I should come clean straight away — I am someone who works closely with Breda Beban, and I became a friend. It is fully in line with her life-long habit of turning collaborators into friends, and friends into collaborators. For My Funeral Song (2010) Beban films five people who are close to her, as they are listening to a well-loved song they want played at their funeral. The five home-movie portraits drift in and out of focus, the faces fluctuate between uneasy awareness of the camera and the comfort of complete surrender, and the songs compress each person’s take on life into an approximately three minute narrative. It is a form and language that cuts across Beban’s work: she uses structures that are pure, invests her work with emotions, and focuses on deeply personal narratives that reflect the complexity of the larger issues that are looming in the background.
Close-up. A sharp point of a knife slowly follows a palm’s lifeline, drawing blood along the way, while the hand’s owner narrates the bare facts of a personal history. The hand, the story, and the one-minute film (CV, 2001) are Beban’s. It is one simple continuous shot, the narrative is tragic, and the artist’s understated emotions below the surface are raw. Although I know the particular story, or perhaps precisely because I do, I find it difficult to look at or listen to. Born in Serbia, Beban was raised in Croatia and Macedonia, where as a child she survived the 1963 Skopje earthquake. Starting her career as a painter and performance artist, she began to work with film, video, and photography after meeting her lover and collaborator Hrvoje Horvatic in the mid-eighties. Exiled in 1991 after the outbreak of the war in former Yugoslavia, they travelled from place to place, before eventually settling in London. They continued to make work together in the UK until Horvatic’s untimely death in 1997.
I cannot fully grasp the effects of exile and death of a loved one, the inevitable pain and anger that follows, and the slow healing process. Having worked closely with her, I know that for Beban art and life are inextricably intertwined, and that behind the individual stories and unexpected events highlighted in her art, there always seem to be these larger abstract narratives waiting to be re-evaluated or fall apart in light of the presented facts or fictions.
This is not just the case when making her own art. Beban brings the same drive and the same approach to her curatorial projects. In 2002 she curated the show ‘Imaginary Balkans’ at the request of the Site Gallery, giving artists from both sides of the conflict a chance to have their voices heard in a sea of media-fuelled preconceptions. Since 2004 she has been the lead curator and creative producer of imagine art after, a multi-stage project connecting migrant artists in the UK with artists living in their country of origin, a project I joined in 2005. Following online dialogues on Guardian Unlimited, imagine art after commissioned and produced work by six artists for an exhibition at Tate Britain in 2007/08. The second edition is currently taking place. Beban is not a curator in the traditional sense, often taking an approach similar to that of independent filmmaking, where each stage in the process from script to screen is the result of the previous one. There are also few curators who ask the artists they work with to articulate the emotions behind their projects. But it is precisely the question Beban does ask, and when you get to know her and get to know her work, it becomes clear that it is no hollow statement.
Although it is hard to pinpoint it in time or give a firm reason, I feel that the past few years have seen a subtle shift in Beban’s work. Whilst still persisting to perpetuate a permanent state of contradictions, a certain melancholic note that was present in works at the beginning of the 2000s, such as Walk of Three Chairs, I Can’t Make You Love Me, Little Films To Cry To, and Quiet Rooms (all 2003), have been overtaken by more unreservedly seductive or life affirming works. It is hard, for example, not to be swept off your feet by The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha (Part One, 2006; Part Two, 2008). When Part One was shown at Tate Britain in 2008, it had staff from an adjacent office spend their every lunch hour in the gallery, subsequently writing the artist to ask if they could perhaps acquire their own copy. Both Parts One and Two juxtapose unedited raw footage shot at a Gypsy music festival in Serbia with edited and slightly fictionalised versions of the same events, re-constituting Beban’s memories of the particular gravity of the moment and the strong emotions present at the time, whilst addressing the discrepancy between memory and recorded reality. Equally strong and uplifting is the ongoing photographic series and film project Arte Vivo (started in 2008 during her residency in Buenos Aires), inspired by Argentinean artist Alberto Greco’s performances of the same name conducted in the 1960s, combined with Beban’s own childhood vision. A more radical shift is Beban’s unreservedly optimistic and site-specific project for the 2010 Tatton Park Biennial, The Endless School, ‘a proposal for a new landmark school that integrates arts, humanities, current affairs, science, medicine, engineering, and business to explore new value systems for a fresh approach to human comfort and happiness’, embodied in an ellipsoid architectural model that is at the same time prehistoric and sci-fi. It looks as if Beban is no longer happy to focus on intimate events playing at the margins of bigger stories, but is now creating an overarching narrative about what life should be today and what it could become tomorrow.
Anonymous writer Lila Says Fourth Estate (1997)
Fyodor Dostoevsky The Idiot Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky, Everyman’s Library (2002)
Pavel Florensky Beyond Vision: Essays on the Perception of Art Reaction Books (2002)
Adam Phillips & Barbara Taylor On Kindness Penguin (2009)
Jonathan Rosenbaum Movies as Politics University of California Press (1997)
Marco Bellocchio I pugni in tasca [Fists in the Pocket] (1965)
Peter Bogdanovich They All Laughed (1981)
Carl Theodor Dreyer (Dir.) Gertrud (1964)
Jean Eustache (Dir.) Le maman et la putain [The Mother and the Whore] (1973)
Tony Gatlif Gadjo Dilo (1997)
Hirokazu Koreeda Maboroshi no hikari (1995)
Rupert Sheldrake The Extended Mind: Recent Experimental Evidence lecture at Google Tech Talks 2008 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JnA8GUtXpXY
Douglas Sirk (Dir.) All I Desire (1953)
Elia Suleiman (Dir.) Divine Intervention (2002)
Erick Zonca (Dir.) La vie rêvée des anges [The Dream Life of Angels] (1998)
‘Whenever I want to move people without upsetting them I use music’ Breda Beban
Breda Beban was raised in Macedonia and Croatia and is now based in London. Her work in film, video and photography has been widely exhibited including at Tate Britain (2008); 52nd Biennale di Venezia, Venice (2007); British Art Show 6, touring venues in the UK included BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, UK & The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester (2005/6); Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Rijeka, Croatia (2006); National Museum Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain (2005). In 2001 she was the recipient of a Paul Hamlyn Award for Visual Arts. She is also the curator and creative producer of imagine art after, a platform for dialogue between artists and filmmakers who left their home countries and now live in the UK, with those who stayed.
Eline van der Vlist is an independent curator and writer based in London.