Ješa Denegri, Speaking in the First Person Singular: Spotlighting the Artist’s Individuality in The New Art Practice of the Seventies [ENGLISH]

Speaking in THE FIRST Person Singular:  Spotlighting the Artist’s Individuality in the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies

Published in exh. cat., Nova umetnost u Srbiji, 1970-1980, Muzej savremene umetnosti, Belgrade, April 1983

There is no need to emphasise the fact that the artist’s sense of his own individuality is one of the major characterisitcs of all art, regardless of the time or place; that this sense is common to all artists; and that all artists tend to give the express it as forcefully as they can. However, within the general context of what we have tentatively  referred to as the ‘New Art Practice of the 'Seventies’, artists had a far stronger sense of their own individuality than ever before, and it was  far stronger, too, than anything experience by  any of their contemporaries who were not caught up in the same movement. To gain a better idea of the reasons for this sense of individuality, and a better understanding of its nature, it seems we should see the New Art Practice within the context of a specific spiritual climate, which coalesced mainly around young people in the mid-1960’s, as part of a wider 'behavioural revolution', aimed at removing, or transforming, some of the numerous routines that dominated culture and the conventions of everyday life. This was a time of abrupt politicisation of youth and other minority groups, including certain artistic circles. The term ‘politicisation’ should by no means be solely taken to mean political activism, in its narrow sense, but regarded, above all, as an aspiration to transform the public sphere of human relations, and human needs. It was there that the emancipation of the senses and the emotions played such a notable part. In brief, this was the domain of ‘the aesthetic’ in the historical, or etymological sense of the term, intended by Renato Barilli, in his reading of Baumgarten’s notion of ‘sensory perception'. At this particular juncture, many individuals – and, especially, artists – fell under the spell of 'the aesthetic', and it seems that this began to influence, not only their actions, but the formal and technical aspects of their work, to the extent of changing its very nature. The work now turned into a medium, or ‘conductor’, for a range of attitudes, and what came to the fore in these attitudes was the will, and an undoubted sense of individual choice. Therefore, the artist no longer relied on the mediation of a particular artistic form, which acted as a systematic filter for his feelings; he removed the wafer-thin membrane separating his self from the surrounding reality and opted for a new kind of approach that we have chosen to call ‘the artist speaking in the first person singular'. This is the language of comportment, the body language, and the language of gestures and signs; it is never the language of forms, or self-contained, material objects. The main goal of that straightforward, notably individual, form of speech was to articulate the desire for a 'dialectics of liberation', at the symbolic level of artistic language. That was the objective set by artists in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, and it initially assumed many particular, quite specific, forms.

Art did not escape critical examination, in the social and spiritual climate of 'The Great Refusal' towards the end of the 1960's, and this caused people to question many of the existing assumptions about its professed aims, established 'disciplines' and technical procedures. AS part of the general shift from institutional to individual values, there was a shift away from the notion of 'art' to that of the artist. One corollary of this was the idea that art (or at least the kind of art that was caught up in the critical spirit of the times) was whatever the artist consciously chose to do – regardless of the material form it assumed.  This provided the reason for introducing the concept of ‘artistic behaviour’ into the terminology of contemporary criticism. The following definition is given by Barilli:

'In the artistic behaviour (il comportamento), emphasis should be laid on the personality of the artist… – his physical and psychological personality, his spirit and body – whereas the traditional approach… favoured the art work'1.

In the concrete area of artistic practice in the late 1960's and early 1970's, there were many different modes of artistic behaviour. What they all shared in common was that they belonged to a category of activities, whose nature was determined by the sole, or principal, agency of the artist's personality. By this, we are referring to artistic genres of strictly limited duration, known under the labels of Body Art, Performance Art or Video Performance; or actions taking place inside or outside regular gallery spaces. Another link between all of these forms of artistic expression was the fact that they all existed beyond the material object – that is, they existed as vivid, intense moments of ongoing artistic actions, from which all that remained were a variety of traces, in the  form of textual, photographic, video or filmed documentation. To judge by many aspects of this artistic behaviour, one might be tempted to conclude that this was merely the latest of this manifestation of a long-standing artistic ambition to highlight the processual character of the artistic act, as a creative principle that had inspired a number of earlier artistic practices, going at least as far back as to American Action Painting, where the end result might take the form of a more or less tangible work of art. However,  various forms of artistic activity in the 'seventies, including happenings, for example  did not lead to the production of anything material,  although some actions or inteventions did use objects as accessories, and this enabled artists to suggest the possibility of establishing the mental parameters of their behavior, or, as Barilli has written:

