BELGRADE, SERBIA—It was early Monday morning just after Easter weekend and I was watching Isidor, the black kitten I rescued from the streets of the Serbian capital a few months ago, balancing on one side of the sleek metal laundry bag frame. He was struggling with his tiny paws sliding on the lustrous material, his yellow eyes wide and focused and his body alert. That is exactly how I have been feeling for some time now.
It had not been much of a holiday weekend; I would rather have been riding horses or sailing with my boyfriend at the Gulf of Trieste than working non-stop on the organization of PerformanceHUB’s first summer course for international students. The short program of lectures and performance practice under the title “Performance Art in the former Yugoslavia and current practice in the region” will be taking place in Belgrade in June and we have been trying to extend invitations to students through various international networks. In a way, I have been looking at it as a personal matter of life and death, as a proof that all that I am doing here at the moment makes sense.
I have been a performance artist for over a decade now. I need to be free to fly, to create, to think. Having the space and time for myself is essential to my practice as I need to prepare my body and my mind for sometimes complicated performative and artistic endeavors. Instead, since the summer of 2015 when I moved from New York to Belgrade and founded PerformanceHUB together with the curator Milica Pekic, this program has been my obsession and my burden, as well as a source of tremendous joy. I got carried away by enthusiasm, love for performance art and a sense of duty to preserve the legacy of the local performance art scene, which spawned some of the most prominent performance artists—including Marina Abramovic, Era Milivojevic and Tomislav Gotovac—in the world during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Despite my passion, I have questioned on more than one occasion whether I have bit off more than I can chew by creating an educational platform for performance art in Serbia. The average salary of a medical doctor here is about $450 a month. The political situation is tense: Serbia just re-elected as a president a man— Aleksandar Vučić –who was involved in the political turmoil of the 1990s that led to the bloody wars in the former Yugoslavia and exclusion of Serbia from the international and European organizations for a decade, the consequences of which are still omnipresent. There are daily protests in the streets over the elections but it seems as though nothing will change. At times, it feels ridiculous to launch a program for performance art in a country where fundraising as such means nothing, as there is no cultural class to donate to art programs.
There is no art market. Big companies, rightly so, donate to hospitals and much less exclusive education programs that include a larger number of students and grants are very rare and very small. Two of our major art museums–Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum–have been shut down for over a decade and there is still no answer as to when they might open again.
Both institutions closed for renovation and never reopened and I cannot imagine what the real reasons are for hiding Serbia’s artistic treasures behind closed doors for such a long time. It is sad that generations of Serbians are growing up without visiting those museums.
But despite all those issues, I am still driven— in part because over the past two years I believe we have accomplished too much to stop. Last December, for example, two students from our first group of PerformanceHUB programs, Ivana Ranisavljevic and Sara Kostic, performed in front of an international audience at the Venice International Performance Art Week, which is one of the most acclaimed international events in this field. For me, that moment was as important as any of my own performances. Indeed, as a mentor, it is my greatest challenge and biggest satisfaction to see my students thrive.
However it’s not just the performance art program that keeps me here in Belgrade, hoping to help drive the contemporary art scene forward even in these tough times; last year I joined forces with Radisson Blu Old Mill Hotel Belgrade to create the Radisson Blu Artist Residency. The scope of the program is to encourage international artists to visit Belgrade to get to know the local culture. So far our guests have included Anja Foerschner from the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, Miao Jiaxin, a New York-based Chinese artist and Alex Chellet from Mexico City. The first week of May the artistic duo MentalKlinik from Istanbul will be here to create a month-long collaboration with Jan Eugster, Swiss art fabricator with over 20 years of experience manufacturing sculptures for famous contemporary artists.
In June the Italian Cultural Institute in Belgrade will host the exhibition “Belgrade Performance Art Scene – One Insight” curated by Ms. Pekic and myself and it will contain a series of video interviews with the local artists and curators who worked in the 1970s in Belgrade— when the performance art scene was thriving— video documentation of performances of Serbian artists working today and live performances by young artists and PerformanceHUB students. Everything we do is now available to stream through Gallery 12 HUB so the world can see—live from Belgrade— what we do. Inspired by Harvard University and Tate Modern, we are also hoping to take PerformanceHUB education programs online and make it available to a much larger audience.
So as I finished my coffee, I realized that, like my rescued kitten, I need to keep balancing on that proverbial lustrous, slippery piece of metal because what we are doing feels urgent, necessary and thankfully, often it is really fun.
Marta Jovanović is a Belgrade-born performance artist whose works have been presented in solo and group exhibitions, and biennials across the globe. A documentary about her work, “Born Just Now,” will be released early next year.
All photos courtesy Marta Jovanović: 1) Ms. Jovanović (copyright Robert Adanto) 2) Ms. Jovanović in performance “The Beauty of Tight Binding” (copyright Robert Adanto); 3) Students from PerformanceHUB