BONE 16 – Performance Art Festival
The 16th edition of the BONE festival, initiated by Norbert Klassen (†2011) in 1998, was dedicated to performance art from the Balkans. The opening evening was kicked off, however, by a work of the Swiss artist Manon. She had a red carpet rolled out in the arcade in front of the Bernese Schlachthaustheater, accompanied by the obligatory security guards and a flurry of camera flashes.
The visitors stood in line and were invited to enter singly over the red carpet. More than thirty Manon doubles standing on both sides of the carpet photographed them in passing, making them starlets, so to speak, and observed by the artist while viewing the work. The doubles—female students of a Bernese high school—all wore the same black wigs, sunglasses and dresses as well as transparent disposable pelerines. At the end of the red carpet stood a male Manon double with carnivalesque makeup welcoming the guests in a effusive manner. They were greeted once more in the theater hall by the festival director, this time with a glass of plum brandy. The effect of Manon’s intervention titled Persona was minimal, not only due to this second reception.
Dealing with and imitating the film aesthetics of Hollywood, and star cult in particular, is constitutive of Manon’s works—be it in her photographs or famous environments. But the iconography of movie stars and the attendant rituals, subjects Manon has repeatedly dealt with, have changed—the red carpet only exists as a handed-down image nowadays. The artistic treatment and critique of the entertainment industry is taking place at new fronts. The act of preceding a performance festival with a glamorous reception no longer creates tension, and disguising the alleged “underground” as a pop-cultural spectacle is merely a nostalgic affair, since the red carpet has lost its symbolic power. For this reason, the high school students acting as doubles were clearly kept up-to-date, shooting photos with iPhones and wearing wigs, fake Ray Ban shades and pelerines, as one is familiar with from festivals, eve-of-wedding parties and other mass events. Persona appeared to be a usual flash mob, possessing nothing provocative and offering no room to reflect on mass media spectacles and the positioning of art therein.
In contrast, the evening in the theater hall commenced quite impressively with Miroslav Miša Savić’s Zagregani kružeci zvuk klavira (Heated Circulated Sound of the Piano), the re-enactment of his own performance from 1978: Savić lay face down on a piano, powerfully hitting the keys with outstretched arms for about twenty minutes, the left hand playing the higher and the right hand the lower registers. The keys in the middle were covered by his long hair swaying back and forth with the energetic, rhythmical keystrokes.
One could repeatedly detect signs of exhaustion during the performance, the arms became limper, even though the sequence of tones tended to become more differentiated. The sounds of the piano had a hypnotizing effect. At the same time, however, a tension was created between the performance, which was tiring for the artist, and the sequence of tones that grew more intense. A moment of empathy arose, but also disconcertment in face of the artist’s manic keystrokes. This sense of mania and uncanniness was heightened by the fact that one could only see the back of his head tossing about wildly. In the end, Savić lay motionless on the piano. Then he numbly climbed down and bowed, thus unfolding the pathos of total exhaustion.
The performance of Milenko Lazić, a young Zurich-based artist of Yugoslavian descent, stood in contrast to the preceding one. Lazić read from his book ZürichSyndrom, a compilation of very short stories dealing with urban life as an artist, migrant and “underdog” in Zurich. The reading was accompanied by live recorded acoustic loops. This performance hardly differed from the harmless poetry slam or cabaret offerings one is familiar with from local late-night entertainment shows.
The last presentation of the evening was by Janet Haufler and Nils Amadeus Lange. Janet Haufler—a grande dame of Swiss performance art—had invited the young actor Nils Amadeus Lange to perform with her. For around thirty minutes they offered an intelligent and variegated survey of possible parodies of features peculiar to stage acting: comical songs were interrupted by queer dance numbers and incoherent dialog fragments, Manon was given a bouquet of flowers, Harry Belafonte’s voice could occasionally be heard, and Janet Haufler warned her alum that he smokes too much, to then give him an account of her time as a drama school student and explain the division of the stage area into coté cour and coté jardin. The piece was excellently rendered and contained a lot of reflected drollery. Stylistically oriented toward improvisation theater, it took up the atmosphere of Milenko Lazić’s reading, but strongly differed from the opening piano performance. This raised questions as to the curatorial strategy, since the focus of the evening was primarily on humoristic and entertaining literary and theatrical actions and not—as announced—on performance art from the Balkans.
