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Perfromance without the audience

Vladimir Nikolic in conversation with Sookyoung Huh (published by IASPIS, Stockholm 2016)


SH: How do you define your work initially and your main focus and interests?


VN: Well, that is kind of a blind spot for me. I never like defining my ‘main’ thing. Occasionally, my work is auto-reflective, meaning I liked to question my own art practice, motives, ambitions, and the role of an artist in general. That was a constant need to show awareness of the system inside which one is operating. Part of this reflectiveness, but in a wider context, is to use art history as a reference in some of my works. There are other subjects of course, non-art related, but I have never actually made more than one work/series on particular subject, so it’s difficult to talk about it as a field of interest.


SH: What (or who) were the main influences at the beginning of your career?


VN: Early conceptual art practices. It was a logical movement for me to address at the time. I was ready to challenge my traditional ideas about art and the artist, since I was trained as a painter at the art academy and always had an idea of becoming a painter. It was also easy for me to connect with the ideas of conceptual art, since Yugoslavia had a rich and important conceptual art scene. The artworks of the generation that emerged in the 70s probably had the biggest influence on me, even though there is no visible link to my work. The art of Neša Paripović, Raša Todosijević, Marina Abramović, Braco Dimitrijević, Goran Đorđević, Mladen Stilinović is still relevant to me.


SH: You’ve started with painting as a medium before moving on to the moving image, what does the choice of medium mean and what difference does it make to your practice?


VN: The medium is a way to document, to represent my intentions. A lot of my work is a performance, but without an audience. I never thought of myself as a performance artist, but looking back it is obvious that a lot of my works are actually performances. They are documented mostly in video format and in rare cases as photography. There are many reasons for this, the main one is probably that I am not able to do live performances, I don’t have the required energy and charisma for such a thing. But it is also because some performances require a single point of view in order to work, and the camera provides such a viewpoint.


SH: In the series Mirror, you have explored the relation between representation & reality. Also the delicacy of your work comes from this as well as the size of the mirror & timing of the happening. What was your main concern in creating this series?


VN: My interest here comes from a time when I started thinking that the nature of gaze is not likeness, but a visual construction produced by the brain. Years ago, I found out about bishop George Berkeley in the 17th century and his ideas about the way we see. He taught that immediate objects of seeing are only light and colours, that the eye itself doesn’t see shapes, depth (space), nor magnitude. Those things we learn to see with help from our sense of touch. So it appeared to me that perception is not a reflection of reality, which remains forever invisible, but an interpretation of it, shaped by our mind and body. In this interpretation, we are using categories like space, time, objects, but those could be our subjective categories projected onto the external world. Following this subject, I created a way of making images with small mirrors, that presents the idea of a gaze as an active production of reality. For example, in the work An Act in Space (2013), the characters in the picture (mirrors) are acting in the space that doesn’t belong to them – their movements are responding to the space that exists only in the gaze of the observer. To make it look like that, I had to project the geometry of the mirror’s virtual space onto the physical space where the short love drama is happening. During the act characters were moving inside the drawn lines on the ground, that marked the edges of the image located in a distant mirror. I found some cognitive science theories, stating that vision engages one third of our brain, billions of neurons, trillions of synapses and their purpose is not to make a snapshot of reality, but to create reality, in real time. However, the analogy between the camera and human vision is still very strong, and the reason for that is culture. This problem made me think about the concept of seeing in our contemporary environment.


SH: How do we see today, where most of what is see, is often delegeated via Internet?


VN: The most common reality today is the virtual space of internet area network, and volume of this reality is far bigger than the volume of our physical reality. The best way to illustrate it is to see YouTube statistics – 300 minutes are uploaded each minute. Based on the things noted previously, you could say that a gaze pointed at the physical world is actually a machine for reality production, made by our sensory apparatus and brain. But the modern gaze is an image produced by technology, it’s an end product. It started with the usage of the camera obscura in painting in 15th century, brilliantly discovered by David Hockney. It’s a moment in history when technology begins to organize the image of reality for us, taking perception from us, and today we are living the extreme mode of this process. Currently there are more than 2 billion people walking through life with a camera in their hand – that’s 2 billion Dziga Vertov’s. This camera is part of a device that is at the same time a mobile screen for image reproduction and a place to get in touch with a new reality, in a literary sense, since we are constantly touching it. Somehow my video works contain an unintentional analogy, because they create a situation where seeing is touching. But I was using only daylight and mirrors to discuss at what scale our perception of the physical world is virtual. Anyway, I am afraid technology is making us more and more blind, and the situation in which one has to touch everything he sees is not proving the opposite.


SH: Can you explain the background to your film “The First Murder”, and it’s history as well as how you made this work?


VN: The historical footage was filmed in 1934 in Marseille, and at the time it was distributed by Universal Newsreels as ‘the most amazing pictures ever made’. The film shows actual pictures of the assassination of the Yugoslav King Alexandar I Karađorđević, and it was the first time that a real murder was recorded by the media. We can only imagine how these images were perceived by an audience that didn’t face images of actual death on a daily basis, between commercial blocks, like we do in our media society. The main premise of the media world is that if something was not recorded by the camera, it didn’t happen. In that context, the footage from Marseille represents the first murder in the world of lens media. My idea was to reconstruct the images of the first murder at their place of origin. The original footage was recorded with several cameras, and I had to create a map of their locations on the site of the historical event. This was possible only because this site is almost the same today as it was in 1934. It is one of main boulevards in Marseille (La Canebière). So I took the first and last frame from each scene to analyse the angle that was covered by the camera, as well as buildings and other objects inside the frame. Google’s satellite image of this location made the reconstruction easier and more precise. With the map of the camera locations, angles and printed frames, I visited the ‘crime scene’ in Marseille, to find the exact spots where 1934’s cameraman/lens had to be to make that image. Then I spent 3 days recording from the same spots, waiting for details that could be linked with the content of the original footage. Later, in postproduction, I edited recorded material exactly in the same way as the historical film was edited, making the same cuts and timing. In the exhibition space there is a two channel video projection, in which two films are synchronised. I have to say I had great support from Yugoslav Kinoteka in Belgrade, where the original film stock is archived. They made a digital version for my project.


