Apparently it all started with a gymful of Serbs at the Edinburgh Festival in 1973. Invited over by Scottish gallerist Richard Demarco, a group of artists who had in recent years been gathering in Belgrade’s Student Cultural Centre to make improvised, informal work away from the then-Yugoslavian ‘official’ socialist realist style, used this foreign opportunity to make their first public performances. Raša Todosijević apparently did something with lube and a goldfish; his cohort Marina Abramović presented the first iteration of her Rhythm 10 (1973) performance, cutting her hands with an array of knives. What’s presented here, though, at a small, cosy solo survey show of Todosijević’s work, is a room of dour text paintings, collages and assemblages made between 1977 and 2017 that are the result of decades of the artist’s roleplaying, making series of works alternately as an ironic prophet, provocateur or imposter.
Todosijević is considered a central figure for the performative strain of conceptual art that formed in Belgrade during the early 70s, developed by a group that included Abramović and Zoran Popović. Their early performances seem to share violent and sadistic tendencies, but their careers have followed very different trajectories: Todosijević represented Serbia at the 2011 Venice Biennale, but of course Abramović has been lauded as an icon of performance art, set up a self-aggrandising institute and, more recently, been pushing Marina-flavoured macarons. Todosijević has remained in Belgrade, simply getting on with making work: posters for nonexistent films (such as one included here, Murder, dated 1997–2017, which enlists Demarco as its lead character and filmmaker Lutz Becker as its director of photography), deliberately bad Picasso knockoffs (My Name is Pablo Picasso, 1980) or tongue-in-cheek predictions, such as the black-and-yellow cursive text-painting from which the show takes its title: Opsada Londona 2097 (Siege of London 2097, 2007).
The inert, faded objects gathered here have a dry sense of dark humour, a wry existentialism: God Exists (2013) is a portable radio on a scuffed-up piece of cardboard, the titular claim written in Serbian in red. In the next room a worn-out electric blanket is folded and stuck on the wall, a wooden painted sign in red beneath it claiming it, again in Serbian, as The Soul Warming (2000–09). Spiritual comfort is just rhetorical spin, Todosijević suggests; or as the cut-out words on one small collage admit: Weltschmerz is My Business (2015).
The wall sculpture Vive le Mort (2004) is a box that contains another portable radio, a small red flag that in Cyrillic letters apparently spells out ‘long live death’ and a small tea saucer with the words ‘Gott Liebt Die Serben’ (God Loves the Serbs) painted on it. Both slogans are part of long-running series of his work, casual but poignant reminders of a history that erupted again recently into the news, with the suicide of Croatian general Slobodan Praljak in the International Criminal Court in the Hague. But this box seems a quietly concise emblem for this exhibition: a set of worn-out objects, all loaded with symbolism and associations, but here too densely packed and sparsely contextualised to fully bring out a lifetime of work. What we’re left with are weary, almost anonymous relics that appear all too similar to those more famously left behind by Todosijević’s Eastern European conceptual contemporaries.
Raša Todosijević: Siege of London 2097 at Handel Street Projects, London, 4 November – 20 January
From the January & February 2018 issue of ArtReview