Musical for the Senses was an exhibition that took place at Photon – Centre for Contemporary Photography (Ljubljana, 22 March – 30 April 2013). It brought together selected works of Breda Beban (1952-2012) from her recent creative period, between 1997 and 2012.
Breda Beban was one of the most prominent personas in the field of contemporary arts in former Yugoslavia who – in the past 20 years – lived and worked internationally, mostly based in London and Sheffield. Her works are devoted to several aspects of everyday life: migration, socio-political circumstance, human relationships and love.
Generally speaking, Breda Beban’s artistic practice can be divided into several quite distinct periods. Significant milestones in her life, either personal or political, inevitably marked her fairly autobiographical body of work. Whenever there was a change in her artistic direction she usually wouldn’t exhibit old works anymore; she even deliberately destroyed some. Her early period (1978-1985) was characterised by monumental paintings emanating sincere expressiveness and iconic spirituality. Then there was a period of moving image work; in 1986, she formed an intimate as well as creative relationship with Zagreb based filmmaker Hrvoje Horvatić which led to highly regarded and recognisable videos and films marked by a meditative rhythm and non-linear narrative.
In 1991, after the outbreak of nationalism and just before the beginning of the bloody war in Yugoslavia, the couple was compelled to leave Zagreb and multi-ethnic Yugoslavia, as it was falling apart. Subsequently Breda Beban and Hrvoje Horvatić settled in London where they continued their creative work in a new and relatively unknown cultural milieu; it took them several years before they completely accepted and internalised it. Soon after the successful launch of Jason’s Dream (1998), a short film that announced their radically expressive switch and final adoption of their new environment, Hrvoje Horvatić tragically passed away. After this terrible personal tragedy, Breda Beban continued to make art on her own following the previously indicated direction: her artistic practice broadened out while she became even more perceptive to her immediate environment. In the period from 1997 to 2012 – when she passed away after a severe illness – some of the most distinctive art works were created. Her most recent body of work is mainly focused on subtle and multifaceted stories of instantaneous impressions, interpersonal relationships, communication and love.
Although Breda Beban often addresses the topics that inevitably concern wider socio-political and economic reality, the primary intention and the message of her narratives are always intimate. Her point of view has always been centred onto the micro environment of an individual who is, from a very personal angle, constantly experiencing macro-political shifts in relation to the outside world. The central photograph from the I Lay on the Bed Waiting for His Heart to Stop Beating series (2000) shows a modest bed in a dreadful corner of Homerton hospital in London, where she was waiting for the outcome of her partner’s life or death agony. The image speaks of her intimate pain, however, it also testifies to the poor London neighbourhood where normal life, despite her personal drama, goes on undisturbed. The theme of the aforementioned short musical Jason’s Dream (1998) – following the shy game of seduction and love between two youngsters, a non-conformist poet who works in a factory and migrant waitress who aspires to a better life – also outlines a story of British multicultural proletariat, embodied by both central characters (and the artist).
Her recent works are therefore (literally) full of life; the main role is always given to a human being, or at least shows fresh traces of its presence. Either pre-conceived and carefully staged, or entirely intuitive and accidentally recorded, her subjects – focused on situations and phenomena of ordinary life – have always originated from her own life experiences and influences from her immediate surroundings.
The Arte Vivo series of photographs (2008-2011) was conceived and initiated during her residency in Buenos Aires when she heard and learned about the work of Argentinean artist Alberto Greco whose practice subtly corresponded with her artistic aspirations. Greco too was putting a man in the forefront, labelling him as an ultimate work of art and the most perfect »ready made«. In 1962 he published the manifesto Arte Vivo-Dito and, for the First Live Art exhibition in Paris, he created the work Arte Vivo showing his standing colleague Alberto Hereida encircled with chalk. Greco posed with him, squatting in the photograph, and declared him a work of art. Following along the lines of this idea, Breda Beban staged and documented scenes where couples in love kiss on their carefully chosen sites in public spaces. These protagonists are also circled with a white line of chalk on the floor while the artist squats next to their legs holding a board on which their names are written along with her signature. The photographs perpetuate only this inimitable moment while the entire context consciously remains ambivalent. A few years ago, while looking at the image of the couple passionately kissing on the pier in Trieste, I coincidentally learned that they broke up immediately the day after. »That’s Life«, Breda Beban commented on this fact in her own peculiar way.
In a similar fashion her own privacy was brought to the public sphere with Beautiful Exile (2003), a video installation depicting portraits of five women, her friends, experiencing sexual pleasure and eventually orgasm. This quite ordinary and entirely intimate act, which – as a result of cultural conventions – usually takes place in the realm of domestic environment, is shown in a direct and utterly aesthetic manner, bearing witness to the physical and chemical interaction between body and mind. Orgasm is a combination of physical stimulation and ecstatic state of mind and therefore the videos show only the faces of the portrayed women. Breda Beban indeed believed that a human face represents the exceptional geography of meanings with numerous variations that obscure the secretive and unknowable psychology of every human being. In a similarly direct manner, and unburdened by cultural conventions, she also deals with her own intimacy that is sincerely and uncompromisingly expressed in Little Films to Cry to (2003), a compilation of autobiographical short narrative impressions. The short videos – each of them the length of a song – document the personal universe of the artist and reflect her perception of eternally pertinent life issues: love and friendship, encounters and departures, life and death.
The video installation The Most Beautiful Woman in Gucha (2006) based on an unusual encounter and atypical love at first sight story captures the incredible tension between two people who, in the middle of euphoric festivity, don’t care for the world around them. The thunderous, booming sound of trumpets in Gucha (a trumpet festival in Serbia) is only a background to the moments of intense non-verbal communication between the two, belly dancer and drunken youngster, who at her suggestion finds himself in a game of body mimicry and wishful gazes. The fatal attraction of the couple who try to avoid the fairly strict rules and codes of behaviour is accidentally captured in this amazing video narrative. The best and the most effective works of Breda Beban show fragments of real life that she always wanted to bring into art. It is therefore fitting that Aisha and Jason, the main actors and characters of Jason’s Dream, actually fell in love during the film shooting.
Breda Beban: Jason’s Dream (1998)
Breda Beban, Walk of Three Chairs (2003)