All made up: painted bodies in performance art since perestroika

All made up: painted bodies in performance art since perestroika

Body painting has been a theme in eastern European performance art ever since Miervaldis Polis walked around Riga as a Bronze Man in 1987. Amy Bryzgel traces the development of the phenomenon and its shifting meanings over time

27 May 2016

The sight of a man or woman painted all in bronze, silver or gold is not an unusual one on the streets of Paris, Berlin or London nowadays. These everyday buskers get into costume and strike a pose every time a coin is dropped in their hat. Long before such street performers could ever be a possibility in Soviet Latvia, where private enterprise was discouraged, in 1987, Latvian artist Miervaldis Polis (b. 1948) put on a bronze suit and bronze hat, and painted his face and hands bronze. He took the bus from his apartment on the outskirts of the city centre, and proceeded to walk around the center of Riga, observing others’ reactions, never speaking. He had pre-arranged with a café owner to enter a café, drink a bronze drink (apple juice) and smoke a bronze-painted cigarette.

By the end of his walk he had attracted a large group of followers, and had to duck down a side street to escape the attention, before returning home. Some onlookers thought that the artist was imitating Lenin — in fact, there was a large statue of Lenin in the center of Riga, just as in every other Soviet city — and the KGB therefore suspected the artist was mocking the leader of the workers’ revolution. Although the artist wasn’t questioned about the matter, the bus driver who drove him to the city center was, and although he knew nothing about the performance, he defended Polis and denied the accusation that the artist was mocking Lenin. For Polis, the performance was a reference to the tendency of man to glorify all leaders in bronze, which human beings have been doing so since the time of Ancient Greek civilization, and not just the ubiquitous bronze statues dotting Soviet cities.

Throughout the years, a number of other painted bodies have appeared on the streets of Eastern Europe, but the fall of the USSR created new meanings for these strange figures.

Krištof Kintera, <em>Plumbuman</em>, Prague, 1995-8

In the late Nineties, after the system change, Czech artist Krištof Kintera’s (b. 1973) Plumbuman appeared on the streets of Prague (1995-8). The artist was dressed from head to toe in a lead suit, painted silver — unlike the Bronze Man, he was a lead man, encased in a poisonous suit. The artist described this being as resembling an “alien”, walking around in wonderment at all that surrounded him, a reference to the new post-communist world that all Czech citizens found themselves in, struggling to figure out how things worked and find his way in this new world.

One decade later, in 2005, Albanian artist Enisa Cenaliaj transformed herself into a Soviet-era statue of a worker in the new millennium, in a performance entitled Welcome, Dear Workers!. The artist stood on a high a pedestal in the Kombinat neighbourhood of Tirana — a pedestal upon which Stalin once rested — dressed like a worker in the style of Socialist Realism, all in white (the artist couldn’t find any other materials). Her image greeted the workers as they emerged from what used to be the Kombinat Stalin Textiles Factory after work, at 3:30PM. A banner nearby displayed the message that gave the title to the performance: “Welcome, dear workers!”.

Enisa Cenaliaj, <em>Welcome, Dear Workers!</em>, Tirana, 2005

The workers, however, didn’t feel welcomed by Cenaliaj’s performance. The reaction was strong: 20 years after the fall of the communist government in Albania, they commented: “We don’t need any more statues.” Some children threw stones. The locals, the intended audience, didn’t understand the context, and weren’t necessarily familiar with the phenomenon of performance art.

The artist had been motivated to create the performance following the changes she noticed in this working class area of Tirana after the fall of communism, an area that had once been for workers, and was now becoming a new commercial centre; although it no longer produced textiles, it was still called a textile factory. The disconnect between the business owners and the workers was striking, as well, given the concerns of the former, which were solely for profit. The performance drew attention to, and demanded recognition of, the working people who not only depend on this area for their livelihood, but in fact make it what it is. It also draws a parallel between the treatment of workers under the communist system and the current neoliberal capitalist one, highlighting one area where workers perhaps fare worse rather than better under the new system.

Veda Popovici, from <em>Dear Money, I know</em>, Bucharest, 2013

Capitalism was the target of Romanian artist Veda Popovici’s (b. 1986) 2013 work, Dear Money, I know. This involved a photographic performance and conceptual installation addressing the new market capitalism in Romania, not to mention the corporate “gold rush” and the controversy surrounding Roșia Montană (Rosia of the Mountains), a commune in the Apuseni Mountains in Western Transylvania, rich in mineral resources. The state-run gold mine there was closed in 2006, just before Romania’s accession to the EU. Later, Gabriel Resources of Canada planned to open a new mine, and citizens have been protesting ever since, because of the potential of damage to archaeological sites and also the potential for cyanide pollution in a poor area of the country. Popovici’s work was commissioned for the Dear Money group show at the Salonul de Projecte in Bucharest, and included a photographic performance of the artist’s face and upper body covered in gold paint, with a pink 10 lei note in her mouth. A caption on the photograph reads: “Dear Money, I know Art is the new Gold” — a reference not only to the influx of capital in the country and the potential export of gold, but also to the exchange of artworks on the market, an issue that had concerned artists in the West since the 1960s. A statement by the artist reads: “Destroy Financialization. Reappropriate Gold. Save Roșia Montana.”

Popovici overtly criticizes market capitalism for its preferencing of profit

These four performative works serve as benchmarks for the dramatic shifts in the socio-political landscape in Eastern Europe since the 1980s: the reception of Polis’s perestroika-era performance demonstrates one of the last moments that an artwork could be read as political or dissident in the face of the regime. Although the artist put forth a different interpretation, this interest in monumentality and immortalisation appeared at a time when monuments to communist figures were about to topple. Kintera’s Plumbuman demonstrated the uncertainty of the new post-communist landscape; dressed in a poisonous suit, his concerns about the toxicity of capitalism were not unfounded, as demonstrated in the work of Cenaliaj and Popovici. While Cenaliaj laments what was lost in the post-communist period — a concern for workers and family — Popovici overtly criticizes market capitalism for its preferencing of profit regardless of the cost to human life or the environment.

While white, silver and bronze buskers may now be a common site across the capitals of Eastern Europe, what these artists presented in their work was about more than earning pocket change; it was about sending a message to passers-by to take notice to the dramatic changes taking place around them in the social, political and cultural spheres across the East.

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