A frozen art for futile times

ART / With the slogan ethics before aesthetics, a group of Serbian artists collectively looked to draw attention to the negative social trends of the time.

In 1993, as a newly broken-up Yugoslavia was in a state of chaos, Nikola Džafo, an artist from Novi Sad in Serbia, came up with the idea of Led Art («Ice Art»), asking the public to bring objects of their choice to be preserved in a refrigerator. He and his friends were incredulous that exhibitions had been going on in Serbia as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening in the country — despite the climate of a troubled ’90s in which nationalist discourse under President Slobodan Milosevic was at a fever-pitch and stirring up ethnic hatred and war in the Balkans. The action, or ironic gesture, of freezing art recognised normality as paused, and cultural heritage fractured. How could earnest creation have any meaning in such a broken context? An entirely new kind of art scene would be required to take the poisonous, violence-tinged political atmosphere into account and challenge its discourse, Led Art contended. The group would be forged around collective action, prioritising social engagement and ethics over aesthetics in its production of objects, performance interventions, and commentaries on its perception that Serbia was in a mess under the hardline, populist regime and everything was falling apart.

An entirely new kind of art scene would be required to take the poisonous, violence-tinged political atmosphere into account and challenge its discourse, Led Art contended.

Platform of protest

reCAPITULATION is a documentary by Filip Markovinović, screening its world premiere at Beldocs in Belgrade in May, that collates photographic and video material from the Led Art archive of the group’s actions. It contextualises this with numerous talking-head interviews from participating artists and activists, including Nebojša Milikić, Dragoslav Krnajski, and Borka Pavićević. The film, clocking in at a snappy three-quarters of an hour, is scrappy and DIY, with an onslaught of names, faces and stunts that the uninitiated must work to connect the dots between and place within a wider understanding of the region’s history. But this uncorralled messiness and disregard for explaining too primly or neatly suitswell enough Led’s loose approach of punkish subversion over institutionalised and vetted gloss, and the film serves, three decades on, as a historical testament to a movement subject to official erasure by a state machine that did not take kindly to dissent. The interviewees reflect on their aims of formulating an alternate community of anti-war thinking and being around a platform of protest and a refusal to accept propaganda, evaluating with candid honesty whether they feel they were successful in opening up space outside the political frameworks and seething resentments choking the region.

A number of Led Art actions are documented, together showing a decentralised movement or scene of more than twenty artists who frequently collaborated together and associated initiatives (the activities of the provocatively named «Center for Cultural Decontamination», founded by Pavićević in 1995 as a counterforce against fear and intolerance, also feature). They used wit and daring exploits in a way that grabbed the public’s attention to reveal the absurd insanity of nationalistic values and the policies of the Milosevic government. Expeditions to landfills in Croatia and Kosovo were undertaken, where garbage, that lingering trace of civilisation, was analysed to determine if there was any difference between it and Serbian trash — an action exposing the lack of basis in ethnic divisions, and asking why relations between neighbours had turned to horror. There was, of course, an ironic subtext, as these Serbian artists felt, in the face of the regime’s inhuman destruction, they were already inhabiting a dump. In other art actions, the state’s order that citizens ration flour, oil, and sugar found a response in creative recipes lampooning the directive that were put on display to amuse and inspire the public, and mirrors were held up to the police forming cordons against student protesters.

it could even be that art, too, changes the world for the worse

Thirty years on

Thirty years on, the film is overtly cautious of utopian naïveté and of putting too much faith in the belief that art can change the world (it could even be that art, too, changes the world for the worse, one Led artist caustically suggests.) Exact impacts are impossible to gauge. But it is undeniable, in revisiting the recorded traces of these actions, that they embodied a form of irrepressible hope at the point it is needed most (that is when hope seems nearly lost.) Lies and illusions — the lifeblood of state propaganda — were exposed, perverted and subverted by images and photogenic pranks that struck the imagination. The possibility was ignited by liberating another reality from the suffocating framework in which people tried to survive day to day.

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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