The Future is Between Your Legs: Sex, Art and Censorship in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4', 1969

This is a draft version of a text which will be published by Nottingham Contemporary in 2016.

 

 

Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

Katalin Ladik, Zagreb 1970

In spring 1970 a small audience gathered in a church in the Old Town in Zagreb to watch a performance by the poet, actor and artist, Katalin Ladik. Dressed in nothing but a loose fur, Ladik performed a piece which she called ‘Vabljene’ with a traditional Hungarian bagpipe, a small skin-covered drum and a traditional bow. No recording of this event exists, but in the same year she was invited into the television studios in Novi Sad, her home city, to perform for the cameras. Reciting her poems in her native Hungarian – a language which few outside the multi-ethnic Vojvodina region understood – she stretches and extends her voice in the footage, sweeping across what seems to be unnatural sonic spectrum from high-frequency trilling to low rumbling tones. Interviewed by an Italian journalist, she said ’I do not do anything strange: peforming naked I expose the nakedness of my soul, and my inner reality … The public does not have to accept me for what I say but they must accept me for who I am, as I am, with my hips, with my breasts exposed. … I am naked and they too are stripped of their preconceptions. When we reach this understanding, this is the moment in which the audience and I achieve the necessary means to perform together the great ritual.’[1] She was, it seemed, engaged in the discovery of a sensual language – perhaps originating in prehistory – for new rituals which would escape the social conventions which managed desire, not least in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in the 1960s.

Ladik was invited to perform in Zagreb by the organisers of GEFF 69, an experimental film festival which for this, its fourth meeting, took ‘Sexuality as the Way to a New Humanism’ (Seksualnost kao mogućnost za novi humanizam) as its theme. The slogan captured a new mood in the country, or at least a new boldness on the part of the Yugoslav counter-culture which had been stirred into life by student protests in 1968, the arrival of rock music and psychedelics, as well as a cocktail of esoteric philosophy and new left politics. For four days in April 1970 (a few months after the original planned date), films, performances and talks reflecting on various kinds of sexuality drew large audiences to Zagreb’s cinemas, theatres and even the old town church. One reporter wrote, ‘Sex – an evangelical word – was an overwhelming call for the audience to join a orgiastic visual adventure (without danger). Although the films only partially fulfilled expectations, the screenings and associated events took place in crowded halls.’[2] Screenings included Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Fuses’ (1965) – a overpainted diary-film which sought to capture what ‘one feels during lovemaking’ – and two homoerotic Warhol movies (‘Flesh’ and ‘Lonesome Cowboys’, both 1968).

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4', 1969

Mila Budisavljević, ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4′, 1969

A prize-winning film in the festival competition, Mila Budisavljević’s ‘Neobavezni pogled na svijet 4’ (Optional View of the World, 4’, 1969) presented a close-up view of a woman’s lips and tongue, seemingly pressing against the lens of the camera, making the smooth, seductive mouth which appeared in so much advertising and cinema seem fleshy and real.

Celebrating uninhibited sexuality and other pleasures, the organisers of GEFF 69 were at pains to stress high-minded aspirations, perhaps to head off accusations of exploitation: ‘The sexual plan is just as important as the social and political ones … GEFF sets out to explore what this kind of movie can be when it is an experiment outside the bourgeois frameworks of pornography and kitsch: … We want to know whether in this field it is possible to something more than merely reflect things (so often, it comes down to the picturing the sexual act), we are interested in whether the filmmaker can escape this passive position.’[3] In this way, sexual liberation – then being trumpeted with loud horns in the West – could be harnessed to have real effects in Yugoslavia. Revolution, so often presented in terms of deferral in Eastern Europe (the utopia over the horizon), was within grasp of the individual: all he or she had to do was to revolutionise his or her thought and lifestyle. After all, a new humanism – predicated on a conception of a community of creative , equal and self-managing individuals – had been promised by the regime but remained little more than an imprecise slogan. GEFF 69 promised to put flesh on Tito’s bones.

