Interview by Xandra Popescu in Berlin; Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013
So called politically engaged or critical contemporary art is often a case of preaching to the choir. From the safe confines of the museum or gallery, artists address topics such as migration and poverty for a public largely composed of other art professionals who share similar political convictions. The stance against injustice and inequality becomes a shiny merit badge on one´s chest. More often than not, these attitudes are backed by sincere intentions, but in spite of that one cannot help but feel that much of it moves in a closed loop circuit.
The work of Yugoslav born artist Tanja Ostojić piqued my interest many years ago. Her work draws inspiration from her own experience as a non-European Union citizen, a traveller and female artist. Queen Victoria of England is famously quoted as saying: “Beware of artists. They mix with all classes of society and are therefore most dangerous.” Staying true to this reputation, Tanja Ostojić deliberately steps out of the art world meddling with the mechanisms of social exclusion and inclusion.
Her iconic work Untitled / After Courbet, L´origine du monde (2004) recreates what was at the time a scandalous work by Gustave Courbet. Ostojić adds a new layer of controversy by posing in the same position as the woman in the painting, wearing only a pair of blue panties, which display the EU flag. The work was part of the EuroPart project in Austria, at the time the Austrian Prime Minister was about to take over the Presidency of the EU. Exhibited on rotating billboards throughout the city, the piece stirred an enormous media scandal. One Austrian yellow-press provoked the media scandal labelling the artwork as state-funded pornography, and as a result the work was taken down two days later.
In the Looking for a Husband with EU Passport, Tanja Ostojić fashions herself an online persona – “Hottanja@HottMail.com” – and publishes an ad representing her naked with a shaved head and pubic area. For five years she exchanged around 500 messages with potential candidates to her hand in marriage. The project resulted in an actual legal marriage to a German artist K.G. and the entire process has constituted a work of art. The two separated in 2005, after which Ostojić made the Divorce Party. Some of the online correspondence that has resulted in this process is published in one of the books dedicated to her work: Integration Impossible?: The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić.
What strikes me about Tanja Ostojić´s work is her lucidity. Even before the 2004 wave of European enlargement, Ostojić was a declared Eurosceptic. I remember at the time, there was a feeling of gratefulness among Eastern Europeans for the opportunity to join the European Union – in spite of our countries sometimes not fulfilling the acquis communautaire in its entirety. Filled with hope, most of the Eastern European intelligentsia were looking to the European Union as the civilizing hero who would discipline its corrupt politicians and through its policies and regulations bring us to “European standards”.
Long before this fairytale partnership started to expose major cracks, Ostojić´s work had been criticizing the arrogance of this arrangement. Now that the rest of the Eastern European intelligentsia is catching on, her work looks more prescient than ever. Expanding her interest in power dynamics, her other works address the relationship between art and economics and the hypocrisy of the art world.
XANDRA POPESCU: Because a lot of your work is about migration, I´d like to ask you what is your current relationship with your country of origin?
TANJA OSTOJIC: Actually my country of origin does not exist anymore, that´s something we have to understand. The place has changed with the political and economic circumstance. I can either relate to what is there now or to the time I have been living there. I do keep in touch with a number of individuals, from the cultural scene there as well as with some activist groups. I travel to Serbia and to Montenegro at least once or twice a year. The cultural scene in Belgrade is in a situation of deep depression. The National Museum has not been working for ten years and the Contemporary Art Museum for seven. As a result, the conditions for cultural production are extremely difficult. The last time I produced something there was probably in 2004. The work consisted of short television series entitled Open Studio of New Belgrade Chronicle. The purpose of this series was to work with citizens issues. The first episode was correcting media´s hate speech proliferation against Roma people in the Gazela settlement in New Belgrade, that is a neighbourhood where I’ve grown up. This settlement that had very long and complex history has been unfortunately wiped out in August 2009. The other episode was about the resistance in the Fifth Park in Belgrade. While near-by parks have been removed overnight, in the processes of economization of every piece of green land in the city the Fifth Park has survived due to the very persistent and important neighbourhood struggle. Whenever I am in Serbia I try to somehow support civic initiatives, either in public interviews or within my own artwork. I consider it necessary to work with the knowledge of the local context, politics and citizen initiatives.
XP: Were the videos broadcasted on television?
TO: Yes, both were broadcasted twice by the TV Politika television station at maximum rating times. As well, they were shown later on Sarajevo TV and at several art shows. As a short digression – together with a group of international artist we are running a self-financed platform called the Roma Media Archive platform you can also find the episode about the Gazela settlement.
XP: You are well known for your Eurosceptic position. How did you become one?
