Sad is happy for deep people

Meeting Tamara Bilankov

Place: Zagreb
Date: May 7-8, 2018
Travel time: 5 minutes bike, 17 hours train, 5 minutes bike
Meeting time: 5 hours
Reading time: 20 minutes

Dear Tamara,

After our first meeting, I sent you a quote from Doctor Who: “Sad is happy for deep people”. I don’t watch the British television series myself, but found the quote in a book on ecology and beauty. Be that also the subjects that come back time and again in our conversation. “Beauty”, says Timothy Morton in Being Ecological (that’s the title of the book), “is sad like that. Sadness means there is something you can’t quite put your finger on. You can’t quite grasp it.” Being ecological works the same way: you can’t quite put your finger on it. You can’t quite grasp it. It comes in between and the moment you make it explicit, it tends to fade away. Therefore, Morton goes on, “the ecological society to come (…) must be a bit haphazard, broken, lame, twisted, ironic, silly, sad.” I had to think of the quote when you told me over lunch that people don’t understand that a happy person like you can make such sad art. I think I can understand that: what people think and how you are.

Before we met, you sent me a link to two video’s and to your website. Going through the material I get a feeling of being disconnected (in both video’s) and of being connected (on the website). In the first video, Pokret (which – I understand – is Croatian for ‘movement’), you film three dancers in three abandoned factories. I watch it as a post-apocalyptic update of Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique or of Chaplin’s Modern Times. The first is a utopian film from the 1920’s, full of awe for the new technology of cinema that puts things in motion. The latter is a dystopian film from the 1930’s showing the alienation of the worker in the factory. I know, this Grand Tour leaves me with a rather biased view on things, but I see a link with ecology there. Here too, I can follow Timothy Morton: we live after the end, the catastrophe of global warming already took place, and so we better try to cope with it. That is how I understand your film. That is how I look at the dancers moving in between the abandoned machines, adapting their movements and rhythms to the environment.

In the second video, Akt (no translation of the title here), I see a tale of bureaucracy. I think Kafka. I think alienation: disconnectedness. The film is in Croatian but you write in your email that language is not important. I listen to the sound, without understanding the words, but I get the message. A message of frustration, destruction, policing. I think of Morton again, how he describes an ecological society – using the words of Gilles Deleuze – as a control society wherein citizens are policed to live in the right way, well knowing that there is no right way to live ecological.

Sitting on a bench in the botanical garden, we talk about language. About this Grand Tour, where everything has to be in English, a language that we both don’t use the right way: the language of the global crash. You told me you went to London with Imagine 2020, where you wanted to present yourself in Croatian and proposed that every other artist presents herself in her language. They did it, in French, in Spanish, you name it: you got the message. In the film it’s the same thing. You wrote the script with empty words: the commonplaces we use every day when people meet. You took Ionesco as your example. You want to show your character – K – as a human animal, trying to connect with nature, with earth. That is what all the other characters carry in their yellow plastic bags: earth. You explain that we need something to make us human again, more than a number. There is also a DVD: that stands for memory. You believe in technology. Technology is nature: our nature. Not that you believe in geo-engineering to solve all problems of the earth. But you believe in technology to help humans live with nature. It’s like with plastic: it’s not bad as such, but when you have too much of it, it becomes bad.

I wonder how your father – you told me he is a philosopher – would react on your use of language. Language is his primary tool. That, of course, also goes for you, when you teach, or write. But as an artist there are so many other things that can be used as words. You can talk through images. And I wonder if that is the reason why scientists in discussions on global warming rely more and more on artists. Timothy Morton does it when he works with Olafar Eliasson during COP 21 in Paris. Bruno Latour does it in his collaboration with Philippe Quesne during the same climate conference. It is the problem of global warming. The sceptics are always right because we will never have enough data. Better to use no data at all (what Morton tries to do in Being Ecological). In the end you can only talk about feelings. That is what I learn from your art. You talk through feelings and – unlike climate sceptics – you take feelings seriously. Feelings are important for your well being. When I arrived in Zagreb, walking through the many parks and gardens between the station and the city centre, I smell spring and get the feeling that the air is much better then in Brussels, the city where I live. When you walk through Zagreb, you miss the fresh air from the Croatian coast in Split, the town where you are from. Feelings are part of your essentials, like air, water, food. That is why it is important to express feelings and to share them. Beauty is also just feelings, feelings of mixed situations. We need some kind of mixed media to talk about global warming, not just language. Or another language. That is why social scientists call for help of artists: they use another language. Think differently.

