glorious football matches in the stadium, one woman about a rock above the city, embodying for her the sensation of freedom after the war, and a fourth person about her predilection for sweets from a certain pastry shop. The common denominator of all stories is the passion for the city in its various facests – and the implied belief in the future in that place.
Pavlina Fichta Cierna "About Jozef",2003 (10 min)
Born in 1967 Žilina, Slovak Republic.
Lives in Žilina, Slovak Republic.
Pavlína Fichta Čierna through consequent artistic development managed to find her special place in the Slovak fine art scene, and in the world. In her unique work, in a long-time development of ideas she elaborated various strategies, which are sometimes stressed, sometimes supressed. One of the most important lines of the artist’s thinking is the theme of medical treatment, in which she questions sensitivity of men and human virtue of empathy. In many of her works, the artist deals with external factors that are to improve the quality of people’s lives such as drugs or medical treatment. This resulted in her looking for the non-evident relations between physical and psychic world of the human being. Another characteristic of the artist is her working with the boundary that lies between private and public spheres, while at the same time, her work offers an intimate, often individualized contact with the viewer. Her method is based on the idea of communication even though she employs it without restraint and always tries to find new inner frames for her works.
These attitudes were already presented in her video-installation Things you do not think about do not exist (1997). From focusing on her own body, she gradually changed her position and moved behind camera viewfinder. It is through empathy and experience with lives of others, that she started to impose questions of essential or even ontological nature thus emphasizing themes that are indirectly but at the same time inseparably connected to her. This is why her works are logically grouped into series, and to enhance interpretation there are also other links between the works. Contents range from symbolic representations of female body (Arrangement, 2001) and sincerity of psychological investigation of the “video-portrait” (Report about Eva Č’s Real, 2005, Lady in Blue, 2005) to issues of sociological/political nature like the exploration of life in isolation (Janka Saxonová, 2002, Juvenile David R., 2004). Work entitled Three Men for Life plays a unique role between her works - it consists of three video-works (About Jozef, With Maroš, From Vlado, 2003) and a slide projection Without Kamil (2003). The artist uses various approaches to portray men, who represent specific motifs - through scrutinizing them she deconstructs some schematic modes of reception of the gender characteristics and, similarly to her previous works, she questions prejudices about them and existing categories of success and happiness in the hierarchic society. The works by the artists are moving, because they intuitively focus on the so-called “short histories of human life” (Milan Šimečka), yet the artist manages to evade banalities when speaking about details.
Reinigunsgesellschaft 'No Limits for Frank", 2002 (17 min)
REINIGUNGSGESELLSCHAFT (RG) is an artist unit, which works at the intersection between art and society. The artists Martin Keil and Henrik Mayer founded the RG in 1996 in Dresden/Germany. Reinigung/Cleaning stands for renewal, Society/Gesellschaft for working as a team in social contexts.
RG sees itself as a laboratory in the intellectual space of art as a speedy intervention team unafraid of big terms and who aim to address processes of consciousness in society as a whole. Of course, this is a very emphatic idealization of art´s potencial. The means of art, its strategies should lead to an added value of social communication. The artists see themselves as the researchers of socio-cultural structures and as the competent communicators within a social, economic and academic context. They are trusted with the education of cultural capital and the development of social competence.
The film No Limits for Frank shows one day in Frank’s life. He is a pensioner, a leisure time hero and a passionate owner of a motorized bicycle. With his very own lifestyle he is a supporter of slowing down everyday life. On a cold day in January, Frank rides his motorized bicycle for 60 kilometres in order to buy a carton of cigarettes at the border of the Czech Republic. Describing his philosophy of life at a gas station he teaches us a lesson concerning the seeking after happiness.
Frantisek Kowolowski "Never Ending Story – Artist", 2002 (13:17 min)
Born 1967 in Třinec, Czech Republic.
Lives in Brno, Czech Republic.
František Kowolowski's inclination to performances and their video recordings means for him a way to cross the link-ups with the traditional media towards a more open expressional system. Oscillation between the common, the social and the artistic on the one hand, and the personal or the intimate on the other hand has become one of the key sources of the author's thinking, which essential ingredient is intuitive consideration of elementary relationships in our world, and awareness of the large number of content levels that offer these explorations. For Kowolowski's multimedia installations, performances and videos, overlaying of multiple meaning levels is typical. František Kowolowski's instrument to achieve this has become modelling a certain situation by means of clusters of common or slightly changed realia or actions creating an open system filled with interrelations between the "microcosm" of human experiencing and the "macrocosm" of social relationships.
