RAŠA TODOSIJEVIĆ’S ART OF DECISION
A Protagonist of the International Art Scene
There is one, seemingly humorous, self-ironic statement that Raša Todosijević gave regarding his own work, and it, literally, reads:
“I did all sorts of things: if I was not making objects, I was preparing performances, and if not that, then I was drawing elementary paintings, de-signing environments, printing posters, experimenting with sound and morals (mainly shouting and walling up radios), writing texts, recording video-tapes, drawing straight lines (on papers, or walls of private flats, hotels, in European galleries and prominent museums), gave lectures (on myself and others- more on myself than others), travelled or, simply, wasted my time, with pleasure, in endless discussions on art.”
However ostensibly laid-back and truly witty this statement is, it should, actually, be taken quite seriously. Specifically, in its on way, it attests to the artist’s complete commitment and dedication to his artistic vocation, his utter identification of art and existence, and an overall exceedingly intense activity that, to date, amounts to a full four decades of presence on the domestic and international art scenes. For this occasion of the artist’s presentation at the Serbian National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2011 the term international should be particularly noted, as Todosi-jević is an artistic personality with numerous and exceptionally strong international exhibition references, of which we can, presently, cite a list of the most outstanding ones:
Solo exhibitions: Edinburgh 1973, Florence 1976, Paris and Turin 1977, Tübingen 1986, Glasgow 1994, Stockholm 2001, Sophia 2004.
Group exhibitions: Flash Art Artist, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Milan 1974; Art and Politics, Florence 1974; European Artists, Northampton 1976; 10th Youth Biennial, Paris 1977; 3rd Biennial, Sydney 1979; Camere incantate, Milan 1980; 16th Biennial, São Paulo 1982; 5th Biennial, Sydney 1984; Mental Map Europe, Vienna, Barcelona, Tokyo 1998; Body and the East, Ljubljana 1998; After the Wall: Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe, Stockholm, Budapest, Berlin 1999–2000; Aspect/Positions: 50 Years of Art and Culture in Central Europe 1949–1999, Vienna and Buda-pest 2000; Arteast Collection: The Art of Eastern Europe in Dialogue with the West. From the 1960s to the Present, Ljubljana and Innsbruck 2000–2001; In Search of Balkania, Graz 2002; Blut &Honig;. Zukunft ist am Balkan, Vienna 2003; Parallel Action, New York 2003; The First Lodz Biennial, Lodz 2004; Essence of Art – Essence of Life, Moscow, St Petersburg 2005–2006; East Art Museum, Hagen, 2005; Attitudes, Kuma-moto 2007; Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, Vienna 2009; Promises of the Past: A Discontinuous History of Art from Eastern Europe and FAQ Serbia, both in New York 2010 and others.
Series of performances: Was ist Kunst?, Paris, Turin, Vienna, Graz, Warsaw, Katowice, Lublin, Krakow 1978–1981; Vive la France – Vive la tyr-annie, Amsterdam, Arnhem, Enschede 1979, etc.
The Artist and Art in the Atmosphere of “the Great Refusal” of 1968
Todosijević’s personal and artistic world view was formed in the social and spiritual atmosphere of the “great refusal” of 1968, which entailed an attitude of fundamental renunciation of the formative surrounding circumstances that determined his development. That is to say, the tendency towards emancipation from inherited and encountered obstacles in the understanding of life and art presented Todosijević’s core motivational drive at the time. In concrete art education, this meant that instead of accepting the local legacy of the artistic tradition between the two World Wars, following the example of the Parisian School, he appreciated and adopted the experiences of the historical avant-garde, Dadaism, in particu-lar; while his priority interests, amongst contemporary art movements, were the phenomena of Fluxus, Italian Arte Povera, American Antiform, Process Art, and conceptual art. On domestic terrain, he expressed open resistance against the artistic standards and criteria of evaluation based on the principles of moderate “socialist modernism”. In order to access the heated and alluring atmosphere of the New Art of the early 1970s at all, it was necessary to either be completely outside of regular art education in one’s formation (as were the members of Vojvodina’s conceptual groups Kôd and Bosch+Bosch) or to shun one’s own former education (as was the case with the informal group of six Belgrade artists gathered at the Gallery of the Student Cultural Centre, Todosijević amongst them). One of his important contributions, as well as of a few other members of the same generation, is precisely their decisive break with the modest and meek behaviour of young artists, in order to, in the spirit of contestational activism of 1968, speak out, boldly and defiantly, in their own “first-person speech”. To put it in more concrete terms, they had, in a primarily collectivistic social order and its predominantly conformist mentality, stressed the right to an uncompromisingly subjective and individual expres-sion, not only in terms of art, but, in final consequence, of humanity and vitality.