(Maybe you can have parts in your book where every artist speaks in her own language? I love that idea of yours. It just came like that, there, on that bench, in the botanical garden. It’s such a good idea. So simple.)


When I ask you what inspires you, you can not name it. But you can tell me what you enjoy: the sea, the summer, a good conversation. You also know that the films you will make in the future will be different. You don’t want to show what is important anymore. You want to show what you like. No tough dystopian movies anymore. You want to go more towards Utopia. To connect to your life. That is also what I feel in your work. Before you had the two films, dealing with alienation, with disconnectedness: the subject of Marx and Kafka. Your father taught Marx at school. He marked your childhood: don’t believe in anything. Not in God, nor in Marx. That is your religion. You communicate with the world. You didn’t think about ecology while making your films. About economy maybe: that is also linked to global warming. Factories close, leaving people without income, and move production elsewhere. You understand that we need to produce more locally. Instead we rely on tourism. You don’t show it in your film, but it is there, as before and afterthoughts. We need small and local factories. Size is also important in the connectedness of the workers with the work. Alienation is often linked to things that are too big to understand.

The success of both films is linked to their themes, their subjects, but also to the way they are made. These are attractive films. You work with good dancers, with a good cameraman, to make something beautiful with your environment. That is your language. To energize a space. That, I think, you can call ecological. Your films are about living in ruins, industrial or natural. That is where you find your opportunities. You show the beauty of the ruin. It is in such a ruin that the character in Doctor Who utters the words “sad is happy for deep people” (you can check the episode of Doctor Who online; the title is Blink – BBC, 2007).

You don’t make films anymore for the time being. You work with your body now. No stories about alienation for the moment, but about connectedness. You compare your body to my blog. When you perform, you write with your body. It’s your house, where you collect your feelings. You need time to uncover that box, to open it. Performing makes you more gentle, less tough. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore as a young woman. You are an artist now, connecting to yourself, knowing what you want. You create to discover your own desires.


When you compare your body to my blog, I see it as a living archive, a tool to share my experiences with partners and artists. It is a way to deal with my doubts about what I am doing. A tool to anticipate reactions from the people I work for. An archive, a way of sharing, a way of dealing with doubts: that is a body for you. It grows and I already know I will have to rework it for the book later on. What I do now is for a very small audience. The book has to go further. My blog and the forthcoming book: it’s like your body and your films.

When you talk about performance, I hear a story of intensity. You incorporate the reactions of your audience. It stays with you. You cannot hide. You are honest and the audience is honest with you. You collect every feeling. And then, you tell me, you always cry after your performances. It is always too much. When you work with your body, you cannot leave it behind as a technique or a tool. It is so intense that you don’t want to do it too often. Only when you are really ready for it. If you’re honest, you have only a few ideas. You have to be able to connect to your subject. You create an intimacy. I admire your honesty, your presence. Stories about crying are often, if not always, linked to beauty. Sad for deep people: in your performances you touch upon beauty. You feel little stress about it. You let go. And then you cry. Because you cannot remain in beauty forever. It is just a part of life. You can’t plan to find beauty. It comes by surprise.

Hearing you talk about crying after a performance – the crying that comes as a hangover – I try, that’s my job for the moment, to make the link with ecology and beauty, with ecology and crying. I try to find out why I never cried about ecology. If I am very honest, I only cried about what is lost. Ecology is not about what is lost. Not yet. Even if I know that some things are already lost, even if I accept that we are already living after the end, I cannot cry. I don’t feel it. It is still too far away. I live with what is still there.


During our first meeting I get to know you as an artist who likes to keep control. You are either there for the full hundred percent, or you quit. I had the feeling that you were there when we met. But then you seemed to quit. The next day you send me a message in the morning that we can meet at 6 PM. But my train back home leaves at 9! That’s pretty late. But you decide. You’re in control.

