Zagreb, I Love You!

 

 So many museums to choose from!  So many museums to choose from!

I was really excited to get to Zagreb, for several reasons.
Firstly, it has a brand-spanking new Museum of Contemporary Art, with a
permanent collection consisting of contemporary art from Eastern Europe, which
is and has been open to the public, with no immanent signs of closing.
Considering the fact that much of my summer consisted of walking by closed art
museums – either because of renovations/reinstallation (Podgorica, Pristina,
Skopje) or financial reasons (Sarajevo, Belgrade), I was excited to be in a
city that had one. But Zagreb has not one, but many museums – the Modern Art
Gallery
, Museum of Arts and Crafts, Museum of Naïve Art (to name a few) as well as
the quirky (and touristy) Museum of Broken Relationships. The second reason I was
excited to get to Zagreb was because of the absolutely vibrant contemporary art
and performance art scene there – both historically and currently. This is the
city of Tomislav Gotovac, Sanja Ivekovic and Dalibor Martinis, to name just some of the internationally renowned and celebrated artists. Zagreb, like
Belgrade, had an active Student Culture Center during the 1970s, where artists were
able to experiment freely, with virtually no restrictions. I had a number of
meetings set up with some of these artists, and I was certain that these
contacts would only expand once I was on the ground. As it turns out, I was
right.

I arrived in Croatia late on a Wednesday night. The next
day, I had a meeting with Darko Simicic, who is in charge of the Tomislav Gotovac
Institute
, an organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the artist’s
life and work. We met at Gotovac’s former apartment in the city center. Much of
the place remains as it was during the time that he lived there, but parts have
been cleared out (Gotovac was an eccentric collector of all objects) to make
the space more manageable. I couldn’t have had a better first meeting in this
city. Gotovac’s work in body and performance art is really fundamental to the
scene in Zagreb, as it has been revisited and referenced by artists after him, such
as Vlasta Delimar, for example. Gotovac was also key in connecting the artistic
scenes in Belgrade and Zagreb, as he spent several years living in Serbia in
the 1970s. His first streaking performance even took place
in Belgrade, as part of the film Plastic Jesus. He later revisited streaking in Zagreb in 1981, in a performance entitled Zagreb, I Love You!

 Dubrovnik's war memorial by Igor Franic Dubrovnik’s war memorial by Igor Franic

The next day I set out for the Museum of Contemporary Art, a
hulking building that sits on the other side of the city, far from the historic
center. I was already familiar with the architect of the building from my stay
in Dubrovnik. In addition to designing this museum, Igor Franic was also the author of a war monument that sits just on
the edge of Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town. The monument has its share of detractors, owing
most likely to the form and shape of the structure. In fact, when I first
passed by the monument, I completely ignored it; its flashing lights and
kiosk-like construction gave me the impression, from a passing glance, that it
was some sort of advertisement. The fact that the Norwegian Cruise Lines
meeting point was directly in front of it only confirmed that theory in my mind.
I later learned, after meeting with Bozidar Jurjevic, that this was in fact a
war memorial. The artist staged his own protest against it, with a performance
piece that he felt more appropriately honored the war dead.

 Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. Opened in 2009.  Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb. Opened in 2009.

The museum itself also has its share of critics. I spoke
with a number of people who didn’t like it, thought it was too big, that the
layout was confusing, that it didn’t appropriately integrate into or relate to
its surroundings. I did agree with some of the criticisms – for example, the
layout was confusing, and it was difficult to know which way to go in order not
to miss any of the collection. But there were also aspects of it that I liked.
Upon the approach to the museum, I was immediately struck by the similarity
with the Pompidou Center in Paris, with the open square in front of it that serves as a
transition between the space of the city and the space of the building, and
with its downward slant serves to welcome people in. The Museum of Contemporary
Art in Zagreb also had this approach, except that the ramps slant upward.
Regardless of the criticisms of the building, it has a fabulous collection of
(mostly Croatian) contemporary art. I have to admit I found it funny that
people were being critical of the museum when I had just come from so many cities
where people would envy a museum even half as good, but I guess that it is
always good to keep one’s critical eye honed.

Later in the week, the artist Sinisa Labrovic kindly invited
me to dinner at his house, with his family. Before I met him, I looked through
his website, and was struck by the manner in which the artist uses unassuming
and subtle gestures to convey complex ideas. The front page of his website
shows the artist selling a piece of his skin, and I also noticed a piece
entitled Perpetuum Mobile, in which
the artist attempted to drink his own urine, first directly from his penis and
then, when that failed, from his cupped hands. Needless to say I was a bit wary
of anything offered to eat or drink at his house, but my fears were allayed by
Sinisa and Snezana’s (his wife) wonderful hospitality.

That hospitality continued, as Sinisa kindly invited me to
join him and Snezana a dinner party the next night among a company of
performance artists, artists and art historians. I had been wanting to meet
Marko Markovic, who has been living in New York for the past year, and not only
was he there, but he also played chef for the evening. I met a number of other
artists there as well, and the company was fantastic. I also made an
interesting discovery along the way. A few days earlier, I had met with Goran
Trbuljak, and we talked about his 1972 piece Referendum, where he asked passersby if they considered him an
artist; they had to fill out a ballot which they marked “yes” or “no.” When I
asked him who photographed the piece, and why it was shot from a bird’s eye
view, he told me that the photos were taken from the studio of photographer Toso Dabac.
On the way up to the dinner party, in the staircase I passed a sign that said
“Dabac Photography Studio,” and I realized that I was in the building from
which the photographs of Trbuljak’s performance were taken.

