MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART, BELGRADE, JUNE 22 - SEPTEMBER 29, 2013
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade recently presented the exhibition Cinema by Other Means at the Čolaković Gallery, their off-site exhibition space. The gallery is named after Rodoljub Čolaković, a high-ranking party functionary in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and a man of letters. Čolaković wrote the book House of Lament in 1941 under the pen name Rudi R. Bosamac. This book was banned by the royalist authorities in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia for its socially critical views and exposé on the situation of political prisoners. Čolaković himself spent more than a decade in prison for his involvement with an extreme left-wing group that engineered the assassination of the Yugoslav interior minister in 1921. (More on that later.)
Cinema by Other Means was curated by Dejan Sretenović as an adaptation of the book of the same name written by the film theoretician Pavle Levi (Oxford University Press, 2012). Levi's book is a pioneering investigation into the history of extra-cinematic practices that in some ways "adapt" and inflect the mode, experience, and ideology of cinema into radical forms of multidisciplinary artistic expression. A significant portion of Levi's book focuses on Yugoslav avant-gardists, introducing their unique and under-appreciated work. Sretenović's exhibition follows suit, presenting this dynamic work (some of it from the museum's own collection) and recontextualizing it in the spirit of cinema.
Levi locates the earliest traces of a cinema by other means in the diverse avant-garde movements that flowered in Yugoslavia in the 1920s and 1930s. These works occupied the first floor of the gallery and consisted of photographs, poems, collages, assemblages, and more. Avant-garde artistic movements were abundant in interwar Yugoslavia. There was Zenitism, Hypnism, Cosmism, in addition to local versions of Dadaism, Futurism, Constructivism, and Surrealism. These artists experimented in a number of mediums with a number of subjects, and the wager that Levi (and Sretenović) makes is that much of their work can be seen as a modulation on the theme of cinema. Indeed many of these artists were cinephiles, some of them such as Boško Tokin and Dragan Aleksić even belonged to ciné-clubs and attempted to make films within the traditional format and creative boundaries of the apparatus. Many of them also wrote film criticism, which can be grouped under the liberal heading of "cinema by other means," or better yet as "paper movies," theorized by Branko Vučićević as filmic exercises carried out on paper and other non-filmic formats. Tokin is, perhaps, the best example, as he edited the journal Film, signed his work with the pen name "Filmus," and is widely considered to be the first film aesthetician in Yugoslavia.
Aleksandar Vučo is another interesting example. Like many early surrealists he was drawn to communist ideals and eventually fought with the Yugoslav Partisans in the struggle against fascism during the Second World War. As a result, those who served in this manner found themselves with privileged positions after the socialist republic was formed – the closer you were to Josip Broz Tito, leader of the Yugoslav Partisans and later "President for Life" of the republic, the higher your political position was likely to be. These surrealists, like Rodoljub Čolaković, often came into conflict with the authorities because of their radical political views and acts of insurrection. Indeed the communist party and all communist activity were eventually banned in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Also like Čolaković after the war, Vučo became a party functionary. He was given the position of head of the nascent Committee for Cinematography, which perhaps consummates the idea that his surrealist art was cinema by other means all along. From Marx (whom Čolaković translated into Serbian) we know that history repeats itself; therefore it is not ironic that radical interwar surrealists became postwar dogmatic bureaucrats, even coming into conflict with a new generation of radical artists practicing modern extensions of cinema by other means in the 1960s and 1970s.
Vučo's and Dušan Matić's The Frenzied Marble (1930) was on display in the first floor gallery. This assemblage is composed of three wood panels featuring sundry objects such as newspaper cut-outs, straw, a fishing spool, and other bric-a-brac of all types. "Frenzied" is definitely the organizing aesthetic here, even if no marble is present in the piece. The assemblage defies meaning with its radical randomness, though Levi sees a simulacrum of a filmstrip in its framed, three-panel, quasi-sequential structure. Indeed, he even sees a film reel in the fishing spool, which is just as rational (or irrational) an explanation for this object as any. There is a great deal of raw dynamism in this work, but is there kinetic movement or movement-images, as Gilles Deleuze would say, that would signify the cinematic. Perhaps, but cinema by other means is not predicated on signifying the cinema in direct ways.
Cinema by other means becomes more purposefully engaged with moving-image art (and the materials that constitute it) on the second floor of the exhibition. Here, viewers were confronted with the work of the postwar generation, many of whom had a much more direct connection with the craft and art of filmmaking. The avant-garde work of Slobodan Šijan, who in the 1980s became a successful feature-film director in Yugoslavia, provides powerful resonance with this idea of cinema by other means. On view was his Bag Film (1974), a colorful drawing of storyboard panels, filmstrips, and short descriptions executed on the very shipping envelope used to transport film stock. Not that the material of film is a canvas here, but rather the raw industrial materials that enable and sustain the film apparatus. Šijan's idea actualizes a dream of participating in the filmmaking process at a time when he had limited resources and opportunities to do so. This ciné-desire is a key component of Šijan's plastic art and also the idea of cinema by other means. Šijan's work is a "paper movie," as the film critic and theorist Vučićević described it in his book of the same name (Belgrade-Zagreb: Arkzin & B 92, 1998), which precedes and influences Levi's notion of cinema by other means.
