Nada Prlja, the legacy is always fluid
Interview by Gaetano Centrone
…The Balkan powder keg is not only the scene of great political upheavals with bloody features, but in recent decades it has given us an important group of artists absolutely in line with the times, often engaged, always interesting. The fragmentation of Yugoslavia and the independence of Kosovo have also marked the routes of art, with artists – and many women among them – who have also become a bridge between their respective countries and the West.
IM: We met the most representative artist in Macedonia, Nada Prlja (1971), who, after living between Skopje and London, is now living in Copenhagen. She participated at the most important international exhibitions from Innsbruck to Chile, from Moscow to Berlin, she represented Macedonia at the last Venice Biennale in 2019.
She was born in Sarajevo, when there was still Yugoslavia, but she lived mostly in Macedonia, the artfacts.net site considers her the most important Macedonian artist…
NP: My parents met on holiday on the Adriatic coast, when they were 20 years old. My father, although of Montenegrin origin, was born in Sarajevo, while my mother, was born in Skopje, Macedonia. This intense summer love ended up in marriage, with my mother moving to Sarajevo. This is the reason why I was born in Sarajevo and my early childhood memories are linked to this city.
My mother and I moved to Skopje in 1981, when my parents divorced. I was still a child then and most of my memories and experiences are therefore linked to Skopje: school, fine art high school, art academy, great friendships, with people that have inspired me, living through the interesting times of the ‘80s and ‘90s, etc. Memories of morning meetings with my colleagues in the local cafeteria, my relation to the sun, with the long shadows of the afternoon – all of these, for me, are connected to Skopje and are the things that I miss wherever I go.
I know the fabric of the city inside-out, which is why, when I am there, I feel very productive, creatively, as I have a deep understanding of the problems and feel the need and responsibility to be active as an artist in order to reflect on those in the most productive of ways possible.
M: Politics, nationalism, the transition of ex-socialist countries, human rights, migration: could we assume that the focuses of your work are extremely actual?
NP: I worked on those topics at various stages in my life as I was triggered by certain societal events or changes. Actually, when I started my career in the late 90s, I was more inspired by the positions of being a woman, body politics, identity, etc. When I moved to London, I took a ‘creative break’ of a few years. I could not react creatively to this new situation as in general I need a comprehensive understanding of the subject or context on which I reflect through my work. At the time, I did not have a strong relationship with my own self, as being newly arrived in the city, having also become a new mother, a new (MPhil) student, etc. I could not even reflect on my own internal world creativity.
I found myself in a stage as a newly born being, where the topics of human rights and migration were the closest to me. At the same time, at home, or in the whole region of Eastern Europe, society was undergoing a turbulent stage of post-socialist transition and transformation, where consumerism and nationalism were taking over. The political and social circumstances that surrounded me, have potentially influenced my work. At the time when I started working with those subjects, they were highly unpopular, especially in the UK, in which the presence of post YBA (Young British Artists) was strong. Things are different now and my work aligns with current trends, but I never followed what is current or fashionable in the world of art, as I strongly believe that artists can only be direct in their work if they are touched in a real manner by certain circumstances, events or relations; everything else is a form of manipulation, pretending or can be reduced to an expression of simple aesthetic decoration.
IM: Your work is mainly conceptual, rigorous and intellectual oriented: what is the role of aesthetics in it?
NP: I was trained as a classical artist, where aesthetics and the history of art were the most important subjects and where artistic skills, such as drawing, painting, etc. were the basis for our studies. I consciously avoided being identified with any particular artistic style, as this was too limiting for me. I felt that I needed to have the freedom to answer any of the subjects with which I was working within a specific aesthetic manner – this also relates to my approach towards art mediums. I think that we, as artists, develop with every project, therefore staying within the same visual realm is almost impossible, and I therefore allow myself to search, experiment and shift.
I even allowed others to collaborate with me or to co-create my works of art; for instance, for my project for Manifesta 8, detainees of the Detention Center in Murcia, Spain, were given the task of recording 6 hours of video material, observing their own life and conditions during their imprisonment. Another example is the public art work ‘Peace Wall’ which was realized for the Berlin Biennale, where in reality the work of art was ‘created’ by the citizens’ reactions to it. My passion and dedication to socio-politically engaged and critical culture – and their role in society – is fundamental for my way of thinking, being, and practicing as an artist; even as a curator, art director and cultural worker in general, aesthetics, for me, comes secondarily. Actually, I am even more excited when a particular work of art has its way of continuing its own life in an unexpected manner (as has been the case with several of my projects, including the Berlin ‘Peace Wall’).
IM: You are also engaged in public art works, that in my opinion are one of the most important aspects of contemporary research, don’t you think?
NP: It is interesting to note that both my most recent public art project, exhibited early in 2020 (Innsbruck International Biennale), and my first solo show, exhibited at the Center for Physical Rehabilitation (Skopje) in 1997, are both site specific, public artworks. Later on, my MPhil Research Thesis from the Royal College of Art (2002) entitled ‘Blurring the Boundaries between the Artist and the Viewer as Conditioned by the Changing Concept of Art Space’, examined new ways of working with art and public space. I have to say that in this thesis I experimented with ways of connecting people who are physically distant, but with the same interest, through the medium of photography and via telephone communication – something like Instagram, at the time where we were using old Nokia phones rather than smartphones when image exchange via telephones was still ‘science fiction’. I like the fact that public art opens many possibilities for artists, first and foremost the possibility to engage with real situations and conditions. This is not really possible in a gallery or museum environment, as the gallery is a white canvas, a ‘white box’ that changes its content virtually on a monthly basis, almost like a ‘showroom’ for furniture that provides only walls for the content – art exhibitions.
IM: Your work Communism, that Fallen Star of Political Endeavour thinks about the communist heritage. What are your conclusions?
NP: When I was a child, growing up in Yugoslavia, every office or school classroom, had a portrait of the leader Tito. When communism ended, those pictures were removed from the walls and on the surface beneath the painting, the walls were much lighter than the wall surface around the pictures. I remember looking at those lighter patches of wall surface in my mother’s office, soaked in cigarette fumes (like most offices at the time) and remember being somewhat afraid of this ‘ending’ of something familiar and as the beginning of something new and unfamiliar. One could ask oneself, did this kind of Communism come to an end? Yes, it did.
Nevertheless, I am a firm believer that this ideology and societal system offered a significant societal development and in my recent exhibition ‘Subversion to Red’, a solo exhibition with which I represented the Republic of North Macedonia at the 58th Biennale di Venezia in 2019, I encouraged a return to ‘forgotten’ notions of idealism and ideology, as a form of motivation in contemporary society. The project employed a variety of artistic and non-artistic methodologies, including an experimental live art event, entitled ‘Red Discussion 2’, featuring several notable contemporary thinkers and curators engaged in transformative practices, including Charles Esche, Maurizio Lazzarato, Vlad Morariu, Chantal Mouffe, Laura Raicovich and Artan Sadiku. They engaged in trying to find exit strategies from the current conditions of social precariousness, by defining alternative conditions to Capitalism, writing their keywords of interest for tomorrow’s society on the table where the discussion happened.
This particular artwork, which is part of the wider project ‘Subversion to Red’, therefore consists not only of the performance itself but also the red, pentagon-shaped table with the writings, and the video work documenting the performance. ‘Red Discussion 2’ was the second in a series of similar public events and artworks involving theorists, socio-political critics and art curators, which seeks to establish the potential and build upon the relation between art and socio-political change, another expression of critically engaged art practice. It is my hope and intention for this project to continue in new and different contexts, involving other, new voices – which would take place in the form of ‘Red Discussion 3’.