The festival was organised as a critique of conservative attitudes, whether those held by society or by the authorities. Sexuality constituted a new front in which humanity could be liberated from various forms of repression, not least the ties of marriage, the laced-up conventions of dress and the fetishism of commodity culture. GEFF 69 juror, Dušan Makavejev, made this the subject of his remarkable film, ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’ (WR: Mysteries of the Organism, 1971). Ostensibly a documentary on the life and work of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and in particular, his ‘discovery’ of ‘Cosmic Orgone Energy’, Makavejev’s often-funny movie is a meditation on sexuality and violence – the latter seeming to erupt when the former is repressed. A collage film, it offers a catalogue of scenes from the sexual revolution in the USA, as well as the story of allegorical love affair between Vladimir Ilich, a celebrity ice-dancer who represents the Soviet Union around the world, and Milena, a Yugoslav partisan and sexual revolutionary. Critical of socialism’s repression of sex as well capitalism’s commodification of it, Makavejev’s film achieved international notoriety and plaudits for the candid treatment of the subject, but it was not the only expression of what one champion of GEFF 69 called ‘our revolution’.

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’, ‘Plastični Isus’, 1971

Lazar Stojanović’s ‘Plastični Isus’ (Plastic Jesus) (a graduation project made the Faculty of Dramatic Arts in Belgrade in 1971) shared not only Makavejev’s collage technique but also his interest in sexual and political taboos.[4] And at the same time, the OHO collective of artists, poets and writers made sexuality one their principle themes of their activities in performance and proto-conceptual art before fully embracing the hippy fantasy of disappearing into nature when in 1971 they formed the Šempas Commune. In fact, the group’s retreat from modernity was prefigured in Naško Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ (White People) film made in 1969-70 with the full resources of the Neoplanta Film Studio in Novi Sad.[5] [3] With two distinct halves, the first part of the film shows a group of twelve men and women – OHO and their friends – playing various kind of sensual games in a white space. They eat and kiss, roll naked in what look like white feathers and reproduce the movements of the mice and sheep that share their closed space.

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1970

Still from Naško Križnar’s ‘Beli Ljudje’, 1969-70

The men and women are sometimes undressed and the scenes occasionally turns orgiastic, though never sexually explicit. In the second half, the community moves into natural landscapes and the scale of their gestures expands: they leave trails of white powder on the coastline and fill the air with coloured smoke.[6] In 1970 writer Bora Ćosić identified in OHO’s works, the deployment of ‘sexuality as a transgressive, critical and subversive instrument of confrontation with the opportunism and hypocracies of the real-socialist society.’[7] Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.58.23Such confrontations were in fact rare: in 1970 OHO’s Andraž Šalamun, for instance, published a series of photographs of a couple in positions from the Kama sutra in Problemi which caused a ripple of protests from its readers.[8]

The programme of sexual liberation was not just a marginal interest of the counter-culture in Yugoslavia after 1968. The appearance of pornographic magazines on newsstands at the time was also explained in terms of Yugoslav exceptionalism, the claim that socialism was not organised according to either the Soviet model or by the dictates of capitalism in the SFRY.

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Chic magazine cover, 1969

Interviewed in 1972, Ljubisa Kozomara, editor of Čik magazine – one of a new wave of pin-up mags which appeared at the end of the 1960s, said ‘Sex magazines are just another way in which Yugoslavia is socially and economically more free than other Communist countries’.[9] Yugoslavia’s embrace of ‘market socialism’ offered tangible incentives to publishers to find mass audiences. Čik, like other prominent titles Start and Adam i Eva, featured centrefolds alongside political and social reports, as well as interviews with public figures. These colourful magazines treated sexual pleasure with a degree of seriousness: the editor of Adam i Eva said ‘I believe I’m doing some very human work. We publish letters from homosexuals, who are still arrested and jailed in this country. We give advice to village girls too ashamed to take their problems to a doctor.’[10] Likewise, in its early years, Start featured informative articles on birth control and artificial insemination, as well as a running a full length illustrated feature on childbirth.[11] The paradoxes of a magazine which promised public enlightenment whilst trading a limiting vision of femininity (the pin-up) are clear: nevertheless, Kozomara and his colleagues were sincere in their belief that they were breaking repressive taboos.[12] Adapting the clichés of Titoism to its cause, Start editorialized: ‘The epoch of the rule of the youth is coming – sexual liberation cannot be separated from the other individual and social problems, but it can contribute to solving many of them.’[13]

Whilst such magazines thrived in the 1970s, official approaches to images of sexuality were inconsistent and often censorious. Adam i Eva’s editor was taken to court on the grounds of obscenity in 1971 but acquitted. Moreover, censorship was applied differently in different republics and shifts in power between conservative and liberal factions in power meant that was tolerated at one moment might become pro­hibited the next. Nevertheless, sexuality was invoked throughout the history of the SFRY as grounds for censorship.

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Still from Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’, 1958

Makavejev’s early short film, ‘Spomenicima ne treba verovati’ (Don’t believe in Monuments’, 1958) which depicts the attempts of a young woman to make love to a sculpture of a reclining male figure in a park was criticised and shelved for being too erotic.[14] Twenty years later, the editors of the youth magazine Polet (Enthusiasm) were taken to court for publishing a profile of the Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper, Milan Sarović. The accompanying images recorded Sarović emerging naked from a pool. The case provoked outrage, not least among feminists who saw hypocrisy at work.[15]

Tellingly, it was often the admix of sexuality and politics which attracted the strongest responses from the authorities. ‘WR: The Mysteries of the Organism’ was shelved, after being screened in a film festival in Pula – thereby adding greatly to its status as ‘forbidden fruit’.[16] And when Katalin Ladik appeared nude on the pages of Start and other magazines as well as in her public performances, her membership of the League of Yugoslav Communists was withdrawn for violating the ‘moral image’ of organisation.[17] Ladik was by no means an underground figure: in fact, her high visibility owed much to the support of state-licensed institutions – theatres, student centres and publications.[18] Perhaps her principal misdemeanor was not to to have put sexuality at the centre of her creativity, but to have become a popular figure, thereby escaping the marginal zone of the neo-avant-garde.

When editors of pornographic magazines or the organisers of GEFF 69 made the case for liberal attitudes, they couched their arguments in terms which aligned with state ideology: if desire was liberated and a far wider spectrum of sexual experiences recognized as ‘natural’, the result would be greater happiness, a condition which was, after all, the professed ideal of Yugoslav socialism. But at the end of the 1970s, a number of developments set the grounds for a radical and sometimes controversial rejection of this ‘theraputic’ view of sexuality. The vibrant Punk and New Wave scene (which penetrated deeply into performance and video art) as well as the ideas of group of Neo-Lacanian philosophers including Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar were focused on far darker and sometimes morbid drives governing desire than the humanists of the 1970s. Screen Shot 2015-09-04 at 12.59.56These two worlds merged in three ‘punk’ issues of Problemi, an important intellectual forum in Slovenia since the 1960s and then under the editorship of Dolar. In its punk issues (1981-3), Problemi identified closely with its subject, adopting the cut and paste aesthetics of the fanzine, and reproducing the lyrics of many of the most openly critical bands including Pankrti (Bastards) as well as darkly distopian comic strips. [5] So dramatic was the change from a sober journal to fanzine, that perhaps Dolar and his colleagues were engaged a particular and early version of what Žižek famously characterised as ‘overidentification’ in his later discussions of Laibach/Neue Slovenische Kunst.[19]

The second issue drew an official response. When the anti-socialist lyrics of bands like Gnile Duše (Rotten Souls) and photographs depicting lesbian sex in the second Punk issue were censored, the editors decided to overprint blocks on the offending material. This gesture did little to assuage the authorities, and Dolar was accused of having allowed the publication of pornographic material, and fined.[20] Despite this penalty, the third Punk issue (1983) was no less provocative in its hyperactive treatment of sex and violence. Spreads included illustrated features on erotic asphyxiation (a translation of an article from the Italian magazine, Fridigaire); the sadomaschostic lyrics of tracks by Borghesia, an electronic music group (see below); and a set of photographs by Miki Stojković of a man and topless woman playing with a large five-pointed star, the primary symbol of Titoism, under the title ‘Revolution is a Whore’.

Photos: Miki Stojković

Photos: Miki Stojković

Many of the authors of this material in Problemi were associated with FV 112/15, a theatre group established in 1980 by Neven Korda and Zemira Alajbegović. Abandoning the stage, FV 112/15 evolved rapidly into something like a multimedia platform for the production of alternative forms of culture, much in the DIY spirit of punk. It released records and audio cassettes through its music label; in 1982 it established a regular club night in Ljubljana, Disko FV, in 1982; it organised the Magnus, a festival of gay and lesbian films in 1984; and in 1982 four members (Dario Seraval, Aldo Ivančić, Korda and Alajbegović) formed a band, Borghesia, which achieved international success on the electronic music scene in the late 1980s. [7] According to Korda, VF 112/15 was not interested in shifting mainstream cultural practices and values: instead, the group staked out a zone where the conventions of Yugoslav life did not seem to apply, though happily drawing resources from state-funded institutions when needed (for, instance, borrowing the cameras owned by ŠKUC-Forum’s video section).[21]

