When I returned to Belgrade in the summer of 2000 after being away for seven years, I used the opportunity to visit Ljubisa Ristic’s theatre in the old Secerana (Sugarmill). A cab driver, who was coasting to save a few drops of smuggled gas, barely managed to find the Secerana among the run-down storages and halls. The sudden and complete change of scenery between the zone of industrial devastation and cultural refinement was emphasized by a glass façade over which ran a stream of water. The waterfall somewhat weakened the spell of malted barley coming from a nearby brewery. There cocktail tables with marble tabletops inside, placed between ornamental plants and white tree trunks. Most of the tables were decorated with cages with nymphs. Outside: dust, noise, the smell of industrial zone. Inside: the sound of water humming, the freshness of green plants, bird cries. In brief, it was a foyer- theatre, not a theatre foyer. Its theme was an exotic garden, a place of plenty, a lost paradise. This total design was complemented by young usherettes in long pastel-yellow tunics, purple scarves and moccasins in which they strut around on the impeccable marble.

There was a performance that night of play called A Suspicious Person on the “Serbedzija” stage, a play which Ristic had put on with KPGT in the mid-seventies. Just like everything else in the Secerana, this play was at the same time both symbolical and cynical. On a well-equipped stage there was a performance of a play which was originally put on under the conditions of guerilla-theatre. Ristic’s production of Branislav Nusic’s comedy is based on the accentuated fragmentation of the text. Each break indicates the paranoid structure of the society in which the play is set so that the farce gradually turns into tragedy. A quarter of century later, the paranoia was there again, but the society’s structure was changed completely. Ristic himself was at the head of one of the most powerful political organizations in the country. There were no longer any students or dissidents or even regular theatre goers in the audience. The audience was dominated by a large group of high school students who were apparently brought there in an organized school visit. The children watched patiently for a while then they started fidgeting and finally enthusiastically after each dramatic fragment.

The resistance toward the show and therefore toward the whole political, ideological and cultural mechanism behind it as well, surfaced spontaneously. It seems that, in limited conditions, political processes start to comply with the principles of thermodynamics. This was the case in 1968, 1991, 1992, 1996/7 and later that fall.

What struck me most was not the almost insulting luxury of the new theater building in a country which is suffocating, or the interior which brought the ambient esthetics of the criminal elite into an industrial and therefore working-class and proletarian scenery not even cheekiness of Ljubisa Ristic who left Belgrade as an alternative director and master of theatrical provocations, and came back as president of the JUL party, pretending all the way that nothing had changed. The strongest impression was the violent atmosphere of the forced paradise of the Secerana. It was above all Ristic’s violence over his own convictions, intelligence and imagination as well as over his own past. Along with the Serbedzija stage, the Secerana also had the stages Jovanovic and Kokotovic. Ristic’s gesture of naming the stages after his former partners who were his ideological opponents in the late 90’s was actually a fetishization of his own past. In that sense the Secerana was precursor of a different, much more ambitious fetish town, the one on Mokra Gora. This steely-eyed look to the past was at the same time an anticipation of its own demise.

In his book Stanzas Giorgio Agamben very perceptively connects fetishism with melancholia. Namely in both he recognizes the structure of epiphany, that is – the appearance of what is both nonexistent and unachievable. While melancholia instead of mourning for a lost object actually anticipates its future loss, the fetishist fixation on the place of noting, or the perception, represents a fantasy. Hence the viewpoints of a melancholic and a fetishist both have an almost theatrical duplicity: with both of them the loss of an object opens up a space of the unreal, by which reality is defied, and in that sense the Secerana represented a perverse end to the story of a new Yugoslav Left which emerged from the student uprising in 1968. Last year the theater magazine Scena dedicated a special issue to Ljubisa Ristic with the intention of looking back upon, as the editors stated “the poetics of one of the most important theater directors who worked in the ex-Yugoslav lands”. When they informed Ristic about their intention to examine his poetics and not his involvement in the JUL, he replied “You’re making a mistake there, it is all me”. By intending to separate his artistic activities from the political ones, the Scena editors really tried to do the impossible – to separate reality from fantasy in the realm of a fetishistic fixation. What is fascinating about it is that in this arrangement theatre does not represent an area of fantasy, but just the opposite.

Translated by Ivica Pavlovic

Peščanik.net, 10.06.2008.