A Protagonist of Vast Artistic and Cultural Substance
An almost legendary tale still lingers in the milieu in which it had originated, while also being a certified history of the Belgrade Student Cultural Centre and its art programmes, in the atmosphere of which, amongst many other events, Todosijević had matured, along with five other members of the group which included Marina Abramović, Slobodan Era Milivojević, Neša Paripović, Zoran Popović and Gergelj Urkom. Their accelerated artistic evolution and transformation from school tutorials to independent attitudes in the spirit of the then current art movements involving work with one’s body, performance, the application of new media, dematerialisation of the art object, up to daily socialising, would have, practically, not been possible outside of this, nominally, student, but, in essence- and especially because of its programmes, a highly expert and professional institution that offered artists the possibility of presentation whenever they had anything creative to do and accomplish, as well as offering them the opportunity of contacts with numerous participants of these programmes from the then unified country, and from abroad. With his contribu-tions to these events, Todosijević was not only a participant, but a protagonist of this mighty artistic and cultural coup, as well, incorporating himself into the history of the Student Cultural Centre with his contribution at the pivotal exhibition entitled Drangularijum (Tinselarium), 1971, his solo exhibitions in 1972 and 1974, the Decision as Art performance, 1973, Drinking Water, 1974, Art and Memory, 1975, Commemoration of the Art of Raša Todosijević, 1976, Condolence Book, 1976, Was ist Kunst?, 1977, Gott liebt die Serbien, 1989, as well as author projects such as 1&1, 1974, 12 Yugoslav Artists and the “Testera” Magazine, 1976, Art, Irony, etc., 1977, and others. However, not only due to his actions, but by his own example, influence, reputation, the sum of all his contributions to an extraordinary spiritual atmosphere of the Belgrade alternative art scene of the 1970s, Todosijević was a protagonist of a far-reaching cultural transformation, fruits of which are being reaped and enjoyed today, and not just by individuals from subsequent generations of artists. Rather, the entire liberal atmosphere of the Belgrade art milieu over the past few decades is largely based on the consequences of these events.
Art as Decision/ Decision as Art
Decision as Art was the title of Raša Todosijević’s first performance in the Student Cultural Centre in 1973, however, it is, at the same time, a motto, a code, a slogan; and, even more importantly, it actually constitutes Todosijević’s solid strategy of understanding art as decision since the very beginnings of his activity, with far-reaching consequences. In other words, instead of accepting the inherited premises about what art is ac-cording to established historical experiences and what its standard technical disciplines are (painting, drawing, graphics, sculpture), Todosijević brings all of this into question and believes that, particularly, as an artist, he has the right to permanently consider his acts and activities, in the name of art, to be art, because, ultimately, he wishes it and wills it to be so. Of course, embedded in the foundations of this attitude is Duchamps’s historical testament, according to which the artist himself, in principle, decides on what his own art is. However, with Todosijević, the operational procedure is different in its phenomenological manifestations, and through these, in particular, he is, as an author, distinctive, personal, uniquely individualistic. When, in a pivotal stage of his artistic practice, he had been bold enough to present the art scene with the aforementioned motto (Art as Decision), and when he had derived his own artistic strategy from it and out of it, Todosijević did not have any more obstacles, before or within himself, that would be hindering him to legitimately consider any one of his decisions in the art world as art, more precisely, art as deci-sion. This gesture appears to be Dadaist, in its historical genesis, and in the manner of Fluxus, in its more contemporary contextualisations, while according to the method of the performing technique, it belongs to the performative practices widespread in the New Art of the 1970s. However, in essence, this gesture possesses a conceptual attribute because it appoints the very idea of what the artist will do in his performance to a position of absolute priority. The artist then needs to, initially, consciously decide what he will do in the name of art, and everything that follows (perfor-mance in front of an audience, working with one’s body) is a consequence of his conscious first decision and comes thereupon and after this crucial initial instance of what is, fundamentally, a mental assumption. This raises a question and leaves open an only possible distinct answer: what is, in this case, a work of art? Is it the actual decision to perform an act or, perhaps, a performative execution of the act based on a decision previously reached? From this preliminary and opening statement which claims that decision itself, as such, is art, continuing to the next charac-teristic motto of the artist that voices a question- What is Art? (in a series of performances under the common title Was ist Kunst?), assumptions are made upon which the “machine” of Todosijević’s understanding and application of artistic practices operates.
What is Art?
