by Amy Bell
photos by Elisa D’Errico
Vlasta Delimar is a Croatian performance artist renowned for bold and very personal acts of performance, often centred on her own naked body. After 35 years of making work, this year she is preparing for a retrospective in Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art. At Il Cassero, the home of Bologna’s Arcigay organisation and the Gender Bender festival, she spoke with me about rejecting feminism, scrapes with the authorities and the importance of being an individual.
Amy Bell: You’ve been working for many years with the body, with gender, with womanhood. Do you think there’s anything new or anything left to say on these topics?
Vlasta Delimar: For me it’s not new, only new people […] When I started my artistic life more than 30 years ago I had a lot of lesbian and gay friends and we never talked who is lesbian, who is gay… We had a very good relationship between us in that community but we never talked about that because it wasn’t necessary. It was very normal. I am not lesbian, I am not gay, I’m not a feminist… I am only a person. And we were looking at everyone like this. In the last years it’s very fashionable to talk about gender and for me it’s too much.
AB: Too much what?
VD: Too much talking…
AB: Too abstract, or too cerebral you mean?
VD: Yesterday one guy at MIT [Movimento Identità Transessuale – Transexual Identity Movement] said [something] very good, it’s a very good Italian word ‘casino’ or we have in Croatian ‘kazino’ [a mess]. You know at one moment you don’t know who is who.
AB: You mean the guy who had this situation where he was female-to-male and his lover was male-to-female and he was saying that, at a point, labels of gender or orientation are not useful, it’s just people. He said, ‘I am just Christian’.
VD: Yeah, otherwise you don’t know who you are. I always said, ‘I am Vlasta. I was born a woman, I have a vagina, boobies, I love men, I have two marriages and I have one daughter, but I am a person and what’s important for me is to be a good person.’ It’s very simple!
[photo by Marcella Loconte]
AB: The tagline to your retrospective is, ‘A woman is a woman is a woman’ in homage to Gertrude Stein’s ‘A rose is a rose is a rose’, which maybe goes back to Shakespeare’s ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’. This idea is maybe similar to what you said about Christian, that it doesn’t matter what the name, the word or the idea is; the thing itself is essential. And I find that in your work as well it’s just you, your body, the essential, the real thing, and it doesn’t matter what you call it in big abstract terms. I find this maybe moves against a lot of postmodern thought which is that there’s no such thing as an essential ‘you’ or ‘me’, that every time that we present ourselves in work or in life, we create ourselves in a way, a kind of Cindy Sherman effect. How do you feel about that?
VD: But you must create yourself everyday when you wake up.
AB: Yes, but at the same time I perceive from your work an idea that there is an essential core of you, an existing thing that always is the same. There seems to be a tension between these two.
VD: No. I am. But every person must create themselves every day because every second maybe I can be a better person. Not like praying, but you must think about yourself, what you did yesterday and what was wrong. Today maybe you can correct this to make it better.
AB: It’s very optimistic.
VD: Yeah, I am very optimistic!
AB: Somehow this is very visible in you, that you are an optimistic person.
VD: Yes [laughing].
AB: Yesterday we took a tour of the MAMbo [Bologna Museum of Modern Art] and we were invited to pick one artwork that might instigate something towards next year’s performance. I wondered if that’s an unusual process for you, to start by taking inspiration from anther artist’s work or whether you always begin a piece from inside yourself.
VD: Well, my work is like my diary, like my own biography and everything is from my real life including everything around me, everything. And if I recognise something of me [in another work] I will accept it and make something from that. If I recognise something and if it touches me. I must have a strong feeling between that [thing] and me. When I choose a work it doesn’t matter to me the name [of the artist], only what I see and what I am feeling.
AB: Does that include experiences or ideas that are very far from you or different to you? For example we were speaking last night with people from MIT, the transgender organisation, and I wondered whether it is inspiring to you to listen to people’s experiences different to your own.
VD: Yeah, I like difference. It’s very good to be in difference and difference is very healthy!
AB: Of course. But I wonder, since your work is so personal and also so personal to your body, how do you incorporate such difference in your work?
VD: Difference is part of life. My work is very personal but any difference is welcome and if I recognise something it’s very good for me.
AB: Does that mean that you ever perform or stage something that seems like a representation of something ‘other’? It seems to me that you’re always you in your work.
VD: Yes, always me!
AB: So how can you also be different?
