Artist and Faculty at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Photography Department
This is the first of three blog posts by Irena Knezevic. The two upcoming posts, The Ruin of Production and The Fireworks, will be published throughout the week.
Behind the Filip Visnjic Elementary School there is a scattering of residential neo-socialist buildings. The development has been halted due to failure of credit systems that funded the construction of the apartments usually assigned to government bureaucracy workers. By 1991, most of the structures kept the promise of brutalist architecture through the lower middle class tenants they housed. The steel beams bled excrement-brown onto the concrete blocks that crept apart from each-other allowing for cracks, later separations, eventually carving solid and complete chunks of concrete that fell on the ground around the buildings like gigantic dandruff. There, they stayed, pieces that Robert Smithson would have picked up, were he a Serbian artist.
Beyond being another case study of modernist aging and decay, this site had more telling qualities. It was thin due to a stoppage in funding, eighteen identical buildings in a single straight row (very small compared to 21 block lines of similar developments in New Belgrade, serb. Novi Beograd) resembling a chessboard with only one row of pawns. On the other side of development was a wasteland as far as sight can recognize, and it ended with an elevation, a hill that carried a Belgrade suburb called Mirjevo on and the river Danube. This wasted space was a physical denial, it was allotted for the rest of the construction, like a placeholder, waiting for the time when the state will fund another 20 rows of buildings. What is important to remember (keep in the imagined map) is that once you left elementary school and ran through the line of buildings, all you saw was nothing. No trees, some anemic grass, and patches of bare rectangles where boys set up goals for football. Grays, light browns and greens bleached in the sun. This was a place for endless fights, running, marble playing, throwing stones, earth as a kitchen, digging, pets, and in the spring on the first sunny day (very much like today) the Cerga of Romani (band of Romani) would set up tents and fires atop of the hill. They brought animals which attracted us, and children from the other side of the Mirjevo. My school friend Isljam Berisa returned with them and I would play with him seasonally when his family occupied the hill.
In 1991 Berisa’s arrived with a large dancing bear and a bear cub. Other Romani, as well as Isljam’s father would travel to the center of Belgrade in horse carriages with performing animals, and earn their living from donations of passerby. Their prize possession was the big dancing bear. Regularly, she would just lie there like a cat and Isljam’s father would pet and feed her. She had no teeth and no claws and as soon as she heard a tune from Islam father’s harmonica, she would get up on her hind feet, lift one paw and then the other, and dance in the rhythm of the music. It was beautiful, funny and sad, a miracle of cruel sophistication. The children were hypnotized. In 1991, on the hill behind the developments, the mother bear died. They buried her under the marble rolly holes and Isljam’s father needed now to train the cub how to dance. The little bear studied for two weeks in one of the smaller tents. In the evening, we saw the tent illuminated by warm light, music starting and stopping. It was the same harmonica melody and at first the cub was roaring, drowning the music. We could see the shadows of Islam’s father siting on a chair playing, and the bear standing up and down, up and down.
Finally, after two weeks we peaked into the tent. Isljam’s father was sitting and playing as usual and the bear was in front of him dancing. Under the bear’s feet was a large round metal stool (like a small trampoline) and under it in a steel bleaching pot was a medium size fire. The handle of the pot was tied to Isljam’s father’s leg and he would kick the pot under the chair when he was playing the music and jerk the pot away when he stopped. The tent reaked of burned hair, flesh and evaporating filthy sweat. The hind paws of the bear fused and left no paw print on the black puddle of bear’s blood boiling to char on the concave surface of the metal stool. The bear was no longer crying or roaring, just trying to jump away from the heat when the music was playing and cool down when the music stopped. Seeing our terror, Isljam’s father told us that this was the last night of training, that the bear feels no pain anymore, and that from now on he will dance to the harmonica knowing through his scars that music is fire.
This was the best studio visit I ever made.
Irena Knezevic is a Serbian artist currently living in Chicago. Recent projects and performances have occured at the ThreeWalls, Museum of Contemporary, Art Chicago; White Columns, New York; Harvard University, Cambridge and Galerie im Regierungsviertel, Berlin. Knezevic earned her MFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago in 2007.
Image Caption and Credit:
Still from Johan Grimonprez's Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1998)