Issue 1/2007 - Andere Modernen

An Ontologist Observes

A Belgrade retrospective provides the first opportunity to assess the entire oeuvre of Nesa Paripovic

Georg Schöllhammer

In the post-war history of European avant-garde theatre, Belgrade has, since the 1970s, been considered a canonic place – among other things because of the Bitef Festival, which, from 1967, has been one of the most important experimental fields of the international scene. The fact that the Serbian capital had developed an equally original production milieu for conceptual and post-conceptual art - the Student Culture Centre, founded in 1971 and associated with critics and curators like Jesa Denegri, Biljana Tomic and Bojana Pekic - is, on the other hand, only remembered vaguely by the art public, and that via the detour of the careers of exiled artists such as Marina Abramovic and Braco Dimitrijevic.
In the mid-1970s, Yugoslavia was a mecca of theatre, a laboratory of late modernist architecture, a point of crystallisation for unorthodox Marxism and one of the most internationally highly networked hotspots of avant-garde art in Europe.
That which is true of the context also applies to one of the most influential and independent figures of this milieu: Nesa Paripovic and his – number-wise - small oeuvre. Even today, he does not receive any great international attention. This could be changed by the first retrospective of Paripovic’s work, curated by Dejan Stetenovic and accompanied by a catalogue, which took place this winter in the Belgrade Museum of Modern Art. Paripovic’s gradual marginalisation may have to do with his flâneur-like attitude, his rejection of business aspects and his low production of works. But the Belgrade exhibition makes another reason for this late rediscovery seem plausible: Paripovic’s sceptical working method itself, opposed as it is to the rhetoric of conceptual and post-conceptual methods. Even as an art student at the academy, Paripovic had kept in view of the productions of the Bitef theatre festival and the philosophy of the Praxis Group, which, in contrast to the old familiar determinism, placed the focus of its theoretical work on the potential of »the human individual« that was to be creatively developed. At the start of the 1970s, he then began, within the sphere of influence of the Student Cultural Centre (SCC), to work on the deconstruction of the modernist concept of art in a loose group with Marina Abramovic, Era Milivojevic, Zoran Popovic, Rasa Todosjevic and Gergelj Urkom. This group had one of its initiatory experiences in 1973 at a festival in Edinburgh in the form of an encounter with Beuys, and fell apart shortly afterwards. Before this, Paripovic had already come into contact with the conceptualism of the Croat scene, established back in the 1960s, with the works of the Gorgona group, and with the cinematically performative works of Tomislav Gotovac at two mastercourses in Zagreb. And he had also had contact with his generation, the »Group of Six Authors« associated with Mladen Stilinovic, with Goran Trbuljak, Sanja Ivekovic and Dalibor Martinis. Even in his first exhibition after studying at the academy, Paripovic was motivated by the interest in observing himself when creating pictures and commenting on the medium of painting: in 1970, in a series of oil paintings that, in a formal regard, recall hard-edge painting, he commented on the unquestioned aporias of modernist painting, which was the secret state art of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Capturing the moment and the process of making a picture, the praxis of an existence predicated on art, of an everyday life that is defined in terms of making art, is Paripovic’s theme later as well.
It is the succinct, objectively observational, smilingly ironic tone that sets Paripovic’s work apart from neo-Dada, the expressive body-art experiments and the analytical-abstract and later also politically motivated work of the other group members. Paripovic counters their dogmatic, iconoclastic and object-denying conceptualism with the same scepticism recalling Wittgenstein’s famous dictum about the »owner of the visual room« - the owner who seems coessential with the visual room and yet experiences him/herself also as something outside, as an observer – that he feels with regard to conventional representational modes of painting. He is interested in the enigmatic elements of a kind of art that leaves the frame of the picture to reflect on the figure of »making art« itself. He does not produce; rather, he captures individual moments of this double figure.
