The Outer Limits

Performative pictures of Tatjana Ilic, which she exhibits together with thermal photographs as her doctoral art work, present an outcome, consequence, performance trace, in other words, a performance result. The performance, which preceded them and whose part they are, consisted of the very act of “painting” a white canvas by pigeons’ wings in motion, which was controlled by the artist holding birds in her hands. In the course of the performance (performances) “thermo-visions” were created, as well as  photos taken with a special camera that, unlike the ordinary camera that captures the material, visible and tangible, records heat, or energy, beings and objects. Because of all the procedures listed here, the exhibition of Tatjana Ilic has a descriptive subtitle “Performative picture with birds in a thermo-visual photo-performance.” However, to understand performative pictures of Tatjana Ilic in a relevant context, it is not enough to expose the procedure by which they were created nor is it enough to categorize them under one name or to say that this is the result of the performance.

As complete art “objects,” performative pictures of Tatjana Ilic can be observed in the context of performance “completeness” and its materialization in a tactile form. In this regard one might question the very foundations on which originally performance art was based on, and that is precisely the overcoming of given forms of a work of art as a painting, sculpture, object …. Bearing in mind the way and the situation in which the performative pictures of Tatjana Ilic were created, that artistic act must be classified as a performance, while the materialization of that performance in the form of pictures, completed works of art, undermines, at first glance, the very foundations of performance art. Today, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, a performance certainly has a different meaning and consequences of those that were valid at the time when it appeared, and when it represented a kind of criticism and liberation from institutionalized forms of art. One of its core (or logically consequential) assumptions, related to its market dysfunction, certainly changed by the act of photographic documentation, framing, exhibiting, selling and collecting documentary materials as artifacts, justified by the assumption of a unique character of the performance and the authenticity of the moment of its creation. In this regard, thermal photographs of Tatjana Ilic, which record the energy of an artist, bird, and object-picture (rather than document an artist’s aura at a historical moment of a unique artistic act) and performative pictures of Tatjana Ilic, in its final outcome and its appearance paradoxically an acceptable market “object”, could be experienced as a kind of provocation of the “art system” which includes the market. As this example shows, at a time when art refracts between cultural institutions, markets, criticism, theory and curatorial interventions, it is risky to view performative pictures of Tatjana Ilic outside the only context that is really relevant for them, and that is continuity, mental and spiritual, of her artistic work and her understanding of art and position of art and artist in society.

On the one hand, artistic work of Tatjana Ilic is, starting with the first works done in the last decade of the previous century at the Academy in Belgrade and in Düsseldorf up to the performative pictures of the end of the current decade, was determined by the logic of understanding artistic creation as an ethical and socially responsible act. That logic, however, never meant engaging in daily politics or pure political activism, at least not in the areas of artistic creation. Often an activist, and there were plenty of opportunities to be an activist in Serbia in the 1990s, she did not equate life with her art, so her works, which often refer to political and social problems, never have a pamphlet-like character. For Tatjana Ilic art is always larger than life; it has a certain aura of liberty and ethics, presented by symbolic, mystical, ritual and meditative speech.

One of the first works of Tatjana Ilic was the work with bullets, done in 1993-94. The work was called “When metal harmony touches mental disharmony”. In fact, these were not bullets but shells, or bullets whose accumulated destructive power was already consumed (on someone, something) at the moment when they become a part of the artistic work. One of her first performances which establish continuity with the performative pictures done in synergy with birds was presented in 1995. It is the act of crying, that results in drawings on paper made by tears, framed in a concrete frame. This work was presented in Germany and it was shown at the Belgrade Student Cultural Centre the very same year, in a site-specific installation titled “Turbine for tears.” For Tatjana, tears, as well as bullets, or birds, are symbolic codes of (assumed) universal meaning. Bearing in mind the moment in which they are created, these tears can be understood as a controlled, meditative (as opposed to cathartic) lament over a more than personal understanding of the state of the world. The performance that she staged in 1999 at the Academy in Düsseldorf had a similar idea and symbolic power and was named “There …». The artist carried on her back a walnut tree, which had its root, but was uprooted from the earth to which it belongs.