 The building where Ivekovic staged  Triangle   in 1979 The building where Ivekovic staged Triangle   in 1979  The Westin Hotel. Once the Intercontinental Hotel, which formed one point of Ivekovic's  Triangle   (1979).  The Westin Hotel. Once the Intercontinental Hotel, which formed one point of Ivekovic’s Triangle   (1979).

Later in the week, I met up with Darko Simicic once again,
and he was kind enough not only to field my numerous questions about Gotovac,
but also showed me a few key places of interest in the city. First, he showed
me the M. Sira frame shop at Preradoviceva 13,
location of Studio G, where the Gorgona
group
, an avant-garde artistic group, held
their exhibitions in the 1960s
. Then, he took me to the location
of Sanja Ivekovic’s piece Triangle,
and together, we “triangulated” it – observing the balcony where Ivekovic sat
in 1979, on the day that Tito’s motorcade came by on the street below. It was May 10th when she came out onto the balcony to sit, a glass of
Ballantine’s whiskey in her hand, and some foreign books on the table next to
her. Then, she pretended to masturbate. Across the street, we saw the rooftop of the Intercontinental Hotel (now Westin)
from which she was observed by the police, and the road on which Tito drove by.
The police completed the “triangle” by going across the street, ringing her doorbell,
and asking her to remove herself (and all objects) from the balcony. Feeling
inspired by revisiting these spaces, I walked back to Ilica Street, which was
the scene of Gotovac’s 1981 performance Zagreb,
I Love You!
From number 8, I retraced his steps to Ban Jelacic Square.
Unlike Gotovac, however, I was fully clothed, and not yelling “Zagreb, I Love
You!” over and over again, which is what he did in the performance. I am not
that brave!

 

 Ivan Kozaric's  Landed Sun   Ivan Kozaric’s Landed Sun

I also spent quite a lot of time at the Flower Market Square,
which was not only my meeting point with several artists, but also the location
of a number of Gotovac’s performances. Nearby is the public sculpture Landed Sun (1971), by Ivan Kozaric,
which Bozidar Jurjevic used in two of his performances, in 1997 and 2007, and
which he plans to repeat again, every ten years.

I had very little down time in Zagreb at all. (And very little time to write!) When I wasn’t
meeting with artists or art historians, I was visiting museums, or using the
library at the Center for Contemporary Art. Everywhere I turned I recognized a
landscape from a photograph of a performance that I had seen, whether it was
Vlasta Delimar’s Lady Godiva, or one
of the exhibition-actions by the Group of Six artists, who held these public
artistic actions in the 1970s in order to have greater contact with their
viewers. But it is not only the fact that Zagreb has such a fertile artistic
scene that made this trip so successful. The people that I met who are part of
that art scene (and I feel like I met most of them!) were some of the kindest,
friendliest, and most open and helpful people I encountered. In general I got such a
positive feeling from all of my interactions that it made for a truly enjoyable
week. In fact, this trip was almost so effortless it didn’t even seem like
work. After my time in Zagreb I have a new understanding of the title of
Gotovac’s performance – Zagreb, I Love You,
indeed!

 

 The sign says it all!  The sign says it all!

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Belgrade and the Beginnings of Performance Art

Belgrade and the Beginnings of Performance Art

 SKC - The Belgrade Student Culture Center: where performance art in Belgrade began  SKC – The Belgrade Student Culture Center: where performance art in Belgrade began