The exhibition in the Stadtgalerie, on view during the festival, was more pertinent in this respect: The show focused on early works by Marina Abramović from the collection of the Kunstmuseum Bern and the Student Cultural Center (SKC) Belgrade, where Abramović and other exponents of 1970s Yugoslavian performance art organized their first actions. These works were supplemented by three more recent positions making formal and content-related reference to Abramović’s artistic practice.
The first exhibition space was conceived as an introduction to the activities at Belgrade’s SKC, featuring posters of the Aprilski susreti (April Encounter) festival that took place annually in the early 1970s and showcased renowned international performance artists, as well as a film by Lutz Becker from 1975. The film portrays the SKC based on recordings of happenings, video pieces, lectures and interviews. It gives insights into the ideological program of the members of the SKC, which was characterized by the critique of an understanding of art that operates with metaphysical concepts and attributes eternal and transcendent powers to it. The lecturers instead spoke in a classical avant-garde style about activism, Herbert Marcuse and socialism, or recited the names of heroes of classical modernism in a parodistic litany. The film also featured an excerpt of the famous video of Abramović’s Art Must Be Beautiful, Artist Must Be Beautiful.
Historical documentary material from the SKC archive also formed the core of the exhibition, which mainly consisted of uniformly displayed photographs from the archive and the collection of the curator, Seraina Renz, accompanied by wall texts that explained the documented performances and contextualized the respective positions within the discourse on performance art. In Pijenje vode (Drinking Water), for instance, Todosijević fishes a carp, throws it onto the stage and then drinks all the water in the aquarium. Due to the sheer amount, he throws up several times on a white tablecloth under which there is purple pigment that becomes visible when wetted by the vomited water. The performance ends either when the entire tablecloth changes color or the fish dies. Auto-aggressive practices and an interest in archaic actions such as sacrificial offerings and self-castigations appear as a constitutive feature of Belgrade performance art. In other photos, an iconography could be found resembling that of Viennese Actionism and composed of the Christian pathos of sacrifice and suffering with in part parodistic elements. One saw costumes in the style of Hugo Ball or pictures of a performance by Radomir Damjanović, who tied numerous fruits and vegetables to his left leg and then shuffled through the gallery—impeded by the great weight of the organic material—and soiled it.
A large wall in the third space documented actions by international artists, whom the SKC had invited to the Aprilski susreti festivals between 1972 and 1977 and to a larger festival in 1978: Joseph Beuys held a workshop, Jürgen Klauke performed to Jimmy Cliff’s song “The Harder They Come,” Heinz Cibulka and Ulrike Rosenbach were also among the invited guests, and Marina Abramović presented her Relation Works performances together with Ulay. Unfortunately, the Belgrade archive is only fragmentary due to financial and political reasons, as is stated in the press text, so that the visitors could only learn about a small part of the SKC’s history through the photos and accompanying texts. The two screens in the last hall changed little in this respect. They showed videos of performances, including a recording of the premiere of Savić’s piano performance that was re-enacted by the artist at the opening of BONE 16.
Nonetheless, quite a bit of information was conveyed by the film portrayal, the poster designs and the other documents from the archive. The curator Seraina Renz, who did her doctorate on 1970s Belgrade performance and conceptual art, succeeded in giving insights into the richness of this regional movement, working freely with a variety of fragments from the art discourse of the times.
This was the show’s main achievement, especially because the figure of Marina Abramović was positioned as part of a movement and not stylized as a solitary manifestation. The exhibition gave no immediate reasons for making qualitative distinctions between the performers from the Balkans, quite to the contrary: In the last room of the show, which featured works by Abramović, the curator of the Kunstmuseum, Kathleen Bühler, and the festival director, Valerian Maly, compiled a cabinet with works solely serving commercial purposes. Fancily framed photos from the years 1973 to 1975, the period of the SKC, were displayed not in the context of the archive, but as saleable reproductions from 1994, issued as an edition by a gallery in New York.
Arthur Fink is co-curating the exhibitions space HA-CIE-ND-A in Zurich.
BONE 16 – Performance Art Festival in Berne, Performance Art Festival, 13. – 7. December 2013
Photos by BONE 16 – Performance Art Festival in Berne