INTRO: Repetition, Zdenka Badovinac

narrator Zdenka Badovinac
term INTRO: Repetition
published February 2020, Ljubljana
affiliated institution MG+MSUM

After the first volume of the Glossary of Common Knowledge was published in a book, we were faced with the question of how to continue adding terms to the glossary and decided to repeat some of the referential fields from the first edition, namely Geopolitics, Commons, Subjectivisation and Constituencies.


Those who are familiar with the work of the Moderna galerija and its new unit, the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, will immediately recognise that the notion of repetition is one of our core philosophies. In the conditions of a limited budget, repeating an exhibition was thus some kind of recycling in a crisis, a revamping of an existing product. It aims to maximise the potential of the preceding exhibition, to re-examine the contents and, basically, fashion a new product. This recycling builds on the foundations of past work (including a few other exhibitions staged by the Moderna galerija), bringing to the fore at the same time the potential of the conditions of crisis. In our case, recycling has become the only way we can work, “→ ecology” for a reason rather than under the pressures of the market, a critical reaction to the existing (local and global) conditions.


We live in a time when culture and art are succumbing to the dictates of capital, which keeps driving consumers to always crave new things. The market is flooded with content that has to rapidly become obsolete and be replaced by new content. Repeating what already exists is boring, and if something old does get repeated it is done just for effect, as a fad, and not to articulate some complex relations. Our repetition, on the other hand, aims to draw critical attention to the excessively fast and superficial consumption of intellectual content and underscore the significance of rereading.


Repetition is one of the fundamental features of contemporary art and of the time and place we live in. For example, the usual method of showing video art in a gallery is the video loop – repetition par excellence. Apart from this, what we are largely dealing with in contemporary art exhibitions is the documentation of a particular art → process, which is in itself a kind of repetition, and which can also serve as the basis for possible later repetitions. Moreover, one of the popular art genres today is a re-enactment, in which, in most cases, artists are repeating important historic performances. International curatorial jargon is full of such words as redefine, rethink, and revisit. Particularly in spaces that have recently undergone great historic change, local history is something that needs to be revisited. Everybody does this – from politicians, for whom history is an instrument in their games of power; to historians, who must constantly redefine it; to contemporary artists, who seek in it the points of trauma that are important for an understanding of their own practices.


Repetition is one of the crucial principles by which history is created. There is far too little emphasis placed on the key role repetition plays in the construction of narratives. As Hal Foster has noted, no work becomes historic at the moment of its creation but only later, through the “retroactive effect of countless artistic responses and critical readings”.[1] For this kind of repetition to even be possible, a developed art system must exist, which enables continual reference to art practices through research, publications, collections, and, not least of all, the art market. Today, for spaces outside the dominant system, it is important to analyse the traumas of local histories in this light as well.


Repetition is driven by trauma, the same kind of trauma that had led the Moderna galerija to found, in 2000, its collection Arteast 2000+, now one of the conceptual cornerstones of the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova. Here our interest rests principally with two traumas associated with the → territory of Eastern European art: the trauma of the absence of a developed art system and the trauma of the unrealised → emancipatory ideals of communism. Many of the key thinkers who shaped today’s understanding of the world, from Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Freud to Lacan and Deleuze, have seen the repeating of some unrealised past potential as a way for the subject to be free. Repetition, as Mladen Dolar writes, “concerns some piece of the past which troubles us and drives us to act it out (Agieren, says Freud), to re-enact it, to perform it.”[2]


The exhibition The Present and Presence – Repetition 1 at the +MSUM presented mainly Eastern European artworks from the Arteast 2000+ collection, seeking to underscore how very important collections are in constructing histories. Collections are the traditional trophies of the victors and, at first glance, it hardly seems possible they could be anything else. Each object is placed in a collection as a way of repeating the victorious view of history. And, it seems, the only way to challenge the dominant view is through objects that testify to other, different, past events. But simply adding testimonies about a different past is not enough to change the existing system. What can challenge it is for the process of historicisation to be taken over by the defeated. To put it another way, for the museological work on the East to be done by the East itself – for the East itself to trigger the initiating event of its own historicisation. With regard to our exhibition, we can say that one such initiating event was the creation of the Arteast 2000+ Collection, which was, essentially, the first collection of Eastern European post-war avant-garde art.


The exhibition centred on various ideas of time (Lived Time, Future Time, No Future, War Time, Ideological Time, Dominant Time, Quantitative Time, Creative Time, Time of the Absent Museum, Retro Time, Time of Passage), marked the opening of the new Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova. A few months later, the first installation of the exhibition was partly changed and expanded, following a special concept of repetition. Complementing the repeated exhibition, which primarily presented works from the Arteast 2000+ and Moderna galerija’s national collections, were five special projects: The Body and the East Archive, The Bosnia Archive, NETRAF: Portable Intelligence Increase Museum, An Archive of Performance Art, and An Archive-in-becoming. An underlying principle uniting these projects is repetition. Repetition is here conceived as yet another dimension or form of time, added to our original “list” of times.


