Kenny McBride. October 2009
Eastern European Time-Based Art Practices Contextualised Within the Communist Project of Emergence and Post-Communist Disintegration and Transition.
Chapter 4: Identities of Transition and Disintegration
Artists: NSK (Slovenia/FYR), Raši Todosijević (Serbia/FYR), association APSOLUTNO (Serbia/FYR), Weekend Art (Croatia/FYR), Ive Tabar (Slovenia/FYR), Jerzy Truszkowski (Poland).
If the cosmic shapes that litter the floor of Sosnowska’s installation invite us to speculate as to why they have appeared in the room, in the present day, we might likewise wonder what similar symbols would signify if they were carved into the flesh of a contemporary artist.
This is what the Polish artist Jerzy Truszkowski did in his 1987 action, The Farewell to Europe, manifest two days before he was due to begin his national service. He went to visit his friend and fellow artist Zbigniew Libera, and it was within this domestic setting that the action unfolded. He donned his father’s WW2 field-cap and affixed to it a grey pentagonal star and a crowned eagle, the national symbol of pre-war Poland. (1) Near his temple he carved a cross with a scalpel into his flesh. [Figs. 28].
[Fig. 28] Jerzy Truszkowski. (1987) The Farewell to Europe.
[Pabianice, private apartment]. Photo: Truszkowski/Libera.
Around his neck he wore a crucifix and below it he carved a pentagram star. (2) He completed the ritual by cutting away at his moustache with the blade. Initially this visual imagery possibly conjures an impression of the “clash and purpose” (Leszkowicz, 1999) of ideologies but, on closer analysis, the action mirrors a general ‘death of everything’ disposition that accompanies the encroaching end of an epoch.
The cross is a universal symbol from the most ancient times, a cosmic axis that displays infinite expansion in every direction. It is reasonable, then, to view Truszkowski’s complex composition as a fin-de-siècle, mirroring the degenerative end of the Communist era, and anticipating an approaching end. Ritual always accompanies a new beginning: the artist bids a farewell to an ordinary life before entering the institutionalized body of the army.
The action was made at the beginning of the last two years of Communism that saw increased social unrest pile intensified pressure on a weakened Polish government. Curtis (1992) demonstrates that Poland enjoyed a privileged conduit that ran between the Vatican, the Polish people, and the outside world, that opened vital new lines of communication and created a real sense of hope, not only in Poland but also throughout Eastern Europe.
By 1987, assisted by the globally recognizable symbols of the trade union Solidarność and the cross, something inevitable and unavoidable was in the air. (3) Long before the Soviet’s adopted the cosmic pentagram to represent the five social groups that would guide Russia to the Communist Utopia - the peasants, the workers, the army, the intellectuals, and the youth - early Christians considered it representational of the five wounds of Christ.
While Truszkowski “confronted these symbols with the pain of his own flesh being cut with a scalpel” (Sitkowska, cited in Dziamski, 1999), it would be incorrect to consider that the action embodied only a personal rite. If it were simply a juxtapositional evaluation of the militarism of the State and the State’s militarization, or dehumanization, of the individual then the action would not capture our interest since, as we know, existing terrors will only be replaced by new terrors.
But, since the work was performed to video camera, and with loud music for a soundtrack, we must assume that he intended an audience for it at some later time. Thus, what he has done is present very clearly the body as a surface; the body becomes the image in itself (in much the same way as Tomáš Ruller has done in 8.8.88). Thus, it belongs to a long line of violence of the image that, in the history of the avant-garde, “is nothing other than a staged martyrdom of the image that replaced the Christian image of martyrdom” (Groys, 2007).
Truszkowski eroticizes the image of martyrdom through the sacrifice of his own blood: the aspect of “self-crucifixion is ambivalent” (Truszkowski, 1989) as the Polish flag is drawn in blood upon the white artist’s body.