A famous cycle of Todosijević’s performances, Was ist Kunst? possesses a spatiotemporal external demonstration of events. However, this cycle, as well as the previous one, can also be regarded as, fundamentally, conceptual, in line with the definition of conceptual art, according to which it is “an investigation of the nature of art through the practice of art”. In other words, a metalinguistic and an interart operation is at work here, as well, and its final aim is, precisely, the answer to the question: “What is art?” But, unlike the purely linguistic and primarily theoretical premises of the main current of conceptual art (of the Art & Language type), where, tracing its consequences, we reach the final dematerialisation of the work of art, Todosijević modified his points of departure and redirected his actions towards a post-Duchamp legacy of the materialisation of the basic idea “what is art” represented in performative action, in accordance with the following statement of the artist: “The manner in which the artist poses a question on art is a work of art”. Therefrom stems Todosijević’s correction of linguistic and analytical conceptualism, contained in his next intervention: a work of art, other than not being a nonmaterial concept, is not a material object, either, but is a vital act of body and sound, there-fore, an eminently sensory act, that unfolds within the artist’s real existential time and space, in front of others and with them, due to its powerful physical expressive impact.
The Energy and Transgressions of Body, Voice and Sound
Performances Was ist Kunst? and Vive la France – Vive la tyrannie are, therefore, according to an external impression, extremely fierce expressive body actions, and, while unfolding, they can be distressing and repulsive for some of the people present, not only because of the action that, in the first instance, counts on the effects of repression from the chief protagonist of the action (a male artist) over his partners in action (always women [Patricia Hennings, Marinela Koželj, Farideh Cadot, Klaudia Itten]) whom the artist addresses with a voice filled with fury and an imperative tone, purposefully in German; or, in the second instance, because of an act of destruction of the utilised material, itself, accompanied by a high volume sound from an audiotape. All of these Todosijević’s early performances, considered historical in our time, in their intention, mise-en-scène, the intensity of effect, their astounding aggression that is almost impossible to break away from and resist, are such as if originating from some com-pelling need for psychological release, a personal, as well as a collective “guilt complex” that the artist, taking it upon himself, endeavours to dispel and expose. It is as though he wishes to free himself from some unforgivable sin, not in a humble way, retreating within, through atonement, with himself and others, but with violence, an infringement, an acceptance of punishment, in the measure in which it is at all possible to put this into action under the auspice of art (decision as art/art as decision). After an attempt of understanding the meaning of all these actions, the following message of Todosijević’s performances seems unequivocal: in contemporary art there is, apparently, no innocent or neutral attitude, an indifferent relationship cannot exist, all is either pro or contra a particular ideal within it, an existing ideology, and only the artist is sacrosanct and only he has the right over all that is “good and evil” in his art.
The Poetics of Carnivalisation and the Politics of Desacralisation of the “System of Art”
The radicalism of Todosijević’s early performances, in its connotations, is fundamentally political, that is, according to its field of operations, it is, essentially, cultural-political, with meaning and effect, if not entering the sphere of politics, as such, then, certainly, of the poetics of carnivalisation and the politics of desacralisation of the existent “system of art” as an integral factor of every concrete sociopolitical order. We have already re-ferred to the conscious deflection from the legacy and standards of the local moderate socialist modernism of the domestic protagonists of the New Art of the 1970s, however, Todosijević’s objective is considerably more far-reaching, it is aimed towards the global system of art as a segment of the system of the totality of world economy. Namely, Todosijević’s notable Edinburgh Statement, published in Belgrade on 21 April 1975, subti-tled Who makes profit from art and who gains from it honestly? is, actually, an astonishingly pedantic exhaustive and precise record of all manner of services, professions, crafts, institutions, individuals that do business in the “art world” and live off “the backs of artists” performing the most varied “services” in the process of artistic production and promotion. Contemporary art- Todosijević is certain- is one endless and continual field of conflict where the interests of all those that seek the benefits of some kind of profit in that field intersect. Consequently, contemporary art emerges, exists and develops only in varying and entirely concrete contexts, and outside its position and effect in these contexts, not only could not its social status, seen through economic indicators, be understood, but- and this is especially instructive in Todosijević’s diagnosis- neither could its linguistic, media, and operational phenomenology. And in order to demonstrate this conviction in action, Todosijević has, along with the aforementioned performances, periodically engaged in an ostensibly, but not effectively, formalist elementary painting, as he did with the problem of contexts in which art is made and is exhibited to the public, as well, with a series of interventions and installations entitled Not A Day Without A Line (and to make the irony worse, it was titled in latin, Nulla dies sine linea), ranging from drawing a single line on the wall of a deserted de-crepit building in some small village, as a place entirely irrelevant in terms of art, to a sum of 200.000 lines in a spectacular exhibition space of an internationally prestigious art institution of the Youth Biennial in Paris in 1977. The conclusion that can be drawn out of all of these actions can be the following: the ontology of a particular work of art is not a product and consequence of an ideal autonomy of art, rather it is subjected to the conditions, and, not that infrequently, exposed to pressures of the social, political, and economic ab(use) of artistic production. If the artist is to resist the sum of this at all, or at least remove himself from it, than it could be done, primarily, through the agency of irony with which he under-mines and exposes to ridicule the force and the power of the system of art, without sparing, in the process, his own personal petty gains, disclosed by the artist through the adding of the final line at the end of the quoted subtitle of the Edinburgh Statement, with the following self-ironic note: “the author wrote this text to somehow profit from the good and bad in art”.
