Tyrany and Tribalism: The Art of Ivan Grubanov

On 11 September, 1993, respected war reporter, Robert Fisk, walked into a decimated mosque in Bosnia and commented on camera, ‘When I see things like this, I wonder what the Muslim world has in store for us.’(1) The destruction of religions emblems and artefacts is nothing new. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, there is evidence to suggest that widespread iconoclasm accompanied the forcible replacement of paganism with Christianity.(2) In contemporary Kosovo – where an estimated 863,000 Kosovo Albanians (90% of the ethnic group population) were ethnically cleansed and at least 100,000 Serbs (accounting for half the former Serbian population) were forced to flee retaliation – many Serbian orthodox churches have been destroyed as a symbol of Serbian rule that the Kosovo war sought to end. Serbian artist, Ivan Grubanov, recently completed a series of drawings that hint at an inventory of the icons lost to posterity during this rout. With delicate lines, he traced the fragmented outlines of cupolas and captured the chains of frescoed saints, simultaneously stripping the source material of its potency. The motivation behind Afterimage (2006) does not, however, seem to be confined to empathy with his countrymen in their enforced exodus or outrage at any sacrilegious intent (Grubanov has described the ‘evil Christian European heritage’(3) of Serbia). Neither does this work seem to be concerned with religion per se, but with the systematic erasure of symbols that hold meaning for particular groups of people. Grubanov’s nascent practice reads as an attempt to understand something about the underlying impulses that give rise to destructive behaviour, which warrants further investigation.

The Kosovo war marked the bloody culmination of the dissolution of Yugoslavia against a backdrop of economic hardship due to conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund. Beginning in June 1991 with the secession of Slovenia and Croatia, quickly followed by Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia found itself alone with its two provinces of restricted autonomy (Kosovo and Vojvodina) and its Yugoslav ally Montenegro. Premised on Serbian President Slobodan Miloševič’s conviction, that Serbs should retain the right to consider themselves part of Yugoslavia regardless of whether they lived in one of the newly-independent republics, Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia fought to create independent Serbian states in the respective republics, which resulted in the expulsion and massacre of thousands of non-Serbs from those territories. These actions, and those of other ethnic groups throughout the region, were compounded by European Community (as it then was) and US alignment with Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims, supplying weapons and training and culminating in the aerial bombardment of Serbia.

It was during the Kosovo war, in May 1999, that Miloševič was indicted for crimes against humanity by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for his part in that conflict and, retrospectively, in Croatia and Bosnia. In September 2000, Miloševič refused to accept defeat in the elections for presidency of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia which led to a mass demonstration against him on the streets of Belgrade, the toppling of his government, an armed stand-off at his private home and his eventual arrest in March, 2001.

On the eve of the war, when Grubanov was fifteen, his father took him to an anti-Miloševič protest in Belgrade to teach him the importance of political responsibility and the role of protest. A decade later, Grubanov – who, amongst many others, joined the resistance movement centred on B92 Radio, the main source of independent news during the war – was part of the million-strong demonstration that formed part of the uprising subsequently termed the Serbian Revolution. The result of a desire for self-determination, this event stands as an important non-violent precedent in recent European history that is largely ignored by the mainstream media:

There is no starker contrast in the history of the Balkans of the last decade than that between Western intervention and the Serbian Revolution. Where the West brought colonial rule to Bosnia and Kosovo, the revolution brought democracy to Serbia. Where the West sanctioned ethnic cleansing on a mass scale in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, the revolution ethnically cleansed no one. Where the West failed to secure Milosevic’s overthrow with 78 days of bombing, the revolution felled him within a few days. Where the West brought death to hundreds of innocent civilians, the revolution cost three lives. And, where the West’s bombs wrought $30 billion worth of economic damage to Serbia, the revolution succeeded without destroying one factory, bridge, hospital or school.(4)

When armed forces surrounded Miloševič’s fortified villa, Grubanov was amongst those who waited outside, but was denied the chance of seeing the man who had shaped his generation. Almost three years passed between Miloševič’s indictment by the ICTY and his trial beginning at the Hague. By that time, Grubanov had a studio at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and felt compelled to confront the ousted dictator. Armed with a press pass from his B92 Radio days, he gained access to the tribunal and, as a forbidden activity under the terms of his attendance, surreptitiously began to sketch his former President as he attempted to defend himself (Visitor, 2004). During the subsequent two years, Grubanov drew relentlessly, adding details from the trial only to strip them away again, trying to catch the essence of the man who had defined his childhood as much as his own father:
I made 50 or more drawings of his face from that position, but I wasn’t happy with any of them. This felt symptomatic of my unsatisfactory relationship with him, and all the different emotions (mine and his) that were impossible to capture in a single drawing. I realized that I had visually exhausted the subject. I’d drawn everything. But of course it wasn’t even necessarily about the outcome, about one single work of art, but about being present and taking my share of the responsibility. It became about the personal idea of being able to clarify my own conscience.(5)

In evoking a sense of responsibility, Grubanov echoes the sentiments of Hannah Arendt who had considered herself personally responsible, as a German-Jewish citizen, to contest the prejudices becoming inscribed in the politics of her country in the 1930s. Three decades later, reporting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann – chief co-ordinator of the transportation of Jews to death camps – Arendt prided herself on her objectivity. Having escaped internment in concentration camps by fleeing to America via France, she dismissed empathy as an ethical and cognitive presumption and problematised eye-witness accounts of atrocities as unable ‘to communicate things that evade human understanding and experience.’(6) Arendt’s study of Eichmann ultimately attempted to transcend the implications of the holocaust for one particular group of people and to consider the fate for all humanity, concluding that crimes had been committed against the human status.