TO: Last year when they voted in Croatia to the European Union, several journalists contacted me to ask if I thought their country should join the EU… And I was asked to give a statement for TAZ when the EU got a Nobel Prize as well. I became kind of European Affairs specialist, you see. But yes, since 1998 I have lived in three different states that are currently members of the EU: first in France, then in Slovenia and Germany. So maybe I am a kind of specialist. I realized that the cultural identity narrative has been less likely to be at stake in the EU project, but rather globalisation as economic paradigm. And yes, I have also researched a lot on the economic implications on and of migration.
My first triggers about the European Union came from my personal experience with crossing borders, queuing in front of embassies and consulates and filing out numerous questionnaires and applicationss and being interviewed by immigration officers. It is here that the disdain of the European Union becomes evident and how power relations function. Upon entering Fortress Europe, there is a range of safety procedures you have to go through: the bag searching, scanning, questioning and other indiscretions. At the end of the day, you come to realize you are even part of a privileged “category”. Apart from arrogance or elitism, the EU is also guilty of exploitation. It uses cheap labor, towards which it does not assume any responsibility in terms of retirement benefits or health insurance. In my work, I have often addressed the situation of the illegal or sans papiers. Another breed of exploitation is the practice of outsourcing production in unfair trade manners – the EU outsources to Asia, Africa, South America and the new member states including former Eastern Europe, and in this way exploits more people and kills other markets. Human Rights and the European cultural identity seem to be only a façade. If we look at the newest developments and how easily the EU dropped down Greece, Portugal and Spain as if they were not member states, we can understand where this is leading.
XP: Would you be in favour of your country’s EU accession?
TO: No, not to what the European Union is today. Of course not. And this is not about Serbia or Croatia – it´s about any country.
XP: In your work you have often dealt with the issue of exploitation in the art world. Can you tell us more about it?
TO: There is a lot of precarity, exploitation and self-exploitation in the art world. In Europe, there is no standard. In the US, it´s clear: you do not get paid for shows, because most artists make a living by other means, for example teaching. On the other side we have of course the art market with wired prizes including money laundering, etc. In Europe some artists get paid a lot, some very little, and the most nothing. Some receive larger production budgets and others smaller ones or none at all. Even in terms of treatment within the same show, things differ between artists. I remember the Prague Biennale, in the National Gallery Prague in 2005: they accommodated artists from “Western Europe” in so much better conditions than the artists from the “Eastern Europe”.
XP: Some of your works, such as I’ll Be Your Angel, Vacation with Curator question power structures in the art world by creating ambiguous narratives around the artist-curator relationship. They are integrated in everyday life. Later on, you took this question into your relationship with institutions – and I am referring to the Questionnaire Project.
TO: The project started from the observation that almost everybody gets paid, except the artist: from the guarding and cleaning personnel to the curator, institution director, cultural administrators at city and state level. Only the artist, who is the one bringing in the content – and preferably always new content – is mostly left out. I was always curious how the budgets of these institutions were distributed. The Questionnaire addresses the annual budgets of the art institutions or festivals, and how it is distributed. Who gets paid with what amount of money in this framework? For two years, I gathered data from museums, galleries and festivals that have invited me to present my work with them. I didn’t asked for any artist fees if it was not offered to me, and my only condition for participating was to receive this questionnaire completed. Well I participated in a variety of events, from exhibitions in established museums to queer festivals or performance festivals organized on a purely voluntary basis. But money is not all, curriculum is also a matter of cultural capital. This project was in a way unsuccessful because a number of institutions tricked me. They deferred answering the Questionnaire, saying that they were still gathering data, but never got back to me in that respect. At the same time, I know it is a lot of work and that many institutions have to fill out questionnaires for the ministries of culture and for their financiers. So, to also be questioned by the artist as well is a problem for them. Even the NGBK, an apparently very democratic institution, refused to go public with their budgets. But I participated in the exhibition anyway because they kindly issued a statement by which they have declared their refusal. Recently when I did sculptures in Vojvodina (province of Serbia), I had to insist that a young photographer who worked with me for a day gets paid as well by the institution who produced my project. For me it was a very important political stand that she is paid. Since this is also a well-known scenario when a more established artist works with a younger artist and the voluntary work of the younger artist is taken for granted. I also have some projects where participating artists or people don’t get paid. But I always make sure that these relationships are carried on in equitable terms.
XP: In the Looking for a Husband with EU Passport you entered into a correspondence with candidates to your hand in marriage. Is there any letter that particularly impressed you?