Of course, is it not only ancient symbols that have been appropriated, art too has “not yet overcome the conflict brought about by the rapid and efficient assimilation of historical avant-garde movements in the systems of totalitarian states” (Cufer & Irwin, 1992).
The Slovenian artist collective NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst) formed in the early 1980s against a totalitarian background, and grew through the collapse of Communism and the violent and incendiary rise of nationalism throughout the South East European region. This would spiral out of control when Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman assumed power in Serbia and Croatia respectively.
On assuming power Tudjman rolled out the paraphernalia of the Ustaše (4) - the flag, national emblem, and swastikas - of the country’s fascist past as a WW2 Nazi puppet state, while some Croats armed themselves with Srbosjek knives (Serb cutters) that had been specially designed for the Ustaše in WW2 to facilitate the speedy throat cutting of prisoners of war.
In 1990, following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany, and alongside the “new political, ideological and economic re-organisation of Europe” (Cufer & Irwin, 1992), NSK changed its form from an organisation into a “Utopian virtual state without concrete territory” (Cufer & Irwin, 1992).
Since the NSK collective encompasses philosophy, design, the visual arts, film, and postmodern theatre, it is not so much united by common practices or disciplines (5) but through common interests; the deconstruction of political space, representations and re-presentations of power and history, and a physical return to the symbolic language of totalitarian ideology and the avant-garde in order to investigate and reveal the links between them.
Operating as an “abstract organism” (Cufer & Irwin, 1992) situated within the already existing socio-political realm of Europe their discourse is representative of both East and West European contemporary social, political, and cultural histories.
With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, Slovenia formed a kingdom with Serbia and Croatia. In 1941, the occupying Nazi Fascist regime assimilated the areas outwith Italian Fascist control within the Nazi framework and then, as a result of the regional carve up at the 1945 Yalta conference Slovenia became a part of the Soviet empire.
The engagement with these histories is clearly assimilated in NSK productions. It is what authorizes their heterogeneous choice of symbols appropriated from the cultural and political landscapes of national and European history, Socialist Realism and Nazi art, Italian Futurism and Soviet Constructivism, and legitimizes their intervention “in the impossible historical ‘continuity’ of Slovenian and, more generally speaking, Yugoslav and European art (Gržinić, cited in, eds. Djurić & Šuvaković, 2003).
There are also direct references to conceptual art of Duchamp, Fluxus, and Beuys (Monroe, 2005). During the period of Nazi occupation the Slovenian capital Ljubljana was renamed Laibach. In 1980 the name Laibach was adopted by the music representation in NSK, a spectacular creation based on an over-appropriation, or “over-identification” (Žižek, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 287), of totalitarian fascist and Communist imagery. [Figs. 29, 30].
In fact their over-identification with the images and rituals is so total that “there are thoughts that NSK predicted the Balkan bloodbath” (Mlakar & Greg, 2002), and many came to believe that there must be a subversive ploy in their work, an ironic comment on the past because, surely, they could never truly identify with it.
The critical answer to this is, of course, that Laibach “does not function as an answer but a question” (Žižek, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 287). Thus, there is no ironical distance or cynical superstructure that might prove acceptable but, rather,
“the artistic procedure of Neue Slowenische Kunst [is] based on the premise that traumas from the past affecting the present and the future can be healed only by returning to the initial conflicts" (Cufer & Irwin, 1992).
There is then, only what is offered for consumption; an over-identification with the symbolic language of totalitarian power that “suspends its efficiency” (Žižek, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002: 285-287), and the appropriation of the symbols with “no differentiating between” Stalinism or Nazism (Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 257).
[Fig. 29, 30] Laibach. Promotional images.
[London and Slovenia]. Photo: NSK.
"Laibach grew out of a context in which the spectacularly complex discourses and institutions of self-management pervaded all sections of public and private life. Laibach's response was to incorporate the all-pervasive "noise" of the system into a traumatic multimedia spectacle that completely disoriented the authority" (Monroe, 2005).