Just as all citizens are responsible for challenging the oppressive policies of their governments at home and abroad, the specific question of artistic responsibility is pertinent in this context. Film-maker Pawel Pawlikowski – whose BBC documentary, Serbian Epics, showed the reality of conflict in Bosnia more closely than any of the mainstream Western media – has bemoaned the lack of a ‘truly responsible dissident intelligentsia responding to the evaporation of Communism in Yugoslavia.’(7) Taking as a starting point an exhibition of artworks by the Slovene group IRWIN at a monastery near Mostar at which he identified a Nazi presence, Pawlikowski was recently quoted as saying: ‘It’s fine to be conceptual artists in a historically empty landscape, but doing that in such a historically loaded landscape was just irresponsible. They were all very cool, you know, these artists, name-dropping New York galleries, but none of them seemed really seriously engaged. I blame them for the war as much as the idiots who were doing the shooting. I’ll never forget those lazy exhibitions they were doing at that time. They were just posing, playing with nationalism and peasant culture, irony all over the shop, wonderful! It was really cool. Seriousness is what was lacking’.(8)

While this elision of the active and passive responses to conflict is an over-simplification, Pawlikowski legitimately asserts the necessity of critical precision and political engagement. Artworks toying with, and perhaps even glamorising, the antagonisms at the heart of the troubles in the region (albeit from the relative safety of Slovenia) without addressing their consequences, have forged a legacy of ambiguity and apathy which presumably informs the decision of a younger generation of artists to participate in visible protest culture. Alongside such action, Grubanov would seem to be harnessing his artistic practice in an effort to comprehend his political and artistic inheritance, by cross-examining his own complicity in works like Visitor. In the course of this investigation, his stated inability to amply represent the character of Miloševič, and his wholly unexpected empathy for the pathetic villain in the dock, hint at levels of complexity inherent in war crimes tribunals, for which there are no appropriate words and no adequate juridical measures. It is here that a possible role for art emerges, to occupy areas of uncertainty, to insert itself into the non-verbal fissures of conflict and aggravate them until responses are conjured or, in Arendt’s words, ‘to communicate things that evade human understanding and experience.’

In parallel to this cathartic scrutiny of Serbia’s disgraced authoritarian, Grubanov undertook a study of his own father, a local politician and member of the culpable generation. As an exercise in male bonding, father and son built a gym at the back of their house and began working out together while Grubanov took intermittent photographs. In a half-bricked room, a man in a vest stands holding an iron dumbbell, his well-developed bicep taut, his face and neck showing a moderate amount of strain, his nostrils flared and dark eyes glaring at the camera with intent. This image, Father Figure (2000), was made into a billboard during Grubanov senior’s municipal election campaign of the same year [it’d be good to know the party]. Occupying the realm of advertising in a country relatively new to capitalism, the language of this image is simultaneously laced with Hollywood machismo and – combined with other images, of the same torso exposed through lighted windows, the same figure lounging in underpants, that make up the slide projection Study of my Father, a Relation to the Origin (2004) – homoeroticism.

Whereas Visitor sought, through the subjective medium of drawing,  to personalise a relationship that had only ever been mediated, these works ostensibly attempt the opposite – analysing someone with whom the artist has a close personal relationship, through the relatively objective medium of photography. What these studies of Grubanov’s father share with the confrontation of Miloševič, however, is their starting point in notions of individual and collective responsibility that, in the process of their execution, become an extrapolation to the macro level. Grubanov has spoken about the motivation behind the study of his father:

I was literally blaming my father for whatever had happened to me, to that country, to that geopolitical situation. Because he just embodied all of these notions, it was so clear that he was the perfect product of this very turbulent and upsetting history…I am not actually addressing my father. I am addressing notions of origin, of background, of a very turbulent and ever haunting history, issues so substantial and so big that its [sic] makes you very little and young and immature.(9)

Talking to the artist about works like Afterimage and Visitor, he seems adamant that they are not simply about Serbian identity or reductive demonisations of genocide. Instead, he has attempted to transcend the local and personal, to view humanity with a dispassionate eye. In a landmark study published in 1969, anthropologist Desmond Morris articulated a case for humans as essentially co-operative, tribal creatures who, forced to live in the impersonal super-tribe of the modern urban condition, exhibited behaviours akin to animals in captivity. In the super-tribe, groups seek to retain their identity as tribes, through affiliations as diverse as sporting teams and religious sects, adopting the relevant markers to signify their belonging, while individuals strive to achieve and maintain dominance of the tribe. One of the main ways of achieving individual dominance and collective coherence, Morris proposed, is through war:

The external threat…has such a powerful cohesive effect on the members of a threatened group that the leader’s task is in many ways made easier. The more daring and reckless he is, the more fervently he seems to be protecting the group who, caught up in the emotional fray, never dare question his actions (as they would in peacetime), no matter how irrational these actions may be. Carried along by the grotesque tidal-wave of enthusiasm that war churns up, the strong leader comes into his own. With the greatest of ease he can persuade the members of his group, deeply conditioned as they are to consider the killing of another human being as the most hideous crime known, to commit this same action as an act of honour and heroism.(10)

Viewed in such a way, Grubanov’s work takes on an anthropological significance, hinting at behaviours that have been elicited within one tribe at the expense of another under conditions of strife imposed from outside. References to tribal banners are palpable in Afterimage while works like the video monologue A Guy I Know (2002) examines the socio-economic pressures preceding war and in an effort to understand one man’s motivations for volunteering to fight. Similarly, Visitor may be read as an attempted portrayal of ‘the modern human leader [for whom] there are clearly difficulties in performing his dominant role efficiently. The grotesquely inflated power which he wields means that there is the ever present danger that only an individual with an equally grotesquely inflated ego will successfully be able to hold the super-tribal reins. Also, the immense pressures will easily push him into initiating acts of violence, an all-too-natural response to the strains of super-status.’(11) In quieter pieces, like the Stage series of oil paintings from 2004, Grubanov again alludes to the status struggle of leaders and their ritualistic displays on raised platforms. Even a work like Father Figure may be read as a display of dominance, as a recognisable tribal figure quite literally flexes his political muscle in public.

Detailed studies have also been conducted into human aggression and, except in cases where overcrowding causes a fight for survival, humans have been found to be virtually unique in habitually destroying members of their own species.(12) As a seemingly vital instinct, aggression has been considered equal to the drive for sex or for food and may be found to be expressed directly, displaced onto a scapegoat, inhibited altogether to re-materialise later or ‘diverted into the variations of the rat-race, [whereby] dominance is achieved by success in business, politics, the arts and sciences, although propaganda easily guides the aggressive drive back into its old channels of fighting to kill.’(13) While there are those who are, quite rightly, suspicious of the use of such biological determinism as a way of explaining heinous human behaviour in order to exempt it,(14) we may find some comfort in a consideration of the aggressive impulse. Firstly, the sublimation of its destructive potential into creative and research-based pursuits has led to some of the greatest achievements of humanity. The fragility of this equilibrium is seen in Afterimage as ornate icons, created in the process of consolidating tribal identity through religion, are destroyed as hostile symbols by a rival tribe in pursuit of dominance. The second glimmer of hope for humanity is that propaganda, combined with environmental strife, is necessary to incite the aggressive impulse and persuade individuals to kill members of their own species, as the lack of coherent explanation in A Guy I Know demonstrates.

As a rational creature, Man can attempt to explain its biological inheritance in order to predict how it will exert itself under certain conditions. Perhaps suggesting that art has a part to play in furthering this understanding, Grubanov asks What Stands Between Us and Tomorrow? (2006). In this piece, which so far exists as documentation of a performance, the artist is hoisted in a crane above the parliament square in Belgrade, site of many political rallies and demonstrations, to make a rousing speech. A confident orator, he dismisses the past as ‘our worst enemy’ and the present as ‘a puppet and a mercenary of the past’ before compelling his listeners, bemused by his political affiliations, to escape the constrictions of history and trust only in the future:

We will be the first people of the future!
We will be the first nation of the future!
To live for the future and for the future to live within us!
Let’s live.

Grounded in empty rhetoric, irony, nationalism and an evasion of lessons from the past, this work shows how far we, as a species, still have to go to reconcile our tribal tendencies.

Afterall, issue 14, Autumn/Winter 2006, pp. 73-80.
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1. Robert Fisk, Beirut to Bosnia, 1993.
2. Eberhard Sauer, The Archaeology of Religious Hatred in the Roman and Early Medieval World, (Gloucester: Tempus, 2003).
3. Ivan Grubanov in conversation with Avis Newman and Martjintje Hallmann, Documents (Amsterdam: Rijksakademie, 2006).
4. Dragan Plavsic, ‘Balkans’ in Anti-Imperialism: A Guide for the Movement, (London: Bookmarks, 2003)
5. Tony White, Another Fool in the Balkans: in the footsteps of Rebecca West, (London: Cadogan, 2006), p. 232.
6. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, 1963.
7. Ibid. p. 128.
8. Ibid.
9. Documents, op.cit.
10. Desmond Morris, The Human Zoo, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1969), p. 50.
11. Ibid, p. 51.
12. Anthony Storr, Human Aggression (Middlesex: Penguin, 1968).
13. L. Harrison Matthews, ‘Overt Fighting in Mammals’ in The Natural History of Aggression, (London & New York: The Academic Press, 1964), p. 32.
14. R.C. Lewontin, The Doctrine of DNA: Biology as Ideology, (London: Penguin, 1993).