'…In addition to those strictly physical/corporeal behaviours, there was place for the ideational ones whereby the body would be armed with the symbolic instruments such as word, numeral, or image.'2

Within the overall framework of what we have described, for want of a better term, as the ‘New Art Practice of the 'Seventies’ in Yugoslavia, the work a number of conceptual artists, who have been active in Serbia over the last decade or so [i.e. in the 1970’s] would seem to fit in with the subject of this essay – namely, as a direct or indirect, reflection of the artist’s heightened sense of his or her own individuality. At this point, it may be worth noting, In parenthesis that this s not a question of any particular working method, or, still less, an issue of medium, or technique, Rather, it was a matter of the psychological need that many, predominantly young, people at the time felt they had, to respond to various internal and external challenges with an expression of their own ego. When they did not feel such a need, or were not motivated to act by their current circumstances, these same artists would possibly resort to other modes of articulation, and some of them even opted for working in a quasi-analytical manner. Therefore, we are  tempted to conclude that speaking in the first person singular is less a characteristic art form, or tendency, of the 1970s, than one of the main psychological, or even ethical, components of art and, as such, it can be quite indicative of the climate which gave birth to it, as well as of the meaning it conveys.

There are often some phenomena in art which cannot easily be classified according to tendency, but which share features in common with certain prevailing tendencies. This can be said to apply to some of Vladan Radovanović's activities, so far as 'speaking in the first person singular' is concerned.  Some of his 'proposals for actions, descriptions of actions and exercises', including some dating back to his very early years (1955-57), incorporated elements of artistic behaviour, although at the time when they were executed, the author himself was unable to grasp their full implications. Besides, these activities cannot be interpreted as a direct antecedent of subsequent modes of artistic behaviour, for the younger artists of coming generations did not learn about Radovanović’s projects until quite recently. Here is a description of the projects, provided by Radovanović himself after he had finished contributing actively to The New Art Practice:

'The projects of doings envisaged performance of an ‘action’ or were the recordings of its execution. The very ‘doings’ were mostly of ‘inside-a-room’ character, with no – like fluxus – social implications, with no – like happening – destruction. Although there was no insistence that they belonged in art, they were not taken as anti-art either… The kinship of the second group of projects with Body Art was in treating the body as a material needed to carry out the work and in the body becoming both the subject and the object thereof. Again, there was no insistence that the work belonged in art. Since it was the feeling of the body more than its visible appearance which mattered, it was less possible for the subject to exist as an object for others. The fact that undergoing the suggested experience with one’s own body is given more significance than observing someone while gaining that experience leads to mono-communicability. As to the point of departure in such a work, it comes from one’s urge to re-create one’s own body and the feeling of my-ness.'3

 No matter how we might choose to categorise these projects by Radovanović, it was what the artist himself described as their 'sense of me-ness', spoke for his engagement, and revealed an affinity to his later work. Another case of indirect antecedence that is worth mentioning in this context is Zoran Popović's 1968-69 film, 'Head/Circle' (Glava/Krug). Made quite early on, before the medium became popular with the practitioners of the New Art, this film came close to the concept of speaking in the first person singular, by virtue of the fact that its sole subject was a portrait of the artist himself, although the basic idea was analytical in nature, in the view of Jasna Tijardović:

'The film Head/Circle was made with the intent to provide a full-view and objective presentation of one object (head), of motion (the head revolving on its axis) and all the details and shapes to be found on the object – in the form of a two-dimensional image… The film was envisaged for a screening from eight projectors carrying the so-called loops for each turn separately.'4

The exhibition,Triviarium (Drangularijum), ('Bits and Pieces', in some English translations) at the Gallery of the Students' Cultural Centre, in June 1971, gave one of the earliest indications of this awakening of a sense of individualism in certain youthful artistic circles in Belgrade, at the time. This exhibition was preceded by numerous discussions and meetings, and the issues debated included the status of young artists, their education, their future prospects in the art world, and the suchlike. On one of these occasions, when the prevailing mood had been both defeatist and euphoric, at one and the same time, the following proposal was adopted (along similar lines to the idea behind Achille Bonito Oliva's 1970 exhibition, Amore mio, in Montepulciano): Participants were not to be encouraged to send in sculptures, paintings or prints of the usual kind they submitted to solo shows or group exhibitions. Instead they were asked to select any non-art object which they regarded, for strictly personal reasons, as the sign of an attitude, reminiscence or a possible message. This was by no means a matter of promoting the chosen piece into an art work, in the well-worn tradition of the artist's ready-made. The piece that had been selected would remain part from the traditional kind of art object, but would still be viewed as the objet chosen as the vehicle for the individual artist's feelings. This put an emphasis on the ‘transition’ from the notion of art to the notion of the artist, which could be said to be characteristic of the strategy of speaking in the first person singular. As for the exhibition, Amore mio, Bonito Oliva said that he situated it in an anthropological, rather than a linguistic context, and the same remark might equally well be applied to Triviarium. This was not yet an exhibition of the ‘New Art’; rather, it served as a kind of catharsis that some young and even  comparably well-known artists felt the need to  undergo,  before venturing on procedures that were to acquire the  linguistic  traits of the New Art Practice. What mattered here was that the said catharsis was effected through an accentuation of the artist’s individual choice, and that traces of the original act of self-identification and assertion continued to permeate a diverse range of procedures pursued by the participants of Triviarium over the ensuing years.