The NSK logo reveals this discourse since its origins are located within a hybrid legacy of Malevich and the Nazi swastika. By revealing the “hidden transgression behind the official ideology” (NSK, 1996) they show that which “normally should be suppressed for the social order to function unquestioned” (Richardson, 2000).
They become “more total than totalitarianism” (Groys, 1991). Their eclectic appropriation of “signs, images, symbols, and forms of rhetoric” (Arns, 2002) together becomes a retrospective identification of the 20th century, of the “artistic, political, religious or technological 'salvation Utopias' of the 20th century” (Arns, 2002).
"Modern states continue to be preoccupied with the question of how to collectivize and socialize the individual, whereas avant-garde movements tried to solve the question of how to individualize the collective" (NSK, cited in, (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002: 301).
Defining the characteristics of transition in the former Yugoslavia, then, is fraught with difficulties since the end of Communism was so swiftly followed by war and disintegration. When it arrived the descent into hell was swift and thorough, leaving what had been hard won by Tito’s policy of non-alignment and neutrality with Russia and the Cold War in shreds.
"Nobody knows what actually happened with Communism in the former Yugoslavia, since there was no radical ideological demobilisation in the country" (Stretenovic, 1996).
Following Tito’s 1948 refusal to succumb to the hegemony of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia implemented the most liberal reforms of the Communist era but took the longest route out of it.
It had opened its borders to both its citizens and foreigners in 1965, had enjoyed close cultural ties with the west, played host to a number of international artists, and saw its artists receive reciprocal invitations to present work overseas. However, support for non-official artists was no better than elsewhere: the conservatism of Socialist Realism and a presumed dislike of a perceived western influence meant non-official culture was neglected by institutions.
As Gržinić (2004) demonstrated in the introduction, while the West defines the separation between the Communist and post-Communist era in relation to the fall of the Berlin Wall, for the people of the former Yugoslavia it was Tito’s death in 1980 that brought about a regional collapse.
As a response to the brutalizing disintegration and incendiary nationalism of the Yugoslav Republic, NSK - State in Time, was founded in 1990, with the NSK collective becoming its first citizens. Reacting to the emerging crisis of territory and identity in the Balkans it was conceptualised as a virtual state existing without territory, an “extra territorial State” (NSK State, 1992) that can be activated at will in any place, globally, and in peaceful co-existence within already existing systems.
"The NSK State denies in its fundamental acts the categories of fixed territory, the principle of national borders, and advocates the law of transnationality" (Cufer & Irwin, 1992).
"From a certain point of view, every artist serves a state. We said that, whatever we do, we are going to be state artists, so let's create our own state" (NSK, cited in, Wolfson, 2003).
Passports and flags bear the NSK – State in Time insignia and temporary embassies are established in different countries and in a variety of places that including private apartments, hotels, and cultural institutions. [Fig. 31]. Responding to invitations to present work they pushed the conservative expectation of the exhibition format by opening NSK embassies in Moscow, Sarajevo, Ghent and Berlin, before even the new Slovenian government managed to do so (NSK, cited in, Wolfson, 2003).
The Moscow embassy was established in a private apartment, but not with the intention of mirroring the socializing and communicative nature of the Apt-Art movement that we looked at in chapter 1. [Fig. 32]. While Apt-Art, Sots Art, and the Moscow Conceptualists, colonized the domestic realm around “the self organization of the most excluded” (Gržinić, 1997) the NSK embassy manifest itself, not as an equilibrium in the opposition between the totalitarian ideology and the "non-ideological" private, untainted sphere” (Gržinić, 1997) but as "two sides of the same coin that are both going to disappear with post-socialist democracy” (Žižek, 1994, p. 26).
[Fig. 31] NSK (1990) NSK Passports. [Ljubljana].
