2010, site-specific installation
within 51st October Salon, Belgrade
… night pleases us…
curators Johan Pousette and Celia Prado
Plants Growing Wild in the Spaces of Art
Text by Zoran Erić
1. “Our circumstances” – A story about a building
“They wander hither and thither, finally they close their eyes and a building is erected anywhere. If they weren’t doing this way, would the city be a scattered as it is…” (D. T. Leko, 1899)
Back in 1899, when he voiced this caustic criticism of the urban planning situation in Belgrade, Dimitrije T. Leko realised the building of the New Military Academy in Belgrade, placed in-between Nemanjina, Birčaninova and Resavska Streets. Unfortunately, Leko’s erudition and sarcastic criticism of the local urban context, were very much at odds with his own architectural practice.1 Having studied abroad, Leko attempted to introduce the knowledge he attained there within the framework of Serbia, using his romantic predilection for a free interpretation of classical models. He also contributed to the “eternal” idea of forming a “national school”, which for the most part boiled down to academism, adoption of eclectic solutions and a predominant use of neo-Renaissance motifs, which is also a characteristic of the building of the New Military Academy.2
The history of the Military Academy building can be traced relying on the dates of its sustaining damage in the course of the bombing of Belgrade, and also on the basis of initiatives for its repair and reconstruction and for changing its purpose. The building first sustained extensive damage in the year 1941. On the basis of a note addressed to the Ministry of Civil Engineering in 1942, the building was a source of danger to passers-by because there was a risk of its caving in.3 Its condition was such that it represented a burden, both to the German military authorities and to the “Serbian State Guards”, so that it was left to the Ministry of Civil Engineering to take care of it. The Ministry soon managed to secure the funds required to repair the roof, which was done during the course of the years 1942 and 1943. Acting on the order of the German High Command, the building was adapted to serve the needs of Belgrade’s courts. In the basement, there was space envisaged for prison cells and there were sections intended for detainees. In the post-World War Two period, in 1964 the building was reconstructed to serve the needs of an Army printing establishment. Finally, during the course of the NATO bombing campaign of 1999, the building sustained significant damage but remained functional, so that the Army printing establishment was still in it.4 Repair work on the building was commenced soon after the bombing and its reconstruction was initiated, but work on this soon ceased, so that it remained for the most part in poor condition. On its roof, and also in its yard, one can see numerous plants, for the most part weeds and shrubs, even the occasional small tree, in an unusual symbiosis with its architecture.
2. Natural landscaping – a neglected site or “naturally beautiful” surroundings?
The Military Academy building, with its new inhabitants growing wild – weeds, moss, grass, shrubs, wild flowers and small trees – has turned into a miniature natural landscape, habitat or ecosystem. The plants growing wild on the site are genetically adapted to the local living conditions, and thereby more resistant than the more exotic, “beautiful” plants growing in public parks. Also, there are certain ecological advantages to plants growing wild, for they are a much more effective remover of carbon than traditionally mowed lawns, due to the greater area they occupy and a more extensive network of roots. Weeds, moss and plants growing alongside curbs also play a role in reducing flooding and conserving irrigation waters. The question that arises here is how these plants that started growing wild during the reconstruction of the building are to be treated. This is an issue to be dealt with by the scientific disciplines of landscape architecture and landscape planning, whereas the ecological school would advocate precisely the option of natural landscaping.
What does the principle of natural landscaping actually mean? Essentially, this principle is integrated within the principles of landscape ecology that approaches the surroundings as a coherent system, a whole that cannot be comprehended only on the basis of separating its living and non-living components. Just like landscape ecology, this principle abandons the distinction between natural ecosystems and those dominated by people. In this way, it allows one to deal with temporal and spatial changes in landscape through the prism of the model relationship between human activities and ecological processes. The natural landscaping protects, in the long term, the natural surroundings and uses natural resources within the framework of the broader concept of sustainable development of urban environments. As a process, it continually strives to broaden the traditional cultural expectations pertaining to urban landscapes by including the obvious disorder of systems growing of their own accord within the visual framework of human presence.5
3. Method – from site specific to system specific work
The artistic method of Dušica Dražić presupposes shifting and removing the plants found at the site of the former Military Academy from their natural surroundings – the roof, yard, staircase, etc. – and transferring them to rooms inside the building that will serve as exhibition space. This method could be characterised as a symbolic act of transposing elements found at the given site into an artistic system, which, in terms of its characteristics, constitutes a reference to the so-called site-specific artistic practice.
The development and transformation of such artistic practice presuppose that the definition of a site has shifted from “a physical location – founded, fixed and actual – towards a discursive vector – unfounded, fluid, virtual”.6 Within the framework of the current reception of site-specific artistic practice, a new type of work is being imposed, which the American artist Stephen Prina has characterised as system-specific: “a way of working that analyzes and employs the procedural structures that inhabit a site, with the full recognition that these structures can be displaced, aligned with other discourse and practices, be wrested from their context so their full potential may be explored, or not”.7
In the case of Dušica Dražić’s work, the singling out of a specific element found at the site, shifting it and translating it into another system opens up a series of possible narrative foundations and discursive analyses that can be used to back up such a decision. And it is not merely a matter of representing the site or illustrating its context but, as Prina would put it, “reducing meaning to stories”. For the narration, as well as the reception of these stories, what is essential are the narrative qualities pointed out by Prina, such as transforming a chronicle of events into a historical narrative, archiving self-determination and self-definition through the actual act of narration, and location and description, turning narration into reality and thereby shaping a certain (micro-)concept of the world.8
4. Underneath the surface
The three preceding stories have their narrative flow, they form a sequence and interweave, but they still impose the question of what is to be found underneath the surface and what the artist’s intention was. Although it is evident that the artistic method was derived from the analysis of the concrete location, does it contain a broader, universalising message after all? The plants that became the object of this work, or even an art object, are perceived, on the one hand, as weeds, a consequence of lack of care and neglecting the said site, whereas, on the other hand, one can also perceive positive effects, even the necessity of their symbiosis with the architecture for the sake of keeping the dilapidated constructions, especially the roof ones, alive. Can we assume that the plants and their specific symbiosis with the architecture represent a kind of metaphor for the position of the individual or a certain group in society, namely, the position of the margin, “neglected” and rejected? If we were to make a parallel between ecology, which observes and treats plants as they exist in nature and studies their interdependence and the relationship of each species and individual with their surroundings, and human ecology, which deals with the spatial and temporal relations among human beings under the influence of the selective, distributive and adaptable forces of the environment,9 we could perhaps perceive a hidden metaphor in this work, which actually problematises the ambivalence of the position of the margin in the social context. Through a metaphor positioned thus, hiding underneath the surface of the narrated stories, we can perceive the positive aspects of the position of the margin, even the hidden potential in seemingly neglected, ghettoised, ungentrified urban spaces and social spheres.