The first events that embodied the principal features of 'speaking in the first person singular', to a greater or lesser degree, took place In the course of 1972, at the First April Encounters, when Slobodan Era Milivojević performed his Ž1M (abbr. of ‘Živio 1. maj’, i.e. ‘Long Live the 1st of May’); Raša Todosijević published a picture postcard with his own portrait and the word ‘DA’ (‘YES’) across his chest, and Zoran Popović – within the art programme of BITEF 6  – performed his action, 'The Axioms' (Aksiomi), which effected a straight transfer from mental conception to physical act. For 'The Axioms', Popović  performed an action in a completely dark room, filled with high-intensity sound: placing some small light bulbs on his fingertips, he used his hands to trace the outlines of eight elementary axiomatic signs.

It was in August 1973 that artists took the next step towards featuring their own personality, quite apart from any form of intermediate art object, by appearing as sole protagonists in front of an audience. The occasion for this was provided by the participation of several artists from Belgrade – Marina Abramović, Raša Todosijević, Zoran Popović and Gergely Urkom – in Edinburgh Art ‘73, organised by the Richard Demarco Gallery, at the Edinburgh International Festival. The very character of this event, which implied something of short duration, rather than a standard form of exhibition, stimulated the artists to make decisions based on actions they could perform on the spot, almost on the spur of the moment. This is how Zoran Popović, one of the participants and witnesses, depicted the proceedings:

'During the execution of this joint action, mutual rhythmic and mental inter-actions took place. This, in fact, significantly guided the course of what was further going on onstage. This also significantly harmonized these completely different individualities into an invariably control-sustaining mental and ideological whole: Raša Todosijević was painting rubber plants white, threw earth over himself and ran. He took a fish out of water and put it onto the floor where it remained throughout the action. Marinela Koželj constantly showed slogans, and Raša Todosijević would intermittently join her. Then Marinela painted one ear of Raša Todosijević black. On the wall behind them, across stretched canvas, the words ‘Decision as Art’ (Odluka kao umetnost) were written out. Marina Abramović performed a body-action, that is, a rhythmical exercise with ten knives of various shapes and sizes. She jabbed the point of a knife between her fingers in an accelerating rhythm. The moment she cut herself, she would change the knife. At the same time, the knife-jabs were recorded by tape recorder. In the second part of her action, she reproduced the sound from the tape and repeated the same action, yet now trying to achieve synchronicity with the tape sound. Zoran Popović, hiding behind Sally Holman, shot the action of Marina Abramović, Gergely Urkom and Raša Todosijević with still or 8-mm camera. Gergely Urkom laid a still camera on the floor and, using timber, marked the spatial structure of the field of vision covered by the objective of the device. He repaired a broken chair and made it usable again. Having taken off his shirt, he cut out a piece of cloth and upholstered the chair.'5

It was at the end of this event that Zoran Popović first put on his  solo performance, 'The Axioms', which he subsequently repeated at BITEF 6, in 1972, as mentioned above.

After these earliest steps, Marina Abramović was the first artist of the Belgrade circle to enact an entire strategy of the artist speaking in the first person singular, through the  series of performances and actions that she carried out, in the spirit of Body Art. who – through a series of performances and actions in the spirit of Body Art implemented an entire strategy of the artist’s first person speaking. Subsequent to her appearance in Edinburgh, she performed the same action under the title of Rhythm 10 at the Contemporanea exhibition, in Rome; there followed four more actions in the period 1974-75 (Rhythm 5, for the 3rd April Encounters at the Student Cultural Centre, in Belgrade; Rhythm 2 at the Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb; Rhythm 4 at the Galleria Diagramma, in Milan; and, finally, Rhythm 0 at Studio Mora, in Naples). As she herself emphasised, the meaning of her work, in the Rhythm Cycle, ‘was an outcome of the exploration of the body as an object utilized in conscious and unconscious state'.6