Kowolowski's installations, actions and videos are a transient form – "temporal dying". As for the media use, their objective frame is clearly delimitated, and the viewer's role is only to walk and contemplate. Kowolowski's videos as if in another and somewhat shifted context continued the original idea of deconstruction of the institutional frame of art. In that, František Kowolowski deliberately does not meet the viewers' requirements, and on the contrary, he works with factors of uncertainty and blurring. He knows that only the interaction between the just adumbrated and the revealed, yields the tension, which makes his conceptual and minimalist forms an original work of art. It is rather a paradoxical presentation of the rules of the game, and indeed, these rules do not necessarily concern just arts, but any system.
Petr Ingerle, Michal Koleček
Daniela Kostova "I See...," 2002 (17 min)
Born 1974 in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Lives in Troy, NY, USA.
The "I see…" project presents Bulgaria and the capital Sofia in particular through the eyes of a tourist from the West. He is usually seen riding in a rented vehicle with a guide in central parts of the city and next to the most emblematic local street and buildings. This is a standard trip travel agents offer and is an attractive but superficial view of modern cities and to a certain extent of the situation in the country in general. Foreigners are left with pleasing impressions and a notion that they had been able to understand everything. Most of them however do not have the slightest idea about where they really are and usually compare Bulgaria with countries like Romania, Albania, and even Afghanistan. Westerners have adopted a fairly clear notion of the Balkans and they find the problems of the countries in this region alien and the local people strange.
Having used this travel service myself, I tried to get into the shoes of these "observers" and learn what they see from their vantage point.
The situation is rather comic because we are always showing the best we have only because we want to be liked. Looking at the capital from this angle, one sees it as a beautiful and green city with rich past. The actual situation fades into the background and things lose their real content. We have thus come to the form of this film. We are riding in a shiny red Mercedes on a sunny day in March. I have replaced the beautiful panoramic view with a black non-transparent strip. There is no information. The information can be found at the location where one usually finds the two black strip that outline the edges of the film frame. One sees an abstract picture while a voice behind the scene extols the beauty of the city. The viewer builds a notion from what he hears, but is unable to see things in their entirety or to understand them. The voice continues to speak "You see… "
Sejla Kameric "Untitled (Daydreaming)", 2004 (4:40 min)
(Usti nad Labem, Zagreb, Istanbul, Iasi, Graz, Sofia, Holon, Novi Sad, 2005)
Born 1976 in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Lives in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Bosnian artist Šejla Kamerić is one of a circle of young Balkan artists who reflect in their work the dramatic processes of the disintegration of the local communist regimes and the subsequent painful search for a new national and social identity. Typical of this generation of post-war artists, who have been gradually making a name on the international scene since the mid 1990s, is the accentuation of the conflict between local cultural traditions and elements of the global lifestyle. They also voice criticism of the destruction of relations between the individual and the social systems, under the influence of extreme national intolerance.
The affiliation with this heterogeneous group of artists, of course, does not restrict Kamerić in the definition of her own distinctive aesthetic. Rather than adhering to the documentary principle, which often predominates in the post-totalitarian milieu, she adopts a stance of active artistic presence. Her strategy in the forming of the artefact in some respects recalls the process of making a diagnosis. In the broad spectrum of contradictory political and cultural mechanisms, Kamerić almost obsessively focuses on the details. These seemingly trivial events often have amoeboid features, but they always function as kick-starters and, at the same time, indicators of social defects. The fragment of the airport information system thus represents the hopelessness of social stratification (EU/Others, 2000). The confrontation between dreams and the difficulty of meeting basic existential needs during the war evokes sensations of a direct physical threat (Basics, 2001). The repetition of the vulgar sign from the UNPROFOR barracks in Srebenice heightens the absurdity of ethnic violence (Bosnian Girl, 2003). In addition, Kamerić amplifies the principle of the appropriation of social symbols with the emphasis that she puts on extreme aestheticisation. Beauty, which is latently present in her work on various levels and in various forms, accelerates the tension between raw reality and the machinery of media projection. Fashion, the cult of the body and the perfection of the advertising spot are metaphors for the emptiness of the political clichés cited (Untitled /daydreaming/, 2004), or they intensify the devastating message about the basic manifestations of social and economic inequality (Imagine, 2004).
The communicative potential of Šejla Kamerić’s work thus undoubtedly derives from the capacity to feel direct solidarity. The sadness and beauty, hope and pain that shine out of her artefacts are part of the stories we share.