Aleksandra Demanovic: Turbo Sculpture

This review of Aleksandra Domanovic’s exhibition at SPACE gallery London was published in Art Monthly issue 358, July – Aug 2012

In a corner of the white cube annexe tucked between SPACE gallery’s main display area and library is a large concrete sculpture of murdered US gangster rapper Tupac Shakur. Resembling a crudely drawn prison tattoo given form, the statue stands shirtless and muscle-bound atop a crate. It is a part of Italian artist Paolo Chisera’s Tupacproject, 2005, a community focused initiative intended to question civic monuments by using the late rapper (misogynist and homophobic as he may have been) to replace traditionally deified political figures, army officials and the like. In the opposite corner, at knee height, is a large, empty plinth with ‘THE RUMOUR 2007’ carved in Kanji, English, Cyrillic and German across its four sides. This is Vienna-based artist Michael Blum’s 2005 work The Rumour (or how Samantha Fox Helped Cacak Reach Fame) and it commemorates a monumental misadventure. After allegedly shunning a dinner given in her honour by Serbian politician Velimir Ilic, plans to erect a statue of Fox in the Serbian city of Cacak were withdrawn. Rumours spread that the former glamour model declined Ilic’s invitation after a concert in Cacak where rowdy fans, deaf to her music, demanded to see her breasts. Both works are displayed here as physical artefacts taken from Serbian-born, Berlin-based artist Aleksandra Domanović’s 22-minute video Turbo Sculpture, 2009-12: a slideshow of digital photographs, narrated by a monotone female voice tracing the development of turbo sculpture, an Eastern European pop culture phenomenon.

To understand what turbo sculpture is you have to understand turbo culture, the concept from which it was born. Domanović’s film explains it as a symptom of Eastern European postmodernism working like an all-purpose socio-cultural filter. Briefly, the channels of turbo culture fuse odd elements of high and low culture, the global and the local, pop and folk into luridly synthetic, ahistorical and depthless partnerships. According to Domanović’s tale, turbo culture begins with Montenegrin popstar Rambo Amadeus (a turbo cultural namesake) and his invention of turbo folk: a garish blend of euro-techno and traditional folk music. Helped along by the political and economic upheavals in 1990s Yugoslavia, turbo, Domanović states, ‘eventually became a prefix for social and media phenomena of the war and post-war period’. In the wake of turbo folk came turbo politics, turbo architecture, turbo urbanism, turbo television and turbo sculpture: the practice of monumentalising western pop cultural icons as statues – hence the display of Chisera’s Shakur and Blum’s absent Fox plinth, representing artists’ responses to the phenomenon.

For the most part Domanović’s film is an arch romp through familiar territories of kitsch, with the narrative thrust being that turbo sculpture has gone viral in Eastern Europe. Sculptures of Bruce Lee, Rocky, Tarzan, Orson Wells and Johnny Depp are popping up all over the place. The reason? Both communities and councils are more comfortable monumentalising western figures without any discernable links to the Yugoslav wars. As funny as this may initially seem to western audiences, scoffing at what appears to be high Eurotrash aesthetics places the viewer in an uncomfortable position of cultural superiority. Here, from the brilliant white vantage point of a gallery floor, turbo sculpture is cast as the intellectually unsophisticated cultural equivalent to fake tan in a can: fashionable among the lower classes, cheap, and a poor substitute for the real thing. Alongside this sits the charge that organisations and communities responsible for turbo statues, in monumentalising Hollywood stars and fictional characters, are avoiding the bloody history of the Yugoslav wars and, as a result, the responsibility various Balkan nations involved in the conflict must face. Serbian artist Milica Tomic, as quoted in the film, calls the statues ‘a dangerous joke in which history is being erased and replaced by Mickey Mouse’. But, given how traditional monumental figures are essentially fictions, is this evocation of the proverbial poster-mouse of the culture industry justified? After all, doesn’t using individuals to embody historical moments and larger-than-life acts give credence to an outdated habit of monumentalising to reinforce state power, dictatorial positions and the ideas of empire? By ignoring this tradition turbo sculpture could be understood as an empowering prospect for a people denied agency, but unfortunately this avenue was not explored in the film.

Surveying basic questions of history and culpability, while scratching the surface of post-war issues through journalistic conventions of reportage, Domanović’s Turbo Sculpture dangles critical reflection like a carrot just in front of the viewer. We leave the presentation perhaps better informed, but the question remains of what, other than the presentation of a cultural curio, has been offered? On the other hand, I could be missing the point; Turbo Sculpture like watching Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding or YouTube compilations of schlager music, offered an indulgent bite into the glacéed cherry of pop culture. Perhaps therein lies its true value.

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