As previously mentioned, film criticism can also be described as "paper movies" – particularly if one ascribes to Jean-Luc Godard's notion that there is only a quantitative versus a qualitative difference between making films and writing criticism. Indeed, Godard is represented in the exhibition with his video/film Here and Elsewhere (1976), which he co-created with both Jean-Pierre Gorin and Anne-Marie Miéville. This work seems to have a tenuous connection to the idea of cinema by other means, and perhaps here Sretenović could have departed from Levi's schematic. Godard and Gorin's Letter to Jane (1972) offers a more promising attempt at approaching cinema through alternate means, in this case photography. Godard's installation Voyage(s) en Utopie (2006) would also make for a relevant inquiry in this context, with its expressive commentary on and visualization of the "cinefication" of everyday life.
In returning to Šijan, let us also consider his Film Leaflets (1976-1979), which were included in the exhibition and which he describes as fanzines. These leaflets are handmade one-sheets that were printed and distributed in limited quantities by the artist, featuring everything from reprints of Hollywood publicity images, top ten lists, photographic experiments, and abstract patterns representing the visual and narrative rhythms of certain classical directors (John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock). Exhibited together, the forty-three leaflets form a multifaceted collage with a frenzied randomness and spontaneity that evokes both Vučo's and Matić's earlier work.
Šijan produced these paper movies after he finished his film education at the Academy of Theater, Film, Radio and Television in Belgrade and before he embarked on his feature-film directing career. The leaflets filled a void in his professional life and functioned as an outlet when no opportunities to make actual films presented themselves. This blockade in front of his career aspirations was erected as a result of the official counterattack mounted by conservative party functionaries against the so-called radical Yugoslav "Black Wave," which affected many students and professors at the national film academy, including Šijan's friend and colleague Tomislav Gotovac, also presented in the exhibition. It is interesting to consider that many students at the academy, as a result of necessity and want, were not able to produce thesis films; instead, they had to defend scripts and storyboards as finished cinematic works. As such, paper movies were a pedagogical concern (in support of this concern, it is interesting to note that the surrealist Dušan Matić was appointed to the position of dean of the academy from 1953-1959).
Another wonderful example of cinema by other means included in the exhibition is the Fat Film (1984) by Miroslav Bata Petrović. Here, the artist works with celluloid as primary material. Fragments of 8mm film are pasted onto a larger 16mm filmstrip in an effort to create a very materialist, expanded cinema, or an excess of cinema. The terms of this excess become an avant-garde equation and the film itself can either be looked at as a unique objet d'art or projected as a radical experiment – if a projector exists that can handle the fattened film. Of course, direct manipulation of the filmstrip is nothing new, and the exhibition includes a film by Davorin Marc titled Bite Me Already (1977-1988), in which he bites the strip and leaves teeth marks as projectable traces – not unlike Man Ray's rayographs in Return to Reason (1923), projected onto the first floor of the gallery.
The films on display are re-imaginations of the cinematic experience and a much welcome anchoring point in an exhibition filled with proto-cinematic and extra-cinematic endeavors. Representing what can be called an anti-cinematic effort is Mihovil Pansini's K3, or Clear Sky without Clouds (1963), which was part of the anti-film movement that he initiated within Zagreb Ciné-club in the early 1960s. Pansini's film featured a blank frame with colored filters placed in front of the projector in sequence. There is a live, performative element to this film that cannot be duplicated, unlike most artistic experiences of cinema. Anti-film was designed to be an extreme rejection of all traditionally held cinematic values, including values of an avant-garde nature. In this sense, cinema by other means is not an extension of traditional cinema but rather a usurping or subversion of the medium.
Zlatko Hajdler's Kariokinesis (1965) was made as a satire on the principles of anti-film. Hajdler originally performed this cinematic piece at the Genre Experimental Film Festival in Zagreb. He slowed down the filmstrip passing through the projector until the heat from the lamp caused the celluloid to spontaneously combust and incinerate itself, which was then projected onto the screen as an act of destruction. This is another performance piece that erases all traces of cinema and, as such, this particular film is lost to time, as the original experiment can never be recovered (but only repeated under different conditions). Like Pansini's work, the exhibition features a reconstruction of Hajdler's experiment. In Kariokinesis, there is an inherent comment on the transient nature of cinema as well as a foreshadowing of the eventual demise of the filmstrip as a mode of expression and a canvas for artistic intervention. Kariokinesis obliterates notions of its own existence as a work of art. This most drastic rejection – part hoax, part existential statement – won a prize at the festival. Perhaps it was recognized that anti-film could go no further.
The exhibition Cinema by Other Means is well structured and manages to give both a broad and deep exploration of avant-garde tendencies across the twentieth century in Yugoslavia. However, it should be noted that the exhibition was presented without any of the written materials translated into English or another major European language. Perhaps the museum was not expecting any visitors from beyond national borders, which would be a shame, because these intriguing works and the theoretical construct that unites them deserve to be well known. It is also unfortunate that the museum did not have the means to publish a catalogue. Instead, the museum financed the translation of Levi's book into Serbian and let that stand as the primary text dedicated to the exhibition. Of course, even if an act of adaptation, a curated exhibition is a unique creative offering in its own right. As such, it would have been great to have a curator's statement beyond the short explication of the book that was posted on the wall of the museum entrance.
The concern with the collapsing space between art galleries and museums on one side, and cinema exhibition halls on the other, has been a crucial topic of late. It is tempting to see Cinema by Other Means as an incursion into this debate. In a panel discussion at this year's Oberhausen International Short Film Festival titled What was cinema?, the film historian Thomas Elsaesser remarked that museums and galleries have staged a "hostile takeover" of cinema and film history (as reported by Dan Kidner on the Frieze blog.) Cinema by Other Means strikes back with seeds that were planted long ago as an artistic coup d'état, and which are now blossoming in abundance at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade.