In recent years both artists and scholars of performance art have discovered a new critical strategy in gestures of withdrawal, in instances of doing nothing, or in choreographies of standing still. What is common to these acts is that they all undermine the hegemonic significance of mobility, movement and productivity as signs of a modernistic kinetics. The figure of Bartleby and his credo “I would prefer not to” undergo a renaissance. The Standing Man from Taksim Square becomes an icon of protest. According to André Lepecki and Krassimira Kruschkova, still acts have become a new paradigm in contemporary dance. And the sleeping-performance Artist at Work from 1978, in which Mladen Stilinović paid tribute to laziness, ends up being the main subject of Bojana Kunst’s monograph Artist at Work, a book that explores the possibilities of subverting capitalist art production today.
Standing Still: Eastern European (Pre)figurations of the “Standing Man”
Acting still is connected to a new tactic of resistence. This allowed the standing man of Taksim Squere, the dancer and choreographer Erdem Gündüz, to become an icon of the culture of civil protest in the 21st century. Even though Gündüz has inspired several protests over the last decade, his own intervention cannot be understood without its forerunners. The famous Tank Man in Beijing comes to mind, but our visual memory also recalls The Bare-Chested Man in Front of the Occupier’s Tank, a Czech citizen who managed to stop a Soviet tank in the middle of the shootings after the Prague Spring. In this section, I would like to focus on performances from Czechoslovakia that also enact a politics of disrupted movement. If one attempts to map the diachronic correspondences between these kinds of protests, it will be impossible to overlook Jiří Kovanda’s intervention in 1976, which involved him standing still in Prague’s Wenceslas Square.
Stretching out his arms, Kovanda claims as much space as a human body can occupy, while recalling the motif of the crucifixion as well as the discourse of passion, suffering and repression. These connotations are supported by the history of Wenceslas Square. Just a few years before Kovanda’s intervention, the Czech student Jan Palach had committed suicide at the same place, deciding to self-immolate in public immediately following the Soviet occupation in 1968. The special significance of Kovanda’s intervention, however, derives from the fact that its reference to the history of motifs, and thus its particular “message,” remain ambiguous and cannot be exactly defined. His outstretched arms could actually be a gesture of invitation to hug someone, articulating the wish to get in touch and contact with strangers. Moreover, by standing still, Kovanda acts out the contrast between a lonely figure and the crowd as well. Above all, his transformation into a living sculpture is a self-referential act, which becomes more and more exhausting as time passes, challenging the artist both mentally and physically. Another reading arises if we relate Kovanda’s still act to his social environment, insofar as his tableau vivant provokes the passers-by into dividing themselves up and sidestepping him to the left or to the right. However, the passers-bys’ reactions manifest a clear sign of indifference, based on the powerful influence of collectively trained and well-rehearsed norms which transformed the socialist public sphere into a place where attracting attention was punished.
Although we are used to talking about the capitalist and socialist societies during the Cold War in dichotomies, we should note that the politics of “Washington” and “Moscow” were united in the idea that work and production were the key to progress and to combating social and economic problems. This belief was buttressed by the ideal of cognitive and corporeal mobility, which Peter Sloterdijk interprets as the political programme of modernity, that is, as the imperative of staying permanently in motion. This imperative was especially critical to economic development, the arms race, the conquest of space, and it even led to the demand—especially in Romania—to re-organise existing cityscapes according to the socialist ideas of rationalized architecture. As we know, in Ceaușescu’s Bucharest there was hardly any monument too big to be mobilised for the efficient use of the city.
Sloterdijk maintains that the project of modernity is fundamentally kinetic because it is “ontologically […] a pure beingtoward-movement,” and so the only way to criticise modernity is by critically addressing what he calls “the kinetic impulse of modernity.” In this context we can interpret Kovanda’s intervention as a critical strategy, since he dialectically analyses the ideological automatisms of a society in the moment of their disruption, operating at the interface of aesthetic and political realms, at the threshold between an artist and an activist.
Therefore, it is only at first sight that Kovanda’s performance seems to join the Western tradition of artists who perform living sculptures in galleries. When contrasted with Gilbert & George’s still-acts, Vanessa Beecroft’s exhibition of eroticised women who look back at the spectator, or Johan Lorbeer’s tableau vivants, it is clear that Kovanda decides to exit the dispositif of art, letting it become invisible, in order to complicate the decision of the passers-by, regardless of whether his intervention is an artistic experiment, a kinaesthetic exercise or a political statement. This undecidability, which is inherent in Kovanda’s standing still, leads the spectators in the public sphere into a kind of referential confusion—much like his subsequent intervention (1978), in which he, standing on an escalator, turned his back against the direction of the motion, using Prague’s technological sensation, the first escalator in the Czechoslovak metropolis, as a stage for a minimal deviation, a simple turn of his body. In the flow of permanent locomotion Kovanda is the only one who takes the time to look back, so that his standing still suggests not only stagnation and a lack of movement, but the ultimate counter-movement to the socialist imperative of “moving only forward.” The escalator, perceived as the icon of the modernistic process of urbanisation, which extends the promise of mobility even when one is simply standing still, here becomes a stage for Kovanda, who inscribes a critical difference into the regime of progression.
What Kovanda’s (photo-)performances of standing still manifest are not so much forms of passivity as shades of intensity, processuality and a plurality of readings. His performative gestures show us interruptions which, drawing on Walter Benjamin, we could call “dialectics at a standstill” (“Dialektik im Stillstand”): an active way of doing politics through interruptions, in order to challenge the normativity of both art and everyday life.
We encounter several performances in Eastern Europe criticising censorship, ideological propaganda or the lack of the right to participate and have a say in political discourses which all rely on the double meaning of “silence acts” either as compositions of keeping silent or as performative processes in which silence takes action. One of the best-known silence acts appears in the performance Activity for the Head: Three Acts by KwieKulik (Przemysław Kwiek und Zofia Kulik), which took place on the 14th of October 1978. Kulik was sitting on the floor in front of the audience, sticking her head out of a white steel wash hand basin. Kwiek poured water into the basin, took his clothes off and began to wash his face and chest. Afterwards he filled the basin with water, so that Kulik was only able to breathe through her nose, but unable to speak. As the basin was attached to a table, Kulik couldn’t pull her head out to free herself. An extreme level of tension appeared on her face and around her mouth, which stood for the ban on speaking in the former political milieu of Poland.
Although the social climate in Poland was considered relatively liberal compared to other satellite states of the Soviet Union, Kwiek and Kulik were familiar with censorship in their art. In everyday life as well as in the art world, silence became a condition of existence—but also a prominent artistic motif within the cultural periphery, where the KwieKulik took an active part in organising performances and happenings. Characteristic of their staging of the body was the symbolism of isolation: rubbish bins on their heads or clay minerals smeared on their faces emblematised, just like Kulik’s head floating in the water, the paralysis—or even elimination—of human senses and the encapsulation of the citizens par excellence. It is precisely the human head, that is, the centre of communication and sensation—like seeing, hearing and speaking—as well as the symbol of rationality that tends in Kwiek and Kulik’s performances to get out of sight and out of control. The image of a thinking subject is denied by KwieKulik both on the visual and on the acoustic level, as if this performance was a realisation of Kulik’s programmatic imperative “Just don’t be yourself too much.” Zofia Kulik’s falling silent reflected the censorship of free speech and the punishment of ideological exclusion through a meaningful image, making a statement on prohibition under the conditions of prohibition. Kulik the performer displayed clearly what only silent people are able to communicate, namely the appeal for attention to one’s voice outside of the economy of predicative discourse, while exhibiting this voice in a non-actuality, that is, separated from its iterative character, which always establishes social hierarchies. Ultimately, an acoustic articulation can undermine censorship and control only if it appears in the form of silence and emptiness. The mute performance artist Kulik aimed for a way of telling, without telling something; in other words, she arrived with her intervention at the zero point of symbolic meaning and found an instrument of critique that breaks up the flow of verbal denotation.
The Performance of Sleep: Being Lazy in “East” and “West”
As we have said, production and progress were the central aims on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In the “West” economy was dominated by the free market and its relationships of competition, which powered the production of goods and the efficiency of labour in order to establish them as the condition of prosperity and social recognition. The socialist countries were based on a centrally planned economy, in which unemployment wasn’t accepted and each employable member of the state had a function in a working collective that promised to realise welfare for the whole of society. Given this forced euphoria about being able to work, it isn’t astonishing at all that many performance artists from the East (and—such as Andy Warhol and Sophie Calle—also from the West) tuned to the motif of sleep, which was supposed to express inefficiency. These performance artists tried to increase the value of laziness and of doing nothing, they used the attempt to fall asleep as a strategy to retire from the problems of everyday life, or they favoured the idea of producing something non-measurable or immaterial, something that has no place in the capitalist or socialist logic of production.
