Revisiting the relics of Central European conceptualism

Parallel Actions," which brings news of a dozen daring Central European conceptualists at work in the 1960s and '70s, isn't a show that looks like much. But then, the work of our own early conceptual and body artists in those years (Vito Acconci and Laurie Anderson included) wasn't big on objects, artifacts, or visuals either. Here, the earliest interventions and actions were a way out from the gallery system. There, in a very different context, they transgressed repressive political realities. The modest black-and-white photo-documentations, grainy videos, and typed texts transcend a paucity of means, to offer revelations about some very advanced artistic thinking at the edge of and in the Eastern Bloc—parallel to, independent of, and sometimes in answer to new art in the West.

In mid-'60s Bratislava, Julius Koller did "anti-Happenings" and "anti-pictures" meant to engage the real world, while fellow Slovak Stano Filko did social Happenings, such as declaring the entire city a zone of artistic action for a week. In Ljubljana, the OHO group was doing early body art. In Vienna, Peter Weibel explored performance issues in photo works, and then "tele-actions" and closed-circuit videos; Valie Export delineated a geometry of gender; and Kurt Krens—filming a single frame for 50 days—anticipated structural film. In Belgrade, Rasa Todosijevic's body art followed a set of rules and Mladen Stilinovic explored the politics of powerlessness. In Zagreb, Goran Trbuljak's poster announced: "I do not wish to show anything new and original." An early conceptualist in New York issued a similar statement at about the same time.

Sanja Ivekovic: Triangle (1979)
photo: Courtesy Austrian Cultural Forum
Sanja Ivekovic: Triangle (1979)

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Parallel Actions
Austrian Cultural Forum
11 East 52nd Street
Through March 20

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But it's the two youngest artists whose interventions still seem freshest today. Jiri Kovanda, whose scripted stealth performances simulated unscripted life, simply locked eyes with unsuspecting people in Prague, grazed them in passing, or sprinted across the town square. And video artist Sanja Ivekovic performed Triangle alone on her Zagreb balcony: She read, drank whiskey, and pretended to masturbate at the moment Tito's motorcade passed by. The triangulation involved not only three offending actions but a policeman stationed on a nearby roof, who she knew would see her, and the officer he summoned, who rapidly arrived.

 
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