In August 2005, the Montreal artist Milutin Gubash travelled to Calgary, where his father, Stevan, lay gravely ill in hospital. Heavily sedated and drifting in and out of consciousness, Gubash senior turned to his son and said, “You know, you’re not really who you think you are.”
Milutin Gubash was born in 1969 in Novi Sad, a 17th-century city on the Danube River in Serbia, then part of Yugoslavia. When he was young and prone to the “Where do I come from?” line of questioning that besets every child, his father would recount how, one day, a Romany had come to the house and exchanged a baby boy for some dishrags. On his deathbed, Stevan Gubash told his surprised son that he was indeed Romany, or part Romany. But was it true? Or was it just the final punch line in a decades-old private joke between father and son? Milutin Gubash never found out. The conversation was his father’s last.
In a dream sequence in the first episode of Born Rich, Getting Poorer (2008–ongoing), Gubash’s sitcom-style video series, the ghost of Stevan Gubash pays his son a visit. Stevan, played by Milutin in a sketchy disguise, asks him, in guttural, heavily accented English, “Do you know who you are and where you are from?” Cue the music (frenetic tunes from a brass band) and the laugh track. Milutin Gubash’s identity quest is about to begin.
This quest is the subject of an exhibition surveying a decade of Gubash’s work that I curated earlier this year at Carleton University Art Gallery. It is one of a year-long series of exhibitions taking place at Rodman Hall Art Centre, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Southern Alberta Art Gallery and Musée d’art de Joliette. Each gallery is working independently with Gubash on the selection and installation of works, and collaborating on a forthcoming monograph of Gubash’s video, photography, performance, installation and ephemeral site-specific projects.
Like much of Gubash’s recent work, Born Rich is rooted in the story of his family’s origins in Yugoslavia. The country, from the time that Josip Broz Tito broke with Joseph Stalin in 1948 until its demise in 1992, was an independent communist state with open borders and a measure of economic prosperity relative to its East Bloc neighbours. A medical doctor and the head of public health in Novi Sad, Gubash’s father was put under increasing pressure to join the Communist Party. In 1972, he and his family—wife Katarina, son Milutin and daughter Tatyana—boarded a flight to Vancouver. They told friends they were going on vacation. Instead, they immigrated to Canada.
The Gubash children grew up in Kingston and Calgary, listening to their parents speak almost exclusively of things “at home.” It seemed to Milutin that in Yugoslavia, everything was “somehow better or more interesting or funnier.” He could never get a straight answer to questions about why the family had left, and his father’s convoluted stories didn’t help. Stevan Gubash’s mourning of his past took a paradoxical form: he never warmed to Canada, but he also refused to associate with fellow Serbian expatriates or to return to the country of his birth. The family keenly felt this anxiety of dislocation, with its singular “neither here nor there” quality. It is what propels Gubash’s work.
Gubash’s route to an artist’s life was not predestined, although he has always been a performer. Peepo, his teenage alter ego, was an annoying clown who liked to insist that people take a flower from him—and then another, and another. After high school, Gubash applied to a mortuary school in Hollywood and to the National Film School in Łódź, Poland. He booked passage to the Soviet Union aboard a freighter and got as far as the dock in Vancouver before chickening out. By the time he started an undergraduate degree in philosophy at the University of Calgary, however, he knew he wanted to be an artist. His passing attachment to Marxist philosophy and his driving of a Lada vexed his father to no end, but his parents begrudgingly came around to his choice of career.
Gubash typically plays a starring role in his work, or anchors a cast of friends and family, but it was not always thus. In graduate school at Concordia University, where he studied photography, he devised elaborate rule-based systems for generating conceptual images in an effort to efface his presence, but became dissatisfied with the dry, rather academic photographs that resulted. “Art school,” he has said, “does horrible things to a person’s mind.” Gubash graduated from Concordia in 2000, and gradually found his way to his principal subject: himself.
Gubash plays out his personal, social and cultural identities by performing them before the camera. In Re-enacting Tragedies While My Parents Look On, a 2003 project commissioned by the Charles H. Scott Gallery at the Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Gubash photographed himself in Calgary playing dead at the sites of bizarre deaths reported by the Calgary Herald. The photographs portray Stevan and Katarina Gubash as curiously apathetic witnesses to their son’s antics, roles they reprise in Near & Far, a 2003–05 series of improvised short films shot in and around the same locales. It is tempting to read an overarching narrative into the opaque and mostly silent encounters the artist stages with his parents (including their impassive observation of his Ophelia-style immersion in the Bow River). But, for Gubash, these works are performances—personal exchanges mediated by the camera that bring into focus “the complexity of the relationships I have with the people who are around me.”