A few years later I come across Philip Steadman's book Vermeer's Camera. Steadman had sought out the camera in Vermeer's paintings. His main assumption was that Vermeer made all his interior paintings in the same room, so it can be claimed as the first photo studio. He analysed each painting, its angles, vanishing points, perspective, and made an illustration which reveals possible camera obscura spots in Vermeer’s room. It turns out that I was doing the same thing by searching for cameras that recorded ‘the most amazing pictures ever made’, as was claimed in 1934.

 

***

The Tree, the Inner Curator and the Legacy of Socialism

Interview with Vladimir Nikolic by Nikita Yingqian Cai (Times Museum, China 2014)
Proofread by: Simon Bishop


CYQ  I want to start the interview with something you didn’t get to realize at Times Museum: the first proposal developed from Painting (2009). Compared with the original piece, in which you are the individual artist, your proposal seemed to focus more on the collective experience. You used a phrase “mass performance”, related to the collective gymnastics in large scale public ceremonies in former socialist countries. What were the reasons to shift from the individual to the collective?


VN   Before I arrived here, I read some of your texts about the situation in China where a curator is very limited in using art history references. You wrote that it's quite difficult to use Duchamp as a reference, since there are very few who have even heard of him. This made me think what this reference means in Western cultures, where people know about Duchamp. Not much I would say. I think most of the people anywhere in the world accept things by process of repetition, by rituals. If something is exposed often and long enough, it will become a part of people's memory. That doesn't necessarily mean they understand it, especially when it comes to art. If you ask an average exhibition visitor there to explain the urinal piece, would you bet your money they could do it? I wouldn't. So, how does one put the "missing modernism" in Chinese collective memory? This is, of course, a rhetorical question, but the answer would be: by a process of repetition, rituals. Not by a process of understanding, if you want people to accept it. I wanted to make a collective performance, a ritual of making avant-garde motives, to bring up this question of how different values and ideas are accepted by people. The original piece Painting, 2009 just provided a stage, since all the scenography was already there. I meant to use it for a different point, not the one that exists in it. But the contrast between originality, the individual nature of modernism and collectivism that crossed in this “rhetorical” piece, came as a nice side effect. 

CYQ  Composing in the Painting Space is a participatory adaptation of your work Painting (2009). Nowadays, it becomes common practice for museums to develop participatory projects. Claire Bishop criticizes the relational illusions created in these kinds of activities and proposes something more antagonistic. Markus Miessen thinks “participation is a concept in need of urgent repair, and such forms of democracy, in which everyone has a right to say in the matter, should be avoided at all costs.” What do you think about it? Or let me put this in another way: by drawing reference from another of your works Land Art, what would be the point of argument between Mark and Q be? What does your inner curator say?


Mark: Relational aesthetics? Participatory art?

Q: Definitely. People become tired of being silent viewers of someone's subjectivity. The age of 'don't touch' artworks is over. The exhibition today is a territory for social, human interactions. Visitor becomes creator instead of viewer; the exchange becomes more democratic.  

Mark: That's mumbo jumbo democracy. Visitors will take part in it, but their participation will produce more facts about the artist and hosting institution than anything else. 

Q: No, the artist and institution are just creating an environment where these interactions will follow their own logic. That’s the beauty of it, exhibition space turned to laboratory; creation has been moved from the artist’s studio closer to the people. 

Mark: That sounds very nice Q. But I am not buying it. Everything is perfectly fine up to the moment you try to convince me that this participation is real, that it has the quality of a real human interactions and relations. Even in science labs they ask themselves how real experiments are. Is the thing they are observing true nature or their own creation, shaped by instruments, methodology and subjective decision about the main object of observation? It appears nobody is asking this question in art; it's simply enough to have the "participatory" label.  

Q: You don't understand; no art is trying to be objective. 

Mark: This one does! It assumes that the artist's work is producing real human interactions. But they are fake. If you enter a room full of people with a camera, they will not behave in the same way as the moment before. From that point, everyone will behave according to the fact that camera is in the room and that's precisly the spot where real interaction stops and Baroque painting begins. People who attend art exhibitions are fully aware they are in the public space, they are on air.  

Q: Nobody is inviting participants to be natural. We are looking at dislocation, decentralization of subjectivity, a mutual transfer that is able to produce relationships, new social structures, microtopias. Compare that with the static and vertical relationship between the viewer and private, self-contained symbolical space of an artwork. 

Mark: Rubbish. Participants are part of the artist's experiment, a tool, a brush; and the one that is not hiding that fact from them or the audience is a good one. 

CYQ  It is the first time you exhibit the Mirrors series in the occasion of “Open Studio”. You seem to be experimenting with the possible ways to display the works; what do you think of the experiment and its relationship to the context of Times Museum? Do you consider it successful? 

VN
   The general idea for displaying these works was to make projections as immaterial as possible. Looking for a solution, I found tracing paper. I was amazed after a few tests of rear projections on it. I have to say Times Museum turned out to be a site-specific place for displaying these works. The space of East Wing has transparent walls; it's a glass box, a bright exhibition space on a top floor with spectacular view. Since the tracing paper enabled video installations in daylight conditions, projected images interfered with the ‘live’ view through the glass, which all together made a situation that is hard to repeat anywhere else.  

