Julija Zaharijević talked to Pia-Marie Remmers about the entanglements of truth and fiction, authenticity and masquerade in both artistic practice and the personal.
Let’s start with a quote of yours: »I am undercover, but my cover is permanent«. Your work is quite personal; it’s about being a woman, an artist, and a Serbian citizen growing up in a middle-class family. How much do you want to reveal about yourself?
It is true that my work is very personal. However, it is more about the construction of the so-called personal. The notions of biography and identity, and the ways they overlap, and alternate are what concerns me in my practice. I try to understand and discuss how much our identities are shaped by our globalized society. I am intrigued by this seesaw: To what extent you truly are yourself, and how much you just fall into a predetermined structure and have little to no agency to challenge it.
It’s a dualistic matter, these identities of mine–a woman, a Serbian citizen, and so on–are more or less obvious to the public. At the same time, however, they are personally charged. One can quickly feel uncomfortable revealing and discussing them. But, since I create art deliberately for an audience, I want to convey ideas that surpass my subjective experience and are relatable to the reader and the viewer.
So, the artist Julija is not automatically the person Julija?
I definitely curate a vision! There are things I choose to share, but I wouldn’t share everything. Even though my work is often autobiographical, I like to think it relates to the extensive field of female, queer and working-class writers using autobiographical writing to discuss broader topics, and to not give a fuck and proudly own the personal as something which was for a long time deemed too non-academic, emo and cheesy–writers such as Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson, Édouard Louis, etc. Because such discourses exist, I think autobiographical work can become detached from the author herself.
When I was 19 or 20 my art was very diary like. It felt like it was this weird I-don’t-have-a-therapist sort of thing. Only after learning about the above-mentioned writers did my work start making sense. Nowadays, I don’t feel vulnerable revealing stuff about myself. I have established a distance and am pretty happy about that.
How much of your work is true and how much is fiction? Do you think there is something like social authenticity?
In my opinion, truth and fiction are much more intertwined than one would think. The essay »Million Dinar Baby« I wrote for my show Bounce discusses true events, whereas in other works of mine, reality and fiction constantly interweave. Truth and fiction can accentuate one another.
Anyway, regarding social authenticity, I feel like we don’t have full control over how authentic we are. For instance, these zodiac memes! Everyone is into them right now, myself included. And all the while I am completely aware how they’ve just appeared, almost out of nowhere, and how I didn’t even care about the zodiac before, but now I find myself identifying with my sign all the time. This influence doesn’t seem to be under my control whatsoever – I am aware it’s a trend, I know its ways, yet, I nonetheless fall for them and simply end up feeling like a stereotypical (grumpy, critical) little Capricorn.
At Gärtnergasse, an exhibition space you are co-running with artist colleagues, you are showing works of artists that are centered around the idea of the personal. Can you explain that concept?
Not all the artists we show deal directly with personal or autobiographical issues the way I do in my art, but they often display some kind of easygoingness with the materials they use. They are often not very formal or crafty, and I believe this way they manage to bring in something mundane, which to me can feel somehow personal. However, this description doesn’t always or directly fit to all the shows. Our program is curated both by us together (Eugen Wist, Julia Znoj and I), but also individually, so it is quite heterogeneous. I think that defines it better than the »type« of art we show.
In your text »Million Dinar Baby« you are talking about yourself »feeling ashamed of boredom«. This might be a generational sentiment. How much do questions of our generation play a role in your work?
I think a lot about our generation and the stuff that happens to us on a daily basis. Also, I am not only curious about our generation, but about generation X and Z, too.
To feel ashamed of boredom is this crazy capitalistic condition, which can be understood quite well within the arts. As an artist, you could always work. Saying you are busy seems to be a capitalistic currency of sorts. It can imply you’re successful, while if you’re bored, the opposite might be true.
You do writing/performance/collages/films/curatorial work: How do you deal with this broad variety of media?
Sometimes one medium fits better to a certain thought. But more often than not, the same thought could also materialize in several media. I enjoy that an idea can flow and leave traces. Yet, my choice of medium is generally quite intuitive. So far, I understand this broad variety of media more as a development, as if one medium led me to the other. For example, first I did text-based videos, then I stopped and for a long time I only wrote. Later, performances grew out of that, then followed collages, which I have been recently producing. Actually, I ask myself now what I could do next (laughs).
What is the idea behind your recently produced series of collages called »Days«?
The collages work as sort of poems for the everyday; they depict days by referencing different clothing elements, many of which appear and reappear throughout the series. The topic of authenticity plays a crucial role here: Every single day you have to choose what to wear; you think about your own style and how people will perceive it. But capitalism is stressful with its many trends, having to constantly buy something new, while everybody is shopping at the same stores. In »Days«, I wanted to address this need and struggle for authenticity on a day-to-day basis.
You dress up for most of your performances. For »The Hair Is Always Different« you covered yourself in dirt. Can you tell me more about these costumes?
All my performances are text based, with the prominent use of the pronoun »I«. And, as I’ve said, I am very interested in the ways in which fiction and the autobiographical are combined. Additionally, when you perform, your face and body become very present. So, I felt the need to create a gap between the »I« in my texts and my own body by constructing a persona through the use of costumes. »The Hair Is Always Different« is a short story about the thoughts and visions of a woman walking through a dark tunnel. I dressed up the way the person in the story could have looked, all muddy from that walk, however the look being visibly staged and not fitting into the surrounding of the exhibition space–resulting in a discrepancy between the »multiple selves«. And honestly, it really gives me confidence to not be myself while performing!
How important are style and fashion for you then?
Somehow, they’re important, I like style and fashion (laughs). However, lately I have begun to hate putting on clothes. I constantly feel like I am not where I want to be style-wise, but I also don’t know what that might be. I don’t want to spend a lot of money and time on this either. I somehow wish it would be less important to me how we dress or that I would at least have a better solution for how to deal with it–but at this point I don’t.
There is a lot of pop culture in your art, but also academic research. The art scene plays a crucial role too, how do you bring these spheres together?
I want to deal with my surroundings. All around me there is the art world. I find it extremely weird that in the Viennese art scene you are nearly only surrounded by other artists. So, pop culture offers me a chance to reach out into the outside world, outside of the art bubble. I am not really into music, for some reason, but I spend a lot of time on Instagram and YouTube, which then somehow seeps back into my art. In my exhibition »Bounce« at Muhry in Hamburg, I’ve dealt with going to a boxing gym in a Vienna immigrant district. This »outsider« experience yielded so much material to work with that I don’t think I would have been able to find in the art world alone.
So, you live in an art bubble here in Vienna, but you’ve also exhibited in your hometown Belgrade a few times. What are the differences between these two places?
I moved away five and a half years ago and until around two to three years ago there was absolutely nothing art related going on in Belgrade. When I came to Vienna and started going to openings, I was shocked that everyone was young and hip, and not 50, like the case was in Belgrade. It was mind-blowing to me, actually. Art in Belgrade at that time was very old-school and traditional. Now, galleries are opening, there are a few off-spaces too, such as the nomadic Voždovačka galerija and Institut za aplauz. In my opinion, all this has to do with the fact that Serbia became part of the Schengen White List in late 2009. A lot of other things have changed since then too, the »vibe« has become somehow increasingly European and more tourists are coming. However, there is definitely not an art bubble in Belgrade like there is in Vienna. Firstly, there are not very many people in the arts, and the opening crowd is more mixed, comprised of designers, architects, musicians and other creatives–which is something I quite like by the way. There is a certain new energy in Belgrade these days, so let’s see what the future holds.