Something is Happening in Skopje...

When I arrived in Skopje, it was hot. And I don't just mean hot like Balkan hot, but unusually hot - even the locals were complaining. This made working difficult, but one has to carry on.

I had tried to get in touch with a number of institutions in Skopje before my arrival, but none responded to me. Through some personal contacts, I was finally able to make a few contacts with NGOs working in the arts, who were able to offer me an introduction into contemporary art in Macedonia.

On my first day I decided to check out the Museum of Contemporary Art. Their website mentioned a library, which I thought I would try to take advantage of while in the city. I have always been impressed by this building - it sits at the top of a hill overlooking the city, just above the fortress, positioned like the Parthenon over the city of Skopje. What a great position for modern art to occupy! What's more, the building is a monument to Modernist architecture, a gift to the city by the Polish government, part of the rebuilding of the city after the 1963 earthquake. I later found out that Oskar Hansen submitted a design to the competition (although he was trained as an architect and taught design, the methods that Hansen used in his studio inspired artists who went on to become some of the most significant performance artist in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s). So I was eager to see the museum up close.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, high atop the hill

The Museum of Contemporary Art, high atop the hill

I started my climb up the hill, in 40-degree weather. When I got to the fortress, I was disappointed to see that it is now closed to visitors; when I was in Skopje in 2008, it was still open. I looked up and saw the museum, but the ascent looked ominous: broken stairs, overgrown weeds, a ghostly presence atop the hill. But nevertheless, I continued to climb. When I got to the top I discovered what I had feared: the museum was also closed for renovations. It seems that I am just not meant to see the insides of any artistic institutions in the Balkans! (It also would have been nice if the museum had mentioned the closure on their website...) But nevertheless it was great to see this wonderful piece of Modernist architecture up close, and take in the spirit of Corbusier in the heart of the Balkans. 

I wandered down the hill to the National Gallery of Macedonia, housed eloquently in a 15th-century Turkish bathhouse. The exhibition on view featured mostly 20th-century paintings and sculptures, with a few works from the 19th-century. The display made clear the manner in which art in the former Yugoslav countries developed in tandem with the West, as the museum boasts a collection of modernist painting that equals works by Western counterparts. The setting, too, is picturesque, with the Hammam interior adding its own artistic complement to the works on display. The display was limited, however, to the more traditional (if modernist) painting and sculpture, and it would have been interesting to see some works made after the 1980s and in different media, especially considering the current closure of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

The lovely interior of the National Gallery

The lovely interior of the National Gallery

I didn't even try to find the Contemporary Art Center of Skopje. Their website isn't really working (other than the main page), and while I was able to find their address through their Facebook page, I couldn't find that address on the map. Since no one had responded to my queries, I assumed they were not currently functioning. And after my ascent up the mountain of modern art I had no energy left to wander up and down the streets of Skopje in 40-degree heat on another wild goose chase.

So I was happy, then, to meet with Biljana Tanurovska, one of the founders of Lokomotiva, a relatively new initiative and NGO for promoting the arts in Macedonia and the Balkans. The description in the video recorded on the occasion of Lokomotiva's 10th birthday describes her ventures rather poignantly. Lokomotiva is yet another energetic and enterprising organization that offers a unique platform to young, avant-garde artists, and also suffers from the lack of state support and local infrastructure. Nevertheless, they keep going, because they know how important the work that they are doing is.

I was also fortunate enough to meet with artist Hristina Ivanovksa, one of the founders of Press to Exit Project Space, also an NGO that promotes contemporary art in the region, and one of their curators, Ivana Vaseva. Press to Exit has three main areas of activity: the Visiting Curatorial Initiative (VCI), New Project Productions (NPP), and Lectures, Presentations and Exhibitions (LPE).

What both organizations seemed to experience was that interest in and funding for contemporary art has diminished in recent years. Skopje 2014 makes it clear where the government is spending its money with regard to the arts, and that the focus is not on experimental, contemporary art. Still, in order to create an audience for this type of art there needs to be education about it, in the form of writing and publications, and also locally, as well as spaces in which it can exist. In some ways, the 1960s and 1970s was a great time for the arts in the former Yugoslavia, because Tito allowed and even provided spaces for artists to experiment. While this was his own form of social control - a way of containing the experiment in youth cultural centers, so that it didn't overflow into the political sphere - it nevertheless enabled the arts to flourish. Currently, artists have to struggle for recognition, representation and even space in which to create. It is a situation that ironically echoes that experienced by Yugoslavia's Eastern European counterparts during the Cold War period, who experienced greater restrictions on artistic production.

Kale Fortress in Skopje; currently closed to visitors

Kale Fortress in Skopje; currently closed to visitors

Despite all of the difficulties, something is still happening in Skopje. In spite of the massive building campaign that most artists seem to oppose, individual efforts continue to carry the banner of experimental contemporary art. The Museum of Contemporary Art is undergoing renovations, and hopefully it will once again make the hill shine like the Acropolis. Maybe the fortress will be renovated as well, and be open for tourists once again. But maybe that is just me being naively optimistic.

Skopje's beloved GTC

Skopje's beloved GTC

The artists of Skopje are not giving up, and neither are its citizens. Recently the government announced its plans to add the GTC (Gradski Trgovski Tsentar, or City Shopping Center) to the Skopje 2014 project, by resurfacing it and covering its facades with Neoclassical colonnades and covering up some of its entrances. Skopje's residents reacted by forming a human chain around the GTC, giving it a giant "hug," as one person described it, because this beloved building is so much a part of daily Skopje city life and they wanted to protect it from the proposed interventions. Even I, as an outsider, recognized the significance of this space. Not only is it filled with shops and cafes, but its a major artery in the center of the city, a way to get from one point to the next and also get a bit of respite from the blazing sun in summer. The performance caught the attention of the authorities, and will hopefully prevent the revamping of GTC.

So, despite the challenges, Skopje is by no means a stagnant space. Things are happening here, and much of it is due to the fearless and tireless promoters of contemporary art that I was lucky enough to meet during my stay here.

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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.