Independently of their individual content, the actions that Marina Abramović linked together in her Rhythm Cycle shared one trait in common: the artist's pronounced determination to bring her own personality into focus. Abramović  was not only the protagonist of these actions, but she carried them out on her own body – i.e. on her psycho-physical organism, as a whole, and thus consciously exposed her organism to various forms of self-aggression. Namely, in each of those actions, the artist would design the basic scenario of the act in advance, in full consciousness of the implications; however, once the action began, she allowed for the inclusion of unpredictable, chance elements, which were such as to expose her organism to the possibility of physical injury or, perhaps, to temporary psychological damage, or even, in extremis, to the possibility of mortal danger.. Although Marina Abramović's actions may not appear at first sight to bear any close relation to real life situations, it was the interrelatedness between the planned and the accidental, and between the predictable and the unpredicatble, that gave such a revelatory character to the process, which primarily referred to the status of the artistic element in an action which questioned the very nature of art itself.  For, the relationship between conscious and unconscious factors is one of the defining features of art, and its profoundest elements. When mediated in real time and space, these factors expose the mechanisms that influence artistic behaviour.  Yet in addition to this conceptual component, Marina Abramović's actions have an expressive element and sometimes, even, a mythic dimension. Some of her gestures, such as cutting her own hair and finger- and toenails, then throwing the cuttings into fire (in  Rhythm 5, 1974) can be deciphered with recourse to symbolic or psychoanalytical codes, indicating that  some of the contents originate from the deepest layers of the individual, or collective, unconscious. Abramović's striking personality regularly imprints itself on each of those actions. In her opinion, art must be carried out with the investment of one’s whole being, whilst there is no place for routine, or mere technique. Whatever is done in art, or in the name of art, has to be done through the ethics of a total surrender to the mythic vocation of art. The Rhythm Cycle, ‘produced’ from 1973 to 1975, together with some additional actions and video works from 1976 (Art Must Be Beautiful – The Artist Must Be Beautiful, Liberation of the Voice – Liberation of the Memory – Liberation of the Body) forms the core body of Marina Abramović's work,  as an artist performing in the role of the first person singular. After 1976, she worked in partnership with the German-Dutch artist, Ulay, but that part of her work which has been carried out abroad lies outside the scope of this article, and this exhibition.

It was in 1972 that Raša Todosijević openly manifested the desire to approach art in the first person singular.  That year, he performed his action YES (DA) – not yet, as a public appearance, but via the medium of picture postcard, bearing an image of his own portrait, on the grounds that the work of art was  'inseparable from the personality of the artist himself'7. In the same year, Todosijević carried out a few actions of limited duration: Place, Sculpture and Sign (Mesto, Skulptura, Znak). But it was in Edinburgh, in 1973, that he embarked on a series of performances, under the slogan, 'Decisions as Art’ (Odluka kao umetnost), which, in addition to his drawings,  have formed the central, and certainly the most characteristic, part of his artistic conception.

The acts in Todosijević’s early performances of 1973-4, such as Drinking Water and Washing Water (Pijenje vode, Pranje vode), took place under the aegis of the same heading, Decisions as Art. The events came quite close to some real-life occurrences, and it was only the author’s right to promote them as artistic actions, as well as the context within which they were performed, that prevented them from dissolving in the routine mundane behaviour. Thus, the artist's use of the heading, Decisions as Art, turned into an advertisement for his heightened sense of his own personality. Admittedly, nomination, rather than formulation, is one of the well-known options for declaring something to be a work of art; quite apart from its use in recent art, artists have often resorted to it in the past, as well, as a means of turning forms of artistic self-expression into modes of artistic behaviour. In Todosijević's case, however, he soon reached the limits of such procedures and began to replace a priori nomination with a declaratory form of questioning the nature of art, by claiming that the very 'manner in which the artist poses the question of the issue of art is itself a work of art'.8 Actually, that was the essential meaning of a cycle which was to begin in 1976, with the performance, Was ist Kunst, Patricia Henning?, while shooting some videos for the Krinzinger Gallery at Brdo, in Istria. Todosijević then went on to execute a series of performances under the same title (Was ist Kunst?) in front of different audiences in Paris, Belgrade, Turin, Vienna, Zagreb, Lublin, Warsaw, Krakow and Katowice, in 1977-78. The character and the meaning of the  latter performances was best explained by the author himself:

'The performances titled Was ist Kunst? are political performances in the broadest sense of the word. Not art in the service of politics, but art which sublimes the society’s performance into an artistic performance, emphasizing via the sublimation some features of the social development, the phenomenon of mass psychology, demagogy of the language, invariable repetition – through a cathartic accentuation.'9