One of the defining features of the videos made by FV members like Korda and close associates Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid was the way they fused sexual and political images, a caustic zone in Yugoslav culture. Babara Borčić notes that much of the material that the FV artists snatched for their video projects featured ‘recognisable political personalities, rituals and manifestations including Tito’s funeral, or popular Yugoslav music stars’ as well as ‘shots from pornographic movies recorded from private Italian television programmes’.[22] Whilst early video works like Korda’s ‘Obnova’ (Renewal, 1983), compiled from clips emphasizing the industrial rhythms of sex in pornography, and Alajbegović’s ‘Tereza’ (1983) which TV footage of socialist ceremonies is intercut with popular melodramas, could be filed under the voguish category of ‘appropriation art’, another way of understanding this material is to see it as a queering of Yugoslavia socialism. FV videos and performances sought to unsettle the normative effects of state media, sometimes by eroticizing its heroes and sacred symbols. Recalling her activities at the time (particularly the video works made with Šmid), Gržinić writes: ‘queer positions – every form of non-heterosexual positioning we understood, exclusively and entirely, as a political stance. This queerness – and the word queer means literally “not right/not quite” – demands, of us and of the viewer, a rethinking of the conditions of life, work, and possibilities of resistance.’[23]

In 1984 Borghesia – a FV 112 /15 offshoot – created a multimedia performance with the provocative title Lustmörder (Love Murder) in the Student Centre in Zagreb which it described as ‘a metaphysical process of discovering which is hidden by repression.’[24] [8] Eschewing the conventions of the rock concert, short videos – FV 112/15 productions – looped on eight TV screens standing on the stage and tableaux were performed by members of the group. In one, two men – wearing S&M garb – performed a disturbing ritual in which the first smeared and stretched bloody liver on the chest of the other before cutting into it with a knife. Two women dressed in shining plastic also took to the stage with whips. All the while, electronic music added menace of the performance (as perhaps did the lyrics, ‘He prefers hard sex and authority / iron-handed / jackboot / blood on the altar’). Emphasising denaturalization and excess, little about ‘Lustmörder’ was designed to encourage emotional identification. All was staged, as the emphasis on-stage screens made clear. (Roleplaying is, after all, the ‘unnatural nature’ of S&M). In her review for Start, Drakulić Ilić equated equated the ‘sex, perversion, violence, militarism’ in the performance with fascism.[25] This indictment hardly troubled the FV artists and their associates. Writing in Problemi in 1983 Gržinič and Alajbegović had presented their interest in transgression as a mode of critique: ‘The power of Ljubljana’s subcultural production lies precisely in the fact that it is not “high” art but, by using the creative operations of mass culture … and introducing content that [usually] serves the ideological function of the mass media (sexual repression, social control and manipulation, the use of banned symbols …) so that they are meaningfully radicalized, the dark side of a set of norms can be exposed, like “grafitti of the walls of a prison”.’[26] In other words, what is judged obscene or unnatural is not only a political matter but those ideological judgments become visible when the lines which have been drawn – whether consistently or not – are transgressed.

A poster by Dušan Mandić – a member of NSK/Irwin and designer of the third punk issue of Problemi – appeared on the stage of the Lustmörder performance with the words ‘1968 is over. 1983 is over. The future is between your legs’ (‘1968 je prošla. 1983 je prošla. Budućnost je između vaših noga’). The poster made it clear that Borghesia and other members of Ljubljana’s subculture rejected the progressive and universalising rhetoric of sexual liberation which had been announced so boldly at the end of the 1960s. Sex in subcultural Ljubljana had to be freed not only from the petit-bourgeois morality of the League of Communists but also from the humanist libertarians. Of course, the FV 112/15 position was not without its own contradictions: the organization of gay / lesbian nights at Disko FV and homosexual film festivals has been interpreted as brave acts of public advocacy at a time when homosexual sex was still illegal in parts of Yugoslavia and underground elsewhere; yet at the same time members of the group embraced queer alterity. And despite eschewing the common project of libertarian humanism, the FV 112/15 artists still approached sex and its repression as a social and political symptom. Writing about punk in Problemi 1981 Žižek had described it as a ‘symptom [that] reveals an intrusion of the suppressed “truth” of the most calm, most normal every life, of exactly that life that is shocked and annoyed by it. Symptom returns our suppressed truth in a perverted form …’.[27] After being promised as Yugoslavia’s remedy for more than a decade, sex in Ljubljana in 1984 was claimed as a sign of its defect

 

[1] Katalin Ladik interviewed by Aldo Bressan, ‘La poetessa che recita nuda sulla scena’, in L’Europeo (3 December 1970) 36–41 reproduced in Miško Šuvaković, Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 90.

