IMAGES Journal for Visual Studies

events: Visual studies today: The power of images

Suzana Marjanić
On performance art – ritual and/or protest

This is not my world (Željko Jerman, 1976)
Lie (Boris Bućan, 1973)
I am (blue), by someone (white), being screwed (red) (Zlatko Kutnjak, 1981)
Even the peace doves shit things up sometimes (Zoran Štajdohar Zoff, Grč)

Kristine Stiles, just as Paul Schimmel and e.g. Erika Fischer-Lichte, notices that the 1950s and 1960s are marked by the performative turn, that is to say, that artists in Europe, Japan and the United States started using their own body as the visual arts material. Both K. Stiles and P. Schimmel see this as the response to the existential threat imposed by the Holocaust and the nuclear age. This way the artists offered the body as both form and content of aesthetics, and at the same time tried to engage the observers more directly in the art itself. In that manner the performance art demonstrated the contingency of the body. Admittedly, it was also partially about the continuation of the performing practice of the early Avant-garde (the Avant-garde movements); however, while the performance format/practice was a marginal activity in the Avant-garde as Stiles further notices, in the second part of the century it became an independent medium of visual arts.

Nevertheless, in the retrospective defining of the notion performance, some performance theoreticians expanded its meaning to include the Avant-garde performances. The first theoretician and performance historian, RoseLee Goldberg, accentuates (unlike K. Stiles) that the futuristic performance was established as an independent medium in the 1920s. We can mention here some sporadic domestic examples – Dadaistic street acs of the Zagreb’s highschool troop Traveleri in the 1920s, in which they took off their hats to salute horses, and not horsemen and gentlemen in the carriages, which can be taken as the starting point for actionism in our Avant-garde context. The mentioned  everyday gesture of provocation was precisely what Marijan Susovski defined as Dadaist. Furthermore, their Dadaistic, highschool performance They shall come too (performed on December 16, 1922 in the gym of the First Real Gymnasium in Zagreb; today’s museum Mimara, and Fifth Gymnasium) can be read as a theatrical play with elements of performance, i.e. happening, as it appears to M. Susovski, considering the performing strategy of the penetration of the Real, where one of its subversive elements was the only lonely donkey in Zagreb. There were also the Zenitist Evenings by Marijan Mikac, held in 1923 in Sisak, Topusko and Petrinja, as well as the Dadaist matinée in Osijek, an aesthetic provocation performed by a poetic-artistic collective on August 20, 1922 in the cinema Royal. It was, as Branka Brlenić-Vujić pointed out, the first Dadaistic manifestation in Croatia, organised by Dadaist Dragan Aleksić, who assembled a wondrous Dadaist psychotically joyous crowd in Vinkovci (a town by all means distinguished in the chronotopy of the local performance).

Furthermore, RoseLee Goldberg expands the retrospective definition of performance up to the beginnings of art; that is, she finds the performance’s initiation in the tribal ritual, shamanic healing, medieval passion play and the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque spectacle. It can be noticed that its beginnings are found either in the ritual, shamanic practice for example, as Carolee Schneemann does, or in the social dimension of a protest, like Leslie Hilldoes does in the suffragettes’ protests and their motto of the first wave of the feminist movement ˝Deeds not words˝ by Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters. The suffragettes, as Diana Coole indicates, anticipated the situationist street policy with their theatrical, carnivalesque activities. But it was only when Emily Wilding Davison was killed at the hippodrome by the hoofs of King George’s horse on June 4, 1913, that her performance of protest stirred the public; for the first time (through that performance of death) the goals of the feminist movement started to be taken more seriously.

When it comes to the mentioned dyad between the personal mythology/ritual and the art of protest, Marijan Susovski pointed out that our performance in the 1970s implied the artist’s coming forward in ˝first person˝, when disclosure and search for a personal identity in a society was a frequent theme, and he stresses that the mentioned art form had its introduction in a static type with Željko Borčić’s exhibition The First World Pyscho-cybernetic Super-self-portrait (Prvi svjetski psihokibernetički superautoportret, April 25 - May 13 1973, SC Gallery), which marked the ˝inversion from the socially involved interventionist actions towards personal and private world˝. Of course, we can go back to the (eleven years earlier) chronologically (intimate) action, (intimate) photo-performance Showing the Elle Magazine (Pokazivanje časopisa Elle, Sljeme, performance, a series of six photographs, 1962), by the anarcho-father of the Croatian performance – Tomislav Gotovac (since 2005 – Antonio G. Lauer), who defined the project The Orange Dog and Other Tales (Even Better Than the Real Thing) (Narančasti pas i druge priče (još bolje od stvarnosti), concept: Kontejner, director: Mario Kovač) from 2009 as the first act of performance, in the sense of a performance explicitly dealing with the artist’s body. Ješa Denegri states that in this performance Gotovac exposed his body for the first time, using it as a means of his personal expression, and can be considered as Gotovac’s forerunner of performance, a concept not yet named this way at that time. Moreover, as Denegri notes: ˝(…) soon after the military service, where he, living among men only, freed himself from many frustations of a shy and withdrawn young man, and decided to strip himself naked, during a pleasant picnic to Sljeme in a company of friends, despite the cold. (…) He finally took off the upper part of his clothes, and naked to the waist, took and started leafing through the fashion magazine Elle˝. On the same occasion several photographs were taken, of Gotovac, half-naked (from waist up), happily breathing in the fresh mountain air in the snowy scenery of Medvednica (performance Breathing the Air (Udisanje zraka), a series of two photographs).

It can be noticed that the term performance has today become universal for live presentations of any type - from interactive installations in the museums to creatively conceptualized fashion events and DJ programmes in clubs (with which RoseLee Goldberg also rounded up her book on performance art), or for performances like Torcida’s action Yellow Peristyle from 2009, aimed at the ˝kerumisation˝ of Split, which was a deliberate continuation of the Red Peristyle action from 1968, the Green Peristyle action (by Ante Kuštre) from 1989, and the Black Peristyle (by Igor Grubić) from 1998.

Today, despite the neoliberal paradigm of a self-satisfied democracy and despite our everlasting transition, in the last few years the modus of protesting performance acts in our region intensified too (for example ˝the Varšavska case˝ as a perennial ˝performance˝ of the Pravo na grad association and Zelena akcija from 2006/2007 until April 7, 2011 and the anti-goverment protests in 2011, Torcida - Yellow Peristyle and Sheep at Poljud (Ovce na Poljudu) from 2009, the students’ blockade at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb in the spring of 2009), as it was the case with, for example, the political performances in the 1960s. Marvin Carlson notices that the historians and theoreticians of performative studies, who were noting the early history of performance, mostly were not considering the frequent and often theatralised street demonstrations from the 1960s because performance was back then strictly viewed in relation to artistic activities.

And at the very edge of this introduction, today the term performance in the artistic sense in the media covers all borderline performance acts (in this sense the word happening is used less in the media). Or, as marvelously demonstrated by Jon McKenzie in his book Perform or Else: From Discipline to Performance (2001) - everything is a performance. And today it is a performance of power and perfidious fear, given that all of us (most of us) are financial slaves to the banks…

Fragment from the book manuscript Chronotope of Croatian performance: from Traveleri to today (Kronotop hrvatskoga performansa: od Travelera do danas) by Suzana Marjanić (Bijeli val, Institute for Ethnology and Folklore Research, Zagreb, 2013)