By the artist's own admission, Todosijević's series of performances, Vive la France – Vive la Tyrannie, which he carried out in the course of his 1979 tour in the Netherlands (to Amsterdam, Enschede and Arnhem), was indirectly linked to the meaning of the  preceding cycle, in which the  popular revolutionary slogan, Vive la France – Vive la Liberté underwent an ironic transformation.. The new title launched a private slogan, and both this title and the artist's actions, in the course of the performance, including the act of banging his head repeatedly against a hard metal board and some, soft clay-like matter, in alternation, conveyed the idea of desperately seeking to demystify subjects that implicitly carried a positive ideological charge or sense of social engagement. Slobodan Era Milivojević, in contrast, did not bring his own artistic ego to the fore; however, the content of his actions, which could often only be deciphered by those who were familiar with hits personal artistic code, might be contrued as a kind of 'individual mythology'. It has correctly been observed that

'it is difficult to grasp his stage-pieces, objects and actions owing to the author’s subjective/hermetical systems being established and prevailingly based on his private terminology… Milivojević’s work is something of that kind of work in art which implies systematic resistance to systematic work in art'10

The eccentric character of Milivojević’s work may account for his position to one side of the mainstream of Belgrade’s New Art Practice during the period when it developed into a well-defined language, despite the significant pioneering role he had played, when the practice had first emerged at the very beginning of the 1970’s. Milivojević’s actions, such as Disintegration of the Cube and Scotch-Taping the Mirror (1971; Razlaganje kocke, Oblepljivanje ogledala), the environmental work, 'The Dark Chamber' (Mračna komora, 1972), the stage-piece, Ž1M (1972),  'Swan Lake' (Labudovo jezero, 1973), and others, have been registered, as examples of conglomerate artistic utterances, in which elements of Happening and Performance Art intermingled with elements of stage plays and pantomime, incorporating elements taken from real life. All this corresponded with the mentality of the New Art Practice, in its initial phase, when the self-reflexive trait had not yet developed; and it was that trait which later came to typify the work of those artists who possessed a dogged awareness of the metalinguistic nature of art – even when it concerned the behaviour implied by the artist himself, speaking in the first person singular. 

Unlike most of the representatives of the New Art Practice, whose choice to speak in the first person resulted from their need to adopt an entirely individual stance and viewpoint, Neša Paripović resorted to this manner of articulation, in a way that showed him artist quite deliberately setting a distance between himself and the content of his work, as well as the procedure by which that content was communicated. Namely, it is quite striking that Paripović never had recourse to any direct forms of public appearance, such as actions or performances; on the contrary, the media to which he most often resorted were those used for capturing and reproducing events via technical devices – still photography, film and video. Yet the subjects of the largest number of Paripović’s works conveyed by these media were closely related to his personality and behaviour; it is noteworthy, too, that the scenes chose to present did not contain any hint of private or autobiographical meaning: they were conceived, and realised, as the artist's specific reflections on  the nature of his work, about his relation to the time in which his work took place, his own attitude to the intrinsic meaning of his work,  and so on. Thus, the photographic piece, 'No Title' (Bez naziva), of 1975, presented the author sitting at a table in a variety of different postures, while poring over a blank sheet of white paper. This suggests that the work could be taken as a sign of his awareness of the essentially mental nature of the art he was pursuing. In the work, '33 years' (33 godine), the author was photographed at different moments, in different situations, while moving around the city, and the photographs were arranged, so as to span a fictitious period of time, in the centre of which stood the year of the artist’s birth. Finally, the film titled Neša Paripović 1977 (with camerawork by Jovan Čekić) presented the artist moving around the city without using any of the normal routes, and the nearly obsessive repetition of the same, or similar, acts endows this film with the character of a kind of ‘open work’, which may carry a literal meaning, but also a supplementary one. There is one work, entitled Poruke–Messages, which typifies the character of this type of deliberately veiled ‘utterance’:  here, the photos present the author communicating, or receiving, various oral messages, while the accompanying text for the piece simply posits the possibility of a secret that is, presumably, concealed in the messages. Thus, it is obvious that Paripović’s manner of 'speaking' in the first person is not in the least explicit. The artist is, admittedly, willing to appear in person, yet he never fully discloses himself; the content is all to do with his personality, but this content is never forced on the viewer – it is left hanging, in an intermediate space of deliberate indeterminacy.