I was really excited about coming to Belgrade, for several
reasons. Firstly, after all of the difficulties I encountered in Sarajevo, it
was a relief to already have some meetings set up in Serbia before I arrived, and it
seemed like everyone I was in touch with was really receptive and eager to meet
with me. The main reason I was excited to come, however, has to do with the history of
this city and its strong connection with performance art. Within the context of the Belgrade International Theater Festival (BITEF), which started in 1967, art historian and curator Biljana Tomic organized programs that brought contemporary artists working in genres such as conceptual art, land art, and performance to Belgrade – artists such as Janis Kounnelis, Carl Andre, Daniel Buren, John Baldessari, and Joseph Kosuth, to name just a few. These collaborations continued in the “April Meetings,” which were held at the Student Culture Center (SKC) from 1972, and brought both local (Yugoslav) and international artists to Belgrade for collaboration. Artists such as Joseph
Beuys, Gina Pane and Ana Mendieta came from abroad, as well as the OHO Group from Slovenia, and Braco Dimitrijevic, Goran Trbuljak,
Dalibor Martinis and Sanja Ivekovic from Croatia. SKC was one of several student culture centers established in cities across Yugoslavia following the student protests of 1968, as a way to contain the potentially rebellious activity of Yugoslav youth. Tito’s approach was to give young people a place to express themselves, but in a controlled environment, which was not in the public domain. In the 1970s, SKC in Belgrade was the location of some of the most
experimental art being produced, including performance art, conceptual art and installation. And of course it cannot be forgotten that it was at SKC where Marina Abramovic created some of her first performances, together with fellow artists Rada Todosijevic, Nesa Paripovic (her first husband), Zoran Popovic, Era Milivojevic, and Gergelj Urkom. SKC was not just a space where artists were free to experiment, and in which they held numerous exhibitions and performances, but it was a meeting point, a place where the artists came every day to talk about art, and where artists from abroad would also come and participate in that exchange of ideas. And this is the story that is not often told in “the West,” at least not in any of the books on performance art that I’ve read – that these artists working in Belgrade (including those who came from other parts of Yugoslavia) were very much a part of the story of the development of the genre of performance art, right from the beginning – and they were really at the heart of that story. In a way, SKC was a “free space,” but it was a type of controlled freedom, of which the artists were aware. They were also aware, however, that what they were doing was on the margins, and for that reason, the authorities and official institutions didn’t take them seriously, and pretty much left them alone. And in that environment, for a very brief but shining moment, performance art and avant-garde activity thrived, especially during the period of 1972-1977, in the context of the April Meetings. The Student Culture
Center is still open and active, but unfortunately the creative spirit that was
generated there is now mostly a memory. Although the 1970s was the heyday of that
center, many of the
artists that were integral to that scene there are still here, and still
active. Some have moved away from performance art – for example, Rasa
Todosijevic mainly works in installation and mixed media now – but others are
still active in the genre, such as Era Milvojevic. Others have left the city
and country altogether – most notably, Marina Abramovic, who is based in New York, and Gera Urkom, who moved to London.

 The administrative offices of the (dislocated) Museum of Contemporary Art The administrative offices of the (dislocated) Museum of Contemporary Art

Despite this resplendent history, Belgrade is another city whose cultural scene is marred by
the recent economic crisis. The Museum of Contemporary Art was founded in 1958,
when it was a Museum of Modern Art, and the collection is focused on works
produced since 1900. The building itself is a stunning example of modern
architecture, a fabulous sculptural exhibition space of steel and glass, in a
peaceful location just across from the historic city center in the Park of
Friendship, on the banks of the Sava River. The museum has been closed since
2008, and no one knows when it will be reopened.
[A recent announcement has
made that it will be reopened in 2014, but many are skeptical.]
Recently, in
2012, an exhibition was staged in the empty shell of a building, entitled What Happened to the Museum of Contemporary
Art?
(the museum’s website is currently down, but you can read this interesting blog post on two visitors’ experience of the exhibit), which invited artists to make installations from and with the rubble.
The museum does, however, still function, and exists in a dislocated state:
there is the Salon of Contemporary Art just off the main pedestrian street of
Knez Mihailova, at Parizka 14, which stages temporary exhibitions, and the
administrative offices and archive/library is located in a building just next
to the Museum of Yugoslav History and the House of Flowers, where Josip Broz
Tito is buried. The National Museum was closed in 2003; parts of the
exhibitions have reopened, and it has been announced that it will be entirely
reopened by autumn 2013.

 Museum of Contemporary Art: closed until...? Museum of Contemporary Art: closed until…?

Despite the museum closures and the legacy of the Student
Culture Center, there is a lot of interesting art being produced in Serbia
contemporaneously. I was fortunate enough to meet with some very interesting
artists from the younger generation – Vladimir Nikolic, Zoran Todorovic, and
Branko Miliskovic – who also use performance in their work. What surprised me
most, however, was the disconnect between their work and that of their
predecessors, artists such as those previously mentioned, along with others
from the SKC days, such as Nesa Paripovic and Zoran Popovic. Younger artists
tell me that they learned nothing about their work, not the activity in SKC,
when they were studying. Most learned of their work afterward, from books or
other sources. Branko even told me that he learned about the work of Marina
Abramovic when he was passing by SKC one day, and saw posters on the façade of
the building advertising a retrospective exhibition on body art.

 Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art

This disconnect is both perplexing yet understandable. At
the time, what those artists were doing wasn’t really considered art, or taken
seriously in any real way by the professors at the art academy. In fact, many
went to SKC because of the freedom that the space allowed – artists were able
to experiment without thinking about or having to adhere to rules or
traditions. Rasa Todosijevic told me that the artists working there in the
1970s, himself among them, felt that they were really trying to create a new
type of art. While some might feel that they didn’t succeed, the fact artists
of the younger generation are producing equally radical work nowadays, despite
their more traditional education at the Fine Arts Academy, demonstrates that
they have. And in some ways, the fact that their work didn’t become coopted and
accepted by the academies is a testament to its radical nature.

Another reason for the disconnect is the political history
of the country. After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia began to disintegrate.
In the 1990s, Serbia saw a rise in nationalism, and artists responded to this
not only with their work, but by creating the Center for Cultural
Decontamination
– another free space, not far from SKC, where artists could
create and exhibit work freely, outside of hyper-politicized public space.

Although many of the cultural institutions may be closed to visitors, Belgrade is still a great city
to do research in. Everyone I met was willing and eager to meet with me, and
share the stories of the past – even despite the fact that it was summer, and,
for the majority of my stay, nearly 40C/100F.