And how, in concrete terms, were we repeating the exhibition The Present and Presence? In its original installation, the exhibition occupied one of the floors of the new museum. In the Repetition, we were focusing on certain sections of the exhibition, to which we were adding new elements. The exhibition was extended by an entire floor, where we have expanded one of its eleven “times”: namely, Lived Time. This section presented various time- and site-specific works, which develop in real time. We have decided to repeat Lived Time because the Repetition also looks more closely at the material conditions under which art is made. Special emphasis was laid on performance art: in performances, artists deliberately relive the patterns in which social circumstances determine an individual’s conduct. The American anthropologist Katherine Verdey recognised a “social schizophrenia” in socialist Romania, which she described as an ability to experience “a real meaningful and coherent self only in relation to the enemy party”.[3] In his films, the Romanian artist Ion Grigorescu thus fights a double of his own body. Verdey’s observation can be applied also to other Eastern European performance and body artists, not just Romanian. The Serbian artist Marina Abramović tests the limits of her physical and mental endurance in performances in which she tortures herself, or invites others to do it. The Czech artist Petr Štembera treats his body as if it were his enemy, exploring himself under impossible conditions.


Ion Grigorescu, Boxing, 1977, performance for 8 mm film, 2´26 ´´. Courtesy of Moderna galerija (Arteast 2000+ Collection). ??


Alongside the performative nature of the kinds of art presented in Lived Time, in the Repetition we are also emphasising the performative nature of historicisation. This finds expression in the section Time of the Absent Museum, which relates to the trauma of the absent art system.


The Time of the Absent Museum section has had new elements added to it, most importantly, the Questionnaires about the presence of artists from our collection in other public and private collections in Slovenia and abroad – in the West and elsewhere.[4] We sent these Questionnaires to the artists represented in our collection with the aim of having the best possible view of the presence of their works in various collections from the 1960s to today. In our exhibition, the Questionnaires are presented as wallpaper, a method by which we hope to convey the fact that the art system is an important element in the production of art. And indeed, the art system, or rather its absence, is precisely what concerns the artists exhibited in this group. This concern brings them close to what is generally known under the label institutional critique. But instead of this term, we decided on the designation Time of the Absent Museum, mainly because we wanted to problematise universal terms. We deliberately chose not to use the label Eastern institutional critique, since this modifier would have emphasised the subordinate role of such practices to the canonised Western institutional critique, which determines all other particular institutional critiques. Rastko Močnik writes about the hierarchy of such designations:

As a consequence, the opposition [between “West” and “East”] does not so much indicate a distinction (and there are solid grounds for one to be made), as it points to a hierarchy. And again, not so much to the hierarchy between its own terms (for this is now trivial and almost folkloristic) than to a taxonomic hierarchical order: for even before a piece, or a practice or a current from “the East” can be spoken of in the usual terms of art (such as conceptualist, neo-avant-garde, media art, and the like), it has to be affected by the qualifier “Eastern”. By this device, what is prefixed in this way will always remain specific, over-determined, locally defined and local as opposed to what is thus promoted to the status of the general, the canonical, the over-determining – although it is, in fact, only “Western”.[5]


Time of the Absent Museum neither proposes a new terminology nor completely rejects the old one, but rather points to what stands behind the different labels associated with these and similar practices: namely, the material conditions. Thus, the Questionnaires, as individual works, are tied specifically to these conditions. Let’s examine this a little more closely.