The (Im)possibility of Painting and Graphics in the New Art of the Seventies
When it was required, within the framework of the New Art of the 1970s, to perform an operation with the most far-reaching and most damaging subversive consequences to local academic prejudices on the appearance and value of a work of art, more than any direct “first person” speech of the artist’s body, it was possible to test this in the classical media of painting and graphics, treating them, however, in a way fundamentally differ-ent from the conventional standards. Todosijević had accomplished that step in two occasions and in two media: in primary or elementary paint-ing and in conceptual graphics. Firstly, at group exhibitions with Radomir Damnjan and Gergelj Urkom at the Youth Tribune in Novi Sad, in 1974, then in the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb and the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in 1975, as well as at his solo exhibition in the Happy Gallery of New Art at the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, the same year. He exhibited paintings Without a Title of standard rectangular, but also entirely unusual formats, using oil on canvas, or on wood blocks, rendered by the procedure of consecutive string-ing of brush strokes in black and white or a simple coating of a surface in a grey colour. Namely, in this sort of way, a primary operation of paint-ing was performed, halted at the stage right before painting itself wold reach a particular form, figure, image, at the same time devoid of any pictori-al aesthetic, hence performing the action of scrutinising a tautological postulate that states: “a painting is a painting if it was painted as a painting”. In the art circles, accustomed to an abundance of painterly refinements in the spirit of nurturing the craft of painting, this act of reducing the paint-ing to “zero point” was taken as a seldom witnessed brash taunt, without precedent, in dismissing the privileged role of the discipline of painting. And, in another way, and in a different medium, Todosijević repeated this provocation in the five pages of a graphic map, in the technique of lithography, published by the Happy Gallery of the Student Cultural Centre in 1976. The only thing that can be seen on these pages are the follow-ing texts on a white background: Act. no. 5 1975 (from the artist’s legacy) Raša 1975, From the left side to the right side/ from the right side to the left side, Nulla dies sine linea 15/3/1976, Diletanten in der Kunst oder/ or Dilettantes in Art Raša 1975, the Artist’s Manuscript. As was previously the case of painting having the status of an exemplary manual art discipline, here, graphics, in its status of a privileged discipline of “noble craft” has been put into question, in terms of performance, in the name of primacy of its conceptual essence. However, at the same time, graphics had served the artist to bring forth his own work of art from the manual and the unique to the status of a reproduced object, at a time when Walter Benjamin’s famed thesis of “the work of art in the age of its technological reproducibility” once again became topical. Todosijević will apply the same principle, once more, albeit in changed art conditions in regards to the 1970s, creating four serigraphs published by the Centre for Graphics and Visual Research (Thank You, Raša Todosijević, Content and Form I and II, Serbian Art is Dead, 2006). The conclusion behind all these actions is the following: one need not be a painter or a graphics artist by academic formation and by technical specialisation, however, one needs to be an artist by comprehending topical problems, as to bring in the multitude of vital artistic ideas of one’s time into the field of painting and graphics.
An Answer to Postmodernism’s Retro Avant-garde Pluralism: A Fictional and Subversive “Return” to Classical Media
In Todosijević’s example, the alleged “return” to the classical art disciplines at the beginning of the 1980s can be seen as his personal answer to the epoch-making change in art and culture paradigms, known by the general term of Postmodernism. Nevertheless, attesting to the proverb that “the wolf changes his coat, not his disposition”, in this case, are contents and manners of application of the classical media (painting, drawing, watercolour, sculpture) in Todosijević’s, in essence, unchanged, artistic strategy. That is, the identical role of provocation, subversion, irony, self-irony, similar to his previous work, is as much a part of his new creations, and they could be taken as allegedly significant steps and deviations from the artist’s hereto held positions only outwardly, and only because of their technical procedure.
