New York Times: Renewing Belgrade’s Rich History of Performance Art


BELGRADE, Serbia — There wasn’t a wet eye in the house. Two dozen babies, aged between three and 18 months, were transfixed watching two women clad in white rolling around on the floor, performing slow and subtle movements inside a white tent-like structure. There were no tears or howls, just intrigued infants lolling their heads and crawling in all directions.

The babies, and their parents, were participating in the performance art piece “Baby Space” at Belgrade’s Galerija 12 Hub. Organized by Dalija Acin Thelander, a Serbian choreographer based in Stockholm, the event was aimed at stimulating the babies’ minds and movements.

For Milica Pekic, the program director of the noncommercial gallery known colloquially as Hub, it was an opportunity to get people into the space where they might not normally come to see or participate in a show. “For the kids’ show, now the parents know the space and when we invite them to see a new program, they will feel familiar,” she said, sitting in a side room off the main gallery. “For us, it is important that you feel comfortable, that you do not feel ashamed if you come to the space and you see someone dressed up as a woman performing and screaming— don’t be scared. This space assumes participation of the audience so we are trying to make people feel relaxed when they come and see a show.”

Introducing new audiences to performance and new media art has been a driving force for Hub, which opened three years ago in Savamala, or “Little Sava,” a slowly gentrifying waterfront district in the Serbian capital.

The gallery is focused on showcasing these genres — something unique to the city’s art scene — but it also is eager to promote Belgrade’s independent arts scene, which, along with commercial and government-funded galleries and spaces, continually struggles for economic and cultural survival.

The gallery puts on exhibitions, lectures and performances from local, regional and international artists — in April the Mexico City artist Abduct (Rodrigo Guzmán Cázares) was featured in a show focused on space and light, and works by the Serbian sculptor Mrdjan Bajic were shown in May.
Hub has also run the Raiffeisen Club award for artists under 26, sponsored by the Austrian bank. “At the end of the year we do a joint exhibition of all 10 finalists,” Ms. Pekic said. “So they go through the process of working with curators, and they work together helping each other with the production of the pieces, so they also get the experience of teamwork.”
The gallery hosts the Nelt Educational Program, sponsored by the Serbian distribution and logistics company of the same name. The program is aimed at university students from faculties including electrical engineering, architecture and drama; in June, the 20 or so participating students will exhibit works they have created together during the year-long program.

This June the gallery will be inaugurating the Performance Hub Program, a series of workshops on performance art that will be developed with Marta Jovanovic, a performance artist based in Belgrade, New York and Rome.

Hub’s founding was partially motivated by Belgrade’s rich history of performance art. When the city was the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade’s Student Culture Center was a focal point for experimental performance art from across the region. Marina Abramovic, Era Milivojevic, Tomislav Gotovac and other artists held some of their earliest performances and events there.

Yet despite the fact that several artists from the former Yugoslavia are now considered to have been at the forefront of the European performance art movement in the early 1970s, there was no space in Belgrade that focused on the genre and no faculty that taught the subject.

pekicMs. Pekic, a curator and art historian, and the artist Dorijan Kolundija decided to found Hub as a home for both performance and new media art. “We started talking about what was missing in Belgrade,” said Ms. Pekic, who is currently the chair of the Association of the Independent Cultural Scene of Serbia, a group that works to promote and develop Serbia’s cultural sphere.

Ms. Pekic said that at first they were consciously slow with programming shows but very quickly there was recognition that their gallery concept was different from what others spaces were doing in Belgrade, and across Serbia. “We invited artists but also artists recognized us,” she said, “so it was a mutual recognition.”

One of those artists was Zimoun, the Swiss installation and sound sculptor. His show at the gallery last autumn consisted of two cardboard installations that worked in combination with physical movements generated by small motors.

“To work with the team at G12 Hub was very great,” Zimoun wrote in an email. “They were very engaged, proactive and reflective people. The large audience showing up at the opening was very surprising to me. At that point I realized what an important and recognized position G12 Hub is in Belgrade.”

Hub has also been eager to invest in artistic production, though their funding can be irregular: Serbia’s Ministry of Culture, for example, did not make an open call for funding 2015 projects until late February. The gallery often has to program the year ahead without knowing when, or how, it will get financing.

Ms. Acin Thelander, the choreographer of “Baby Space” — which has also been produced in Japan, Poland and Denmark and will be put on in Sweden this summer — said that Hub had been an essential advocate of the city and country’s independent arts scene.

“The way they work with the artists, how they present the artists and how they think about the common good of the independent sphere is what I think makes a huge difference between Hub and other spaces,” she said.

Hub has also placed great importance on working with similar spaces and collectives across the Balkan region on projects like “Extravagant Bodies,” an arts festival that examines social issues including behavior and sexuality. “I felt very strongly what a great partner they were on this project,” said Olga Majcen, a member of the Zagreb-based Kontejner curatorial collective, which organize the triennial’s programming.

“For example we had this choir of complaints, which can be adopted to many projects, where people like to complain and they make it into songs,” Ms. Majcen said. “In Belgrade, they made theirs where older people could complain; it was a very creative approach from their side where they had discussions and debates and the audience was really animated.”

The creative approach to art is something that Hub hopes to build on with its performance clinics, which will include workshops and discussions with guest artists and lecturers coming in to work with participants.

“New York has Performa, Venice has the International Performance Art Week,” said Ms. Jovanovic, who is helping organize the latter program. “With its legacy, history and the artists who have come here and made their first performances, why couldn’t Belgrade be on the international map when it comes to performance?”