I first encountered the work of the Croatian artist Igor Grubić at last year’s 11th Istanbul Biennial ‘What Keeps Mankind Alive?’. I was very struck with the video installation he showed there, East Side Story (2006-8). Grubić juxtaposed documentary footage of the disturbing street violence which broke out at the first Gay Pride celebrations in Belgrade in 2001 and Zagreb in 2002 with film of dancers reinterpreting the aggressive scenarios. At Grubić’s invitation, the dancer-collaborators, performed their choreographies in Belgrade sometimes on the same sites as the original events. The dancers are like ghosts evoking the memories of the acts of extreme hostility which took place on the now peaceful streets. They will not allow us to forget the hatred and fear seething just below the surface of society. In the installation the ameliorative actions of the dancers on your left vie for your attention with the initial acts of brutality of the right. The work movingly expresses the degradation and futility inherent in committing violent acts against those who are different to you. Grubić highlights that in the rush to neo-liberalism in post-communist societies, violence against sexual minorities has replaced the now-suppressed hatred for ethnic minorities.
Grubić’s career was launched in 1998 with his provocative intervention Black Peristyle. He caused controversy in Split by painting a large black circle in the courtyard of Diocletian's Palace. This was an homage to an action by the Red Peristyle Group who thirty years’ previously had painted the whole quad red in protest at totalitarianism. Grubić’s choice of a black circle was to reflect the state of society’s conscience, it represented the stain on the soul of citizens who do not attempt to change reality. The media went wild describing Grubić’s action, performed with water-based paint, as an act of vandalism and he was nearly prosecuted. Thus commenced a practice spent as a thorn in the side of the culture of complacency and corruption.
In Velvet Underground (2002) Grubić visited inmates serving time in prison for violent crimes and talked to them about their childhood memories. Alongside photographic ‘portraits’ of the men – in fact the artist in animal costumes in their cells – he displayed their unedited childhood recollections, and listed their age, crime and sentence. The work offers an oblique critique of the institutions that rule our lives and stifle creativity.
In Angels with Dirty Faces (2004-06) Grubić celebrates the Kolubara miners who through their strike action helped to bring down Milosevic's regime in Serbia in 2000. Their strike also marked the end of communism in former Yugoslavia. The miners who lived in poverty produced 50% of the country’s electricity and used their power and unity to instigate political change by bringing down a corrupt and violent government. Grubić spent time with the miners and the resulting work takes as its diverse points of inspiration Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and the Soviet Realist traditions of representing heroic workers.
In response to an invitation from the Agency Gallery in Deptford, norn [Cassandra Needham and myself] took great pleasure in inviting Grubić to London to present 366 liberation rituals (2008-09) in April. This fascinating series, in which Grubić created a performance every day over a year, was the outcome of his resolution to fight against his own lethargy and by extension that of the society he lives in. Taking as a starting point the fortieth anniversary of the protests of 1968 Grubić dedicated a whole year intensely to art. His project comprised a sequence of micro-political actions and interventions that fused a shamanistic approach to art with guerilla activity and civil disobedience. In his actions Grubić abandoned the privileged world of fine art and returned to the street, giving himself up to the uncertainty of the reactions of others.
In this project Grubić adapted hate-filled fascist graffiti slogans to give them positive meanings and stuck post-it notes with agitational messages onto tram stops. He placed red five-pointed stars on Christmas trees discarded after the holidays, nostalgically invoking the iconography of socialism; incited consumers to resist the epidemic of greed on banknotes released into circulation and draped political-poetic dictums around public monuments.
For 366 liberation rituals, Grubić consciously adopted the role of the yurodivy, the fool or prophet who rejects social norms in order to reveal its ills. The rituals function as a group of oppositional signals, linked in their attempt to provoke and confront the social, political and artistic passivity of late capitalism. Armed with a faith in the transformative and ameliorative potential of art, Grubić addresses the fate of the working class in his country since the fall of socialism. He believes in the possibility of spiritual revolution and the human need to improve the world around them. Grubić is convinced that creativity breaks down boundaries, nurtures empathy and liberates to create a happier society.