CYQ   In "The Weak Universality", Boris Groys defines the "weak image" as "images with weak visibility, images that are necessarily, structurally overlooked when they function as components of strong images with a high level of visibility, such as images of classical art or mass culture."  Portrait of Filippo Riniolo can be seen as mimicking classical art, while The End of the World and An Act in Space might be associated with the kind of casual video clips that we take with our smart phones everyday. It seems that you have created a dialectic relationship between the weak and the strong in the same piece of work. Do you think Groys proposed a valid point of view?
 

VN   I find relations to my works in the part where Groys speaks about the radical change in the paradigm of mass culture between 20th and 21st century. He described earlier mass culture as a chosen few who produced content for millions of spectators. Today, millions are producing all sorts of content, which in a way stays invisible to a spectator because of its volume. I believe people don’t see images any more: they have become unaware of them, precisely because of their constant presence; there is no beginning and there is no end. The image itself becomes an interface. There is no tool, no computer language; the gap between the image and the spectator has disappeared, and images are with him at all times, and in all places, in his hand. Most of the people in the restaurant where I go for dinner every day are holding the screen in their hand while they eat. They have chopsticks in one hand, screen in another. They don’t look at the plate, the food falls from their mouth, but eyes are fixed on the screen. Why? Because there is no time to see it all. Not that people are busy, especially young ones, but they become trapped in a time dimension of those images, which operates under different laws following autonomous logic of technology. Every minute 100 hours of video material is uploaded on YouTube. Time compression is increasing, and that affects perception because people are now exposed to it constantly, rather than occasionally. Previously, one was exposed to time compression only in the darkness of cinema. Nowadays, our own time is being completely eaten by the time that belongs to images, like someone has locked the door of the cinema and no one is getting out, or even wanting to get out. On the other hand, internet services such as social networks have enabled absolute democracy of image and content production. But did finally everyone become artists, to go back on Groys, or Boys, or Warhol? Hardly, because this production is totally unified by the social network developers, by industry, by the media itself. Every network profile is canonic. Is it possible to shock the audience on a social network, to make some truly provocative act or anything outside of a frame imposed by network? This system is far more closed then any institution, gallery or earlier forms of public space. You could attack those easily.

But I missed the subject here, sorry. Speaking of my works, I was looking for a way to make images naïve again, to slow down time, to create a situation in which one can “feel” visual perception, almost touching it. When you are learning to speak, when you are unable to pronounce complete words, you feel torn, muscles and brain struggling to do it. But once you learn it, the voice apparatus hides and the content takes its place. So, Portrait of Filippo Riniolo is like a first step, learning to see; and after that I introduced content and started playing with seeing in An Act in Space and The End of The World.

CYQ  You mentioned the tree that you always climbed to the top in your childhood as the source of inspiration when considering how to display the Mirrors series. The action of the artist climbing up the tree also became the centre of the new piece (title to be confirmed) that is commissioned for the upcoming exhibition I curate at Times Museum; is it just an interesting coincidence? Does the tropical climate of Guangzhou somehow contribute to the association of a tree? Is the tree going to become part of the myth of the artist Vladimir Nikolic :) ?

VN   Well… I see now that I climbed up that tree again… it’s so obvious but I didn't see it until you brought it up now...

Looking from the top of the tree back then made me think that there is no landscape out there. The composition I am looking at doesn't exist outside of my brain, because this composition depends on my position in its space; it changes accordingly. So, there is only me and my images… Yes, the tropical Guangzhou climate forced me to use a tree in this work. I wasn't looking for one; I was looking for a different landscape. The tree appeared since there was nothing else but trees. But then I had to use it as a place of the artist's imaginary act. In this mental, virtual part of the work, I choose to climb up to the top but do nothing and only to look. The idea was to make a work which returns viewer to the his own gaze, his own content. As in the previous Land Art piece, there was no landscape but me; this time there is no artwork but viewer.

Talking about myths, two years ago, after a winter season, I went to my parent’s summer house as usual. It's the place where my tree was living. For years I wanted to climb it again, to make a photo of that landscape, but I always said to myself: next summer. This time I found it cut to the ground, there was no tree anymore. So there really is no landscape now. Maybe destiny sent me to Guangzhou to find another one; that is a nice myth.

CYQ  To continue the perspective of your answer of the last question: it seems that we're now in an age of “no artist” since "everybody is an artist". Do you think this is an emancipatory process? How do you perceive the conflicts between equality and quality?

VN   But I don’t see we are living in age of “no artist”. When I visit museums, galleries, art fairs, I see only professionals; they’re career builders. Even though the work itself is in the spirit of the non-professional, it will be accepted only if a professional does it. There is no one there outside the closed circle of the art world. You can be a star on the social network, TV, or on a street, but you will not enter art world unless a few people of significant influence (curators, gallerists or other artists – all professionals) unlock your work. I think the core system of art world has been the same from the beginning of the world, absolutely immune on historical specifities, industrial revolutions, technological progress, etc. A chosen few were commissioned to paint the walls of churches and a chosen few paint walls of museums and galleries today. I am not judging the art world, maybe I even like it that way; but frankly I never got it how, in a practical way, everybody is an artist? By participating in open-ended artworks? By the fact everybody is producing/sharing images now? By the idea that one who reads a book is actually writing it? These are all nice ideas, but far from the art world. As I see it, the notion of equality is the absolute opposite of the reality of the art world. I am not saying there is no art or artists outside of it, but as members of it, we are the last ones to speak about equality. Emancipatory process is another thing I see as very far from the idea of contemporary art. Take a look at this interview or most of the exhibitions out there; only an art world professional or over-educated person can follow it. They do not need to be emancipated.