Belgrade reminds me a lot of New York (in a good way) – it
is crowded, busy, and dirty – so it is not surprizing that there is and was a
lot of interesting art happening there. I tested out my impression on artist
Vladimir Nikolic, who said that after visiting New York he realized that a city
cannot be alive if it is clean and orderly – so in many ways it may be the
chaos and grime of Belgrade that gives it its vibrancy as an artistic hub. The
city has the artists – of this generation and the previous one – making art
happen. Once the Museum of Contemporary Art reopens there’s no telling what is
yet to come!

 

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Welcome to Sarajevo

I hit my first roadblock in Sarajevo. After
all of the successful and fruitful research and meetings in Albania, Kosovo,
Macedonia, Montenegro and Croatia, I was stunned when I reached Bosnia and
found I couldn’t find my way “in” to this city – meaning the art world, of
course. I now realize that the reason for this setback may have been in part
due to the fact that I didn’t have that one person who could introduce me,
set me up with contacts and pave a way in to the otherwise closed scene. This was the first place
along my tour of the former Yugoslavia where it was very difficult to find
someone who would help me….at first.

It may also have been that there was simply a
dark cloud hanging over this trip. Invariably, sometimes you are lucky in your research, and
other times, you are not. But I was surprised that I was so unlucky in
Sarajevo, of all places. After all, this was my third time in the city, a city
that I knew well, and, quite frankly, loved. But bad luck was with me from the
start. The first sign that things were going wrong came when I couldn’t get any
service with my cell phone (ordinarily not an issue for me – I’m not glued to my phone – but problematic when
trying to arrange meetings with people). Next, the hotel that I had booked
turned out not to be what it promised to be, so I had to find a new places to
stay within hours of landing. This less than smooth arrival brought back
horrible memories of being yelled at by a taxi driver the previous time I came
to Sarajevo, five years ago, because he wasn’t able to find the address of my
hotel. I learned my lesson from that experience, and had a map printed out
in case the taxi driver needed help this time. He found the place without it,
but the place wasn’t what I expected it to be. Needless to say, my second
arrival in Sarajevo was also rather bumpy.

I didn’t manage to get in touch
with any artists in advance of my visit, despite having sent emails prior to my
trip. It also took quite a bit of doing to get in touch with anyone from the Center for
Contemporary Art
, Sarajevo’s own former Soros Center, focused on promoting
contemporary art in country. I wasn’t able to make contact before my arrival, and once I arrived it took several visits before I encountered anyone when I knocked on their door.

 Sarajevo's National Museum: closed since 2012 Sarajevo’s National Museum: closed since 2012

I was genuinely surprised by the lack of
response from the people I approached in the art world. I knew that because it
was summer, many people would be away, but experience has also taught me that
no matter what time of year you go somewhere, someone is always away, but there
are also plenty of people present, as well, even in summer. I was also aware that institutions usually close over the
summer, but again, not all of them. There is always someone working,
even if it is not with the most regular hours. Ironically, I had the best
response from the artists from Bosnia who no longer live there, and are
currently abroad, with promises of Skype meetings once my trip is over.

Needless to say I spent a frustrating few days
in the beginning of my trip, wandering around the closed artistic institutions
of the city. Sarajevo itself is also going through challenging times,
culturally speaking. I knew about these closures before I arrived – in 2012, the
National Museum closed its doors, along with the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The
latter has since reopened, but, from what I can gather, exhibitions are
intermittent. There were plans to build a contemporary art museum – and in fact
a bridge by Renzo Piano was built across the Miljacka River to bring visitors
there – but lack of funds has prevented any construction from taking place.
Instead of a contemporary art museum, however, two public sculptures have been
installed near the prospective building site, sandwiched nicely between the
Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (formerly the Museum of National Revolution) (which is still open, despite its slightly battered appearance,
which it sustained during the Siege, and remains so as a witness to those times)
and the closed National Museum. One, by Nebojsa Seric Shoba, is an ironic “Monument to the International Community by the grateful citizens of Sarajevo” – a giant can of beef resembling smaller ones that were sent as aid during the war, and could hardly be classified as food. The other piece, by Braco Dimitrijevic, is a “Monument to the Victims of the Cold War.”

 Public Sculpture by  Nebojsa Seric-Shoba    Monument to the International Community (a can of 'beef' with questionable contents)  Public Sculpture by Nebojsa Seric-Shoba   Monument to the International Community (a can of ‘beef’ with questionable contents)   Public Sculpture by Braco Dimintrijevic  The inscription reads: The inscription reads: Under this stone there is a monument to the victims of the war and Cold War  Behind it, the Museum of Revolution: still open for business Public Sculpture by Braco Dimintrijevic The inscription reads: The inscription reads: Under this stone there is a monument to the victims of the war and Cold War Behind it, the Museum of Revolution: still open for business

Other spaces for contemporary art have also
suffered. The Ars Aevi collection, the result of one man’s vision, during the
war, to create a space to build and preserve a collection of contemporary art
in the city, has recently been closed, with apparently
no reason given. The collection remains in its location in the Skenderija
Center, but its doors are completely shut for the moment. Another creative
space, the Charlama Gallery, started by artist
Jusuf Hadzifejsovic (a performance and multi-media artist), was also closed by
the owners of the Skenderija Center
. One space that is still open in Skenderija,
however, is the Collegium Artisticum, the oldest commercial gallery in the city.