[Fig. 32] NSK (1992). NSK State, Moscow
Embassy [Moscow private apartment]. Photo:
In November 20th and 21st 1995, while war was being fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina, they transformed the Sarajevo National Theatre building into a NSK State embassy. An official plaque was installed at a welcoming ceremony followed by speeches, lectures, and exhibitions. It would be the best-attended cultural event in the country since the start of the war (Laibach, 1995).
The NSK Department of Pure and Applied Philosophy delivered a lecture on ‘The Apocalypse of Europe and Possible Deliverance’, videos were shown, art work was displayed, and Laibach played two concerts, one either side of the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord “which meant [they] were more than a merely symbolic conclusion to the European leg of Laibach's tour in support of the "NATO" (Laibach, 1995).
Confusion among border officials was running high since Yugoslavian borders were being dismantled on a seemingly daily basis. NSK – State in Time issued diplomatic passports to 350 people, many of who were able to flee the war in Bosnia- Herzegovina.
"We gave passports to people, for instance in Sarajevo. They couldn't use Bosnian passports, but some of them managed to sneak out with NSK diplomatic passports. I even entered the UK once with an NSK passport" (Wolfson, 2003).
In1998 IRWIN, the visual art arm of NSK, propelled the NSK - State in Time project further by organizing collaborations between the institution of art and the institution of national armies. The first response came from a major in the Albanian army, himself an artist, and who agreed to have his army wear NSK – State in Time armbands and to carry the flag despite apparently showing an allegiance to another country.
The Albanian collaboration was subsequently followed by cooperation with the national armies of Croatia, Italy, Austria, Montenegro, the Czech Republic, and Pristina. While it may be tempting to see NSK State as a parallel institution to the official realm the matter is more urgent and complex than that since, during the transition and disintegration of Yugoslavia, there was no institution to be parallel to (Richardson, 2000).
While NSK are profoundly involved in re-reading and re-presenting histories, and use the symbols and symbolic violence of these histories in an embodied manner that goes beyond mere representation, they differ significantly from the examples of the Moscow Conceptualist and Sots Art movements we looked at in chapter one, who contributed to a non-official narrative of the past by revealing their emerging present.
While we have earlier noted Baudrillard’s thesis that the postmodernist simulacrum precedes and determines the real so that “never again will the real have the chance to produce itself” (Baudrillard, 1994, p. 2), with NSK we can say that they attempt “to free the present and change the future via the reworking of past Utopianisms and historical wounds” (Monroe, 2005, p. 120).
[Fig. 33] Raši Todosijević. (a) (1994)
Gott liebt die Serben (God Loves the
Serbs). [Copenhagen, Kulturbot].
Photo: The artist.
[Fig. 34] Raši Todosijević. (b)
(1998) Gott liebt die Serben (God
Loves the Serbs). [Berlin, IFA
Gallery]. Photo: The artist.
An early influence on NSK is the Belgrade-based artist Raši Todosijević. Beginning in the 1970s he began titling his works in German “for its sternness, and to criticize the totalitarian spirit” (Todosijević, 2005). During the 1980-90s he produced a large body of installations, Gott liebt die Serben (God Loves the Serbs), that arranged ordinary domestic objects; wardrobes, suitcases, cabinets, in the form of a swastika that he installed in the room or attached to the gallery wall. [Figs. 33, 34].
On one occasion the President of the Republic of Austria was photographed standing under one of his swastikas: “It seems incredible that he consented while if I had drawn it on a wall in the city I would have been arrested” (Todosijević, 2003).
His use of the swastika has “more to do with Duchamp than politics” (Todosijević, 2005) and, while that might be somewhat understating it, it nevertheless raises the question of the secondary authoring of symbols that fill them with meaning beyond their origin, such as was done by both perpetrators and victims of Nazism.
[Fig. 35] Raši Todosijević. (c) (1998) Gott
liebt die Serben (God Loves the Serbs).
[Belgrade, Museum of Contemporary Art].
Photo: The artist.
