By CORI HUTCHINSON, June 2020
In filmmaker and educator Robert Adanto’s fifth artist documentary, Belgrade-based performance artist Marta Jovanović punches up from the opening scene onward. Born Just Now, the latest from Adanto, follows The F Word, on radical feminist performance art in Bushwick, and Pearls on the Ocean Floor, which spotlights Iranian female artists. After the initial consideration of Jovanović’s inclusion in The F Word, following a connection made by author Dr. Kathy Battista, Adanto resolved that the artist’s story was deserving of its own film. While Jovanović’s practice is similarly concerned with radical feminism, her cultural background diverges from performance artists in the Brooklyn scene. Jovanović, from the former Republic of Yugoslavia, brings a unique set of historical experiences to her work as well as a commanding presence, as Adanto recalls.
Filming began in 2016 in Belgrade where Adanto traveled several times over the course of a year and a half to complete the documentary. A major turn occurred when Jovanović divulged her ongoing experiences with domestic violence to the filmmaker. The mutual decision to include this confession in the film illuminates many of the performances shown, especially one moment filmed in a Houston parking lot at the Experimental Action festival where the artist affixes her wedding ring onto her wedding dress and sets both aflame. Adanto’s title Born Just Now gestures not only to this style of trailblazing, renewal performance, but also to the experience of diaspora.
As an independent filmmaker, Adanto is less concerned with mastery than fascination. His philosophy as a documentarian is to provide any relevant historical context, while allowing the subject featured to speak for herself, both in on-screen interviews and generously embedded performances. Of this topic, he says, “It’s like studying mythology or folklore. It doesn’t have a bottom.” Two rich national archives in Belgrade were utilized for contextual material, as well as Jovanović’s domestic archive of photos and home videos of her grandmother, pivotal kin and Holocaust survivor, who radicalized the artist. Of her grandmother, Jovanović says, “She taught me not to let the past drown me.”
Lineage is a key thread throughout the documentary. While the opening excerpt of Jovanović’s Motherhood performance in which she cracks a number of eggs hanging from the ceiling corresponding with her days of fertility since age 16 with a hammer in an extreme display of self-choice seems to demonstrate annihilation of ancestry, the viewer is quickly presented with an alternative form of care and inheritance through community and education. In the mess of shell fragments, soiled socks, and yolk, there hatches possibility unbound by patriarchy, aligning with what Donna Haraway writes in the introduction of Staying with the Trouble: “motherhood is not the telos of women” (Haraway 6). Scenes from the Performance G12 Hub in Belgrade, a physical and virtual space founded by Jovanović with the mission of building infrastructure in a local vacuum of performance art education, demonstrate a concentrated network of growth and learning. Serbian performance art mentors preceding Jovanović, such as Marina Abramović and Ulay, and younger artists are also featured to the end of demonstrating influence and lineage.
One especially lucid scene feeling almost cut from the cloth of Jacques Rivette’s oeuvre occurs within the sanctuary of G12 during a discussion between Jovanović and her students on the topic of self management, PR, and writing invitations to the event of the performance. Jovanović first student, Ivana Ranisavljević, raises the issue of appearing pretentious in tone in written invitations. Of course, these are the critical, banal conversations that artists have all the time, but positioned alongside performances of Ranisavljević, whose work is notably intimidating, courageous, without hesitation, and physically challenging, a simultaneity of bravery and doubt is most evident. Jovanović responds simply, “Be honest about what you write.” Of this pairing, Adanto says, “ There’s a responsibility in the world to be who you are.” Even the minor, administrative obstacles faced by this community of artists highlight an ambiguity of identity, as well as a purity unique to Belgrade due to the absent art market.
Where the documentary separates from sheer documentation is with its multiple, roving cameras, and an edit that seeks to build then resolve tension. Even so, the arc of the film feels as authentic as the personal development of its subject. Earlier featured performances such as It Is My Body and Maria Magdalena and the film’s concluding performance The Beauty of Tight Binding wear externally the ideology of feminist performance art, centering Jovanović as the protagonist moving forward. Jovanović’s references to her body in performance as a “playing field” and “playground” speak more to their dynamic quality than whimsy, as she often develops macabre props and contexts.
It Is My Body casts (a pun encompassing both the physical technique and dramaturgical element) Jovanović as a silicone doll in the interest of exploring durability and the post-performance body. During Maria Magdalena, Jovanovic is doubled in a split-screen. On the left, she applies makeup and, on the right, attempts unsuccessfully to force herself to cry using onion slivers. In Marta Jovanović: Performing the Self, Kathy Battista asks, “The inherent narcissism of artistic practice is made plain … For what is performance if not spectacle? And what is the body but a sculpture that is malleable in a way that no other medium can be?” (Battista 19).
Maybe the telos of Marta Jovanović’s practice is encasing the body in an eternal present, while responding with intense vulnerability to a barbed past. Maybe it is establishing a sustainable alternative to bloodline. For those interested in the contemporary Serbian art scene beyond Abramović, this film is a sound place to start. Born Just Now, winner of Best Documentary at the 2019 Arte NonStop Film Festival in Buenos Aires, is an Official Selection at the 10th annual Art of Brooklyn Film Festival in June 2020. The film will be available to stream Friday, June 12, 2020 at 7:00 pm EST followed by a Q&A featuring the director Robert Adanto and artist Marta Jovanović over Zoom. RSVP here:https://aobff20.eventive.org/films/born-just-now-5eb5c76ea06f55006fb37d9b. WM
Cori Hutchinson is a poet, watercolorist, and library assistant living in Brooklyn.view all articles from this author