The first person speaking was not characteristic of Gergelj Urkom’s artistic approach could not be characterised as taking the form of 'speaking in the first person'. The basic issues in his art are to be sought in the analytical workings of his creative mind – first, in the conceptual sense, then in the area of a rather specific kind of painting. And yet, it was within the framework of the 3rd April Encounters at the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, in 1974, when a number of crucial performances took place (including Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 5 and Raša Todosijević's Drinking Water) that Urkom executed an action with a chair, which he linked to the previous event he had performed a year earlier at the Edinburgh Festival. When he did resort to appearing in public, Urkom still did not go beyond the sphere of his own intimate, almost hermetic, concerns. His case was exemplary, in that he showed how some strikingly mental and self-reflexive elements could be preserved in the medium of performance.

The artists who started out in close-knit groups would occasionally manifest their emphatic feeling of artistic individualism, especially when the cohesion of their communities began to slacken, either in the short term, or in the long run. Thus, several typical examples of speaking in the first person can be observed in the activities of the members of Bosch + Bosch. This started with Bálint Szombathy’s action, 'Lenin in Budapest' (1972): on the occasion of the  official May Day ceremonies, he undertook personally to go on parade with  a placard bearing Lenin’s photo, thereby producing a conflict between his behaviour as a private individual and the nature of a public mass gathering. In 1973, the same artist produced a photographic work, titled Body Signalisation, for which he utilised his own body as an object and place of signification, to which he affixed his own form of special seal. The other member of the same group who manifested a need for individualised behaviour was Slavko Matković, whose work, ‘I am an Artist' (Ich bin Künstler, in the original German title) earned the following interpretation by Bálint Szombathy:

'Since he could no longer produce ‘works’ through which he could try himself out as an artist, Matković decided to put out a newspaper advertisement about his artistic existence and this he did through a form and an idea which was not at the level of artistic creativity. That is how a newspaper ad came to be the most suitable way to realize the idea I Am an Artist. The ad was printed in Hamburger Zeitung in 1974.'11

For all the artists mentioned thus far, their initial engagement with The New Art Practice also marked the actual beginning of their artistic careers. However, Radomir Damnjanović Damnjan was challenged by the new practice to discontinue some aspects of his previous work. In his case, there was a moment when he abandoned the positions he had won before, and he did this with open eyes, since he aspired to respond to the issues thrown up by the changed spiritual and ideological climate at the beginning of the 1970s. The decision itself – the moment of taking leave from certain aspects of his past – necessarily implied a form of artistic behaviour imbued with a heightened sense of his own individual personality. Damnjan was impelled by a keen self-awareness, and knew that the contemporary artist need not specialise in any single discipline alone. At this point, he turned to using a wide range of techniques, from still photography to film and video, to performances, paintings and drawings, resorted to acts of public proclamation and a priori declarations of artistic values, and so on. He justified all these procedures on the grounds of his determination to exercise his artistic will and right to self-expression to the maximum extent possible.

In spite of his range of media and techniques, it is evident that Damnjan’s output was influenced by two lines of thought, and that these were fundamental to his optimistic way of thinking. The first of these was his focus on issues relating to the inner nature of artistic language, and we might say that this was the analytical side to his approach. The other approach appeared in the context in which he sought to communicate some of his personal views on general, or specific, issues relating to everyday life and might be termed his referential side. Damnjan constantly nurtured the existence of these two essential components in his artistic make-up, side by side: the former served to intensify the inner tensions in his artistic output, the latter to protect his artistic practice from isolation from current social and cultural developments, and to articulate his personal views.  Damnjan made his  first attempt at formulating this view at the time of the exhibition, Triviarium (Drangularijum), in 1971, where he was the only  participant to contribute a piece of writing in lieu of a concrete object,  and to explained the reasons for his decision. In 1973, during a stay in the United States, Damnjan executed a cycle of drawings and photographs, titled 'In Honour of the Soviet Avant-Garde' (U čast sovjetskoj avangardi), in which he exploited his own image for the first time. The photographs show the artist's face, with inscriptions on his forehead of the names of a number of artists, such as El Lissitzky, Puni and Khlebnikov etc., in the form of a personal tribute. In addition to the personal significance of this work, it also carried a particular ideological connotation: for Damnjan, the destiny of the Soviet avant-garde had been a socio-political issue, as much as a cultural one, and he wanted to tackle this, not only from his principled point of view, as an artist, but from an emotive humanist angle,  as well. On taking part in the 1975 edition of Trigon, in Graz, which took for its title the artist-related theme,  Identity, Alternative Identity and Anti-Identity (Identität, Alternative Identität, Gegenidentität), Damnjan carried out his first performance, featuring the  destruction of a Bible, Hegel’s Aesthetics and Marx’s Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, by means of which he resumed a kind of indirect ideological discourse, this time in the form of an artistic action. What testified best to the character of Damnjan’s mood at the time was the following quotation, taken from a text by Emil Cioran and published as a comment on his Trigon episode:

'Try to be free: you will starve to death. The society will tolerate you only if you are now servile now ruthless: it is a gaol without a gaoler, a gaol you can leave only as a dead man. Where can we go, life being possible in a human community only? And although all inside ourselves resists it, we are neither impertinent enough to beg in it nor balanced enough to succumb to wisdom. Eventually, like other people, we stay within it pretending to be too busy; we opt for that owing to our store of cunningness: to act life is less ridiculous than to live.'12

Damnjan’s debate, conducted in the  voice of the first person singular, continued with the video works produced during his stay at Tübingen, in 1976: those were tapes titled Reading the Same Text; Reading Marx, Hegel and the Bible by Match-Light, A Speck in Space or the Position of the Individual in Society, and The Daily Ritual of Drinking Coffee (Čitanje istog teksta; Čitanje Marxa, Hegela i Biblije pod svetlošću šibica; Mrlja u prostoru ili položaj jedinke u društvu; Svakodnevni ritual ispijanja kafe). Damnjan used various metaphoric procedures to reveal his general outlook, in his performance, From Work to Creativity (Od rada ka stvaralaštvu), first carried out in Zagreb and twice repeated in Belgrade (1978-9), just as he had done earlier, in a photographic series that included ‘The Period from 1863 to 1974' (Vreme od 1863. do 1974,), ‘Nothing Superfluous in the Human Spirit' (Ničeg suvišnog u ljudskom duhu), and others,. 'From Work to Creativity dealt with the destiny of the secluded, isolated and, essentially, solitary artist, whose behaviour does not tolerate being tied to any  fixed position, other than those remaining to him in his independent, individualist existence. In addition to direct ways of manifesting his authorial individualism, Damnjan concurrently resorted to some indirect ones, too: in his 1977 cycle of works on paper, as well as in the photographs with the same title,  'This Is a Work of Verified Artistic Value' (Ovo je delo od proverene umetničke vrednosti), Damnjan used a seal (specially made for the purpose and bearing the text cited in the title), to stake an a priori claim to the character and quality of the work. He did this, merely by relying on the  power of this own artistic competence, rather than any kind of formal intervention; in other words, he  asserted an a priori claim to the character and quality of the work, in opposition to  all the usual instruments of evaluation that are imposed on the artist from outside. Living and working in two different socio-cultural environments (first that of Yugoslavia, then of Italy), Damnjan experienced numerous controversies over the issue of contemporary artists' professionalism. Under the impact of such experiences, he came to realise that the chief way of defending one’s ethical status was to transfer the principal motivation for the work from the creation of a fixed object to the behaviour of the artist himself.  He thus turned into a paradigmatic example of the artist spiking in the first person singular – not only on the strength of the artistic processes performed, but also of the motives he built into the rationale behind them. From the middle of the decade onwards, the motives for his behaviour, as an artist, and his reasons for drawing attention to his artistic ego unfailingly created an impact, but they were transformed in the process. That is to say, the artist continued to feel the same need to express himself in the first person singular, but increasingly felt, and saw, that the surrounding milieu showed less and less understanding for the plainness and declarative character of his language. Inevitably, this led him increasingly to switch over from public to private, or rather, entirely subjective forms of behaviour. It was this change in mentality and behaviour that Zoran Popović referred to, when he said that after 1975 there was a shift in consciousness in the socio-political activism of the New Art, which ultimately forced him to move over to the opposite pole and turn in on himself with the result that he arrived an idea of the ‘self-portrait as a (self-critical) work about the artist and his milieu and his private taste.'13 The consequence of this decision could be seen in Popović's next two projects, – the one, known under the title of 'Worker Typographic Machinist Miodrag Popović: On Life, on Labour, on Leisure Time' (Radnik tipomašinista Miodrag Popović: o životu, o radu, o slobodnom vremenu), which was exhibited at the 5th Triennale of Yugoslav Art in Belgrade, in 1977; and the other that was titled 'Film Self-Portrait' (Filmski autoportret). The latter, which was conceived in 1976, was subsequently later carried out under the characteristic title of 'Private Fashion' (Privatna moda), and presented a situation, in which two renowned models were dressed in some clothes that he, the artist, used to wear every day.