I spend the day by myself, revisiting the places I know. I go back to the botanical garden in the morning, to read. I go back to the restaurant where I was yesterday. And in between I get lost in a city I don’t know. And I think: how come that she’s not there? Why did I come all the way to Zagreb to meet an artist that is not there? I can’t find the answer immediately. And I wait. The answer will come later.

I want to talk about the other things you do. Things you only mentioned very briefly the other day. Things you did not send me any documentation on before we met. As if they are not important. As if they are not really part of your work. Or, maybe, as if these are the things you don’t control. You talk about more social work. About collaborations with groups. There are three groups, three generations. There is a group of adolescents at the art school where you teach. There is a group of women artists that started while you were all still at the arts academy. There is a group of aged people where you organise workshops.

uho sf

You get passionate when you talk about these collaborations. Maybe more than when you talk about your own work. You connect with these different generations. With the elders you feel like a mother. With the children you take the role of the older sister. With the women you feel like a child, a little confused. That seems like the hardest group for you now. There you have to learn to work on a project together, to find resolutions, to find agreements.

The idea of generations is something that comes back very often in my Grand Tour. I just came back from Ljubljana where I met the people (a collective, yes) of Beton Ltd., who just started work on their new project on the next generation, on education, on revolt. In Riga I met Janis Balodis while he was working on a new theatre piece with a group of children at the gymnasium. Thierry Boutonnier in Lyon is currently working on a project on children and food. Armin Chodzinski and Sibylle Peters in Hamburg invited me for a performance with nine year old children. Children are really important when working around ecology. But you are the first artist to go in the other direction. While most artists look at the next generation, you also connect with the former generation. I understand that it goes back much further. At academy already, you worked on a project where you tried to remember how the first generation of people was. I saw a video on your website where you tried to catch an apple with your legs. You tried to go inside and tried to remember with your body. You walked on four legs, to be closer to the ground. There came the first idea to work with elder people: to make a film with them trying to catch the apple. You didn’t do it, because of practical problems. But the idea was already there. You tell me the story of your grandfather, ninety two years old, who two years ago started to grow mushrooms in his body. The doctors say it’s harmless. At that age, your body starts producing chemicals that make you function like a tree for the mushrooms. It’s fascinating to see the work of generations at work in your story. To see a body giving new life towards the end if its life. As if the body, or life in general, turns itself inside out. It becomes the fertile ground for something else. Dying is also a question of ecology, just like living.

kolaž 01

When you were twenty, you were asked if you cared about ecology. You said (Timothy Morton would probably give the same answer) that you didn’t really care. You care for something you can’t name yet. You search and try different things. It is only when looking back that you notice that everything you do is about nature. But there is nothing planned there. You feel ecology in a different way. It is personal. You don’t think about making things better. You just do small action that reconnect with nature. Like with the elderly, making self portraits with images of their environment: that is where nature comes in, the moment they are themselves in their environment.

Your first video – that I didn’t see – showed you, dressed in white, walking through a city, becoming dirty. It makes me think of Akt of course: the dirt in the yellow plastic bags. It’s a film about the environment. Not about nature. And certainly not about ecology. But it is where ecology starts. In the unnameable. Artists who say they work on ecology cannot be trusted. You cannot make it explicit. Every artist is an ecological artist (Morton would say). It’s like saying you make art about beauty. About what is everywhere. It makes beauty, like ecology, a political matter. When critics say that your film, Prokret, is too beautiful, they make a political statement. Just like when you say that you cannot make explicit ecological art. The real political thing to do is not to make it explicit. Ecology, like beauty, is everywhere. Especially where you least expect it.

That is probably also what makes your work with different groups of different generations so attractive. It makes you part of a process, it puts you in between things, in between people. It makes you think about questions you struggle with yourself even if you don’t know yet you are struggling with them. Let’s call it the non-explicit questions. Working with different people becomes part of your research. You become equal. Not more or less smart, but part of the exchange. They are like parallel worlds, slowly becoming one.

Before we leave, you tell me another story about parallel worlds. That you’re sad (I understand it by now: happy, for deep people) that we didn’t meet in Split. That you think that I could feel your character more there. That Zagreb is a new town for you. That you’re not a local person. That I can feel more your sense of ecology in Split, where we could walk by the sea. That I could feel there how you live your life here. In your head you’re still in Split. Who you are depends more on where you’re from than where you are. You only realise when you are not in Split why it is so important for you. It is only here in Zagreb that you realise what you took for granted in Split.

