by Amy Bell
[photo by Jan Martens]
Sitting outside Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art watching the skaters practise their tricks, Croatian performance artist Siniša Labrović talked to me about normality, difference and how art changed his life.
Amy Bell: So this week you told us that you came from a very conservative background, that your home town in Croatia is famously conservative. And difference, rather than conformity seems very important to you, to who you are. How do you explain or do you try to explain your feeling of difference? Why do you feel the need to explore difference or to fight for difference?
Sinisa Labrovic: I believe that there is a point of ethics. So if somebody is different, that belongs to him or her and if he doesn’t hurt anyone with that difference, then that it should be like it is.
AB: But where did you find this idea?
SL: Art! This is the reason why I like art; because I didn’t understand many things in art and even now I don’t understand. It brings me to explore the things I do not understand and maybe I will not ever understand. So it will always be, you know, behind the curtain but I don’t have a problem with that. I will stare into that. I will try to… stare into that darkness and try to always have in my mind that there is something outside of me which I don’t understand but which I will try [to understand], even if I know that I will not, which is obvious. And then I will try again. I don’t know how else I will spend my life. Otherwise it would be really fucking boring, you know?
AB: Confronting the unknown or the darkness seems to be something that you’re really doing or that you’re really thinking about doing for this Performing Gender project, to confront things that you’re not very comfortable with in terms of your own sexuality or gender representation.
SL: Yes. At this point I have like three or four ideas which I will try to develop…
AB: But I was wondering whether you had ever really confronted gender or sexuality as an explicit subject before this project.
SL: No. I thought about it of course, intimately for sure. When you are growing up there are a lot of questions… you are not sure about who you are completely as a person. You know, you are like a butterfly [coming] out of some cocoon and then other people discover to you who you are. In their eyes you will see who you are in a way. It is a reflection thing, not narcissism, but a game of recognising. There are also, from the early years, secrets about gender, about sex, about different sex, same sex. Even if I am heterosexual, I believe every human being is always himself and even something more. So what is that something more? You know, what lies down there? This project allows me to confront this kind of combination of fears, fantasies, not… desires but maybe just questions: What is in that cloud of differences? How should I be if I perform like someone else? Who am I becoming? And I like exploring new things, to face my fears, my expectations and to reject a final definition of me. I mean everybody has this kind of ‘spine’ psychologically which goes along day by day and then sometimes it’s nice to move, to dance with that spine, to not be just straight and rigid. It’s also nice to be like a wave, to dance like a wave.
AB: It occurred to me maybe that in many ways this project is about the marginalised experience, it suggests the marginalised experience of other sexualities and other gender identities and in some ways, at least superficially, you represent the norm. You’re a white, straight man. But actually in this group you are the marginalised one because of these things. Everybody else involved is ‘other’ and you’re the ‘normal’ one and therefore in this context you become like a ‘new other’. Is that something you felt?
SL: (Laughing) I don’t want to be normal! I believe for everybody it was an amazing few days we spent [during Performing Gender] because it was a lot of joy and fun and so it was really nice to work and share these days and to really discover that normality can also be minority in a way.
[photo by Cecilia Moisio]
AB: You’re also the only non-dancer in this group of artists so how has that been for you? Does that make a difference to you? Does it give you something?
SL: At the first it was a little bit of an embarrassing situation and I feel, again, like I am without talent, without education on the subject. But then I am accustomed to this situation because I started outside of the visual [art] world and that was also an embarrassing situation. I am without talent for drawing, for making sculptures, making graphics, video or anything. So somehow I fight with this untalented me and then it becomes a little bit interesting and they accepted me as an equal and that was also really nice.
AB: Well in fact in the visual arts here in Croatia you are now very well known.
SL: Yeah. I have a kind of, what you might call, a reputation, but mainly in performance.
AB: And do you feel, because you do have a profile here and because you’re in your home context whereas the other three Performing Gender artists are perhaps not yet known at all here and are out of context, is there a different sense of urgency or passion… a different sense of pressure or responsibility about the project for you?
SL: For them the situation is more abstract so the starting point is more in the air let’s say. But I try to explore what I know, what I know very well. I was born here, I was raised here, I studied here, I lived here, I work here, so my life is spent in Croatia. So that’s one way, but then I challenge that knowledge and now I try to face that kind of knowledge and expectation even for myself. So this kind of project is really giving me this kind of a chance.
AB: And it seems that your work is very overtly political.
SL: Some pieces are political, yeah, but maybe I work more with social conscience. [There are pieces] which deal directly with politics, some titles directly name Croatian politicians let’s say. [But] even if I put them in the title I try always to make it wider, about mentality and the way Croatia is ruled, not just about some point of their political agenda. […] But society stays very close to what it was during the Communist period and I want to challenge this. Some things are even worse than during Communism.
AB: In what way?
