Some may still remember Markus Z.
Z was an art-activist who gained something of an international reputation in the early 1990s. His career began in the mid-1980s when he was a teenager in Amsterdam. There was nothing especially remarkable about his early graffiti work but through sheer profusion he had, by the decades end, quite the reputation in his home city.
His work at this time was your standard left-wing/anarchist inspired anti-nuclear and environmentally themed graffiti pieces. There were works such as his “Shadow Citizens” pieces; anti-nuclear work covering streets in the images of those turned into shadows by the nuclear attacks upon Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Many found these to be rather derivative of earlier, anonymous, work seen in Paris. His “Swamp Thing” period which saw him transform inner-city trains into long creeping vines full of hidden life and radical environmental messages. However, it was the descent, in the early 1990s, of the Balkan region into war that both fired his imagination and ambition. That drove his work onto the international stage.
Markus Z was born in the Yugoslavia of the late 1960s. The Yugoslavia of Josip Tito. His parents were students in the late 1960s, studying to become linguists, and, when Markus was just a toddler, they were swept up in the Croatian Spring. Following the events, and in the face of Tito’s repression, they left their homeland. With their young son they fled west. Finally settling in Amsterdam before going on to finish their studies and becoming esteemed translators of Slavic literature.
Being a child of emigrants or, depending upon one’s perspective, immigrants Markus was raised with a deep attachment for this place which he had never really known. It is strange, this attachment, in that it can only truly be felt by the second generation of the world’s various diaspora populations. It is different to the, often rose tinted, lens through which migrants will remember their home country. It has a level of removal through lack of direct experience, it is mediated through by older generation’s reminiscences yet it is not the more fantastical and imaginary manner with which later generations understand their ancestral origins. The Welsh people, apparently, have a word for this; “Hiraeth”, a longing for a home that may have never been. Markus’ hiraeth had always subtly informed his work but, as the Balkans erupted into violence and slaughter, it came to dominate.
The first of his pieces to garner some international attention came in 1992 when, under the cover of night -as artists of his ilk tend to work, he used one of the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall as a canvas. The untitled piece showed a peasant woman in traditional Croatian dress carrying a stylised map of Yugoslavia upon her bent back. She was both carrying the seemingly great weight of the country whilst also using it to shelter from a rain of Hammer & Sickle, soviet, logos which were themselves composed of tiny dollar signs. The following week the piece illustrated articles in both Der Spiegel and Die Welt and, later that same year, also featured on the cover of a special issue of Der Spiegel.
In 1993 his work truly came into the bright lights of the world stage when, in March of that year, he moved from the two dimensional into the plastic arts with an installation piece on the Carnegieplein before the International Court of Justice in Den Haag. This piece was a mixture of performance art and installation. In the hours before dawn Markus and a colleague, who has to this day remained anonymous, drove a large military truck bearing the markings of the, by then former, Yugoslav military onto the square. They parked the truck and disappeared into the night. As business hours approached, and the area around the court began to come to life, a bomb threat was called in to both the local police and the offices of The Haagsche Courant -a local newspaper. This led to a massive response from the local authorities with the entire area being evacuated and cordoned off by the police. This being not long after the RaRa bombings of 1990/1.
It was just before midday when a specialist military bomb squad arrived to investigate the truck. Once the explosives experts had examined the outside of the truck, checking below it with mirrors on long silver poles, they brought small ladders to allow them to peek in the windows of the cab without opening the doors. Seeing, at first glance, nothing amiss in the cab they moved to the back of the truck. The body of the truck was of the standard military sort. Drab canvas over a steel frame with curtain doors to the rear.
Upon pulling back the canvas curtains the bomb disposal experts were greeted with an extremely disturbing sight. The military men had been prepared for a device of some kind but what confronted them were a dozen corpses propped against the inside walls of the truck and wrapped in white linen covered in intricate black sigils and signs of an occult nature. The cloth had been pulled aside leaving their faces exposed showing them to all be in various states of decay. Each had around their neck a sign reading: WAAROM HUILEN VOOR MIJ? ROEPEN! Which translates into English as “Why cry for me? Shout!”
It was later ascertained that these were bodies taken, some months earlier, from war graves in what is now Bosnia.
Later that same day a lengthy communique was received by the local police, various local and national newspapers, as well as various government offices in Amsterdam. The communique read like a mix between a left-wing terror manifesto, overwrought prose poetry, and a religious tract. Whilst the text itself was extremely long there was one paragraph that caught the attention of one young eagle eyed investigator.
Tr.: “For the rains of the east and the rains of the west beat down. For the rivers of the north and the south pull away. The old mother of our souls shall carry us on. We are the shield at her back, she is the strength of our legs.”
It was only three days after the bomb-hoax/installation that the connection between this passage and the earlier work at the Berlin Wall had been drawn. It was less than ten hours later that the studio of Markus Z, a squatted warehouse on the outskirts of Amsterdam, had been raided by, what appears in the photographs to be every police officer in the city.
Markus Z was nowhere to be found. In the studio the authorities found evidence concretely linking the young artist to the events in Den Haag. Draft copies of the communique, evidence that the truck itself had been parked within the large warehouse space, and the walls themselves were covered with larger versions of the strange symbols which decorated the funeral shrouds found in the truck.
Markus Z was never found. A number of his known associates from the worlds of art and left-wing activism were arrested and charged, very publicly, with various terrorist offences. Charges that, once the media sensation had died down, were less publicly completely dropped. They all claimed to have no knowledge of Markus’ plans nor of his current whereabouts and, eventually, even the most skeptical of the investigators came to believe that they were telling the truth.
Over the years since the incident memory of Markus’ installation has faded. But in certain parts of the worlds of art and activism there are still some that theorise as to the whereabouts of Markus Z and his collaborators. The most widely held theory is that he fled the Netherlands that night to neighbouring Germany, and then on to former Yugoslavia. There is even a young woman who writes for the popular American art magazine “Outsider:AM” who claims to have captured photographs of him at a party in Croatia in 2004. The photograph is so blurry however that only those who wish to be convinced are.
There are other, slightly wilder claims, such as the one that Markus Z went on to form a coterie of art-terrorists operating for hire out Eastern Europe or that he fled to the United Kingdom and became the notorious “Banksy”. In the late 1990s there was even an attempt to begin using the moniker “Marcus Z” as a shared name with which to claim responsibility for various art-activist interventions, political actions, and other works of art and literature. A Luther Blisset or Karen Eliot for the post-Neoist milieu perhaps?
Whatever the truth of the whereabouts of Markus Z; our society still produces ample fodder for such artists. Those amongst us who are true aesthetes should cheer, loud as the roar of billows upon the shore, the conflagrations that drive men to mayhem. For from this mayhem -action, reaction, devastation, the art of greatness is born.