 Galerija Charlama: closed for business  Galerija Charlama: closed for business  Bridge Across the Miljacka: Ars Aevi Bridge by Renzo Piano Bridge Across the Miljacka: Ars Aevi Bridge by Renzo Piano

In Bosnia and Herzegovina it is not only
financial issues that have produced such a cultural meltdown, or shut down, as
it has referred to
, but also a lack of consensus as to how to run culture, or
cultural institutions, in post-war BiH. In fact, there is currently no Ministry
of Culture to administer this area at all. Although the war is over, the
country is still divided, into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska,
and that division is quite vivid and evident. I’ve heard stories of delays in
police responses because of uncertainties as to which police force
should respond – those from the Federation or those from RS. So it is not
surprising that there is a lack of consensus as to who, from which side,
and how, cultural institutions should be run. In fact, I have the sneaking
suspicion that this division is the reason that my phone wasn’t working here –
because, after all, which phone company from which side should provide roaming
for my network?

 Skenderija Center Skenderija Center

I found the Skenderija Center an interesting
place to hold so many artistic venues. Currently, the building is a giant
shopping mall, located underneath a sports arena, enlarged and expanded for the 1984 Olympics.
Sport has a prominent place in this city as a result of hosting the Olympics
back then, and it makes sense that if artists want gain attention, they would
want to align themselves with sport. The location of so many art galleries and
collections within a commercial center, however, is interesting from an art
historical perspective. Historically, artists in the 1960s and 1970s wanted to
distance themselves from the commercial aspects of art. Here, art (of the type
which is not necessarily commercial) peacefully coexists beside nail salons and
stores selling Nike and Adidas sneakers.

Despite these challenging times, great art is still
being produced and exhibited in the capital of BiH. While the Center for
Contemporary Art does not have a permanent exhibition space, exhibitions take
place throughout the city, and this was intentional. The director of the
Center, Dunja Blazevic, wanted contemporary art to be integrated in the life of
the city, and structured the center’s programs in such a way that would enable
that.

In some ways, artists in Sarajevo are used to
existing in difficult circumstances. In the 1980s, the Zvono Group, named after
a gallery and café near between the Skenderija Center and the Academy of Fine
Arts (now called Meeting Point), created performances, actions and
interventions throughout the city, in an absence of any fixed place to exhibit
their work. One of their most vivid performances was an intervention that took
place during a football match: the artists entered the field during half-time and painted on the field, using the teams’ colors (Sport and Art, 1986). Again, in a city with
such a strong affinity with sport, this was an ideal way for these people to
make themselves heard as artists.

 Gallery Duplex100m2: open for business  Gallery Duplex100m2: open for business

My week in Sarajevo started to turn around
when I popped in to the Duplex100m2 Gallery, run by Pierre Courtin, an expat from
France currently residing in BiH. I was able to purchase the catalogue of
events and exhibitions that had taken place at his gallery during the last several
years, and it really is amazing what has been created in this space in such a
short amount of time – from exhibitions and installations, to performances and
events. The catalogue is a veritable phonebook of contemporary artists in
Bosnia, with resumes of their work and contact details as well. The gallery
used to be located on Ferhadija, but is currently just downstairs from the
Center for Contemporary Art at Obala Kulina Bana 22.

When I arrived at the Gallery there were
several people involved in conversation. I sat down and waited for them to be
finished. Suddenly, one of them asked me who I was and what I was doing in Sarajevo. I
explained my project, and was duly informed that the woman sitting next to me
was artist Nela Hasanbegovic. Also present there was Daniel Premec, whose impressive
work Spiked I had seen online, installed in the Collegium Artisticum last
year. Both artists have created some performances, in addition to installation
and multi-media work. Nela and Daniel were kind enough to show me their
portfolios and tell me about their work.

 Ars Aevi, Museum of Contemporary Art: closed for business Ars Aevi, Museum of Contemporary Art: closed for business

Meanwhile, in Banja Luka…

Meanwhile in Banja Luka, there were two
artists ready, willing and eager to meet with me: Mladen Miljanovic, who
represented Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Venice Biennale this year, and
Borjana Mrdja. I had been to Banja Luka before, and quite liked the city. What
I didn’t like, however, was the long, long ride (five hours by bus) to get there…nor did I like the
prospect of doing this in 40-degree weather. But their work was so impressive,
and since I was having such bad luck (aside from a brief and shining moment at
the Duplex Gallery), that I simply could not pass up this opportunity to meet
them. In the end, the bus ride wasn’t that bad (there was air conditioning,
thankfully!) and the meetings were well worth it.

 Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art: open for business Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art: open for business

Back in Sarajevo

When I returned to Sarajevo I was lucky enough
to finally get a meeting with a curator from the Center for Contemporary Art,
who was incredibly kind and helpful. I was happy to finally have contact with
the institution, and immediately, the city opened up to me. They were able to
set me up with meetings with two artists that very day, Maja Bajevic and Alma
Suljevic, not to mention providing a wealth of information otherwise.

 Sarajevo Culture: closed for business?  Sarajevo Culture: closed for business?