Time of the Absent Museum is in fact a time of absent history. Artists from different generations – such as the members of the Croatian group Gorgona from the first half of the 1960s, the members of the Slovene group OHO from the second half of the same decade, and the movement Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) from the 1980s – were all trying through their works to organise the field in which they operated. In a way, their activities substitute for the work of institutions. The artists were trying, in different ways, to do the work of mostly absent institutions and the non-existent art market, and in this sense we can say they were changing the real conditions of their work. They were not so much critiquing institutions and the market, as Western artists were doing, but were trying, at least to a certain symbolic extent, to substitute for them. This, they believed, was crucial for the contextualisation of their own work and, to some degree, for their own survival as well. Over the past fifty years artists have been joining together as groups in order to create, through a genuine collectivity, an alternative to the absent art system and, also, to the compulsory socialist collectivity. Through their self-organised forms of work, artists – not only in the socialist period but also, to a large extent, today – have been creating their own economies, opening galleries, organising international networks, and addressing collectors. The artists from Time of the Absent Museum are reacting to the absence of a network for interpretation, representation, and distribution that enables the repetition that is a key process in the creation of history. And one of the conditions for such repetition is, in fact, the presence of works in art collections. The statistical data gathered through the Questionnaires shows us just how poorly works by Eastern European post-war avant-garde artists are represented in public and private collections locally and internationally. Despite the fact that the disastrous results for the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s have improved slightly over the past twenty years, the arithmetic of the results gathered by the Questionnaires remains somewhere around zero. These merciless statistics, then, tell us that the conditions for repetition as a way to consolidate history do not exist in the East. Within the collection itself, meanwhile, the presentation of the Questionnaires points to the repetition of a traumatic experience, and it is the awareness of the latter which represents a potential for the future. In this way the exhibition The Present and Presence – Repetition 1 becomes performative in nature, since it not only represents artworks, but indirectly affects them through raising the visibility of the material conditions under which Eastern European art has been functioning. After all, this is all happening within a collection of Eastern European art in an Eastern European museum.


Two special projects have been added to the Time of the Absent Museum section: An Archive-in-becoming, which focuses on oral histories as parallel methods of historicising in Eastern Europe, and the archive of Hungarian artist Tamás St. Auby, NETRAF: Portable Intelligence Increase Museum, relating to the idea of self-historicising, which is dealt with more extensively in the Retro Time section.


Unlike most Western artists, who in one way or another continually return to the initiating events of their own canonised history, the artists in the East return to the traumas of their spaces, to what is absent, marginalised, or suppressed. The possibilities for all that had long been excluded from official histories to get its legitimate place only opened → after the fall of the socialist regimes. But the great social changes that then occurred also brought along new amnesia and new traumas that will, in all likelihood, take a long time to overcome. On the territory of the former Yugoslavia, one such thing was undoubtedly the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. To draw attention to this we have conceived a special project, The Bosnia Archive.


In 1996 Moderna galerija staged a project entitled For the Museum of Contemporary Art Sarajevo 2000, which presented the works donated to the Bosnian capital by thirteen preeminent international artists. The museum in Sarajevo was expected to open by 2000, but unfortunately, there is no telling even today when this might actually happen. What is far worse, today Sarajevo is a town of floundering or closed cultural institutions. Local authorities are unable to come to an agreement as to whose responsibility the museums and their collections are. National and international heritage is deteriorating there in full view of the entire world, so to speak. And just as during the war in Bosnia, nobody seems able to help.


To this we might add: in 1996, the Moderna galerija was able to collect works by thirteen artists that rated very highly on the international art market, stage a presentation of them on its own premises, and send them to Sarajevo. Furthermore, it organised an international symposium Living with Genocide: Art and the War in Bosnia, and did several other things to help. Today, however, the Moderna galerija can no longer help others, being in the direst financial straits itself. The Republic of Slovenia has decided to tackle the economic crisis also by curtailing the fundamental mission of its museums. Two decades after it helped with the founding of what is now the Ars Aevi collection in Sarajevo, our institution is unable to purchase a single work for its own collections. Thus we have temporarily exchanged, for the exhibition The Present and Presence – Repetition 1, a work with the Ars Aevi collection, borrowing Marina Abramović’s Cleaning the Mirror (1995), which she had donated – on our intercession – to the future Sarajevo museum.


The repetitions of The Present and Presence exhibition aimed to consolidate the memory of the material conditions of Eastern European art. Material conditions are precisely the thing dominant histories most often tend to suppress. Repeating is necessary lest they fall into oblivion. No matter how vastly they differ, material conditions are common to all. Their difference is one of the causes for the different constructs of history; any possible other, common history can therefore only evolve through an articulation of these differences. Thus we can say that it is the repetition of Eastern European traumas which raises our exhibition above pointing out the differences between the East and West, aspiring instead toward a new, common history.

[1] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde and the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996), 8.

[2] Mladen Dolar, “Automatism of Repetition: Aristotle, Kierkegaard, Lacan”, unpublished manuscript.

[3] Kristine Stiles, “Inside/Outside: Balancing between a Dusthole and Eternity”, Body and the East: From the 1960s to the Present (Ljubljana: Moderna galerija Ljubljana/Museum of Modern Art, 1998), 28.

[4] The questionnaires were made especially for the exhibition Parallel Narratives, at the Barcelona Museum of Contemporary Art in 2011, which presented a selection of works from the Arteast 2000+ Collection and the national collection of the Moderna galerija.

[5] Rastko Močnik, “East!”, East Art Map, Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, ed. IRWIN (London: Afterall, 2006), 343.