Zoran Belić was an artist, whose entire output was the very incarnation of the most intimate and contemplative aspects of behaviour at the end of the 1970's. In his series of public appearances in Amsterdam (1978) Genoa (1979), Belgrade and at the Biennale des jeunes, in Paris (1980), and subsequently in Düsseldorf, Ljubljana, and again in Belgrade (1981), Belić demonstrated certain forms of behaviour that did not really require any physical presence, but which consciously avoided the interference of any external agency that might have nudged him into taking action of any kind. That is why Belić referred to his behaviour as a form of  ‘exercise’ (vežba), as the reason for an ‘exercise’ obviously did not lie in the public character of what the artist was doing in front of other people, but in the private character of what he felt and experienced inside his own being. Belić wrote this note on the subject:

'Exercises: fragments of the construction articulate one of the possible notions of the world and not an attempt at constructing any new theory, for ‘there are no new things on Earth’ anyway, and it is rather a record on the necessity to follow an individual path whereon one shall/need not grasp everything in full, but it is taken as a given fact and a challenge worthy of going in full, to the farthest point.'14

Therefore, the purpose of Belić’s exercises was not to reach an outcome, or present some kind of event (as in a performance); many elements of the action were omitted, and instead, there was a desire to attain a state of meditation, which the artist cannot, of course, accomplish in everyday life, but only when he wants to manifest his artistic vocation. And in order to manifest that vocation in an adequate way, and to feel he is doing this, the artist must constantly be ready for the opportunity to appear in public. Hence Belić’s need to ‘keep up’ his own appearance, as a cluster of specific signs of artistic singularity; for, as he himself once said, the point is in 'the quality of difference and the quality of the differentiated which precondition the mode of activity'15. Being capable of communicating his artistic intention through the very 'quality of difference', Belić no longer felt the need for an act (i.e. the need to 'do' anything). In that the very absence of an act, he indirectly stepped into the area of artistic egocentrism characterised by behaving as if he were speaking in the first person singular. That is, perhaps, why his example most clearly marks the opposite end of the entire range of possibilities highlighted by the treatment of the artist’s individuality in the New Art Practice of the 'Seventies. At one end of the span was the urge for action, and at the other was the urge for meditation; joining both ends of the entire span was the urge to introduce the elements of artist's behaviour and personality into the areas of articulation that enjoyed the legitimate status of art.


1      R. Barilli, 'Ponašanje', Ideje, 6, Beograd, 1979, p. 135. In the original: R. Barilli, 'Il comportamento”, in the book of collected essays, Situazioni dell’ arte contemporanea, Roma, 1976, pp. 94-101.

2      Op. cit., p. 137.

3      Vladan Radovanović, 'Moja istraživanja i projekt' , exh. cat., Nova umjetnička praksa 1966-1978 ('The New Art Practice 1966-1978'), Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1978.

4      Jasna Tijardović, 'Marina Abramović, Slobodan Milivojević, Neša Paripović, Zoran Popović, Raša Todosijević, Gergely Urkom', exh. cat., Nova umjetnička praksa 1966-1978 ('The New Art Practice 1966-1978'), Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1978.

5      Zoran Popović, Spot, 10, Zagreb, 1977, p. 28.

6      Marina Abramović, exh. cat., Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, April 10 – May 5, 1975. This catalogue brings together the subject-matter of all five performances from the Rhythm Cycle (Rhythm 10, 5, 2, 4, 0, 1973-75).

7      Raša Todosijević, Velike južne predstave ('Great Southern Performances'), Studentski kulturni centar, Beograd, 1980.

8      Raša Todosijević, op. cit.

9      Raša Todosijević, manuscript from the artist’s private archive.

10    Jasna Tijardović, op. cit.

11    Bálint Szombathy, 'Značajniji momenti u radu grupe Bosch+Bosch’ ('Highlights from the Work of the Group, Bosch+Bosch'), exh. cat., Nova umjetnička praksa 1966-1978 [The New Art Practice 1966-1978], Gallery of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 1978.

12    Trigon 75 – Identität, Alternative Identität, Gegenidentität, Graz, Künstlerhaus, 6. X – 2. XI 1975, ex. cat.,  reprinted in the monograph, Radomir Damnjan, Niente di superfluo nello spirito, Edition Dacić, Tübingen, 1978.

13    Zoran Popović, manuscript from the artist’s private archive.

14    Zoran Belić, writing in the publication Zajednička škola o prostoru '(A Shared Teaching on Space')], Salon Muzeja savremene umetnosti, Beograd, September 1981.

15    Zoran Belić, op. cit. 

There is no need to emphasise the fact that the artist’s sense of his own individuality is one of the major characterisitcs of all art, regardless of the time or place; that this sense is common to all artists; and that all artists tend to give the express it as forcefully as they can. 

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