Paripovic is the ontologist of the group. In a sublime way, with almost every work, he always indirectly attacks the strict paradigm of concept art, psychologises its idealised viewer constructions, reconstructs the deconstructed process of representation, the absent image: »Examples of Analytical Sculpture« is what he calls one photographic work from 1978. In it, he addresses one of the topoi of classical European art: the relationship »male artist – female model« and the hierarchical construction of gaze and desire that has become a motif in the female nude, as well as the fragmentation and dynamisation of this form in modernist sculpture. The gentle touching of the naked woman’s body with lips half-opened as if to speak – or to kiss or bite – retains this ambiguity between a linguistic-analytical and tactile paraphrase and a description of this sculptural – in two senses – nude.
Paripovic later plays again with the illusional spaces of meaning and graphic form in a series of prints from 1979, not without some ironic digs at conceptual art’s fetishism with regard to notation, language and text. This series also reflects the study of semiology and philosophy of language that are carried out in the »privatissima« of the post-conceptual group »143«, with which Paripovic now collaborates. In the 1980s and 1990s, painting, the production of pictures and the visual conditions that make up the concrete, the ideational and the illusional space of painting, and the preconditions of the painting process became Paripovic’s main themes.
There are three film works from the second half of the 1970s that paradigmatically reflect Paripovic’s manner of working. All three of them have titles identifying them as self-portraits: the first film of this series (»N.P. 1975«) is a meditation on the way the process of picture-making itself becomes a picture: Paripovic sits in front of the shabby wall of a room which the viewer can easily recognise as a kind of studio or an improvised darkroom. The image that the camera captures in a static shot shows his half-length portrait set into a bizarre Cartesian grid stretched out by a horizontal washing line with pegs in the background and a rope running vertically through the picture in the foreground. We see Paripovic moving his hands in an invisible activity; they appear only occasionally over the lower edge of the picture to bring into view an object such as a sheet of glass, a pointer or a piece of paper. Sometimes Paripovic turns from the producer’s point of view to that of the observer, turns his back on the views or briefly leaves the picture space, messing up the virtual coordinates and leaving behind the hanging rope, which swings like a pendulum, as the central event in the picture.
Two years later there followed »N.P. 1977«, Paripovic’s conceptual opus magnum. The plot is simple: in short sequences, the viewer follows the artist on a rapid walk through Belgrade: he climbs up steep embankments, clambers over fences, climbs over backyard walls, crosses paved squares, walks along barricades and strolls through park meadows, balances between roofs above the abyss, slinks along pressed against walls, hauls himself over balustrades, jumps from patios; on an imagined line from the edge of the city via the expanding peripheries, the urban remnants, into the expanding city, towards the centre and then out into the peripheries again. It would be simplistic to reduce this profound visual reflection on notation and time simply as a metaphor for the pieces of disused land and the modernist euphoria in the Belgrade of the 1970s, or to misunderstand Paripovic as a late Situationist derive.
In »N.P. 1978«, a film that is built up of four scenes, Paripovic sits for a portrait again centrally in front of the camera. The background is again flat, but this time it is a slightly crumpled screen – projection surface, curtain, backdrop, grounding for a painting. The first three scenes show cinematic topoi of the close-up, standard gestures of the independent cinema of the time, but alienated and reduced: the first shot is in extreme slow motion. Paripovic, whose face is painted with red make-up, puts a cigarette in his mouth. In scene two, this time with blue make-up, he lights the cigarette with a cigarette lighter. The shot is also taken in slow motion. The following picture shows Paripovic with a blackened face. He arranges his hair with both hands. The final sequence reverses the direction of view and is aimed at a mirror, which Paripovic holds into the picture with one hand. The mirror reflects the narcissistic ur-scene: the artist looking at himself in self-love. With Paripovic, this look is a look at the work itself and a negative act of painting: he wipes off the black from his face.


Translated by Timothy Jones


Nesa Paripovic
Postanjnje umetnoscu. Radovi 1970-2005 / Becoming Art. Works 1970-2005
Muzej savremene umenosti / Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade

11 November to 25 December 2006