Employing visual codes that are designed to disturb, alarm, and draw attention to the contemporary spectacle Todosijević’s confrontational practice becomes physically directed in the 1998 Happening, Gott liebt die Serben, realised in the Museum of 25th May. (6) [Fig. 35]. Chatting with one another over beer and beans, around tables set out in swastika form with a background soundtrack of nationalist songs, “the idea of the swastika’s geometry to be eaten by life, dirt, primitive guzzling wasn’t perceived – nothing” (Todosijevic, 2003).
He is simultaneously shocked by the lack of response to a referent to the recent, violent past yet, at the same time, is happy to mythologize himself through the paradox of nationalism and the personality cult of leaders; the wine labels and notices that form part of the installations bear the text, Thank You, Raši Todosijević (Todosijević, 2002)
While a great ideological divide separates the Soviet regime from Nazi Germany’s Socialism, we can nevertheless find ready links between them on a socio-cultural level; they both shared an obsession with institutionalizing art in the service of ideology. Both Soviet Socialist Realism and Nazi Socialist art shared similarities in the portrayal of “revolutionary romanticism” (Zhdanov, cited in Taylor & van der Will, 1990, p. 7) by promoting collectivist culture and a ‘positive’ and ‘healthy’ heroism in daily life.
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the late 20th century wars in Yugoslavia, the ten-year durational performance Weekend Art: Hallelujah the Hill convincingly marks its own time through the cycle of seasons. (7) [Figs. 36, 37] An inter-generational work directed by Aleksandar Battista Ilic in collaboration with the artists Ivana Keser and Tomislav Gotovac, it is built around their ritual Sunday hikes on the Medvednica mountain on the outskirts of Zagreb between 1996-2000.
It locates the performers as subjects in an apparent dissertation, a “film realised in slides” (Battista Ilic, 2000) while objectively they are acknowledging the endless cycles of destruction that characterise the natural and human world. Battista Ilic’s passion for film directs the compositions and captures them in stunning light and serenity. (8)
Aesthetic and practical decisions govern the work and indicate the logistics of Battista Ilic setting up his camera and self-timer and running to the others to complete the pose. They stand on the highest peak and look directly across the skyline, lie huddled together in a river stream, have fun in the snow, pick fruit from branches, play hide and seek behind trees, pick their way through lush foliage, hang onto their hats in the wind, and rest in the shade of trees.
[Figs. 36, 37] Aleksandar Battista Ilic (1996-
2005). Weekend Art: Hallelujah the Hill.
[Medvednica Mountain]. Photo: Aleksandar
[Figs. 38] Aleksandar Battista Ilic (1996-
2005). Performing Trace: Weekend Art:
Hallelujah the Hill. [Kyoto and Dublin].
Photo: Aleksandar Battista Ilic.
It is exquisite and precious, a “hymn to nature” (Battista Ilic, 1999), an Eden high above the earthly world of daily chores and responsibilities that grinds on below. It is also, however, the antithesis of the revolutionary spirit that characterizes Socialist Realism and Nazi Socialist and that depicts often-similar imagery.
Weekend Art is not representing a simulacrum however, but an “aesthetic resistance to horror” (Battista Ilic, 1999) that is set within its own disintegrating context. For down below the Medvednica mountain, down on that earthly world, the hugely complex and provocative issue of identity throughout the former Yugoslav republic means that there isn’t just one war in one country between opposing cultures and faiths. There are multiple, simultaneous wars affecting everyone in the region, and that, to this day, still affect everyone in the region. They affected the Weekend Art artists up on the mountain, and they affected people thousands of miles away as nightly projections onto their television screens.
The poetic of Weekend Art is a bitter one that compels us to contemplate whether “destructivity [is] so deeply embedded in us, inescapably there because it is in the entire cosmos?” (Metzger, 1996).
"Here the weekend is not a time for communing with nature and meeting friends, but a time for artistic expression of the dramas tearing the region apart" (Battista Ilic, cited in (eds.) Hoptman & Pospiszyl, 2002, p. 192).
The performance exists both in the fixed space and time of the weekend walks and in the subsequent performing of the documentation. [Fig. 38]. From literally thousands of slides that make up the project ‘film’, over 500 were selected and projected far from the mountain and onto the artists’ nude bodies in front of audiences in other countries.
The performing of this primary material as trace of the artist’s experience of war externalizes the body’s scarred interiority and becomes the sign of the experience. Unlike Komar and Melamid’s performance of ingesting the world so as to conquer it and defeat the forces of oppression, Weekend Art acknowledges the destructive forces that rage around its process and that, unable to defeat the world of violence, they can simply only externalise their interior wounds.
In their 1999 essay The Semiotics of Confusion the artist collective association APSOLUTNO unpack the visual codes of a region where identity is being actively dismantled in the time of war. In 1995-1998 they undertook field research throughout Novi Sad and Belgrade to discover the “absolutely real facts” (Apsolutno, 1999) from which they could map the disintegration of the Federal Republic.
They located these facts in the national and transnational symbols that pervade the social context. Flags, border-markers, coat-of-arms, national and state symbols, banknotes, passports and other official documents and paraphernalia were all documented. Its purpose was to reveal the state of flux through changing allegiances, the desire to be culturally and ethnically rooted, through the many changing symbols and other visual signals.
"Taking ‘absolutely real facts’ as a starting point for our interventions, we turned the familiar, usual, or even marginal, which is often no longer even perceived, into something unusual, out of the ordinary, and worth further exploration" (Apsolutno, 1999).
They show that in 1990 Croatia dropped the term ‘Socialist’ from the country’s identity, rid themselves of the red star from the national flag and changed their Coat-of-Arms. Slovenia, in the following year, followed much the same path. The new flags, which were in actual fact the same flag but without the red star, were adopted and raised while both countries were still a part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. A number of disputes emerged between countries over the naming, or claiming, of territories represented within these new flags. Greece protested that the Vergina Sun, the central symbol proposed for the new flag for Macedonia, was a Greek cultural symbol. They disputed the right to name the new state of Macedonia as such with the row finally resolved under a 1995 UN agreement that ruled that Macedonia would be known as ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia’ and were required to design a new flag within 30 days.
The essay’s semiotic journey travels through these changing places and identities and documents how individual allegiances and bewilderment contributed to this confusion trough the marking, masking, changing, and altering of car licence plates. [Fig. 39]. The most frequent action they came across was the covering over, defacing or destroying, of the red star. Other people elected to keep the red star but added an unofficial sticker that showed their loyalty to the Serbian nation. Others chose the historic Serbian national coat-of-arms, the European Union, a red heart, or displayed their loyalty to a region over nation.
To varying degrees these actions display both playful interventions and deeply held nationalist tendencies yet critically reveal an awareness of context. In their very recent past these people may very possibly have been arrested for vandalizing the ideological symbol but now, removed from the Communist identity, they communicate publically their confusion and the requirement of a new identity. Apsolutno demonstrate that this form of a social communication interprets what “the semiotic reality imposed by the establishment communicates to them” (Apsolutno, 1999).
[Fig. 39] association APSOLUTNO (1999) The Semiotics of Confusion. [Novi Sad]. Photo:
Given the fluid nature of change over the time of writing, 1995-1998, a certain amount of arbitrariness affects the findings. But it doesn’t detract from an interesting methodology that “reflects (sometimes follows, sometimes anticipates) events in the social and political sphere” (Apsolutno, 1999). By the time of its publication the essay reveals a series of startling changes in the visual landscape that reflects, and often predicts, how identities throughout the region had changed in simultaneity with political and geographic change.
The Semiotics of Confusion then, is an essay-in-time (and thus time-based) since, “the state of affairs in this area is still in flux and as we are writing, the confusion is only being multiplied” (Apsolutno, 1999)
In 1991, when Slovenia declared independence from the Federal Republic of Yugoslav, the transitional government signed a constitution upholding human rights and fundamental freedoms. Eight months later, in February 1992, they undertook the radical action of ‘administrative genocide’, or ‘civil death’, that resulted in some 30,000 residents being erased from the national registers. Around 12,000 fled the country but the 18,305 who remained became subject to what Gržinić (2008) equates with a ‘state of exception’, that is, when ‘normal’ laws are suspended for categories of people.
Blitz (2006 p. 459) demonstrates that in their efforts to create a Slovenian republic in opposition to the former Yugoslavia, and to reinforce the specificity of the Slovene nation by channeling public opinion against the ‘Southerners’, Slovenia sought to reposition themselves as a European state ‘outside’ the Balkans, and the new Republic concocted an action against so-called 'new minorities’ including ethnic Serbs, ethnic Croats, ethnic Bosnian Muslims, ethnic Albanian Kosovans, and ethnic Roma.
Under Yugoslav law people throughout the region could live and work anywhere and the idea of legal citizenship to a particular state was, by and large, conceptual since a dualistic system of citizenship operating between state and republic afforded a wider structure where the choice of residence bore no legal consequence (Blitz, 2006, p. 460).
This group, who became known as the Izbrisani (the erased), was targeted for not having Slovenian ancestry (Fussell, 2004) despite having legally worked and lived in Slovenia for many years. In June 1992 many woke one morning to find that they were without legal status, that they could not work, receive healthcare or medical benefits, drive, legally travel, and that their children were turned away at school gates, pensions had stopped, and some lost their homes: they had become foreigners in their own land.
While the erased have been cast beyond the protection and privilege of the state Arendt, conversely, notes that the ‘ordinary’ criminal still possesses an identity within the law and as such, is a “respectable person” (Arendt, 1951, p. 302) who is entitled to normal legal protections. In other words, the transgression is that the Izbrisani are not criminals but rather the ‘criminal’ is found in the categorization.
It is almost impossible not to locate the consequences of the action in the foreshadowing of the mass displacements that would become the lasting, televisual, image of the Balkan conflict. Gržinić, in her essay on the “illness” of contemporary society notes that,
"The 18,305 ‘erased’ who remain in Slovenia exist between two deaths: the physical – since without papers they cannot function – and the symbolic, resulting from the horrific psychological pressure of being expelled from the social context, cut off from their own families and from all manifestations of public life" (Gržinić, 2008).
Hull & Conyers, (2006) demonstrate that the roots of ‘civil death’ are traceable to, at least, ancient Greece and Rome when the State decreed that those who had committed tremendous crimes of infamia (ignominy) would be subject to a withdrawal of the status of citizenship. The Latin expression damnatio memoriae (damnation of memory) relates to the conscious act of erasing every trace of a person as if they had never existed.
In recent times we famously know of Stalin’s directions during the period of his Great Purge that ordered the removal of any trace of his opponents from books, portraits, and photographs. (9) Zorn (cited in Blitz, 2006, p. 464) demonstrates how, in our identity-document driven contemporary world, we could add numerous other actions that would be administered in cases of civil death, such as the inability to open or administer a bank account, apply for a passport, take out a mobile phone subscription, or register a vehicle or business.
Among other consequences would be the forced break up of the family unit, the infringement of a child’s right to live with its family, not being able to choose a place of residence, loss of employment and the inability to gain employment, and the prevention of free cross-border movement resulting in an imposed status of refugee or internally displaced person.
Additionally when officials stopped the Izbrisani in the street for identity checks they further marked their status by cutting their passport on the top right corner (Fussell, 2004). Civil death then is a grave suspension of all human rights that leaves the ‘erased’ citizen with no recourse to legal representation.
Slovenian artist Ive Tabar’s 1997 performance, Intubation, acts as a metaphor of this grave suspension. An intubation is a medical procedure where a plastic pipe is forcefully passed through the trachea of a medically induced unconscious body to protect the patient's airway and provide a means for mechanical ventilation. The process relies on human strength to push the pipe through tissue and so carries significant risk alongside the close observation of the subsequent mechanical respiration.