[2] Ivo Lukas, ‘Intimna Nega’ in Sineast, 11 (1970) 41

[3] Mihovil Pansini cited in Lukas, Sineast, 40.

[4] See Sezgin Boynik, ‘Contributions to a Better Apprehension and Appreciation of Plastic Jesus’ in Život Umjetnosti, no. 83 (2008) 80-91.

[5] See Ksenya Gurshtein, ‘When Film and Author Made Love: Reconsidering OHO’s Film Legacy,’ in Kino!, no. 11–12 (2010) 128–54.

[6] On OHO’s engagement with land art see Maya Fowkes, The Green Bloc. Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (Budapest: CEU Press, 2014) 65-110.

[7] Ćosić cited in Miško Šuvaković, The Clandestine History of the OHO Group (Ljubljana: Zavod P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E., 2010) 9.

[8] Ibid, 104.

[9] Kozomara cited by David Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’ in The Montreal Gazette (26 July 1972) 17.

[10] Cited in Spurr, ‘Liberal Magazines Abound in Yugoslavia’, 17.

[11] Biljana Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls: Nudity, Pornography and Quality Press in Socialism’ in Medij. Istraž, v. 16, no. 1 (2010) 59.

[12] It is noteworthy that Kozomara had been the scriptwriter for one of the major films of the Black Wave, Živojin Pavlović’s ‘Kad budem mrtav i beo’ (When I am Dead and Pale’, 1967), in which a number of women characters enter willingly into casual sexual relations with the central male character. See Branislav Dmitrijević, ‘Suffragettes, Easy lays and Women Faking Pregnancy’ Bojana Pejić, ed., Gender Check. Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe (Vienna: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig, 2009) 46-52.

[13] Start editorial (1975) cited by Žikić, ‘Dissidents liked Pretty Girls’, 64.

[14] Daniel Gerould, Liberated Cinema: The Yugoslav Experience, 1945-2001 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002) 60.

[15] Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Muški su nešto drugo in Polet (2 April 1980) 13. This essay is also reproduced in her anthology Smrtni grijesi feminizma. Ogledi o mudologiji (Zagreb: Znanje 1984)

[16] Ibid, 142.

[17] Cited by Miško Šuvaković in Moć žene: Katalin Ladik retrospektiva 1962 – 2010 (Novi Sad: Muzej savremene umetnosti Vojvodine, 2010) 85.

[18] In fact, many of the works discussed in this essay were funded indirectly by the state, often through organisations like Neoplanta Film in Novi Sad (the producer of Križnar’s Beli Ljudje’ and Makavejev’s ‘WR: Mysterija organizma’). See Gal Kirn, Dubravka Sekulić and Žiga Testen, eds., Surfing the Black. Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema and Its Transgressive Moments (Amsterdam: Jan Van Eyck Academy, 2012) 63-8.

[19] Slavoj Žižek, ‘Why are Laibach and NSK not fascists?’ in Inke Arns, ed., Retroprincip (Frankfurt am Main: Revolver, 1993) 49-50.

[20] Dolar interviewed in Jones Irwin and Helena Motoh, Zizek and his Contemporaries (London: Bloomsbury, 2014) 93-112.

[21] Neven Korda, ‘FV and the “Third Scene” 1980 – 1990’ in Liljana Stepančič and Breda Škrjanec, eds. FV Alternativa osemdestih (Ljubljana: Mednarodni grafični likovni center, 2008) 312.

[22] Barbara Borčić, ‘Video Art from Conceptualism to Postmodernism’ in Dubravka Djurić, ed., Impossible Histories. Historical Avant-gardes, Neo-avant-gardes, and Post-avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991 (Boston: MIT press, 2003) 514

[23] Marina Gržinić, ‘The Video, Film, and Interactive Multimedia Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, 1982–2008‘ in Marina Gržinić, Tanja Velagić, eds., The Video Art of Marina Gržinić and Aina Šmid, trans. Rawley Grau (Vienna: Erhard Löcker GesmbH, 2008) 48

[24] Cited by Slavenka Drakulić Ilić, ‘Fašizam na alternativnoj sceni’ in Start (28 July 1984).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Marina Grzinič and Zemira Alajbegović, ‘Ljubjlanska subkulturna scena’ in Problemi (October-November 1983) 26.

 

[27] Žižek (1981) cited in Irvin and Motoh, Žižek and His Contemporaries, 114.

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