The initial version of Was ist Kunst? ( Was ist Kunst, Patrizia Hennings? ), was made as a video performance in the town of Brdo in Istria, from 1st to 9th October in 1976 and produced by the Krizinger Gallery from Innsbruck. This particular work has played a pivotal role both in the evolution of Raša Todosijević’s personal oeuvre, but also had a much broader impact – on conceptual and post-conceptual art of the former Yugoslavia region. This influence, existent to this date, was among others, demonstrated by the exhibition titled … Was ist Kunst? … Resuming Fragmented Histories, which took place in 2013 in Graz, in coproduction of the Steirischer Herbst and the local Kunstlerhaus. In the announcement of the exhibition, which gathered about 30 regional artists and art groups around the exhibition project that questioned the conditions of art in the societies of former Yugoslavia countries, it was explicitly stated that its aim was to resume the question initially raised in the serial performances by Raša Todosijević.
The announcement text read that “after almost forty years of repetition, until the moment of complete exhaustion, the eternal question remains unanswered, even while it has consistently made the case for artists taking an active role in art discourse.” This particular art piece influenced artistic practices in the region on two levels. Both were related to correction of linguistic and analytic conceptualism in times when, to its founders’ great disappointment, it had already begun to turn into an artistic style. One level of the correction emerged from the emphasis of expressiveness, which had been, until that moment, regarded as incompatible with conceptual approach. This matter, with regard to Raša Todosijević’s work, was elaborated on by Ješa Denegri, whereas Isabelle Graw coined a universal term “conceptual expression”. The other level was produced by the demonstration of violence as a constitutive element of every system, including the art systems (in the sense of the “symbolic violence” Pierre Bourdieu wrote about), but also of every radical attempt of the system’s re-examination and change.
Behind Todosijević’ interrogative treatment of principal art questions lies the attitude that it is not definitions that help us perceive something as art (and the analytical line of conceptual art was, at the time, obsessively concerned with definitions), but the unconsciously adopted habitus, which construct our general worldview, and therefore the world of art. We do not renounce them rather easily, calmly, as we acquire certain intellectual knowledge after adopting a new definition of art, but to do so, we also need to be existentially disturbed. In other words, more precisely Bourdieu’s, both epistemological and ontological questions of art are inseparable from the analyses of procedures by which dominant groups that have real social power, impose certain paradigms as valid, while at the same time concealing the relationships of power that support them. Both legitimizing and delegitimizing an artist’s product or act as an artwork are inevitably part of the domination game in the field of art. Every choice made is a move in the game and each answer to the question means taking one of the positions that are presented as plausible. Hence, maybe the only step forward from the possible is what all historical avant-gardes demanded: to insist upon the question itself, incessantly, persistently and aggressively repeating “Was ist Kunst?”.
Was ist Kunst? has been mostly exhibited as video work, but it is to be noted that in the 1970s, it was performed in front of audiences, in several versions. In the catalogue dedicated to Raša Todosijević’s art of the 1970s titled Great Southern Performances, published by SKC Belgrade in 1980, the following performances are listed: Was ist Kunst?, Bienalle de Paris 77, Was ist Kunst?, Gallery Sretna Nova Umetnost, Belgrade 1977, Was ist Kunst? – No Smoking, Gallery Mospan, Warsaw, 1978, Was ist Kunst, Malgožata?, International Festival “Performance & Body”, Krakow, Krakow Meetings, 1978, Was ist Kunst?, International Festival Performance Meeting, SKC, 1978, Was ist Kunst?, Osterrichischer Kunstverenin, Internacionales performance festival, 1978, Vienna. Unlike earlier Raša Todosijević’s performances that were, according to Ješa Denegri, carried out “under the impetus of the assertion: ‘Decision as art’“, which proclaimed mundane life matters to be elements of artwork, here the principal ontological question of art is being brought up. It is raised quite emphatically, in a repetitive way that evolves without a solution, until the absolute exhaustion of the questioner, leaving it open still. Up to this art piece, as Denegri observes it, Todosijević had been putting into practice “artistic behaviour as the behaviour of artistic self-will”, and only after it he would give up on the “a-priori nomination” and “begin to apply the interrogative form of articulating the nature of art, thereby claiming that ‘the way in which an artist questions art is a work of art in itself.’” The very way in which he poses that most fundamental of all questions, has been the subject of debates and interpretations of a large number of interpreters of the work, who were primarily focused on its video version.
Videography of Raša Todosijević
In the catalogue/book Video Art in Serbia (SCCA, Belgrade 1999), the videography of Raša Todosijević lists it as his fifth video production, the one after Pijenje vode (Water Drinking, 1973), Ko profitira od umetnosti, a ko pošteno zarađuje (Who profits from art and who earns from it honestly, 1975), Moje poslednje remek delo (My last masterpiece, 1975) and Sećanje na umetnost Raše Todosijevića (Remembering Raša Todosijević’s art, 1976). The video performance Was ist Kunst, Patrizia Hennings? would later have another two versions, both with the question nominally directed at a different female person, whose name was included in the title (Was ist Kust, Marinela Koželj? and Was ist Kunst, Farideh Kadot?). In the aforementioned catalogue/book, Branko Dimitrijević placed emphasis on how the medium has advanced the performance which was done in front of the camera. He underlined the “claustrophobic performance framing, whose effects of intimidation and aggressiveness are intensified by the stillness of the camera” along with the “critical intonation related to understanding art and its ideological matrix, accentuated by the media duration, which via real-time transmission makes it even more oppressive for the viewer.” In the catalogue for the exhibition that Todosijević staged as the representative of Serbia at the 54th Venice Biennale (published by the Museum of Contemporary Art of Vojvodina, Novi Sad, 2011), Georg Schöllhammer further insisted on the violence that the work perpetrates against potential viewers, who are according to him, put in “an identificational conflict: they are torturers of both the model and artist, as he neurotically despairs over the question he poses.”
In other words, watching this video is also a testimony about the act, performed in front of the camera lens, while purposely counting on the viewer’s gaze. Schöllhammer speculates whether the witness simultaneously becomes an accomplice, or perhaps an unconscious and intentioned initiator of the agonizing act he is watching, since it all happens precisely for his eyes. This becomes particularly dramatic when we take into consideration the claim by Dejan Sretenović included in the text of the catalogue for Raša Todosijević’s retrospective exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade (MSUB, Belgrade 2002), which conveys that this video performance is “a work firmly anchored in the objectivity of physical action, in the production and not simulation of violent acts”. All this is not a show, then. It is not only the author’s thematisation of the question “What is Art?“ performed in a dramatic fashion so as to have a stronger effect on the viewer, but rather a document of the attempt to persevere, at all costs, in the position of perpetual interrogation of art, without the illusion, that someone can come up with an answer.