It is only then that I realise that you are not there. You were never there. Not only in the afternoon that I spent on my own. But also not here at the table where we enjoy our cup of tea together. It is sad in a way. But we know now what that means. By the way: did you watch the episode of Doctor Who? Did you notice the statues that are there but also not? For me they represent the same longing, the same presence of absence, the same sadness, but always: only for deep people.

Keep me posted. Send me something in your language from time to time.

Best wishes,




PS: Should I also have written about the very last thing you said before we left? About your situation as an artist in Croatia? That it is so hard to live from art and even more from writing in Croatia? That you need time to make art and to write. That time is a luxury. I had to think about it again, in the night train from Zagreb to Munich. There I feel the different rhythms across Europe. The closer we are to Zagreb, the slower the train. In Slovenia the train goes a little bit faster. In Austria a bit more. In Germany even more. In Munich I change for the fast train, the ICE, to end with the Thalys to Brussels. It is actually the same train I left with in Brussels, taking me to Paris one week ago. That circle is closed.

You know what I also noticed in the train? How fragmented Europe still is. How afraid we still are of our neighbours. I notice it when passing the border to Slovenia and Slovenian police gets on the train. Same thing on the Austrian border. And again – at 5 in the morning – on the German border. What does it mean to live in a Unified Europe? Not so much, actually.

It is sad, but in a way, maybe, slowing down and being interested in your neighbours is not necessarily a bad thing: it makes you feel connected. That is what I was thinking, all alone in my compartment in the night train from Zagreb to Munich, lulled to sleep, like a baby.


Postscript from Tamara


Hello Pieter 🙂

I really like your text, I enjoyed reading and thank you very much for that. Also I think that you should write about about the financial situation in Croatian culture and arts. I’m sending you a little (sad) short story in Croatian about tigers and zebras, about their relationship that actually suffers from the cruel concept of the food chain : tiger wants to eat a zebra:

Tigar se svojim tijelom približio tlu. Ispred sebe na prostranoj ravnici motri opuštenu zebru. Vjetar lagano puše i ono što će tigar napraviti za nekoliko minuta je sasvim prirodna, instinktivna reakcija predatora koji želi jesti. Nije, naravno, tigar kriv što je sistem hranidbenog lanca takav. “Sve mora jist da bi preživilo“ – kazao mi je jednom dida dok smo na televiziji gledali krvoločne životinjske napade, u civiliziranoj stambenoj zgradi sa šesnaest katova. “Ali, ja to ne mogu gledat, je li znaš?“- nastavio je dida i mi smo okrenuli program na neke ljude koji se fino ponašaju (obuzdavaju). “e, ali ćerce i ovi se jedu“- zaključio je dida, a ja nisam ništa komentirala. Vratimo se na tigra. Tigar lagano uspravi svoje tijelo i s idućim naletom vjetra oštro krene prema naprijed. Žurno i pravedno. Zebra se, nesluteći, spontano zagleda prema lijevoj nozi i u pozadini ugleda odlučnog tigra. Jebemu, zašto baš sada dok žvače svježu travu. Pljune travu ispred sebe i spotićući se krene u bijeg. Želi preživjeti, tigar je za nju primitivni majmun. Ne zanima je ideja hranidbenog lanca i tog izopačenog kruga. Trči koliko je noge nose. Tigar joj je sve bliže, cure mu sline. Zebra se očajnički okreće. Iza sebe (Hvala Bogu) vidi da tigar lagano gubi smisao za smjer.On trči sve više lijevo, a zebra bježi sve više desno. Crno-bijele pruge na zebrinom tijelu stvorile su optičku iluziju i tigar više ne zna gdje se zebra točno nalazi. U gladnim očima plivaju mu pruge. Zebra se lagano zaljulja od dragosti. Uspijela je zavarati sistem ili đavla, ko će znat razlikuju li se uopće.



I found this yesterday in the magazine while I was drinking coffe. So I think it’s a good conclusion of our discussions.


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