CYQ  There is something similar between the art educational systems in Serbia and China, which can be taken as the common legacy of socialism. How does the gap between the artist that you were projected of becoming and the training that you obtained from the art academy in Belgrade affect your ideas and career as an artist? Can you talk a little bit about your educational experience in the Center for Contemporary Art in Belgrade? 

VN   There was no gap between my ideas about art and art academy training in the beginning. I have to explain this. I was very bad at school as a kid and the only things that interested me were drawing and collecting comics. Back then, art was about good drawing to me. I believed every single slide in comic books was an artwork. So, after 12 years of misery in elementary and high school, I entered the art academy, a school that appreciated the very thing I like to do - drawing! Back then, I was hoping art school would teach me how to draw and paint like those great masters from art history. We studied human anatomy, still nature, sculpture, printing - I was in heaven. I had a talent for those things and finally school respected me for what I do. I never got respect or support in school before! 

So, there was nothing wrong about art education from my perspective. However, by the 5th and final year of the academy, I realized I have nothing to say as a painter. The problem was I had no clue what else to try and nobody at the academy welcomed anything outside of the traditional media, which was for “the untalented” in their perception and it remained the same for the majority there. But even if I never painted after graduation, I feel I am often going back to painting in my works. Maybe I feel like I owe something to it, or to myself, because I spent so much time dreaming about becoming a painter.  

The Center for Contemporary Art in Belgrade came after I graduated from art academy. They seemed to have all the answers! Seriously, they talked about all the things that were ignored by the art academy. I knew something about it but here I really learned about the works of local contemporary artists and local art movements (and not just local, of course) that were relevant in the international art scene – these were precisely what had been excluded from the official art education system. It is important to emphasize that those cases were not excluded because of political or ideological reasons; actually that would be a better reason and it couldn’t have lasted forever. The thing is, education is in the hands of those who can’t go beyond a traditional understanding of art. It’s a story about mediocrity and that is the moment where the legacy of socialism becomes important. Mediocrity protects itself by denying any references alien to its local world and values. CCAB or Soros Art Center, for example, were the opposite of that. The problem was the fact they were funded from the outside, it wasn’t possible as genuine local initiative. During their existence, they couldn’t escape the context and agenda imposed by their foreign donors, and neither did they want to. Anyway, I felt I gained a lot from both educational experiences, no matter how completely different they were. 

 

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Interview with Vladimir Nikolić conducted by Maja Ciric for Flash Art International, November-December 2011.

MC: Where do you see yourself at “home” in the art world?

VN: “Home" is not still in my case, it moves. I am not devout to any subject and I don't have... lets call it signature in my work. I am mostly at the open space.

MC: However, you are most of the time challenging the art system, the one which is not solely connected to Serbia, your country of origin? It seems that you are one of those artists capable of crossing predictable geopoltical art world niches?

VN: Most of countries in the world have no art system, it exist only in few rich countries. So challenging the system puts you out of your local position. But the art system is not my main preoccupation, no, I just need to show from time to time that I am aware of it. The moment I do that, I feel the need to escape from that subject.

MC: Your "Voice Over" was shown in the exhibition The Power to Host that I curated at the ISCP in New York. These three videos deal with the studio situation, but it is an institutional critique. It resonated in the context of one of the most renowned International Residency Programs, both the residents and the general audience  were watching it all over again and laughed... What is it all about?

VN: Its about all those voices surrounding an artwork, interpretative apparatus, coming from different directions: art history, art theory, institution that hosts an artwork, critic, audience. I got an idea to materialize them in a form of a dialogue, performed by two actors (Mark and Mr.Q) , recorded, and put inside an artwork. So one can hear them, not just be aware of them. If one is aware. Its similar to audio guides in museums, only the voice from audio guide is informing about an artwork in front of you, and here the voice is discussing it. But all those voices are also mine voices. I am talking to myself, trying to interprate both an artwork and myself. So, Mr. Q and Q is for Curator, is not just any curator out there, its my inner curator, its me. I am not challenging the art system if at the same time I am not challenging an artist, myself.
In the first two videos, Performance and Installation, I recorded some simple activities in the studio, following aesthetics of the art from 70's. They are just a simple scenery. The meaning is constructed in the dialogue, in the text. The last video Painting, is mute, like a painting, there is no dialogue. I am 'performing' paintings in the studio, playing with the three dimensional video image as a two dimensional painting. This video is an attempt to escape from any subject in art, to escape to pure visual, to a pure painting. Of course, I am aware such pureness doesn't exist, that no image is outside of a certain context. But look at it this way - people also know that life is not a sandy beach and a sun, yet they pay a lot of money to go there and hide from life, shortly. Just like I am hiding in this last video under pure geometrical shapes and colors.
MC: A couple of your videos are already in the collections like Pompidou, FRAC, Berardo Collection etc.?

VN: Yes, I was lucky enough to see my works in some public and private collections. Despite the lack of a signature.

MC: The lack of the signature can be a particular signature.

VN: Probably, but hard to catch.

