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Jovan Despotović

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Frozen Reality / Led Art – Activity of the ’90s in Serbia

The motto of engaged (politically critical) art of the 1990s in this country was that one should not reject contemporary culture, no matter how destructive, desoriented, anti-cultural and anti-civilizational (during the war), created at the same time with genocides, in international isolation, finally, in extreme circumstances of bombings, but to set it in motion on new foundations, to establish new goals and expressions with different means and forms, adequate to such an ambience. In relationship to international creativity, engaged art has replaced the discourse of new collectivism turned against globalization with opposite goals – individualism turned toward internationalism. The then active indivudualism after postmodernism, as it would be most adequate to place it in that epoch, is in essance the first real effort of the artists to develop with creative activities at least a marginal alternative to the anti-cultural, official social life that was filled with bitter wittiness, and sometimes silly events. Even if they did not intend to establish “speech in the name of the nation,” they certainly expressed a “thirst to speak up with a voice of the lapsed and rejected collective.” Also, they seemed to have obeyed El Lissitzky, a far historical ancestor, who, in similar conditions, underlined how “creativity has to get rid of private property; everyone is a creator and there is no reason to separate them into artists and non-artists.”

After postmodernism, after the joyful 1980s, during the dramatic decade at the end of the century, it was exceptionally difficult in Serbia to lift the esthetic in art to the new social/ethical level in order to level the value categories, in extremely dangerous conditions of the fall of a state and the collapse of all civilization systems. On the other hand, artists in this period act in relationship to the social, collective and cultural reality in which they live. And at that very sensitive and (for creativity) dangerous crossroads and collision, there stood one of the most important art creations built by Nikola Džafo and the group Led Art, which illuminated with strongest headlights the next century. At the very top of this building there was something like a lighthouse, which is only today, in a wider cultural field, recognized in its full significance as an active art paradigm – the one that appeared as new criticism even after the revolutionary and reform-oriented October 2000, since then in significantly changed conditions, with a different orientation and goal.

Enthusiastic art favelas – anti-regime and pro-democracy, anti-nationalist and pro-European, created in Serbia in that regressive decade, are part of the general social answer and resistance to the policy that led to the final breakdown and obliteration of all hope. After the political turnover of October 5th 2000, critical art groups and a few individuals conducted a specific continuation of what is in the field of visual creativity relevant for that period, i.e. for art criticism that was developing in impossible conditions, but was still giving stimulus and hope that democratic changes had to happen even in the country whose government still does not recognize the fall of the Berlin wall, it is blind for transition in the former Communist countries and cannot reconcile itself with the perestroika, i.e. the breakup of the Soviet Union.

According to the basic idea and meaning of its inception and development in an extreme political atmosphere, that particular kind of national art had numerous common traits with events on the global creation plan, by containing common creative and ideological denominators that reappear in all the activities with soft and hard discourse – from America to Russia, from Japan to Cuba, from Dakar and Kinshasa to Mexico City and New York etc. Surely the national examples are very disparate with the events happening in the world at the time, because they were simply not concerned with collectivism against globalism, cold art as a match to the cold, World War III (in culture) and negation of contemporary culture instead of its rejection (as the Situational International dictated). Some other, specific and great questions of this epoch were problematized in their work sometime with mild, sometimes with extreme activities.

For what is more significant in visual arts of the current period than its engaged testimony, commentary or critique of the socio-cultural atmosphere in which it was created and tried to be active with extreme efforts and complete uncertainty? The 1990s in the third Yugoslavia gave to this worried art numerous great and historical occasions for such an engaged/critical, ideological/political stance. In that kind of art, directly to the (less important) esthetic value level, its sharpened (very important) ethic, unavoidable component was brought, and those two, essentially necessary elements built a wholeness even in the case we will highlight here, because this is where all the important work and performance characteristics are united and equalized.