TO: Oh there were a whole variety of letters. The project has been running partly as an interactive online project. Unfortunately I have lost some of these messages due to a computer virus. It lasted for 5 years and even after I got married proposals kept pouring in. I published the advert online in August 2000 and I married in January 2002. Part of this correspondence is published: some messages are part of the installation and the others are part of my wedding book. Even though I initially did not intend to research on how people create and maintain their identity online, this came into focus, because people do represent themselves online in very different ways, and that often does not correspond to the reality. There was one message coming from Holland saying “If you marry me, you will be in heaven.” This gave me the chills: I had no idea what heaven looked like for this person. I got letters both from men and women proposing love affairs. There was also a romantic invitation for marriage which I had to turn down because this was not something I could do within the framework of the project. I was looking for someone who would enter into this marriage with a full awareness of what it involved in both political and artistic terms.
XP: But you divorced before you got the papers?
TO: With the international marriage certificate and other required documents, I applied for a visa in Belgrade. After two months, I got a family unification visa, limited to a single entry for a three-month stay in Germany, so I moved to Düsseldorf, where, on the basis of my next visa, I lived officially for three and a half years.
In spring of 2005, my three-year visa expired, and instead of granting me a permanent residence permit, the authorities only granted me a two-year visa. After that, K. G. and I got divorced, and on the occasion of the opening of my Integration Project Office installation at Gallery 35 in Berlin (1 July 2005), I organised a Divorce Party.
In Germany as well as in other European countries they look at the income level of the marriage partners and the length of the visa depends on the income level of the two partners. There are countries that have even more restrictive visa issuing standards than Germany for the non-EU partners. In Denmark, for example, you cannot marry a foreigner that is under 21. So the foreigner´s standard maturity age is not considered maturity. And only after seven years of marriage can the non-Danish partner come and live there.
XP: In your current project Lexicon of Tanja Ostojić you work with the women who share the same first name and family name with you. Can you tell us more about it?
TO: This interdisciplinary research project is supported by the Graduate School for the Arts and Sciences at the Berlin University of the Arts (UdK) where I am currently a fellow. This is the first time that my research is financed and this makes a big difference because I have carried out a lot of research in my work over the past 13 years. Lacking research and production budgets, some of these works did not come to realization. My aunt who is a journalist conducted research on the history of the family name Ostojić, in documents dating from Medieval Times to the 19th century. This name has appeared in written documents only in relation to a Bosnian king, blue blooded man, or men of trade in the old Dubrovnik Republic. So no women bearing this family name have ever been mentioned in official documents of the time. Via research on online networks, such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Skype I have been able to find around 50 Tanja Ostojićs. By contrast, in Belgrade´s contemporary phone book for example, I found only two women with the name Tatjana Ostojić, while predominantly most of the telephone accounts were registered as men. In working with the biographies of my name-sisters, I try to cross-cut them around the key issues such as war and transition in Yugoslavia, gender issues, discrimination at work, or the way their lives are affected by the current state of capitalism. The project will result in cartographies documenting how Tanja Ostojićs have been migrating and what issues they have been confronted with along their lives. The Tanja Ostojić conventions will be another aspect of the project encompassing meetings, events and workshops.
XP: Can you tell us something about some of the participants in the project?
TO: Well I work with the biographies of people and this is a very delicate material. I would not share juicy stories about my name-sisters or expose them in any way. But I can tell you about one of the first Tanja Ostojićs I met. She teaches additional classes of Mathematics for school kids and for seniors in the small private school of her own in Lörrach, Germany, close to the border with Switzerland and France. She has been living in Germany for the past 20 years and she is an open-minded lady. Shortly after we connected online she expressed a wish to meet up with me. Together, we conceived most of the questionnaire on which I base my interviews with other name-sisters. There is another Tanja Ostojić who was born just one week earlier than me in the same town in the West of Serbia. We have been keeping in touch and had a few meeting attempts, but it has not worked out so far because she had visa problems and is often travelling to search for work. But we agreed to meet, together with two other name-sisters, in Ljubljana on 11th of November when i will be traveling in the region.
One of the questions I address to my name-sisters is “What is it to be Tanja Ostojić?” The answer of a 28 year old Tanja Ostojić from Banjaluka–BiH (who lost both her father and her uncle when she was 7 years old, during the war) really moved me. She said “Well it is not like being Madonna or Angelina Jolie” and I asked “what do you mean?.” To which she replied “Being rich, good looking and famous, and getting paid to act.” And, of course, she´s right. It is not the same. The context in which we evolve determines our future in a major way.
See the artist’s website here: TANJA OSTOJIC
Xandra Popescu works as a writer and filmmaker. She holds an MA in Dramatic Writing from the National Theater and Film University in Bucharest and has a background in Political Science. Since 2011, together with Larisa Crunteanu and Alice Gancevici, she runs a project space in Bucharest called Atelier 35.