***

Dejan Sretenovic, "The Artist and His Demon", 2009
translated by Marko Mladenovic 

The term voice-over in film and television terminology denotes a production technique of overdubbing or live transmitting of voice whose source cannot be seen, like the narrators’ voices in a film or commentators of live television broadcasts. Marc and Q, who in the manner of sports TV commentators (Marc is the “reporter”, and Q the “expert”) comment on and interpret the artist’s behavior, appear as voice-overor acousmatic voices on three out of four channels of Nikolic’s multimedia (video, audio and photo) installation. On the first channel, we see an unattractive photograph of a mountain landscape covered with “live broadcast” of the artist’s action of removing the snow from the mountain, which produces a kind of “faulty communication” that confronts us with a dilemma what to trust: the picture, or the interpretative apparatus surrounding it? On the two adjoining video-projections, we see Nikolic, in a typical mise-en-scène of comportamentalist atelier video-performances from the seventies, repeating meaningless actions, while Marc and Q through discussion attempt to reach the meaning of using this historical mode of artistic expression in the context of contemporary art. Finally, on the fourth video-channel without sound, the artist, recorded from the bird’s eye view, enters and exits the frame carrying painted cardboard elements that he places above and around himself for several seconds, “making pictures” that associate with the painting of Malevich, Lissitzky, Arp…

Who, in fact, are Marc and Q, who in an impeccable (BBC) English language, in a relaxed atmosphere, but with intelligent and often humorous comments of good connoisseurs of art, discuss the artistic act? They are certainly fictitious persons that impersonalize the views of professionally interested viewers, but the very fact that the interpretation had been integrated into the production of the artwork, that is to say written into the structure of the picture before the picture was introduced to the public’s eyes, implies the question of agency of the acousmatic voices. In the case of sports commentators, this kind of question is not posed: they are authoritarian voices of the institution of television, integrated into the mediation process as informed witnesses of the event, the viewers familiarize with them on the basis of earlier experience, by which their “presence” during the reception of the event seems real and not spectral like it objectively is. On the other hand, Marc and Q could be the interlocutors of Nikolic’s soliloquy through which the artist, using the method of Cartesian doubt, puts his own intention on the test of meaning, and by this also the supposed public understanding of the work. In this regard, Boris Groys speaks of an “inner curator” who, like Socrates’ demon, doesn’t tell the artist what he should but what he shouldn’t do in order for his work to be adequately systemically accepted and valorized.1 This curator actually impersonalizes the authority of the institution of art, built into the artist’s psyche like a microchip that coordinates the relationship between private and public meaning, creative imagination and aesthetic paradigm, the old and the new in art. Being invisible and coming from nowhere, the voice of the inner curator, as any other acousmatic voice, has a certain mystical quality that is not a distinction of its material holder, but of the institutional authority that it represents and which, as such, is not an obstacle but a requirement of (artistic) subjectivation.

If we recall earlier Nikolic’s works like Rhythm (2001), which explores the mechanisms of ritual submission to religious authority, or Death Anniversary (2004), which deals with the authority of art tradition personified in the cult of Marcel Duchamp, we will see that cynical undermining of mystical qualities of the authorities is a constant preoccupation of this artist. Interpreting this second work, Branislav Dimitrijevic rightly noticed what generally characterizes Nikolic’s art, and that is an “indiscernible” unity of being both naïve and cynical subject,2 and so in the voice-over as well the artist appears as homo duplex – the one “playing” the naïve artistic subject and the one mocking his own calling through the acousmatic voices. But this double position has a special meaning here, having in mind that the artist literally repeats the expression forms of conceptual art (land-art, video-performance) that should have integrated the artistic into life practice, by eliminating the mediation of art institutions or, to be more precise, the “rule of commentators” on which the normative art system lies. Likewise, the video-performance as an explicit form of the “artist’s speech in the first person” has most directly manifested this utopian will for power: by way of “repeated everyday behavior” the artist establishes his individual language thus giving a statement about art (everything an artists does is art), by which he challenges the imposed professional competence in the art world. This is exactly what baffles Marc and Q, who wonder why Nikolic, by making an obvious reference to the seventies, does not give an explication or the key for understanding his act, which in the context of contemporary artistic practice seems meaningless to them, even stupid. Art has changed and the context has changed, concludes Q, the forms of expression used in the criticism of institutions have long since been musealized as the relicts from the past and their repetition must produce some new quality in order for them to come to life in the present. “To be present, art must look present”, states Groys, which means that it “mustn’t look like old, dead art” as presented in museums.3

On the fourth channel of the installation, the voices from “above” have been replaced by the silent view of the camera from “above” that follows the artist executing performance painting for it by way of manipulating the signs of modern painting. Unlike action painting that affirms the traces of artist’s lasting presence in the painting and thus heroizing the event of its coming to life, Nikolic hides under the painting in short time intervals, acting more like a demonstrator of abstract painting in some educational TV program that an artist in his studio. Only after watching this video does Nikolic’s intention become clear: if the art system by its whole constitution aims to make the artist its clerk, then a critical artist must first auto-reflexively bring this function into question in order to define his own speaking position. It’s not about whether the artist is for or against the institution, says Andrea Fraser in a well-known essay on institutional critique, but whether he has a consciousness of his own role in the perpetuation of its positions and which values he interiorizes through the work of his “inner curator” so he wouldn’t become a court jester that is expected to say what he wants and be rewarded for it. Therefore the cutting edge of Nikolic’s cynical intervention is not turned towards the institution but towards the artist-clerk, in other words towards his “correct false consciousness” (K. Marx) that, as demonstrated by the experience of conceptual art, even in the resistance toward the authority confirms the accuracy of the illusion that this authority can be disputed. The fact that the authoritarian voice on the fourth channel is left “with no comment” doesn’t mean that the artist liberated himself from his demon and that he now knows what to do in order to be an artist, but that he began to act as if he knew, and therefore what we see on the screen is nothing else but a Potemkin village or a theater of art. The repetition of conceptual forms of expression and appropriation of modern painting in the voice-over do not put to the test only the notions of new and diversity that Groys theorizes about, but establish historical relays for actual analyzing of the ambivalent status of the artist within art as both the subject and object of the production of aesthetic contents.


1 Boris Groys, “On the New”, in Art Power, The MIT Press, Cambridge-London, 2008, p. 28.

2 Branislav Dimitrijevic, “Attentive Observations, Situated Motivations and Displaced Inquiries”, in Situated Self, Confused, Compassionate and Conflictual (leaflet in Serbian), Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, 2005, p. 10.