What started off as a train wreck ended up
being a relatively productive research trip. I have to admit, though, these
setbacks knocked the wind out of my sails a bit; I even stopped writing for a
while. It was frustrating, being in the city and knowing I had so little time
on the ground, yet not being able to meet with people. This experience also underscored how much my research is
dependent on the “kindness of strangers” and personal, human interaction. Once I did start contacting artists, many simply didn’t want to meet, preferring me to send them questions by email, which seemed strange since I was there in person. Others referred to the “next time” I come, which led me to wonder why we had to wait until next time, when I was there at that moment. But, just like in a performance, you
never know how your ‘audience,’ or the people around you, are going to react,
so you have to adjust your actions accordingly. In the end, it all worked
out; I met a number of great artists and got a lot of materials and definitely feel I have a better insight
into the art scene in Bosnia. And as for the few artists that I was unable to
meet…there is always Skype.

 

 At the National Art Gallery - in solidarity with Sarajevo: Culture Shut Down  At the National Art Gallery – in solidarity with Sarajevo: Culture Shut Down

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Dubrovnik: Heart of (performance) Art

Dubrovnik is a spectacular gem of a city on Croatia’s
stunning coastline. As a tourist destination, it has it all: beautiful beaches,
scenic mountains, and a walled Old Town dating back to the 9th
century. It also was once a thriving center of performance art, and there are
still several artists still active there. Looking at the throngs of tourists
pouring off cruise ships to wander the narrow alleys of the Old Town for an
afternoon, one quickly forgets that this was a city under siege just over two
decades ago. Dubrovnik has more than recovered from the war, but many artists
bore witness to it with their work, some using performance art to navigate the
destruction and violence being witnessed on a daily basis. Dubrovnik is also a
place where one feels a strong connection with nature – not only the sea and
the mountains, but also the nearby islands. This element is also present in
much of the performative work that I saw.

 View of Dubrovnik from the Museum of Modern Art View of Dubrovnik from the Museum of Modern Art

One of the most significant figures for the genre of performance
in Dubrovnik is one that I haven’t yet met, but hope to when I go to Rijeka
later this summer – Slaven Tolj. A performance and multi-media artist himself, Tolj
is also the founder of one of the most significant creative spaces in Dubrovnik
– the Art Workshop Lazareti, a contemporary art center located just down the
road from the Museum of Modern Art. Lazareti has existed in different locations in Dubrovnik since its inception, and in the beginning was even located in a building in the Old Town that was owned by the church. Tolj recently became director of
the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. Ilija Soskic, a
performance artist originally from Montenegro, currently living in Italy, was
active in the city around the time of the creation of Art Workshop Lazareti
(the late 1980s), and contributed to the vibrant performance art scene there as
well.

One of the most poignant performances that I hear about was Desert of Freedom (1990), a performance
by Tolj, Bozidar Jurjevic and Maro Mitrovic on the terrace of the Museum of
Modern Art
. The performance took place just before the start of the war, and it
is now considered to be a prophetic piece, foretelling the coming of that war.
Demonstrating the fragility of life and uncertainty of the future, Jurjevic
walked blindfolded on the balustrade of the Banac Mansion, which houses the
museum, and in the courtyard, the artists exhibited a piece of a burnt tree from
the wildfires that were present around the city that summer. Several people
described the atmosphere at this time as ominous, with a sense that war was
coming. Indeed, the war started the following year.

Across the street from the Museum of Modern Art is the Excelsior
Hotel, where artist Pasko Burdzelez works as a gardener. His connection with
the earth is manifest in his work, which can also be seen in the work of
Bozidar Jurjevic. The latter lives just a short walk from the Old Town, and his
home features a beautiful terrace garden, which features prominently in several
of his performances. He can be found performing on the nearby islands, as well
as in the gardens just outside his home, for example in Cvijeće i ja (Flowers
and me
)
.

 Your black horizon Your black horizon

Performative spaces exist even in the most unexpected places
in this area. A short boat-ride from Dubrovnik is the Thyssen-Bornemisza Your black
horizon Art Pavilion
, located on the
island of Lopud. The pavilion was commissioned as an “experimental
environment,” wherein art and architecture would work together as one. Although
a stationary installation, the piece is performative insofar as the artwork is
in part created by the viewer. She or he enters the building and is greeted by
almost complete blackness. Gradually, a horizon-line appears, created by a gap
in the wall that allows light to enter. The light is actually a compilation of
the light encountered on the island in a 24-hour period. Visitors are
encouraged to remain in the building for at least ten minutes, after which that
horizon line will be imprinted on their retinas, enabling them to take it out
of the gallery with them, and view it in conjunction with the horizon present
in the landscape.

It is not surprising that performance has
played such an important role in this city. While I was in Dubrovnik, the
Summer Festival was on – a one month festival of art, including theater,
musical and dance performances that has been held every summer since 1950.
During this time the walled city becomes a performative space itself, with outdoor concerts and street performances for passersby to behold. This
year, the advertisement for the festival mapped a heart onto the plan of the
Old Town, combined with the slogan “Walls of Stone/Heart of Art.” Indeed, this
performative spirit can be felt around the city, not only during the days of
the festival.