The cycle of oils on canvas My Name is Pablo Picasso, 1984, was the central chapter of Todosijević’s art in the 1980s, the text of the short story of the same title from 1981 serving as introduction. It is entirely symptomatic that Todosijević had, in this case, set his sights on Picasso: precisely because only through the example of this universal “trademark” of fame and grandeur of modern art had it been it at all possible to accomplish the goal towards which he aimed the sting of his transgression. Of course, it is not Picasso that is, himself, in dispute here; after all, this parody in text and image cannot, in any way, injure his historical position and reputation. What this pertains to is, actually, related to a prejudice long harboured in Todosijević’s domestic field of action, one of a great artist as sacrosanct genius and of the greatness of art as product of supernatural inspira-tion, one which Todosijević attacks, supporting, in one more respect (this time with texts and, seemingly, classical paintings) his previous convic-tions (from the Edinburgh Statement and Not A Day Without A Line cycle of drawings) on the “corruptibility” of art in concrete social, political, and cultural contexts. In principle, Todosijević claims the same thing when working on his sculptures cast in bronze, at the end of the 1980s, and the series of watercolours in the early and mid-1990s.
The endeavour that Todosijević undertook, and the coup he achieved, consists of the following cunning operation of linguistic and media camou-flage: namely, to show one thing through technique, form, and style, but imply something entirely different through meaning- this seems to be the manoeuvre with which this staunch member of the neo-avant-garde of the 1970s intends to emerge unscathed and untainted out of the fickle retro avant-garde artistic and spiritual atmosphere of real and alleged postmodern pluralism.
The Titles of Works as a Linguistic Trap of Mental Seduction
The titles of Todosijević’s performances, concepts, installations, posters, books, are, of course, mostly in Serbian, but, also, quite noticeably, in foreign languages, as well (in English, Latin, French, German): Decision as Art, Presumption as Art, Homo Ars, Nulla dies sine linea, Was ist Kunst?, Vive la France – Vive la tyrannie, Gott liebt die Serbien, Schlafflage, Serboaranges, Le fleur du cloaque, Murder, Condolence Book. Such frequent use of titles of those works/actions in several (foreign) languages cannot be coincidental; furthermore, it obviously is deliberate and certainly possesses decidedly particular strategic reasons. However, as in the case of these titles, language and text is also the main medium of one of the compulsory chapters of Todosijević’s opus, his fascinating Stories on Art. If we add to this his numerous writings in magazines and exhibi-tion catalogues on his own art and the art of other artists close to him, the role and meaning of the use of words, texts, and writing in Todosijević’s entire work is thereby confirmed. As far as the titles of the works themselves are concerned, they are something other and much more than their functional appellation: they are descriptive, and do not help in deciphering their messages, rather they consciously complicate the relationship of the observer/reader and the intentions of the artist’s ideas. Thereby, these titles serve as an introduction into some unstable and opaque field of communication with the work, in relationship to which this observer/reader still finds his way around, realising that a work of this kind was made precisely with the intention to be a story with multiple meanings, an enigma of a kind, to which it would be futile to search for an exact solution. However, something which the observer/reader of Todosijević’s creations must be ready for, is the comprehension that, in this case, it is not possible to judge a work only through visual perception, but a considerable investment of knowledge is needed, as well an obligatory mental approach, a consent to enter into linguistic traps of mutual mental seduction.
Stories on Art As Works of Art
Even for someone that had, as Todosijević did, relatively frequently engaged in unconventional writings about himself and others in the art world, his first Stories fell under an unusual genre of this type of writing, with their themes and content being the circumstances, events, and individuals within and around contemporary art events. There are, in total, five of his books that belong to this genre: Stories on Art, 1987; Stories on Art, 1992; Stories on Art, 1995; A Merry Cabalistic March, 1997; A Miracle in Belgrade, 1999. Of this particular Todosijević’s writing output Bojana Pejić will, rightly, state:
“After his experiences with demystification of art through ready-made, performance, video, or installation, the pleasure in tautology (maintaining irony towards the same) and restraint from figurative ‘twaddle’ in the 1970s, at the beginning of the 1980s (more regularly from 1979), Todosi-jević started writing Stories on Art, not for a moment losing his Dadaist concentration. Unlike popular soft fiction stories of the Eco era, his stories are hyper hard fiction that possesses the same, if not even more intense, critical intonation that the artist’s Edinburgh Statement had- Who makes profit from Art? (1973). Stories on Art- mini essays that came out of a disbelief in the social innocence of artistic work or “an ethical neutrality” of its author, even when they are told in the form of a fairy-tale, are always moralistic medallions, indiscreet gems on (the world of) art.”
