Epic, the exhibition of the latest works by Nikola Kolya Božović, offers an act of ventriloquism through a prism of performance and play, a conceptual and transnational reading of the Sui generisand antemurale Christianitatismyths in an attempt to create the link between politics, heritage and entertainment industry. By transposing the South Slav epic poetry about Marko into the present time and the form of performance, Kolya Božović follows the logical trail from the fourteenth-century narrative genre (the decasyllabic verse sung to the gusleinstrument) to its equivalent contemporary genres (animation, performance, pseudo-documentary and the selfie), projecting recurring forms and motifs, such as Marko’sfaithful buzdovan (mace) or his horse Šarac, into stylised and commodified post-industrial fragments.
Marko is self-conscious and sui generis; a myth that is based and built upon on the preexisting myths. The historic figure of Marko Mrnjavčević, the ruler based in town of Prilep in present-day Macedonia, has been redefined through the epic as the mythical Prince Marko, a heroic fighter against the Ottoman oppressors. Marko is an imperfect but much loved South Slav hero: cantankerous and stubborn, pigheaded, quarrelsome, truculent in duelling, and a barfly, but also famed for his superhuman strength and courage.
How would this hero look today? Would he join in reality shows? Would his pronounced masculinity be brought into question? Božović recognises own desire for characterisation and closer identification with the hero (I wonder what kind of a man he was? Is he a part of me today or not?the artist says), and explores it through a series of witty works that link the epic discourse to the modern obsession with popularity.
Božović’s art typically uses the humorous interplay of fragmented reality, and now the artist also finds the masks needed for this play by reflecting Prince Marko through fictitious autobiographical roles: entrepreneur, entertainer, politician, pin-up, hero, rock star, diva/Neanderthal, artist. With the help of wigs, costumes and makeup, Božović creates a series of conceptual portraits that critique the myths of gender and identity, projecting an unsettlingly vulnerable and ambivalent persona that wants to be liked, while the epic paraphrases serve as a decor of fiction and performativity, allowing the artist to look into the contemporary obsessions with heroism, popularity and myth. Marko / Kolja is a grotesque but appealing hero, ready for anything.
The secondary characters from the epic narrative also undergo changes in nomenclature as well: the artist converts the Orthodox hymnody into a series of monologues, interpreting Fairy Ravijojla or Musa Kesedžija as brightly coloured avatars covered with soft, decorative materials: into toys. Liberated of their human form, they become the monsters of children’s rooms, grotesquely funny and entertaining companions of this ballad for the twenty-first century.
At the time of post-history, Marko finally finds the moment for his comeback; he is well suited to the crude reality of the neoliberal capitalism, the state of permanent deal making and breaking, the servitude to a hundred masters with a secret store of personal dignity. His machismo is a metaphor of the vitality of Serbian people which, in truth, depends largely on the deals and agreements of various external and internal nature. Marko reflects the consciousness in a state of permanent crisis, which he eludes by changing, entrenching, ploughing the roads, spite and shrew – the elements of a mythologised Balkan myth which uses its own stereotype as a template, as a commodity and a currency, as a relief and consolation from the oncoming modernisation.
Marko is both a self-portrait and a dual persona of the Serb epic that borders fantasy with history, offering several versions of the same narrative. Seen in the context of Božović’s previous art that deal with fetishised automotive speed, trophy and paraidentity, Marko becomes a collector and a trophy of the post-historical past, leading a battle not for authenticity or freedom, but for a viral survival that takes place through an endless chain of supply and demand.
In other words, the same but a little different.
Self portrait (2018), Nikola Kolya Božović