3 Ibid.

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Interview with Vladimir Nikolić conducted by Emanuele Guidi on the occasion of his solo show in “nt art gallery” Bologna, April 2009.

Just to start… I´d like to pick up the first dialogue of Land Art where the person who seems to be a cast show host speaks about you (the artist in question) as an artist who produced his last piece in 2004. This was Death Anniversary, in which you employed a Montenegrin dirge singer to compose and sing a mourning song for Marcel Duchamp. With her, then, you travelled to Rouen, at Duchamp’s grave to honour him. After four years you produced a series of works where the legacy of a certain conceptual scene is still very strong. Nevertheless, I have the impression that those references are not the way to pay a tribute to those figures and art movements…

During the 1990s and little bit after, being an artist from Balkan meant mostly producing artworks about geopolitical reality, dealing with Communist past, transition, growing nationalisms, war, victims, question of guilt, etc. It also meant bringing exotic documents of anti-modernism, local traditions and weird customs, which were still possible to find in Balkan countries. All that was about local reality, in a rather realistic way. Art was secondary here. I guess it was a result of common Western stereotypes about the outside world, and subsequent response of artists from the Balkan/s who used the opportunity to create international carriers by feeding these stereotypes. So Death Anniversary is in a way a reconstruction of the situation in which one can find, at the same museum, both Mondrian’s paintings, Duchamp’s ready-mades, or minimal art pieces, and the work which tells about slaughtering lambs and chickens during religious feasts in some Balkan or Middle East country. This is like putting together wrong things in the wrong place, so in fact I tried to reconstruct that in Death Anniversary. How wrong can it be to pay a woman to cry on a grave of a person who made the epitaph: “Anyway, it’s always other people who die”? How wrong can it be to apply pre-modern ritual on a person who represents the most universal value and heritage of a modern art world? Dirge singer on Duchamp's grave is an ultimate contrast. As I see it, the same type of contrast occurs when you put into a Western museum or a gallery some contemporary Balkan Kunst.
But this is past, some other parts of the world are 'the Balkans' now, and finally we can talk about more general art problems, without this burden of geographical origin. In the new works the legacy of conceptual scene appeared mostly by accident in the beginning. At that time I had a lousy camcorder and video clips I made looked awful. So I set up my camcorder to record in black and white and the result was much better. I actually reveal this situation in the dialogue when Mark says: '...perhaps he couldn't afford a decent camera’. The image was still ugly, but this ugliness was historically accepted aesthetics - namely, no one questions the production quality of the art works from the 1970s. So, I was adjusting the art concept to a bad equipment conditions. I think it turned up well, because all dialogues are leading to the point where characters start fighting about contemporary art problems and I think it’s interesting to watch this arguing from the perspective of the past. Imagine two persons from the 1970s looking in the future, at today's art. I believe they would be disappointed, just as I am, and sometimes I feel like I belong more to the past. So maybe, after all, there could be some sort of paying respect to those figures and art movements in my works.

I understand your point and all your doubts about the Western interest in Balkan values and traditions at the end of the 1990s and later on. But it was a reaction of responding to the real urgency of the moment, the need to understand a quite complex situation that was filtered just through the news. I think that many artists have been able to respond in an extremely interesting way. Anyway, I can imagine that living it from inside is different and that the new generation of artists just had the need to go beyond topics such as identity, belonging, local and so on. One way or the other this situation affected your work and you reacted by producing a rather strong work – Death Anniversary. Which I do believe was, and still is, able to provide a critical discussion about the East-West relationship. The same thing seems to happen in recent works; from the moment of “crisis”, when you did not know how to proceed and which caused almost four year of pause (as revealed in Land Art), you have been able to generate your own aesthetics and plot a new narrative by revealing and staging all your doubts and questions.

There was more than enough time for these doubts to generate during the years of ''crisis'', if we may say so considering how long it took. It was more than a crisis. Anyway, since I didn’t produce any art, I was moved more to a position of a viewer. I did stop making art, but I didn't stop to be in touch with it. Being a viewer in contemporary art is not an easy task. The process of reading and understanding of an artwork is quite complex and demanding. There are lot of 'voices' inside, around and over an artwork, in different forms. There is an artist's voice, there is a viewer's voice which projects one’s own experience and content on an artwork, there is a voice of an institution where the piece is exhibited, a curator's voice, etc. The artwork communicates with all of them, whether you see or hear that or not. So my game was to take these voices and write a play for them. These plays are in the form of dialogues, which are integrated with artworks made only to serve as a stage for the dialogues.

So, the audio (namely all the discourses about contemporary art) has a sort of priority in relation to the video (the actions you staged)? Your main interest was to let all those questions and answers emerge, which sometimes are very general and to play with commonplaces and clichés, sometimes to focus on very specific issues. Can you say something more about the choice of arguments you decided to deal with and about this TV commentary you chose as a form of expression?

Exactly, the videos are just the scenery. Better to say - an excuse for the developing conversation in the videos. Everything started with the mountain piece, the first play. This work wasn't just a scenery. Everything you hear in the dialogue really happened. There is a video document of the whole action and this work was supposed to be a video in the first place, but I decided to leave the video out and to use a single photo instead. The next two videos are made just as scenery. I’ve chosen the form of a TV/Radio because I liked the idea of interrupting the usual atmosphere around the artwork in the gallery. The atmosphere that is usually full of seriousness, coldness, and silence. I guess I wanted to take the audience out of a gallery space and common perception of an artwork, but without leaving the gallery. Now, the choice of arguments... well, the dialogues are full of my favourite subjects. I am using those two characters to shoot out lot of my statements and opinions about art, art world, art market, and of course my own art. I never forget to be ironic and critical about myself, I think that's fair if you are criticizing others. That is why the conversation is floating between talking in general and being focused on something particular. But there is also a trivial reason for that – the text, the play is more interesting and amusing if there is a contrast now and then.