Although they are, therefore, depicted in the medium of text, which would, logically, according to their categorial attributes, classify them as litera-ture, these Stories are, as paradoxical as it might seem, a kind of (visual/conceptual) art, simply because they have originated from the pen, the experience, and the interest of an (visual/conceptual) artist, or yet more plainly stated, because they are a type of “artistic text”. Reading them, the reader remains amazed and astonished at all that their author was capable of observing, conceiving, paraphrasing, in a nutshell, conveying, on the state and the goings-on in the world of contemporary art. A world that he, himself, is a part of, although he obviously does not feel comfortable in it, and, hence, ridicules it, revealing its anomalies, because he cannot confront it in no other way other than through cynical revenge. Yet, he does not want to leave it, he stays in this world as a helpless, albeit defiant individual that can challenge it only through exposure to merciless mockery in his Stories. As he was extreme and radical in his performances in front of audiences in public, Todosijević is, actually, quite the same in these pieces of writing compressed between the covers of a book, proving that even a text read in silence can be equally artistically effective and efficient in its spiritual consequences and critical impact. In order to dispel possible doubts surrounding the origins of these Stories, Todosijević, himself, has accompanied them with the following interpretation:
“My writing does not originate in the tradition of literature, nor does it rely on that tradition. I took the form of writing as a dried out shell in order to place within it an entirely different form, idea, and at one point I realised that the apocryphal part, the part of the conversations people have, the stories, the fabrication of reality, influence the evaluation of a work of art as much as theory does. If a rumour is started that someone is a great art-ist, his fame grows...”
“Advertising” of the Artist and Artistic “Advertising”
The text is the chief medium in one more field of Todosijević’s art which could be dubbed the artist’s/artistic visual communications graphic (anti)design. Namely, towards the end of the 1990s Todosijević created a series of posters and billboards that advertise and announce events non-existent in reality or, rather, events existent only in the fictional world of art, as are advertisements for some fabricated companies or films that were not shot. If we take into account that these false messages are directed at the state of domestic economy and cultural policy, both gone awry, then all of this points to a media “contamination” of local society in transition done for the purposes of daily political agendas and other manipula-tive goals. What this pertains to is a type of socially “engaged art”, but most definitely not one made in the name of progressive values, rather, the exact opposite, one that signifies the debunking of deviations and deformations within the devastated public space and the space of public infor-mation, something which an artist, as a discerning individual, has a right to expose. And for this “voice of conscience” of the artist, a lethargic and, thus, instigated and awakened public, should be thankful for. Hence, when nobody else wanted to thank him, Todosijević, himself, put into circu-lation a series of “thank yous”, some of which, literally, say: Thank you, Raša Todosijević- a grateful Serbia or Thank you, Raša Todosijević- grateful citizens of Ljubljana, etc. What should constitute the truth in a healthy society, in an ailing society becomes deception, the line between the truth and deception is thus blurred in a society amidst a transitional crisis. The creator of the Edinburgh Statement, and the writer of the Sto-ries on Art, in one more respect, and in one more procedure of the utilisation of text, this time allied with the visual image, put into action a strate-gy of cynically merciless sociopolitical diagnosis through his artistic “advertising”.
A Diary: What is a Work of Art?
On seven occasions, to date, and always in different places, at solo or group exhibitions (Remont Gallery, Museum of Contemporary Art, both in Belgrade, Gallery of Contemporary Art in Celje, Foreign Art Museum in Sophia, Ozone Gallery and the 50th October Salon, again, both in Belgrade, the exhibition Serbia – Frequently Asked Questions at the Gallery of the Austrian Cultural Forum in New York), in a varying set-up of elements, but, as a rule, in an order “of a dense display of images”, Todosijević exhibited 120 individual works unified into one, of various themes, content, linguistic attributes, techniques, dimensions, all under the common title Diary. A work in progress, of a kind, is on display here: this monumental work, consisting of numerous smaller ones, the artist always displays afresh, changing the order of the units, as this will, again, be the case in regards to his presentation at the Venice Biennale 2011. In regards to this work Todosijević will say:
“The Diary is a continually supplemented and growing entity of a variable size and variable interrelations. Every individual part of the Diary is a rounded piece of work and that is why these are not sketches, but can, conceptually, precede a work of larger proportions in this or that version. I consider this diary equally as an idea reminder, as well as testimony of my contemplations.”