VD: People see differently, and maybe every work is different. It’s me but every work is different. I don’t have only one idea! It’s me with a lot of ideas.
AB: Different versions of you? Or you differently through time?
VD: Different versions of me because we are not only one thing we have inside, we are many things.
AB: And in some ways maybe your work can expose what those many things can be. Often I think people might feel themselves fixed in one way of being and it seems you are trying to open that up.
VD: I am open and I like many ways. I can except everything.
AB: Well but you don’t accept feminism, for example.
VD: No, because I think that feminism is an ideology. I don’t want to be part of any ideology.
AB: But can’t you relate with an ideology in your own way? You’re not interested in that?
VD: I don’t want to be in any group.
AB: Why not?
VD: Because you must work alone and have your own opinion. Not the opinion of people around you. You must be yourself and think with your mind, with your head.
AB: I agree, but it’s still interesting for me to have a conversation with other people, to grow my opinions through interacting with a group.
VD: Well, yes conversation is very good. I would like to hear what people think.
AB: I was reading about one of your early works, An Attempt of Identification and I wondered whether your work is a continued attempt at self-identification. Do you notice looking back, since now you make your retrospective, that you see a development of yourself, your thoughts?
VD: Yes, I am stronger and stronger and now I am very mature. Years ago I was very naive and I was thinking that art is something very special, that artists cannot be evil, bad people or corrupted. I was thinking that artists must be very romantic and very poetic.
AB: And do you still feel that now?
VD: Yes, well I see that it’s not true but it’s my wish! Many artists are working for their survival, for money and it’s not good. They make many compromises.
AB: And you never compromise?
VD: No. Maybe today I will not eat but I must be very strict, I must be very fair to myself and not make compromises. I never make compromises. Never.
[What do you see? This is the game
Sketch by Cristina Portolano]
AB: I read that about your Walkthrough as Lady Godiva where you rode a horse naked through the streets of Zagreb. You said it was important that there was the risk of being arrested for being publically naked. If there had not been that risk then there was no point, right? You didn’t want to compromise on that.
VD: No, no. It’s very important to say that it’s very natural and normal to show my naked body. I haven’t got problems with that but I was lucky. The police didn’t arrest me because that day there was a very big event in the middle of the city and all policemen were there. I didn’t know that. They came the next day to arrest me at my home but I had to perform in another city [so I wasn’t at home]. But I have been in court and I was fined a small amount. […] Many people told me, ‘Oh, you must invite journalists’ but I didn’t want to, I don’t want the glamour and a lot of attention. I finished my performance and that’s it.
AB: Then how do you feel about something like Pussy Riot? They certainly used the press attention for their cause.
VD: Oh, they are great. Their action, their songs, their courage… it’s very close to me. But it’s traditional in Russia to arrest artists. It’s very ugly, but it’s their society.
AB: Lastly, thinking back to the different versions of yourself, do you ever think about recreating an old performance now, with the body and thoughts you have now?
VD: In general no, because I think performance is that moment. Sometimes you can repeat but every time it’s different. But I have one piece, Tactile Communication, which I made with my partner [the late Željko Jerman] in 1981. When I was in Japan 25 years later I said, ‘Ok, I will make that performance to see what it is’. And I made it in Kyoto. It was wonderful. In that performance I am touching people. Some people wanted to be touched, some people didn’t like it. It was amazing. A few women cried. One young woman cried so much I was embracing her and we stayed a few minutes and she was crying stronger and stronger. I don’t know why but it was so strong, so surprising.
AB: Maybe it’s something not to explain it’s just in the ‘tactile communication’ between people rather than in words.
VD: Maybe [people] miss touch today. [There are] only phones, emails, computers and no touching, so maybe they miss that. I don’t know. I think that they miss that because what does it mean, a lot of conversations by phone? It’s missing physical interaction. After that I say ok now I will do [Tactile Communication] in Zagreb after 30 years and it was also amazing, powerful, very powerful.
AB: And you began to work with touch with one of the other Performing Gender participants, Juanjo today. A good way to begin to understand each other?
VD: Yes but that is different, maybe I see that he is a dancer and I am not. Maybe I have a little bit of a block, maybe I don’t know what he means.
AB: But for me whether you’re a dancer or not, a touch is a touch is a touch…
VD: Yeah but it was very good, I like it. Tomorrow we will do it again, every day!
Performing Gender, Bologna, October 2013