I appreciate the fact that you decided to hide the action on the mountain – although I have to admit when I saw the video I was quite impressed – and in this way to open up space for the audience. On the other hand, in Performance and Installation you decided to make visible something that is much less exciting, as testified by your bored attitude. Can you add something on this? 

'Hiding' the video wasn't easy for me. After all, to climb the mountain during two summers to find what I needed, and all that effort and action when I finally found it thrown away... believe me, it hurts. But that was one of the first things I learned from my professors when I studied art – you have to be able to delete, to erase what you made. Also, I preferred the situation in which it looks like I created with this dialogue a non-existing action around a single photography, than the video that is actually descriptive. It is less realistic and more imaginative this way. I wish I were just smart enough to decide that before I started mountaineering :). Anyway, with later videos I reduced these actions on simple, repetitive acts in the studio. Those videos are not exciting as you noticed, but I didn't want them to be. Their task is to put you back in time while talking about contemporary issues by using aesthetics of the 1970s. This time jump would be difficult if I used one single photography instead of video, the reference wouldn't be so clear and certain. But since the videos are so minimal and repetitive, you can take them almost as photography. Just like the last video, the forth one at the exhibition, you can take it as a painting.

Right, but Painting has no audio and the image becomes central. What about this narrative structure, which seems to overarch the whole show and delegates in this last video all the questions and answers to the audience?  

The third work, Installation, reaches the end of the arguments. At the end of the play, they come to a point of my personal confusion about art. I found that contemporary art became a boring activity trying to be part of main social agendas like democracy, tolerance, political correctness, feminism, human rights, minorities, and many other issues that bothers contemporary societies. Art is trying to find its role in all of it, by practicing activism and documentarism with very small artistic achievements in between. Referring so directly to all these issues, the art became so close to realism, neglecting its own nature and language. At the beginning of XX century, we saw how Russian avant-garde participated in creation of a new ideology, new society, being very engaged, even being part of propaganda. But at the same time, the whole new art was developed through these activities. Today, when Revolution is history, we still have great art, great paintings from that era and we can experience them as autonomous art pieces that exist without the original context in which they were created. So, if we look at today's art, I am afraid it serves both social structures - powerful and weak, leaving out an important part – the quality. Donald Judd said somewhere: 'Art is not about democracy, it’s about quality'. I couldn't agree more with that. If you ask me what is wrong with democracy – there is nothing wrong with it. But art shouldn't be about it. Democracy is about average, Market is about average. Despite the enthusiasm of Russian artists about the new society, the power structures replaced them with Social Realism when they realized that avant-garde art cannot serve to the working class. You cannot change society by art. Not even for an inch. Art never had power to change anything else but art. But then, I found this conclusion morally problematic, because it might mean turning your back to social and political problems by drawing circles and squares. It’s that famous statement: ‘to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’’. So, this is my confusion. When I come to idea for some politically engaged artwork, immediately I feel I’m wrong and want to make some 'pure' artwork, something 'poetic'. Then, when I think a bit longer about it, I feel guilty for neglecting my social and political being and my contribution to society. It is like a ping-pong game in my mind. The main line of the exhibition is drawn between these two positions - one that is full of self-questioning, questioning of a system, awareness, pro-active attitudes, all contained in the dialogues between Mark and Q, and the second one is just a need to produce pure art images, being just inside art, and I am literary doing it in the video – I am entering the image/painting, covering myself with colours, shapes, making myself two-dimensional (2D). The sad thing is that I still don't know which one of these two positions is an illusion.

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Jee-sook Beck, “Vladimir Nikolic”

a New Past, 2004 International Exhibition of Marronnier Art Center, South Korea, Seoul

“Vladimir Nikolic’s works have been drawing much international attention with its particular combination of brilliant humor and sharp concept. The artist selects the best traditional dirge singer in a rural village and motivates her to compose and sing a mourning song for Marcel Duchamp. They finally visit Duchamp’s grave at Rouen, and while the singer performs, the artist expresses his honor to the late great conceptual artist. Nikolic states that he wanted to juxtapose rural tradition of dirge in his country with modernistic heritage of art and play with common misconceptions rising in the West about local art community, its place and role on the international art scene. Rhythm clearly demonstrates a tension and struggle between innate organic human instinct and ideological constraint of behaviors.”

“Vladimir Nikolic is a young artist who grabbed the public's attention through satirical and humorous art works that used various socio-cultural semiotics of Belgrade in a number of international exhibitions. Autoportrait (2001) personifies abandoned vehicles through photography, and How to Become a Great Artist (2001) - joint-work with Vera Vecanski - offers the audience a cynical yet comical manual that lists traits of an artist necessary to succeed in Europe. Both works touches the topic that young Korean artists tackle frequently. In Trabant Residency Project (Vera Vecanski, Zolt Kovac) the artist confines his living quarter for 24 hours inside a Trabant, a common vehicle in East Germany prior to unification, before he enters an art gallery. This project questions the audience on the significance of the institution of art that runs across the two fields of culture and economy.

Nikolic's new work Death Anniversary aims to address the problems of tradition and artistic heritage in modern art. The artist studies the rural area in the Montenegro to find a traditional dirge singer: professional mourner in order to recruit 3 local Montenegrin woman prepared to sing a dirge for a noted conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp on his grave site in Rouen, France.

