"I am not merely an observer"
A Conversation with Ivan Grubanov by Raluca Voinea
In the approximately 200 drawings of his series VISITOR, made between 2002 and 2003, Ivan Grubanov recorded the Miloševic trial at the International Court of Justice in Den Haag. The Serbian artist, whose work takes up an entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Group Head Office in Frankfurt, is not solely interested in processing war crimes and tyranny. He is also concerned with his responsibility as a witness and an artist. Grubanov spoke with the Romanian curator and critic Raluca Voinea about false memories, the language of drawing, and a critical reappraisal of history.
||Raluca Voinea: The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, the recent movie by director Andrei Ujica, begins its portrait of Romania’s former dictator with his last moments spent in the ad-hoc tribunal of 1989. To the accusations brought against him by the improvised prosecution committee—some of which were rather abstract, such as "bringing the country to the brink of disaster", and others more specific, such as "ordering the genocide in Timisoara" — Ceausescu’s answer is to essentially reject the authority of the court demanding a guilty confession of him. More than ten years after this accelerated mock trial, a different one took place in the International Court of Justice in The Hague against former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. This time, all appearances of legality seem to have been fulfilled; the judges, moreover, took their time, as though no conclusion were indeed necessary; as though the very fact that the trial was taking place were evidence enough that justice was being performed. In retrospect, was the attention you gave to the affair and the fact that you secretly recorded two years of this trial in drawing been a parallel process, a way for you not only to witness the actual hearings in court, but also to wrap the different slices of history that were being revealed or superimposed before you?
Ivan Grubanov: My drawings are recordings of a process of understanding and of juxtaposing myself with the subject, of examining the situation between the artist and his model on the semantic and visual levels. John Berger wrote that drawing documents not what you’ve seen, but what you’ve become. Drawing is an interaction with the subject; even more, it’s an introjection of the subject until you incorporate it to the point that the fusion of the subject and your own cognitive apparatus starts coming out of your hand and your pen. The drawings I made in the courtroom situate me not just in relation to the visual particularities I am considering while drawing, but also to the entire historical and political backdrop of the trial. Moreover, this backdrop happens to be my personal history, hence my involvement is multi-faceted. I am not merely an observer, but an active participant in the process of recapitulating different emotional narratives in the official history. My drawings record a process of coming to terms with the contradictory aspects of my involvement in this troubling chapter of history as well as my implicit involvement in the trial.
Along with your sketches of the prosecuted, the judges, and the overly present décor (lights, headphones, video-cameras etc.), you also present the "Visitor" badge granting you access to court, as well as stills from the TV coverage of the hearings, in which you can be seen as part of the audience. Is this a way of emphasizing the need for proof of physical presence, in the same way in which holding Milosevic in limbo throughout the trial was perhaps a way for the judges to emphasize the materiality of justice (and an embodiment of guilt)? Or is it a declaration of distance and estrangement, a step back from your own (and up to a point Milosevic’s) history?
On the one hand, the "Visitor" badge is a pass to enter the void where formal identities merge into the notion of "international, i.e. United Nations, international justice, and international tribunal. You need to present your national identity card at the entrance, as though you were entering sovereign territory; it is then taken away from you and replaced with the "Visitor"- badge your new identity in this transnational, superficial non-place. An action aims, perhaps, at the supposed objectivity of the tribunal and the concepts of transnational and international. On the other hand, the title "Visitor" emphasizes the ambiguity of my position, of my direct involvement in the events discussed in the courtroom, making me a mere member of the audience in this reality theater engaged in the process of forging history. The distance, if there is any, is contained in the transformation that I am forced to make from my own national and political identity into the identity of an artist and court draftsman, since this identity simplifies my interaction with the tribunal. It allows me to negotiate a different language of communicating with the process, a language with a noble claim to what it represents, the language of drawing.
This language of drawing seems to resist a mere translation of one reality into another; it often appears to have its own laws of operation. In many ways, it’s the closest visual vocabulary to (hand)writing, and as such it situates itself at the border between semantics and form. Both in the work Visitor and, more recently, in the G-Series, drawing and writing coexist, merge into one another, and play with the elusiveness of a meaning that has to be embodied in a trace, a mark. G- stands for genocide, but also for Grubanov; it is a sign, an abstract figure, proof of non-representability. In the drawings, however, it acquires a carnivalesque autonomy, generating more and more traces and lines until the shape of the words and their relationship to one another defy full control. Do you regard these series as potential testimonies to a deeper incompatibility between reality as it unfolds and what we are capable of saying about it?