SL: This mentality that people react very harshly to differences, very harshly. It’s kind of a feeling amongst some people that we are under siege almost. Because Communism produced this kind of feeling that enemies are everywhere around us and they will occupy us and they will attack us, it will start any minute. Then the war in the 1990s helped this kind of feeling to go on and even now when it could be a little bit more relaxed, the nationalist parties are working a lot on the feeling that we are under siege…
SL: Yeah. This paranoia is working quite [well] for them and for their purposes.
AB: So there was a point that came up the other day from Davor [Mišković, president of cultural association Drugo more] that was interesting to me. He felt like it’s not really possible to make a political statement, to be an activist in the museum, from within an institution. I wondered what you felt about this because your art has been in all sorts of different contexts but for this project you find yourself in a museum.
SL: As it comes to me I’m an artist so I don’t pretend that I’m an activist but the social issues and political issues are part of my life so I must… There is a tradition in Croatian art that artists respond to the social and political issues or they use that kind of language to expose something which politics is hiding or something which is taken as normal or natural and they invert the languages and strategies and tactics of politics. But […] we always come to the position that if you didn’t change everything, you didn’t change anything, which is silly. I mean we move step by step. So a few people come to the gallery or to the museum and if you, let’s say, produce some kind of rethinking of their position, or that they are questioning some ‘normalities’, what they usually think is natural, then you have already done something. […] So I believe in art otherwise I wouldn’t work on these kinds of things.
AB: You believe in art as a…
SL: I believe in art because it changed me. It changes me every day.
SL: Because I’m questioning myself, I’m not sure. Not to be sure, I believe that’s a very healthy position. It’s not an easy position, but if somebody doesn’t take things as ‘normal’ or ‘natural’ then he will not so easily take a knife or a gun and then attack someone who is different than he is. […] If people have this feeling that one day they are what they are, but then the next day they can be a little bit different then it comes to them that there are differences at work. Maybe one of the definitions of the human being is differences, that we are aware of difference and that we are a product of nature which developed these differences.
AB: Just to change the subject a little bit, I wanted to ask you about how you conceive of your work as a performer. Because I think in some ways it offers a contrast to what some of the other performers are doing.
SL: So let’s say, some of my performances are dealing with the social situation which is surrounding me and goes from [stopping] people from destroying the anti-fascist monuments to having a reality [TV] show with sheep, to licking the heels of the audience. So I have these performances in which the public, even if they don’t want [to], in the moment that they come to the gallery they become a part of the performance, not just somebody who is watching. They can’t avoid that they are also authors in a way, that they are in a way arranging, directing what will happen if they stay or if they go, how they stay. But if we speak about this project, […] until recently the gay population and the question of gender, there were strictly rules. How you should behave, who you are and how you should look at yourself in society in general and what is the, again, like normality, what is sickness and these kind of things. Now the situation becomes a little bit softer but it is still not easy. It’s for me, a question of my masculinity and my heterosexuality and what it is when you are dealing with this kind of differences. What is it if I establish [myself] as somebody different from myself in myself? It’s kind of challenging or changing or playing these kinds of differences and again responding to the social surrounding or social questions or religious questions.
AB: Yeah, because your work seems to me an interesting combination of very natural pedestrian gestures, sometimes of protest and a more slightly more representational way of doing things. You were saying earlier today, I think, that you were imagining what you might do in the performances next year as being a little bit like acting, but also just being very yourself in the space.
SL: Yeah, yeah. I mean playing is also part of it.
AB: You mean playing a role?
SL: Yeah playing a role. Like the actor dying, I don’t know, in the role of Hamlet on stage, is he dying personally or is he dying as Hamlet? In that moment, who is he? So it’s also this diversity and unity in the same moment. When you are staging somebody else, who are you? It’s not like acting as a lie, it’s like acting as a truth, or playing with the truth. So I will try to do something [where] this is not true but it is definitely not a lie. So you see what lies in between.
AB: But are you in some ways anxious that people might read some of these roles as actually you, confusing you for a role you play?
SL: I mean after the Second World War people staged some simple theatre texts about […] the Nazis and the anti-fascist or Communist rebellion. And those who played the role of Nazis very often they finished [by getting] beaten, even if they were rebels [in real life]. So it can happen. And from time to time, you know, gay people they finish [getting] beaten here. So I mean I must… let’s say, whatever happens, if I am beaten then I forgive them and that’s for sure that they beat the right person, they didn’t beat the wrong person. This does not mean that I will be [beaten] and anyway I am heterosexual. I am just saying that when I am staging this, if they beat me, for sure they will not beat the wrong person. You know, there is no, ‘No, no, no! I didn’t [do it] I’m just an actor!’. No,… I am making that statement. In that point, especially when they try to beat me, I hope I will have the courage to say, ‘Yes, I am and go fuck yourselves’.
Performing Gender, Zagreb, June 2013