The historical period in question is that of great drama on the Balkans, to which the artist responds by transposing a general prevailing sentiment in to an intuitive but also at the same time a controlled artistic language that talks about undermining the great metaphysical truths. However, she does not recognize this undermining only in life but in art itself: for her, art always had to be guided by the imperative of freedom and non-acceptance of compromise; speech (performative, artistic) about the current state of art, was and remains an ethical issue. Not only responsibility towards society and the social role of an artist and art is the issue, but also responsibility towards art itself. In 2003, Tatjana Ilic presented the performance named “Die Zeiten Rosige / Tempo della rosa” (Time of roses) at the European Institute for performance in Essen, and immediately afterwards in Italy. In contrast to the performance presented in Düsseldorf in 1998 when she “aimed” at the audience from an arc with sunflowers instead of arrows, this time there were instead artificially bred, hybrid roses; the artist squeezed them in her hands, standing in front of a white canvas. Following the moment when the roses made her hands bleed, she threw them in to the audience, raising and showing bloody hands in a pose which a German art historian Helga Meister compares with an “archaic scene shot.” After the throwing of roses was over, the artist imprinted a seal with the inscription the “Time of roses”, colored previously by the blood of her hand, on to the linen canvas that stood behind her. Afterwards, the seal was kept, and then preserved inside of a picture between two linen canvasses, with the inscription “Tempo della rosa.” It is yet another example of a performative picture, which shows continuity with her previous as well as subsequent works, that she only later articulated and explained by the theoretical term “performative pictures.” The roses that Tatjana Ilic threw in to the audience were not accidentally hybrid: this gesture was a moment of recognition and sharp criticism of the current state of art which she presents to the viewers, those that enjoy art and / or are consumers. Hybrid roses are a metaphor of such a state, which, as the artist says, dominates “in the time of hyper-production of events, situations, in time of distinctive affirmation of mass culture, doubts about conceptual and indicated, in time where complete knowledge, particular cognition, that refers to information that does not belong to the demands of mass culture and public places, is not possible.” Roses, bullets, tears, birds, have for Tatjana Ilic an almost archetypal meaning; in total doubt about the signified, the artist brings in to her work symbols which, even arbitrary, may be recognized as a universal and valid everywhere.

Concepts that Tatjana Ilic deals with in her art are more than personal, more than civilizational, more than life. Concepts that are not just words, somehow comply by themselves in to a consistent creative principle: energy, freedom, strength, courage, truth, risk, experiment, limit, memory, movement, flight … Her work does not allow at any moment banality, trivialization; what we have here is a conception of art as a sublime area of the human spirit, which is the only one capable to handle the meta-concepts, and the only one in which they survive. Thus, art can not deal with any type of thing, and can not disclose things in any obvious way. A paradigmatic example of this type of understanding of art is a work of art called “Crash” which she performed in 1999 in Belgrade. Two cars with tires oiled with black color, collided under her control on the surface of a white canvas. Rut, which exists as an intervention in one, essentially performative picture, is a document of that collision, but instead of the collision, there is a gap – as big as the distance between the wheels and the bumper at the time of the collision. The drama that occurred is not visible in the picture. Rut is like a trail of tears on paper, or bullet shells, or a trail of bird’s wings – performative picture, that which occurs at the moment when accumulated energy is being released or what remains after it is released.

All the mentioned situations are, citing Kounellis’ words about the work of Tatjana Ilic, situations on “the outer limits” and what defines them as such is the artist’s ability to control the situation of performing the work, which is particularly true for performative pictures with birds. These pictures are created in such a way that one can think that the performer believes in absolute control over the movement of a bird – pigeon, the high-flyer; at a certain moment the artistic act is, in some mystical way, identified with the flight of a bird. Surprisingly, the ritual makes a point – “thermal” photographs serve as “energy” proof of that agreement, (synergies) which is remote just as far from the control as much as from the accident, which the artist calls the method of “that which happens”. Tatjana Ilic showed the performative pictures created in synergy with birds for the first time in 2002 at the Vrsac Biennial of young artists, and thereafter at the exhibition “Good day Goya” in Belgrade in 2004, and the same year at a joint exhibition “Ten years of Concordius” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade.