The aforementioned statement confirms the fundamental conceptual character of Todosijević’s understanding of art: namely, it pertains to the artist’s operational self-reflection as an answer to the question of what makes a work of art, when and how does it begin, and when is it (if it ever is) finished? Furthermore, in this instance, are we dealing with a case of one and the same piece of work, or, rather, of a number of different works, of which, again, each differs to the other in regards to its presentation in varying exhibition spaces? If someone, potentially, purchases one of the elements of this entire entity, does he get to own an independent work or merely a fragment of a significantly larger work? These (and nu-merous similar) symptomatic questions about the status of a work of art, make this work, in principle, a continuation of its old predecessor, the one on lines: namely, its meaning and its importance depends not only on the work itself, as such, but on the cultural importance, even on the sociopolitical ranking of the institution that the work is being exhibited in, as well. Moreover, this work is the artist’s “private diary”, but also a critical diagnosis of his own, as well as institutional, public “exhibition politics” in the ever changing circumstances of the domestic and interna-tional “systems of art”. Therefore, all that the artist does is, at the same time, “art production” and a metalinguistic discourse on the nature of art, as well: because there is no moment in his artistic activity that he does not, actually, ask or repeat, to himself and to others, even when loudly stating it (as in the performances of the same title), a question that, for him, is crucial- Was ist Kunst? However, instead of pondering, in general, on what art is, the artist now poses a question, specifically, on what a work of art is.
Light and Darkness of Symbols
One of Todosijević’s sculptures (Belgrade 1990) and a series of installations from the 1990s, and the first decade of this century, entitled Gott liebt die Serbien (Podgorica 1992, Čačak 1993, Graz 1993, Copenhagen 1994, Berlin 1996, Mönchengladbach 1997, Čačak 1998, Belgrade 1998, Vienna 2000, Ljubljana 2000, and, once more, Belgrade 2001), preceded by a series of installations entitled Schlafflage, 1978–1984, first and foremost, astound by their very titles. In other words, the question is raised on why they are titled in German (hence, in a complicated way), when they could have been titled, plainly, in Serbian- “so the whole world can understand” (hence, in a simple way): Bog voli Srbe (God Loves the Serbs)? The frequent and deliberate use of German language in a predominantly Serbian environment obviously keeps in mind deep historical connotations that the mere mention of the terms Germany and German invokes in this environment, and thusly, and figuratively speaking, the artist “pokes his finger in the eye” of pretensions and aspirations of certain and particular members of the “heavenly nation” on its, alleged, excep-tionality in the past, the present, and the future. There is no other way the artist can confront this fatal prejudice effectively, other than through devastating irony, so we are thus dealing with politically engaged work, in a highly intellectual and sophisticated, rather than declarative and demonstrative manner. In principle, the same thing is done by Todosijević when, in addition to the German titles, he also introduces the signs of the menorah (in sculpture) and the swastika (in most of his installations), the use of which will be interpreted as the artist’s indirect, but, still, a vocal enough act of reaction to concrete historical circumstances in Serbian politics and social reality of the crisis-ridden and fatal ninth decade of the past century. However, in order to lend a more universal rather than local importance to the frequent use of these (and other) symbols in his opus, Todosijević engaged in an entire strategy of transformation of these symbols depending on the changes in their historical context, offering the following personal explanation of the “light and darkness of symbols”, and its convincing argument warrants our full attention:
“A series of works-installations under the common title Gott liebt die Serbien are, actually, discussions on the changeability of the interpretation of symbols and the conditioning of these changes by historical circumstances. To display a large red circle on a white background in Europe, today, would not incite much attention as it would- due to historical circumstances during the Second World War- present an obvious provocation and a sum of resentments if it were to be exhibited in Manchuria. Up to the emergence of German Nazism, the swastika was considered to be an archaic symbol of pre-Christian civilisations around the globe, from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, Ireland, Rome, South and North America, the Pa-cific, Japan, China, Indonesia, India etc... nobody was paying any attention to this symbol as a religious and decorative element of the polytheistic world slowly disappearing from the historical stage. Since the moment it was used for identification requirements of Nazi ideology and after all the horrors of the Holocaust, our perception of the symbol has changed, although- truth be told- its form has not altered at all. I was inspired for the en-tire series of my installations by Courbet’s mystical painting The Painter’s Studio, as well as by the ready-made works of Marcel Duchamp. Actually, with both aforementioned artists, the work of art, for the first time, does not emit ideological and religious content, but its meaning depends on the observer himself.”
Todosijević’s statement, in regards to the symptom it detects, resembles the statement of the Slovenian group IRWIN, that (loosely translated) is as follows:
“The very nature of symbols is changeable, what alters is what people project into them. They are subject to time. The image of Lenin today does not harbour the same meaning as it did fifty years ago, it does not mean the same in the United States or in Yugoslavia. However, symbols interest us precisely because their meanings are not fixed, we are interested in working in perpetually open formations which always permit a number of different interpretations.”