 

 The performative spaces of Dubrovnik The performative spaces of Dubrovnik

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Where the Streets Have no Names

 A rare street sign in Prishtina

A rare street sign in Prishtina

Throughout my journey in the Balkans, I have been
alternately flummoxed, angered and amused by the lack of streets signs and
house numbers in the region. I was optimistic about it in Tirana, started
getting frustrated in Prishtina, and then ended up downright angry by the time
I got to Skopje and Podgorica. The thing is, I did not visit these places as a
tourist. I did not have hours to while away the day and wander from place to
place, not caring whether I got there or not. Instead, I had meetings and
appointments, places to go and people to see, at specific times. What’s more,
as the temperature in the thermometer rose, the more time I spent searching for
places in vain, the more the temperature in my blood began to rise as well.
When you’re a researcher, your purpose for being somewhere is to find things,
and addresses should be the easiest things on your list to find.

 On the drive from Prishtina to Skopje, the bus driver kept the door open to save our lives...

On the drive from Prishtina to Skopje, the bus driver kept the door open to save our lives…

When I boarded
the bus from Prishtina to Skopje, the thermometer read 41 degrees
Celsius. The bus didn’t have air conditioning, but did,
however, have a door, which the driver left open for the duration of our journey,
to prevent us from melting or dying of heat stroke. I suppose that the breeze
of hot air rushing in was better than the stagnant and still air of the sauna
it would have been, but the whole experience got me to thinking: how can I
complain about the streets having no names, when the buses here don’t even have
doors? (OK, it had a door, but the door was left open. You get my point.)

In my travels through Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and
Montenegro, I heard the same story, over and over again: there are no spaces
for contemporary art; there is no opportunity to learn about art because there
are no books on local artists, and few foreign publications on art (art theory,
specifically) are translated into local languages; there are no interesting
exhibitions at the state museums, only older artists; there are no programs or
plans for the arts; there is no interesting or good public art. So one can
complain about the streets not having signs or numbers, and one can complain
about art not having the resources to grow, but one has to remember that all
of these nations are either recovering from wars or decades of economic and cultural
isolation, not to mention still navgiating all of the political changes that have resulted in streets changing names on multiple occasions (which is why, they tell me, they don’t bother putting up street signs anymore). So there is a lot to rebuild, and it makes
sense that art would be the last on the DIY list.

 There is a lot to rebuild...

There is a lot to rebuild…

But the arts should still be on that list, and here’s why: a
nation’s art and culture is the legacy that it leaves behind for future generations.
Of course it is absolutely essential that infrastructure be developed in these
countries – roads need to be built and repaired, the basic essentials of water
and electricity need to become reliable (there are places that still cannot
rely on the comforts of running water 24-hours per day, nor stable
electricity), business needs to develop, education needs to be reformed, but
there still needs to be some of the budget earmarked for cultural development. Artists are even responding to these infrastructural needs, for example, a recent performance piece in Prishtina drew attention to the fact that while the city is spending heaps of money on beautifying the city with new fountains, many of its inhabitants don’t have running water.

In many of the cities that I visited, construction is in
full swing. Shiny new office towers are being built, giving a sparkly gleam to
the grey socialist-era housing block landscape. But future generations of
locals and tourists alike are not going to visit these cities and tour the
business headquarters that are being built today. They are going (want to)
visit museums and see cultural artifacts and artworks, to inform them about
past civilizations.

Many artists are finding ways around these obstacles by
developing alternative spaces for art, alternative ways of creating and showing
their art. Quite often, artists are their own curators and historians, writing
about and exhibiting their own work. Some even become curators of the work of
others, developing NGOs and working for art centers to create networks and
platforms for the arts. In some ways this echoes the way things worked in the
former Soviet Union, where an artist was simultaneously art historian and
critic, developing the discourse for his own work (Ilya Kabakov has made
statements to this effect). For decades, artists have been trying to change the
world, and this is their opportunity.

 The mayor of Tirana at the time Edi Rama, an artist himself, painted the facades in bright colors

The mayor of Tirana at the time Edi Rama, an artist himself, painted the facades in bright colors

Edi Rama has recently been elected Prime Minster of Albania.
A former artist, he made his mark on Albania’s capital, Tirana, with his
campaign to beautify the city, to paint the façades of the plain communist block
apartments in bright colors, to remove illegal kiosks crowding the streets and
develop the capital’s city parks. He created a public pride in one’s city that
was popular without being populist. Rama was criticized for making these
superficial changes to the city when inhabitants were still without running
water for more than six hours per day. While those criticisms are certainly valid, I do think that in some
ways, Rama got it right. Because people need to feel a sense of pride in their
city, and their country, and one way to do that is to create a city, an
environment, that is beautiful to live in. There is something to be said for
the superficial. We all know the difference we feel when we put on nice clothes
and make-up, versus when we are lounging around in our sweats with our hair
unwashed. So these seemingly superficial elements are important for a sense of
well-being.

That’s not to say that art and culture are “superficial”
elements of a nation by any means. I used the example of the beautification of
a city to demonstrate that it is not just the technical and business aspects of
a nation that need to be developed. There are other elements that are just as
important, although they may not seem it at first.