From historical allegories and utopias to the freezing of the current moment, in the work of Nikola Džafo and Led Art a direct answer to the dramatic challenges of the extremely dangerous and ideologically inarticulated period is placed. Yugoslav post-Titoist and post-socialist society did not build stable constitutional, political, economic, legislative, educational, cultural and other parameters (which define a civilized community); at the time there is a full impetus of general social dissolution that renders the individual, the artist including, a member of such a community, impotent.

In 1993, painter Nikola Džafo founds a Belgrade-Novi Sad group Led Art, in which the following artists actively participate: Dragoslav Krnajski, Gabriela Pajević, Suzana Jovanović, Dragan Živančević, Slobodan Vilček, Vesna Grginčević, Srđan Veljović, Nebojša Milikić, Predrag Kočović, Goran Denić, Ratko Vučinić. The reasons for the existence of the group: Led Art is a driving force. Creativity as a method of resistence and overcoming the situation. Creation in spite of everything... It uses unnatural conditions (temperature –20º C) and the change of the physical state (water-ice-water) as a method of art activity, and Džafo underlines the paradox: In order not to have the warmth necessary for the birth of a work, freezers are needed!

From these statements we see that Led Art acted as a symbolic – frozen mirror of the present ice reality. Frozen art appears as an equivalent to the cold reality of the period of general poverty, destruction, vegetation in a country that was not in war at the time. With numerous actions, Led Art emphasized anti-war and anti-national messages we read in the accompanying texts. It was implied already in the title – and this was confirmed in some actions – how highly interested in the problems of ecology, pollution (physical and spiritual world) they are, while they see the destruction of nature as a metaphor of destruction of culture and art.

The chronology of Led Art documents a large number of activities. We are naming the most significant here. The first performance in Belgrade, 1993, Frozen Art. The exhibition was held in a freezer truck in front of Dom Omladine, with the commentary: The new societal conditions are interpreted like a change in the physical state of water, which is a metaphorical description of the darkest year of that decade: with this Led Art draws a delicate line separating death and hibernation, physical destruction and frozen state that has to enable long-term survival, but also the agony of dying. On 20 below zero the works are exhibited by: Dragoslav Krnajski, Talent, Dejan Andjelković, Jelica Radovanović, Saša Marković Mikrob, Mileta Prodanović, Mrdjan Bajić, Raša Todosijević, Jovan Čekić, Vera Stevanović, Darija Kačić, Vesna Pavlović and others.

The following actions took place: (Pre)deluge in Novi Sad 1993 (not realized), later performed as Public Work and Deluge. Art Cook in Belgrade 1993 was inspired by the government act regulating the monthly amount of food rations per capita: 6.24kg of flour, 0.5kg of sugar, 250g of salt, 750g of oil, 500g of detergent (or one soap)... The following recipes were created and performed: Children Playground, Well Kept Bread, Universal Serbian Mix, Nail Potage, Five minutes to Twelve, Frozen Strawberry Bombs for Four Morons. As cultural/therapeutic activism, Led Art performed the following actions in the Centre for Cultural Decontaminations in 1995/95: Hundred Faces, Who Cuts Your Hair, Flags, Art Aid, finally, The Ice Day (Escape from the Centre) as the final event in this art space created as an alternative to the destroyed official cultural/institutional system (like the National Theatre, Museum of Contemporary Arts and others).

After the Escape came the tour And Now Kragujevac – Coming to Senses (for UGS “Independence”). During the time of the Student Protest 1998/97 the following actions were performed: The President’s S.O.S, Reconstruction of Crime (after the incident at the Branko Bridge between February 3 and 4, when the police first blew water out of cannons at the protesters, and then brutally beat them up), Expeditions to Landfills (Belgrade, ’97, Niš ’98, Plzen, ’98, Labin ’99), Business Trip – Prishtina (1998). The last street-art Drawings on the Asphalt took place in Novi Sad in mid 1998. The general place of all the actions, works, performances and exhibitions by Led Art is focused on the protest art activity forcefully drawing public attention, energetically affecting the viewer’s mental and emotional complex and causing the necessary and awaited reaction of protest and resistence.

