Mladen Miljanović, Utopian Realism
by Enxhi Mandija
courtesy of the artist via Peacock Visual Arts
Performance art is not easy. It is not an aesthetic object, it does not provide pleasure to the senses (at least it is not meant to), it is not there to be enjoyed timelessly and virtually on the other end of the globe centuries after. Performance art is probably the quintessential art of modern times. It exists in the local moment, it is an instance of time and space crystallised into significance. Witnessing performance art, we are forced to be in the present moment, be aware of our space and place in time, and let the performance spread meaning about the present situation – which is possibly the hardest thing to comment upon. Handcuffed to a column, Mladen Miljanović locked himself into the specificity of time and place, raising questions of the immanence of art, and our responses, as the audience, to art shaped by social conventions.
WORM, Peacock Visual Arts’s exhibition space on Castlegate, is hosting a month long mini-retrospective on the Bosnian artist’s work in the past decade. Upon entering the exhibit, on the opening night, an immediate sense of unease and awkwardness took hold of us. No one to welcome us, to give a speech or an address; we had to go look for the catalogues and hesitated for forever before summing up the courage to approach the drinks table. More than an opening night, it felt like we had all decided to independently come and visit the exhibition at the same time – there was no sense of a structured, curated event. In the middle of the little white room, a man, smartly dressed in black, was casually handcuffed to a column. He shifted around from time to time, stretched his fingers. Behind a camera, one of the volunteers was taking a silent shot of the whole thing. We just kept surfing around him, looking and then quickly diverting our gaze as soon as he turned his head. Not a smile, not a word. We were aware of a man being in discomfort, both social and physical, yet what could we have done? How can you approach someone in that position, what sort of interaction can you have with a man that cannot escape from you? At least an hour passed before anyone approached him. The first was an elderly woman with a friendly smile, offered him a sip of her wine.
Afterwards, he was fairly busy; patrons would sheepishly go up to him and attempt a chat, a smile, interviewing him about his practice, the exhibition, that performance. A woman, slightly unsteady on her feet, loudly asked in strict Doric what that was all about. All those feelings – the unease, the failed expectation and the ensuing confusion, the heightened sense of awkwardness and the sudden awareness of the construction and convention of social interactions – were exactly what he intended to draw attention upon. When we summoned the courage to speak to him, he drew attention to another point: as the perpetrator of art, how could he comfortably chill with a glass of Prosecco when conflict and war were hung upon the walls around him?
The five pieces displayed either as video recordings or photography arrangements, are at the same time extremely topical and universal. The context of Miljanović’s work is the unsurpassed trauma of the Bosnian war, which he experienced as a child, and whose effects are still jarring in Balkan countries. Questions of military violence, national identity and culture bounce off the walls, particularly from the short films Do You Intend to Lie to Me (2011) and the premiering Sounds of Homeland (2018-19). The first film shows Miljanović’s former art professor, Veso Sovilj, being abruptly arrested, tied up to a chair and interrogated by an elite police unit. He is made to answer questions relating to his work as an artist and his involvement in the conflict. He affirms that he believes in art; but he hesitates on whether art is truthful. That is where the filming ends, and it is revealed that Miljanović had scripted and staged the abduction, without Sovilj’s knowledge. The work exposes the ruthless brutality of military practices in everyday life, and the disruptive echoes of the Bosnian war still resonating over twenty years later; it also raises questions of objectivity and truth in art.
Overall, the exhibition succeeds in giving a succinct but encompassing account of a significant contemporary artist. The source of his work lays hidden in the heart of the Balkans, but the questions and problems raised by it have a wider, pervasive resonance.