In 1997 Tabar lay down on a medical trolley in Galerija Kapelica, Ljubljana. He was accompanied by a team of seven medical professionals including an anaesthetist who induced Tabar into a state of unconsciousness. [Fig. 40]. During a general anaesthetic the vast majority of the muscles in the body are unable to move, including the paralyzed diaphragm that has to be filled with air. A ventilator then ‘breathes’ for the patient by pumping air through the tube and into the lungs.
The heart is the one exception to the paralysis and will continue to beat on its own throughout.
Tabar added to the drama by arranging to have artificial smoke fill the gallery so that “the audience’s process of identification also occurred on the level of breathing difficulties” (Krpan, cited in Badovinac, 1999, p. 186). The audience, watching in growing silence, suddenly have a disturbing aural realisation that Tabar’s breath has given way to a machine.
The body is now suspended. Within the procedure there are three stages: anaesthetization, intubation, and resuscitation. The first two elements require invasive intervention into the body; a wounding that runs deep into the interior and registers a trauma. (Even a pinprick on a finger registers shock.)
If trauma can be said to be similar to hallucination in so much as events place the subject, the individual or social group, in a state of suspension beyond reason then we could suppose that the experience of the Izbrisani people, here metaphorized in the three stages of Tabar’s medical procedure, is simultaneously hallucinatory and traumatic.
Revival, resuscitation, and resurrection are inextricably linked to the meaning of death: resuscitation assumes the body is dead while resurrection judges it to be. We can propose that to go beyond the confinement of a deep wound requires a form of resurrection through which the body is made whole again. If we extend the metaphor we can say that people who are subject to civil death would require resurrection whereas the ‘ordinary’ criminal would require resuscitation, a revival in the form of rehabilitation.
[Fig. 40] Ive Tabar. (1997) Intubation. [Ljubljana, Galerija
S.O.U. Kapelica]. Photo: The artist.
Veridical space is where dreams or hallucinations coincide with reality. It suggests a territory of unspecified duration wherein the wound is both seen and is being acted on. It becomes a shared place of convalescence, its future in the hands of a number of agents.
Kunst (2005) and Krpan (1999) have proposed Tabar’s works as enquiries and statements into the obsolescence of the human body in relation to its dependency and inter-dependency on machines, or technologies. Writing about contemporary artists’ use of the body as material, Kunst draws similarities to the “excess bodies of the 60’s” (Kunst, 2005) with that of recent performance art. The similarities stop there, however, because the “strategic politics and tactical power are completely different” (Kunst, 2005).
The popular notion that the borders of the body are moveable and unstable have given way to a state of interdependence that does not allow us “to pin our gaze to the image of the body, but forces us to constantly invent the body together with the performance artist” (Kunst, 2005).
While it is true that Tabar explores this technological interdependence, and in his everyday life is an intensive case nurse, this thesis proposes a different take than has previously been recorded: the invasive interventions into Tabar’s body, and the associated traumas, invoke the violence wrought on the Slovene social body, and the region more generally.
The state, cutting into its citizenry in order to shape an ethnically Slovene identity, thus created a state of exception where the laws that should govern all citizens have in fact been suspended for those it considers unwell. The Izbrisani body has been paralyzed; it is ‘put under’, and their own breath denied them in order that a mythic historical identity can be revived through narcissism that, in this case, is embodied in the interests of a ‘new’ state.
In Intubation, Tabar, albeit ephemerally, manifests himself similar to the NSK principle of an “abstract organism” (Cufer & Irwin, 1992) in order to more effectively reveal “past Utopianisms and historical wounds” (Monroe, 2005, p. 120) whose consequences impact on the present day. The clattering sound of mechanical breathing could easily fit with Laibach’s ritualistic beats: it is the sound of the specter of the European past haunting the present.