Another action performance was conducted on “the outer limits”. The mentioned performance was performed in 2005 at the airport in Belgrade. “The limit” in this case was the custom crossing, which the artist tried to cross hiding a bird in her pocket. This performance, later – by forced opportunity –  materialized in the form of documents for initializing court proceedings, represented, according to Ilija Šoškić’s words in the catalogue for Tatjana Ilic’s exhibition at the Graphic Collective in Belgrade in 2007, “a discourse of civilizational importance,” which calls into question the meaning of limits, restriction of freedom as a fundamental artistic and environmental assumption. On the other hand, banalizing an artistic act in a bureaucratic procedure of initializing court proceedings (type of goods – birds; brand, serial number – finch, quantity – 1 piece) and then showing the violation/action documents in a exhibiting context, represents criticism and a metaphor – because otherwise it would not be an art work of Tatjana Ilic – of the general state of art at the current moment, primarily art understood as a commodity, art whose trends are dictated by the market, institution policies and art systems.

On one occasion Tatjana Ilic said that on a trend wave “art is not born, but instead her coulisse is born – an apparent absence of meaning, ideas, spirit.” Rejecting the idea that art is  managed by history and art theory institutions, criticism and curatorial practice, in local historic-artistic or current conditions, has brought Tatjana Ilic to a self-proclaimed (though not a self-imposed) margin. In such a situation, critical art that rejects conformity exists, not on a margin – because it is conciliatory and passive – but on the active margin, explained in the “Proclamation of the active margin,” and defined as “a free place which belongs to the artist who takes risks, and which is seen in a historical continuity.” In question is not, therefore, underground nor subversion, and even less issue of status of an artist, because many artists are on the “active margin”, as Tatjana Ilic, correspondents outside the local (Serbian) art system. In question is mapping a scene and detecting continuity that she, among other things, presented in the project “Frequencies” in 2006/2007, intended as a series of talks and exhibitions with artists, historians, philosophers, who are on the same “frequency”, or who work and create on the active margin.

Tatjana Ilic’s biographical details certainly do not indicate the position of the margin, if this concept would be viewed in its generally valid meaning. Tatjana Ilic belongs to a generation of Serbian artists who received their education at the Belgrade Art Academy in the 1990s. Beside the Belgrade Academy, she previously studied at the Academy in Rijeka, and later at the Academy in Düsseldorf, where she studied in the only class of Janis Kounellis, from whom in 1997 she received a masterly letter, equivalent to a master’s title. She participated in many important international exhibitions, together with the artists that defined and still define the artistic conditions in Europe and the world. We should mention the exhibition “Arte della Pace” in Bologna in 1998, as well as the exhibition held in 2004/05 at the gallery of the Academy in Florence on the occasion of celebrating five hundred years of Michelangelo’s David “Forme per il David / Forme a venire.“ Between 2004 and 2006 she was the initiator and member of the informal group “Faust manifesto.” In 2003 Tatjana Ilic was included in the Analytical map of the world’s performance “Performance-Art-Context” which was produced and published by the European Institute for performance in Essen, and the same year she became a member of the IKG (Internationales Künstler Gremium) from Cologne, and in 2007 and 2009 she was included in the referential “Kirchner’s lexicon of contemporary visual art” of the German publisher Saur. Her works are in collections Malksaten, Museum Polo in Florence, Gallery of the Academy of Art in Florence, Museum Schloss Bernrath in Düsseldorf, and other private collections and museums. Bearing in mind the here given information, on the outer limits, like everything else in her life and art, a situation is perceived that on the map of the local art scene in Serbia, primarily in historicizing related to art of the last decades of the previous century, the position of Tatjana Ilic has not yet been adequately perceived.

Finally, beyond the biographical and any other details, the consistency of “walking on a single wire,” on the outer limits, is shown through all the works of Tatjana Ilić that occurred between these previously mentioned: an explosion which occurred at the encounter between sweat and sodium; a tautological situation with a projection of a projector which projects itself and when it disappears the word “memory” remains; a gallery floor as a “hot place” that the artist warms with her bare feet; a walnut tree which she carried from Duesseldorf to plant it in Thessaloniki; a bird that she released from her mouth; a drip molding of her legs poured in a knife’s edge; feathers from a decorative pillow that she gave to the audience in the “Persian aria” in Cologne; an urban clochard Viktor Nenadovic whom she took with her to Florence in 2005 to be a live picture or sculpture on the gallery floor … Every step on Tatjana Ilic’s path represents an experiment, and risk. However, this is a path which has no diversion nor sideway, because she walks on it with confidence in to a solid, irrefutable stoutness of an always same creative principle. For Tatjana Ilic, this is the only possible path, uncompromising and piercing, as each of her artistic statements, whether it is an explosion, aria or delict.

Ivana Benović

Translated by Jelena Popovic