One symbolic exhibition/performance exhibited/performed in “Pavilion Veljkovic,” at the end of 1998, symbolically pointed out the topicality of the process of anti-iconomania characteristic for the relationship between politics and engaged visual creativity of the ‘90s. Iconomania or Breaking Ice with a Torpedo, organized by Led Art and the troupe Torpedo, simulated an art exhibition opened by a destructive action of the “government” that destroyed around 30 art works by burning, breaking, tearing or using destroying devices. The performance was joined by volunteers, art syndicate members and numerous independent artists. The action ended with collecting the burned art trash into space bags.

This complex art act is an expression of the general social destruction and the evident self-destruction of contemporary art, at the same time expressing a powerful feeling of ethical consciousness. The public was present at the symbolic (but literal) act with numerous layers of meaning and implications: one of the accompanying phenomena, according to the participants’ testimonies, is the flabbergasting passivity, of albeit small and elect public, which followed the action of the “government” destroying art works – even making their authors destroy them – peacefully, without excitement and almost with sympathies and understanding. The interpretation could tend toward the awareness of a general depression and obtuseness of the defense reflex this totalitarian regime has persistently, and it also seems successfully, built in the ten-year period. The ideological, ethical and esthetic reality set up so successfully by the performance, as opposed to the proclaimed goals of the regime, served as a pretext and context in which the play was performed. We are talking about the social and conceptual criticism as a direct result and consequence of the general destructions of the ’90s in this region as a reaction to the destroying influence of the official, state and private mass media, which substituted the serious programs with kitsch.

In that period, Nikola Džafo had solo performances as well. The atmosphere and the context of the exhibition with an unusual title Where Does the Shoe Pinch? (1997). Džafo is an “artist and a revolutionary and an old freak,” Saša Marković Microbe, the artista and co-traveller on the farthest social and cultural margin, wrote in his catalogue published in two copies. Džafo exhibited something that can be, at first impression, seen as art drawings/painting on paper (industrial bags). The 48-work “cycle” is united by the theme in the title – rabbits in different shapes and situations, “citations,” constructions and deconstructions as an illusion of contemporary creation. The author does not only play with the so-called art taste of the environment consuming a certain kind of mediocre art or literal non-art, but also with serious esthetic postulates of the epoch. For this very reason the choice of the dispensable and unlimited creative position is the real measure of creative liberties characteristic for the kind of authors Nikola Džafo belongs to according to his mentality and sensibility.

A special place belongs to the project National Smartening Up. The title of the collective work initiated in 1999 by Džafo is Scroll (drawings on canvas, 164.5 x 2000cm; other authors: Ljubiša Bogosavljević, Nenad Bračić, Gradimir Rajković, Ratko Vučinić, Nikola Šindik, Fatima Dedić, Miroslav Nune Popović, Saša Stojanović, Predrag Kočović, Srđan Veljović, Miroljub Filipović Filimir), originated form the basic theme, and it could also be (A)BC with the year of its creation (1)999, as it says in the beginning of the Scroll. This (A)BC has the logic: first with the image (drawing), and then with the word and text to finally teach literacy (smartening up) of those who have long ago (let’s hope) mastered the skill of recognizing thirty letters of the alphabet. But, it turned out that in the ‘90s that was not the case: teaching people literacy did not succeed, one had to revert to smartening up – the opposite happened – some of the worst pupils, the testified regime illiterates and multiply proven ignoramuses, have taken into their hands the fate of more than 20 million people at first, then almost 10 million, so that soon the number could be cut in half again. Scroll is a 20-meter frieze – illustrated alphabet meant for teaching old people literacy, and certainly those not smartened up, irresponsible and “uninformed,” about everything that happened to us in the meantime.