Mladen Stilinović’s series of performance-photographs entitled Artist at Work (1978) assembles self-portraits of the artist lying in his bed with the eyes either open or closed. With the provocative title Artist at Work Stilinović increases the value of immaterial labour and withdrawal. The processes involved in this kind of artistic work seem to be filled with activities which do not aim for a final result and thereby critique the dominant ways of the socialist economy in which labour was always measured in terms of functionality and efficiency. Stilinović, who goes back to bed in the middle of the day, performed this piece at a time when slogans like “Work more, discuss less!” or imperatives like “Order, work and responsibility!” resounded throughout Yugoslavia. The images comment first of all on the precarious working conditions of young Yugoslav avant-guardists, who received hardly any official commissions, as they refused to play the role of the controlled propaganda-artist and declined to dedicate their art to the distribution of the Party’s ideologies. But Stilinović’s photo-intervention can also be interpreted within a general economic context: as an appeal for laziness, as the propagation of the idea of doing nothing, it cannot be dismissed as non-work, but has to be understood as another way of production. This reading seems apt especially since Stilinović wrote a manifesto entitled “The Praise of Laziness” in which he implicitly refers to his sleeping performance: “Lazyness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time—total amnesia. It is also indifference, staring at nothing, non-activity, impotence. It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, futile concentration. The virtues of laziness are important factors in art. Knowing about laziness is not enough; it must be practiced and perfected.” Stilinović clearly demonstrates that laziness is definitely not an idyllic state, but a condition of humans which is connected to pain and doubts.
When hinting at the role of leisure in his manifesto The Praise of Laziness, Stilinović draws a comparison between artists from the West and from the East: “Artists from the West are not lazy and therefore not artists but rather producers of something. Their involvement with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, the gallery system, the museum system, the competition system (who is first), their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away from laziness, from art. […] Artists from the East were lazy and poor because the entire system of insignificant factors did not exist. Therefore they had enough time to concentrate on art and laziness. Even when they did produce art, they knew it was in vain, it was nothing.” With this comparison Stilinović calls attention to the historical conditions in Eastern Europe. In the socialist states the art market simply didn’t exist, whereas in capitalist societies there was not a single artistic activity that could have been carried out independently of market interests. Only in the subcultural circles of neo-avant-guardists, and nowhere else, was there a possibility of becoming an artist beyond the forces of production and competition.
It is very likely that Sven Stilinović, the younger brother of Mladen Stilinović, was also referring to this ideological difference between East and West during the Cold War when he insisted that: “To work does not mean to move.” Here he names a key distinguishing feature of the Western performance tradition, which, in terms of its kinetic dimensions, seems to be much more intense than its Eastern European counterpart. As is generally known, Jackson Pollock, its supposed founder, always posed in continuous flows of motion, whereas Stilinović stands still, retiring from the economic milieu of production, disappearing and staging himself as a motionless figure on the verge of falling asleep.
Artists from “beyond the Iron Curtain,” who were keen to find moments of political autonomy under socialism, discovered diverse gestures of acting still: in performances of sleeping, keeping silent or standing still in the public sphere. Although all these constellations involve a loss of sovereignty and agency, or may even appear apolitical at first glance, many artists could in this way formulate a critique of the political repression or the economic pressures of their time. We can understand their interventions not so much as attacks on the system but rather as attempts to display the conditions and rules of (self-)determination.
The performances and performance photographs I tried to comment on show the paradoxes inherent in the politics of representation, which we could call melancholic because it tries to turn the fading of artistic intention into an intentional act. This kind of melancholic politics of representation relativises the status of a strong “subject,” but at the same time it makes clear that these artists do not disappear completely, but express their absence from society and disrupt the aesthetic consensus. They demonstrate that the withdrawal of the self is an ambivalent gesture because this melancholic disposition does not entail a disappearance, it only entails a turning away; it marks an encapsulation of the subject, which always leaves behind voids and traces that destabilize social contracts and undermine social functionality and efficiency.
Adam Czirak is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Theatre, Film and Media Studies at the University of Vienna.
* Text published as a follow up to the Looking Forward, Looking Back lecture held by the author in Bucharest, on March 25, 2019.