The drawings I make are documents of locating and signifying unofficial and illegitimate truths about their subject. They record events as my attention towards the subject reaches a multi-faceted conclusion or imposes a crucial question. They are algorithms of various different mechanisms of identification; they dwell on the nature and cause of this identification. The G-Series records such a mechanism of identification; it does not search for a specific identity or position in relation to the stigma it employs, but describes the trajectory of institutional signifying, of imposing historical labels in the geo-political arena. By not merely depicting, but also introjecting and visually revealing the process of establishing such a stigma, I am trying to acquire autonomy in relation to the institutional signifiers of international power structures. I am deeply reluctant to accept this identity and, therefore, I deconstruct the travesty and simplifications of such a stigma. I argue that this stigma is first and foremost a neoliberal practice of establishing labels to arrange the economy of how to relate to a certain subject, as opposed to a historically justified judgment. Hence, the title G-Series, and the deconstruction of my own name and signature into "Ivan G-Star Raw". The word "genocide" appears in these drawings as a mere sign, a visual entity distorted in many drawn and written variants, removed from its essential point of reference, and transformed into a brand. It explains how in a genuinely corrupt world there is no ethically safe ground to speak about this subject without abusing or manipulating its implications.
Could it be that the impossibility of finding this ethically safe ground you are mentioning is connected to the lack of an ethnically innocent position, which not only makes it impossible to speak about the subject, but also means that there are very few standpoints that are universally valid I wonder how a work such as Afterimages was generated—if you were departing from the persistence of the memory of these places of worship, whose thin, fragmentary contours you suggest and render almost abstract, as though, along with the missing lines, you were also erasing the history, violence, and destruction that so often accompanied their physical and symbolic architecture. Afterimages or ghost images — they are lingering reminiscences like the optical effect denoted by the work’s title.
On the one hand, we are witnessing less regional and national specificity of any given context, and on the other, a higher global sensitivity to any geo-political particularity. The greater flow of information and facts has distributed knowledge in such a way that it’s become impossible to hide the darker chapters of national histories. And with all of them being interconnected in the global neoliberal concept of democracy, we can easily quote Albert Camus when we speak about the possibility of ethical and ethnical innocence. Camus said: "If this is democracy, then we are all guilty". The source imagery for the Afterimages is overloaded with ideological drive; these were images with high ideological potency and effect: religious monuments and religious scenes, the supposed ideological ?backdrop of the armed conflicts in the Balkans. During the war, I saw? the very notion of memory, the poetic and selfless act of preserving collective memory being transformed into an aggressive weapon that produces false distinctions based on the specificities of ideological drives. I wanted to intervene in these images whose de-contextualization fed the conflict. I went back to the genuine idea of memory and tried to embody it through the process of drawing. Deconstructing signifiers until they were reduced to a visualization of what could be their memory.
Another question, then, would be how much of your work revolves around issues of memory? If I look at other projects you’ve done, such as? Memorial or Haunting Memory, I see that recollections from your personal life stand beside sections of collective history; they rely on each other. Are the embodied, traced, and remembered memories less haunting, or does one need to learn how to permanently live with the ghosts?
A specific memory that is renewed and reworked through an art piece is operating as a symbolic replacement of the source. It is re-contextualizing and activating historical connotations that weren’t visibly present in the contemporary public sphere. Collective memory and reconciliatory processes are in the care of institutions, and that is an important aspect of governing: retaining control over the public mind. An individual who takes over the public re-interpretation of a memory is performing an act of rebellion. The sovereignty of art as an unofficial system of signifying is showing the way to other modes of a non-institutional shaping of the public mind.
To conclude, I would like to ask you what role performance plays in your practice? As other critics have remarked, you seem to turn to painting and drawing as a way of not letting yourself become absorbed back into the social fabric, of allowing your work to become a testimony of your time that is denuded of direct reference to actual facts, people, and events. Nevertheless, these are always present; they always follow you and insinuate themselves. Would you consider creating another work such as What stands between us and tomorrow, the speech you gave on a crane in front of the National Parliament in Belgrade in 2006. Is art a mere rhetorical discourse, or do you actually believe in the artist’s capacity to make a statement that is valuable for the society at large?
The prevailing world order has very little capacity to evolve into a just, self-reflexive, and self-correcting system. The critique of capitalism is as necessary as it is fashionable. The fashionable element in such rhetoric is somewhat irritating; the last two grand subjects of post-structuralist thought, the post-colonial condition and the reflection of modernity, resulted in a great number of artists merely illustrating the notions involved. Nowadays, art circles are pleading for non-material input in opposition to the material production of capitalism, hence the fashionable element is to deny the rightfulness of any work rooted in material and posterity. Another denouncement is contained in a derogatory attitude towards the notion of representation, considering it powerless and conservative. As I’ve explained before, I see representation as a symbolical replacement for its subject, putting the subject and its connotations in the public focus and allowing for new semantic links and connections to arise around it. However, the artist is not to become a mere means of execution, a persona behind the canvas. The artist is a medium just as much as the paint or charcoal. The artist stands for the corporeality of the artwork and its topic. Painting and drawing are performative acts of establishing a set of ideas by using the entire mindset and bodily functions. Just as much as I argue for a certain idea through the material work, I also argue for it in words and deeds. I believe there is a strong performative element in everything I make and a direct intervention in the public sphere is often crucial for visibly establishing the possibilities that the practice of art offers to the social fiber—new possibilities for reading, explaining, and managing the public realm.