He first selects dirge singers from three Montenegrin villages of great reputation, then he explains the significance of Duchamp's work in order to choose the one that can compose a dirge that will reflect the artist's opinion on Duchamp's role in the 20th century art history. The chosen singer makes a trip to France with the artist to sing a mourning song, which was composed through a joint-effort of the singer and the artist, while Nikolic pays his respect for the dead. The project is also an experiment that attempts to break down the division between the rural area and cities, regional and international communities, local tradition and contemporary arts, and ordinary life and arts. It is true that the artist puts the spotlight on a local tradition at the verge of abandonment, yet he also shed the light on an ironic process of modem arts, which once declared independence from history and tradition, becoming a part of tradition themselves.

The artist's keen sight on the relationship between the tradition and contemporary arts and that between regional and global cultures is also expressed through Rhythm (2001). Five people are filmed standing on a stage while making the Christian Orthodox sign of the cross to the techno music beat. The film focuses on how the people's movements change with time. It clearly demonstrates the rhythmic tension of modern days that strives to break away from the ideological frame of religious behaviors. It also explains how ideology is made to remain in a person's body and conscience through physical practices.”

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Branko Dimitrijevic, “Attentive observations, situated motivations and displaced inquiries”

Situated Self: Confused, Compassionate and Conflictual, Art Museum Tennis Palace, Helsinki, Finland; Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, SCG, 2004

“…Firstly, let us take an example of the new video Death Anniversary by Vladimir Nikolic. His basic proposition for this work seems quite simple. He travels to mountainous areas of Montenegro, finds there one of those old women called "narikace" ("weepers"), who has retained the "profession" of mourning some deceased person by emotionally and dramatically chanting a dirge song about the tragedy of his death, about his troubled yet heroic life, celebrating his achievements yet pitying his destiny...

After finding her, he travels with her to a graveyard in Rouen, France, to the grave of Marcel Duchamp, the giant of 20th century art, the person who influenced many generation of neo-avantgarde, conceptual and post-conceptual artists. There she performs her chant with "lyrics" dedicated to this great man, with words which "came to her" or "possessed her" on the site. The work may be seen as "tongue in cheek", hence very duchampian. It is about respect, but it is also funny, it celebrates Duchamp, but it is also ironic. Clearly, it is about how one artist pays his tribute, and it is about a relationship fostered through art.

Yet, it may be inescapable that we expect interpretations which see in this work yet another funny tale about the infamous "clash of civilization": on the one hand, the most sophisticated of the modern artist-philosophers, on the other, the atavistic cultural symptom from the "Balkans". But in artistic terms it may be a new manifestation of a surrealist gesture, no longer a Bretonian encounter between unrelated objects, but a piece of "ethnographic surrealism", in Clifford's terms. It is about an experience of synthesis of diverse aspects of one's own specific cultural circumstances, approached with both cynicism and naïveté. Both of these words are disliked, yet are usually seen as opposites. The question is why should they be opposites when they appear simultaneously in contemporary culture? Cynicism is part of our cultural upbringing: it is very often the way we communicate without attempting to offend or to mock: being naive or being cynical, once presented as a cultural choice, become almost undifferentiated. Both open up empathetic desire for a proximate relation to some cultural situated ness.

The notion of empathy comes from our romantic legacy, but its is also generally confused with an act of altruism, it has become almost synonymous with offering condolences, i.e. with an act of ritualized empathy in which there is no room for the inner self.

It is like the Zizekian emblem of the Tibetan prayer wheel, which is praying on behalf of someone, or instead of someone: intimate beliefs and feelings, including compassion, may be transferred or delegated even to a "machine". Arranging the pre-modern ritual at the grave of Duchamp (with the famous inscription that "it is always the others who die"), the man who did not believe in life after death, in God, and who thought about death "as little as possible", is equally about transferring compassion to a very duchampian weeping-machine as it is about the sense of duchampian laughter-in-art that has become as ritualized as the performed mourning of the deceased.”

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Viana Conti, “Art. Mediterranean”

Medesign_forme del Mediterraneo, Palazzo Borsa, Genoa, 2004

“…The subliminal power of a ritual religious gesture, from the intimacy of the subjective dimension passes to the body through a sequence of repeated gestures, as displayed in the video installation Rhythm (2001) by Vladimir Nikolic (1974, Belgrade), where the Christian-orthodox sign of the cross, rhythmically repeated by five youths with a contrasting techno music background, activates in the viewers such an unexpected mystic power, intense emotion and enthusiasm that forces us to think how strong are our religious roots, even if unconsciously. Nikolic participated also in the exhibition curated by Harald Szeeman: The Balkans. A Crossroad to the Future.

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Jelena Vesic, “Art does not tolerate sentimentality”

Praesens, Central European contemporary art review

"Art does not tolerate sentimentality. An artist must always take an active attitude towards his own an, confront it, analyze it and be heartless towards it. The gravitational centre of the human body is located 10 cm below the navel. By concentrating the art in that point, the artist becomes steadfast and immovable. Nobody can move him from the art scene anymore."

These sentences, statements, advice or absurd attitudes belong to the video, How to Become a Great Artist, a joint project by Vera Vecanski and Vladimir Nikolic. As protagonists of this video sketch, they parody the profile of a great (internationally famous) artist, taking into consideration a number of attributes that the public and the art system perceive under this construct. The storyline follows the meeting between a student of fine arts (Vera Vecanski), and a person who poses as a "great artist" (Vladimir Nikolic). She is naive, sentimental and draws; he is undoubtedly successful, self-confident, speaks English well, and is ultimately convinced that his teaching of the mystical skills of "great art" must be successful.

It is obvious that she will become a great artist only if she abandons the role of lonely painter or academy student as such, and when she finally realizes that documentation, media coverage and a good relationship with the critics are the formula for success. But, as in every good sketch or bad drama, this one too has an open ending, and the viewer does not get the outcome of the story, especially the viewer who missed "the new episode", or the new exhibition of this artist.