However, this statement was certainly not cited in order to, possibly, suggest of an alleged debt Todosijević’s ideas owe to the ideas of IRWIN (which, on the contrary, owe Todosijević the title of their project, Was ist Kunst?), but to indicate their common conceptual concept (to which the cycle of Mladen Stilinović, Exploitation of the Dead, 1984–1990, can be added, as well), all of them based on the procedures of appropriation and renewed use, with changed connotations, of signs and symbols emptied and charged again, with different meanings. All three aforementioned examples- the IRWIN group, Stilinović and Todosijević- point towards a tight conditioning of their artistic concepts by the context of the creation of these concepts, which is, in this concrete case, the context of historical reality of the late stage of Yugoslav socialism, and the early post-Yugoslav post-socialism. Furthermore, precisely because of the symptomatic character of such a sociopolitical foundation they possess, the art of that kind of linguistic type and ideological prefix was the focus of intensified attention and frequent interest of the international art community during the last few decades, especially the part particularly sensitive to the problems of critical and activist behaviour of the artist and the status of art in former real communist Eastern European and transitional ex-Yugoslav social circumstances.
In the Name of the Artist’s Right to Inviolable Individualism
Since the beginning of the decade of the 1970s to the second decade of the current century, hence, during a full forty years of presence on the domestic and international art scenes, Todosijević has been carrying out his activity in various political, social, and cultural contexts, always entirely aware of these circumstances and the shifting of his own status within them. When he started off as an artist, along with his generation of ideologically like-minded colleagues, he strongly opposed the local system of art of the late stage of socialism, and thus, the social environment out of which such a system had emerged from, devoid of the illusion that in both systems (artistic and social) the processes of emancipation could significantly be moved forward and improved on with the symbolic acts of artists and of art. However, the powerful energy of his early perfor-mances possessed and required the vitality of a direct physical performance, and, accordingly, there was something in them akin to an invitation for positive change of the status quo, which resembled sociopolitical activism of the members of historical avant-gardes upon whose ideological heritage Todosijević had been formed as a young artist. Nevertheless, when, in the beginning of the 1980s, a relativist atmosphere in the arts was underway, one of postmodernist retro avant-garde, and as it, soon after, entirely took over, Todosijević lost even the last traces of trust in a sup-posed progressive mission of art, and, with his ironic and parodical visual (in the My Name is Pablo Picasso cycle) and textual creations (Stories on Art), entirely exposed the symptoms of an irretrievable loss of hope in the futuristic projection in time of late stage socialism in its final mani-festations. Still, his definite break with the last traces of ideals of the previous era was yet to occur, and it will, with the Gott liebt die Serbien cycle, as a product of the artistic atmosphere of a post-socialist transitional society in the grips of unstoppable processes of all manner of entropies. He knew that the work of an artist is subject to reading and commentary in the light of changeable interpretations of its own meanings; furthermore, he purposefully provocatively directed his work in a way that it would be open to multiple meanings, and rather more towards controversial, than a priori acceptable interpretations. Todosijević’s work, would, in time, be positioned in a number of different contextual situations: in the framework of New Art of the 1970s within the “Yugoslav art area”, Serbian art of the second half of the 20th century, art in a “closed society” of the 1990s, art of Eastern Europe in the process of integration with the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the contemporary art of the Balkans (agreeing with Boris Buden’s opinion that “Balkan art had never before existed, especially in the Balkans, itself”), accepting all these divisions as casualty of the artist’s public status, whose art, as “common goods” is, in great measure, and bypassing his will, handled by the media and the institutional “sys-tem of art”. All the aforementioned positioning was not eagerly accepted by Todosijević, but he cold not, or, often, did not want to break out of it, because, amongst other things, he “profited” from it himself (in the spirit of the term from his Edinburgh Statement) with the purpose of encourag-ing his own promotion and the promotion of his art. He aspired towards embedding “local” content in his projects and elevating it to universal meanings, and he managed to achieve this- no one else was, like him, an authentic “Belgrade artist” and, at the same time, an internationally ac-claimed national author. It should also be acknowledged that nobody from this terrain on the margins of world art events, and without leaving his place of permanent residence and basic activities in Belgrade, managed, as he did, to incorporate himself into the contemporary international art scene of his peer group. Building his self-awareness precisely on this kind of achievement, he does not, in any way, desire to be a representative or an exponent of a national culture, even when faced with a presentation at the pavilion of his own country, as is the one at the Venice Biennale 2011, all in favour of the right of respecting the principles of inviolability of the artist’s individualism and artistic individualism. Since the start of his activities he aspired towards the principle of Otherness and the principle of Diversity as rules in the world of contemporary art, as well as for the unalienable right of freedom of the individual to be respected above all others in social and political life. Todosijević’s presentation at the Biennale hopes to convey precisely this kind of message from the artist, as well as witness how this message will be understood and accepted in the arena of intense international art competition.