In 2007, Éditions J’ai VU in Quebec City published Which Way to the Bastille?, Gubash’s ghostwritten first-person memoir of Stevan Gubash’s life in Yugoslavia. The artist illustrated it with photographic portraits of his parents; his partner, the artist Annie Gauthier; and their daughter, Nova Katarina. In the related video, also titled Which Way to the Bastille?, Gubash sits in the back seat of a car at night, camera trained intently on the wan face of his father, who occupies the front passenger seat. Gubash doggedly feeds lines from the book to his father, who struggles (ironically, given that they are his own words) and fails to repeat them to his son’s satisfaction. The artist hectors his increasingly agitated father in English and Serbian. In a pivotal moment near the end of the video, he says, “Dad, I need you to do it one more time.” Gubash’s assumption of multiple roles—actor, son, father, writer, husband, producer, director—is important, not only because it helps him coax the requisite performances from his collaborators, but also because it expresses his understanding of subjectivity as something that is actively constructed, and always in progress.
Re-enacting Tragedies saw the debut of Gubash’s artistic persona, a black-suited everyman who also features prominently in Lots (2007), a quasi-narrative video series that followed Near & Far. By the time the first episode of Born Rich, Getting Poorer is over, we are fully acquainted with “Milutin Gubash,” who is a feckless egocentric, suspicious of his neighbours, fearful of the natural world and usually up to no good. The character type is similar to the one perfected by Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm—a TV series starring David as himself, and ostensibly based on his “real life.”
The Milutin Gubash persona is not as subtle or as consistent as David’s. The artist’s Buster Keatonish facade and buffoonery falter noticeably in moments that hit close to home. In “Punked in Serbia,” episode four of Born Rich, we accompany Gubash on a journey to Novi Sad, where he plays a surprise prank on his father’s oldest friend. When the men meet on camera, it is a poignant, understated scene freighted by the palpable absence of Gubash senior. Later, the artist cannot hide his disappointment over the lacklustre presentation of his work at the Museum of Vojvodina in Novi Sad. In an awkward scene at the vernissage, we see visitors watching a projection of Lots while Gubash, dejected, hovers in the background. A laugh track exaggerates the anxiety of the moment, and Gubash’s evident feeling of being lost in translation. As he frankly admits, he had thought of Serbia as “home, or what I think is supposed to be home for me.” But this visit to Serbia, his first as an adult, only complicated his ideas of home.
In Born Rich, Gubash’s seemingly casual manipulation of the categories of fact and fiction, private and public, and funny and sad connects his work as an artist to an understanding of the human condition. “For me, the link between art and actual life,” he says, “is that both require one to make do with imperfect and sometimes incoherent narratives, which are resistant to ‘why’-type questions. Still, this instability leaves a lot of room for invention to fill the gaps.” Gubash admits to having little feeling for the “truth” in art, and is as intent on fabricating the past as he is on discovering it.
Gubash makes only a cameo appearance in the video Hotel Tito (2010), in which scenes of his mother’s present-day cancer scare bracket a farcical “re-enactment” of the first night of her honeymoon in Yugoslavia in the 1960s. Sick with food poisoning and stuck in a lousy hotel without indoor plumbing, Katarina and Stevan have a random but dangerous encounter with a group of soldiers who question their communist sympathies. The cast is amateur; the script, hammy; the laughter, recycled. The artist’s mother at one point interrupts filming to protest her son’s faulty interpretation of her memory of the night. This apparently spontaneous moment is among the devices Gubash uses—including voiceovers, canned laughter and shots of him and Gauthier operating the mic and camera—to enhance the work’s artifice and signal its constructed nature. With its focus on Gubash’s mother, Hotel Tito functions as a companion piece to the Which Way to the Bastille? projects. These works, like the large black-and-white photographs inspired by Hotel Tito, titled Who Will Will Our Will? (2011), plumb the disillusionments attendant on life in communist Yugoslavia.
Gubash started out as a painter, but now prefers computer-simulated brushstrokes. His 2010 series These Paintings comprises “paintings” created in Photoshop in a Yugoslavian-flag palette of blue, white and red, and output on glossy photographic paper. They represent his effort to bring to life the work of the Serbian artist Slobodan “Boki” Radanovic, a family friend, and in the absence of any actual paintings, Gubash’s parents’ vague memories served as inspiration. TITO (3) (2010), for example, is based on his mother’s recollection of a Boki painting that looked “kind of like the Yugoslavian flag coming together.” The art historian Piotr Piotrowski has written of the Yugoslavian communists’ relative tolerance of geometric abstraction, which allowed artists to ally themselves with “universal” (that is, Western) culture while avoiding outright critique of the government. But as Gubash and Gauthier reveal in the video These Paintings (2010), not all artists thrived under the regime. Boki fled Yugoslavia for the US, and eventually died following years spent in and out of psychiatric institutions in Washington, DC.
Gubash has described his artistic practice as being a “big project about making me, exploring the subject of me.” His work plays on such popular cultural forms as the memoir, autofiction and reality TV. But the web is now the most powerful platform for identity formation. It enables what New York Times literary critic Michiko Kakutani calls the “amplification of subjectivity,” as represented by tweets, blogs, status updates, YouTube-born celebrities and the constant cultivation of socially networked self-images. These days, identity is up for grabs, or at least invention. The young Gubash idealized Yugoslavia as a place that was “somehow better or more interesting or funnier.” Today, Gubash’s forays into “making me” take him to that place—in reality and in his imagination.