Performative Skopje

After my whirlwind tour of Prishtina, I headed off to Skopje, by bus. This in itself was a bit of a performance, as we were in the middle of a heat-wave (one thermometer I saw read 41 degrees Celsius), and the bus driver left the door open to prevent us from melting inside!

When I arrived in Skopje I decided to go for a walk and revisit the city I hadn't seen in five years. In 2008, I traveled all around the Balkans, visiting more as a tourist than an art historian; Skopje was one of my stops. While it is common that a city, especially one in this region, will change over the years, I didn't expect the dramatic shift in the visual landscape that I experienced here in Skopje from 2008 to 2013. Compare these before and after pictures:

Skopje in 2008

Skopje in 2008

Skopje in 2013. Although the photograph is taken from a wider angle, the small while Modernist building in the center is the Opera House, which is currently dwarfed by the new Neoclassical constructions.

Skopje in 2013. Although the photograph is taken from a wider angle, the small while Modernist building in the center is the Opera House, which is currently dwarfed by the new Neoclassical constructions.

The new buildings and bridges are part of a building project called Skopje 2014, which is financed by the government and aims to revamp the nation's capital and give the city new architectural and cultural landmarks. Much of the city was destroyed in the 1963 earthquake, and was never rebuilt. The style of the new buildings has been deliberately chosen - Neoclassical - featuring triumphal arches, massive classical sculptures and colonnaded facades that recall Ancient Greece.

 

The project divides the city like the river that many of the buildings rest on. There are many arguments for and against this building project, and it is not my aim to rehearse those debates or discuss my own opinion on the project here (but, to be honest, it is not really in my taste and I would have gone for something more contemporary). Regardless of what you think of the aesthetics (whether you like the style or not) or the ethics of it (whether a country with economic difficulties should be spending so much on architecture and public sculpture right now, or even on this type of architecture) you cannot deny the performativity of Skopje 2014. These buildings, sculptures and monuments are not only performative in and of themselves, insofar as they are dramatically placed, massive, bold and impressive from first glance - they command your attention so forcefully that when you first stumble upon them you don't know where to look - but the sculptures are also cast in dramatic, dynamic poses, so much so that they literally bring the space they inhabit to life. I noticed right away that there is no rhyme or reason to the placement of these objects - there is no feng shui, so to speak - and the effect is that each piece (be it sculpture, building or bridge) draws your attention in a way that keeps your head spinning, keeps you constantly interacting with them.

Aside from the monumentality of the buildings and and motion of the figures, these constructions are also performing something else - identity. It does not take one long to realize that this project is not just about beautifying the city center (beauty according to the developers, that is), but about the name dispute and Macedonia's claim to its own historical legacy as a nation. I can't remember where I heard this, but I recall reading or hearing someone talking about national identity, and saying that each country always goes back in time to the moment when that country was flourishing the most, and identifies that as their origin. So it makes sense why some in Macedonia would want to go back to Classical Antiquity and emphasize those roots. It also makes sense why those behind Skopje 2014 chose this style - because of its popular appeal. It is not difficult to imagine Macedonian citizens from other cities coming to their nation's capital city and swelling with pride at the sight of these massive and impressive constructions.

Even the manner in which the program has been enacted is performative. Locals tell me that the project was announced suddenly, on TV, without any consultation. A virtual graphic display showed viewers how Skopje would look in 2014, with all of the proposed buildings and sculptures in place. It was so grandiose, it seemed impossible to believe. Many in the artistic community did not support the reactionary approach of the project, and protested it. The government responded by putting the sculptures in place overnight. As one person described it, "we would go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning and see that several more sculptures had appeared." It was a performance of power and control.

In some ways, this reminded me of Lenin's Plan for Monumental Propaganda, which was a project after the Russian Revolution to erect statues and busts of great revolutionary leaders across the cities of the Soviet Union. In order to get them up quickly, the busts were often made of plaster, with the idea of replacing them later with bronze ones. In many cases, they never were. While the sculptures in Skopje are bronze, most of the building facades are not solid marble or stone as their Ancient predecessors were. Some have told me that because many of the structures have been built along the river bank, their foundations are already flooding, and they are not structurally sound.

Some cities, such as Bilbao, Spain, or even Vilnius, Lithuania and Riga, Latvia, which have plans to modernize their city centers with new architectural projects, choose the most cutting-edge postmodern architecture and design to place their cities on the map, so to speak, and draw in international tourists. So you have to admit that it is a bold move for Skopje to choose to do the opposite - to attempt to move forward by moving backwards in time. In some ways, Skopje 2014 does represent the quintessential postmodern pastiche. Much like Las Vegas, it offers you the opportunity to travel in time to to distant civilizations. It does so without any hint of irony, though, which makes it difficult to read these works as postmodern.

Just like a performance, these constructions command the viewer's attention, drawing him in and making him pay attention, even shocking him at times. Also like a performance, they engage the viewer. During my time in Skopje I saw many people - locals and tourists - lingering on the bridges, snapping photos in front of the arch, playing in the fountains. Finally, like performance, they are so extreme that they divide their audience, attracting some and disgusting others. Unlike a performance, however, these buildings are permanent. They are here to stay, unless the claims that they are structurally unsound are, in fact, true, and they begin to disintegrate in the coming years. But just as the avant-garde eventually becomes mainstream, one person I met with reminded me of the fact that the children who grow up with these objects won't have the same divided feelings about them as their parents - they will just become part of the normal visual landscape of Skopje, in 2014 and beyond.

 

On the left, some photographs of Skopje 2014. On the right, a video of a worker building Skopje 2014, with Grieg's "Morning" from Peer Gynt piped in by the city to accompany his performance.

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.