Although thmeatically the work is reduced to thirty letter-possibilites, the area of activity is significantly widened: a symbolical reminder for those who are not directly participating in the production of the work itself, but it is assumed they are present and necessary in this type of teaching literacy (and smartening up) to the people – student resistence and civil protest, incarcerated Bogoljub Arsenijević Maki, their colleague artist who suffered in the (para)police beating up, but also all the others who were hurt “in the presence of those in power,” then “inverse” (inversely written) reconstruction and rebuilding taking place at the time – in a caricature manner; symbolic writing in reverse (like Leonardo da Vinci), like the temporal and historical reverse movement as obliteration of one’s own memory, tradition, existence, which has become a general image of the time of our destruction. Twelve artists who have made the Scroll have openly and directly expressed their messages (of personal nature), mottos, statements – verbal and visual, drawings and paintings, lapidary and longer statements directing them one way – toward the necessary fundamental changes in all areas of our political and social life we have been waiting for a long time.

When he moved in 1999 from Belgrade to Novi Sad, Nikola Džafo and the group continued an intense activity founded on the formerly used concept. The work place are the city, squares and streets with intentional and unintentional passers by, visitors and spectators. In 2000, the leap day, February 29, was dedicated to Holy Art, performing an ambience action/performance Kunstlager – Living in Serbia or Offence 2000. First in the Cathedral courtyard, in the part fenced with barbed wire (thus rendering the kunstlager into a concentration camp), with an unpopular, especially for Novi Sad, announcement of general (air) raid and reading of the daily instruction, the street spectacle began. While beans were cooking in a great pot, the honor was given to the frozen flag with the anthem Happy Birthday to You... The visitors were able to get a haircut, to entertain themselves by bowling with frozen balls or to do some more serious liberating work (Arbait machts frei). After the daily action the night action continued: photo-exhibition, video showing of the morning action, issuing of gifts to the people born on the leap year day, photo shoot against spells, all accompanied with the drumming session by Igor Malešević.

The spectacle Kunstlager is an authentic answer to the Neue Slovenische Kunst as an aspect of New Serbian Art, explicitly politically engaged, which in the case of Slovenia significantly contributed to the decision (at least of the intellectual, cultural and art public) for changes which brought that republic, in a short period of time, in line with the democratic European countries with respectable national income. Is it really necessary for the collective mentality of the people, which artists like Led Art have addressed, to be a part of the civilized world? There is no answer to this question to this date.

The concept of Kunstlager was the continuation of the Led Art activity during the ’90s entitled Reconstructions of Crime in the Balkans, a direct critical reaction to the current political and social processes that have destroyed a European country, bringing (lost) wars, destruction, poverty, suffering and death. Or, as they themselves say: The work with ice, incidental drawings, photo shoots against spells, expeditions to landfills, garbage – are all elements of art magic meant to liberate consumers from fear, to stop evil and downfall and bring back faith in salvation. This is only another, in the last century, certainly one of the last art utopias, characteristic for the epochs of totalitarian regimes, which have as their goals to animate the attention of the sleeping public, and in our case to do something for liberation from fear and to call for a political, ideological and social, as well as professional and working resistence which is by this (artistic) means oriented only towards changes on which literally our future depends. And that was the voting resource everyone counted on, and which was addressed by the opposition, critical intellectuals, resistent students and rebelling pupils with their professors and teachers, certainly engaged artists who were increasing in number, and all the others who have kept the minimum common sense in the ill times that suddenly, by the effort of these artists, after October 5, 2000, started curing themselves. How successfully – well, this is already a scholastic question to which Nikola Džafo and Art Klinika are still trying to find an answer or at least to shape into a new social/cultural activity at the beginning of the century. Will the last 10 years of their activity, as the first eight, lead to the awaited changes – we’ll see.


Jovan Despotovic

Džafo, monograph, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojovodina, Novi Sad, 2011