Another common theme I heard in the region was a lamentation
of the “brain drain.” The sad truth is that while many will stay in the region
and fight the fight, others eventually give up and leave. And some can’t leave,
although they may want to. Some choose to exit internally, living in their own
personal exile and removing themselves from the arts entirely. So the situation
is quite precarious right now, and it is important to keep culture alive.

The former Yugoslav countries face a particular challenge
psychologically. Yugoslavia was the so-called “paradise” of the East –
politically, economically, socially, culturally. Many from Central Europe and
the USSR considered Tito’s socialism an example for the rest of the communist
world. Even the locals speak of the past with Yugostalgia. Unlike in the rest
of Eastern Europe, they had the same products, consumer goods and clothes as
their Western counterparts. They could travel abroad without visas. And artists
were relatively free, so long as they didn’t overtly criticize Tito or the
government, In fact, Tito recognized the fact that artists wanted to
experiment, and provided them a space in which to do so. Of course it was a
form of control – a way to contain the experimental activity and prevent it
from spilling over into the political realm – but artists took advantage of it
nonetheless. Now, the countries that looked to Yugoslavia with envy – Romania,
Poland, Lithuania, for example, are all members of the EU. Some, like Estonia,
are even in the Euro zone. So in many ways, the situation for artists in the
post-socialist, post-Yugoslav period is similar to that experience by artists
in Eastern Europe and the USSR during the Cold War. Now they are the ones facing
challenges with regard to artistic creation that they didn’t necessarily face
before.

Art can help navigate these challenging times by providing
and outlet for individual and critical thought. The best art is usually that
which is ambiguous, that which poses questions without providing answers, which
provides a space in which discourse can take place, and which enables people to
challenge not only received ideas, but also their own personal ones. Through
art, one can challenge the status quo with the aim of improving the outlook and
the landscape for its inhabitants, both present and future. Many of the artists
that I met in this region are rising to this challenge and creating intelligent
and engaging art that probes the very issues relevant to people on a personal,
individual, local, international and global level. And I hope that they
continue to do so, whether or not the streets still have no names.

 Critical graffiti in Prishtina: this area of the city has a number of cafes named after places or cities in Europe, most of which Kosovars need visas to go t in real life. The graffiti challenges the idea that visiting these cafes would be enough for the locals to have a taste of Europe.

Critical graffiti in Prishtina: this area of the city has a number of cafes named after places or cities in Europe, most of which Kosovars need visas to go t in real life. The graffiti challenges the idea that visiting these cafes would be enough for the locals to have a taste of Europe.

 Prishtina's 'Little Europe' 

Prishtina’s ‘Little Europe’ 

 Challenging the status quo: God Save Atifete (President of Kosovo) 

Challenging the status quo: God Save Atifete (President of Kosovo) 

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Abramovic is Present

 No one is doing performance art...and yet they are. I thought that this ashtray from the Berlin Cafe in Podgorica was a perfect illustration to this happy contradiction. 

No one is doing performance art…and yet they are. I thought that this ashtray from the Berlin Cafe in Podgorica was a perfect illustration to this happy contradiction. 

Throughout my trip in the Balkans, I was constantly told by
artists, art historians, and people in the art world that “no one here is
really doing performance.” I didn’t believe it, but then again, I didn’t really
have a lot of examples of artists from these particular countries that worked
in performance. Many of them, in fact, had left the region already. The
Albanian artists I knew of who had done performances – Adrian Paci, Anri Sala and Flutura & Besnik Haxhillari – were living in Paris, Milan and Berlin, respectively,
and the same goes for one artist from Kosovo, Sislej Xhafa (he lives in Italy). The only Montenegrin performance
artist I knew of, Ilja Soskic, currently lives in Rome. So I took these people
at their word, but also challenged that word.

“My definition of performance art is rather broad,” I
started by telling people. I don’t have a very strict definition of
performance, for the purposes of my research right now. This may change, and it
probably will, as I refine and alter my definition according to what I find.
Because that is precisely the point of the project. Performance art has
hitherto been defined largely by North American writers on performance art –
Amelia Jones, Peggy Phelan, Roselee Goldberg, to name a few. My research aims
to challenge their definitions by examining performance art from the former
Soviet, communist and socialist countries of Central, Eastern and Southern
Europe. Instead of starting with the rubric of performance as defined by the
West, and seeing which artists fit into that framework, I am starting with the
artists, with the aim of coming up with perhaps not one definition, but a
nuanced understanding of what performance art, body art, action art, etc. is
and means in this region. So this is why I am starting with a very broad
definition.

After telling people about my loose attitude toward the
genre, stories started to emerge. “Oh, well, this person does things that are
kind of like performance…that person did a performance once….this person is
doing photography, it is not really performance but they are photographed
performances.” So, you see, there it is. Because I was not looking for the
Marina Abramovic of each country, the one person who started doing performances
as a teenager and never stopped, who only does performances, who always uses
only his or her body and moves it, pushes it to the limits, and is always
present. While that is great, there are all types of things that can be
performative without the artist necessarily “present.”

The spirit of Marina Abramovic is alive and well in the
Balkans. We all know that she got her start with the circle of artists at the
Student Cultural Center in Belgrade. She was born there, although her parents
were born in Montenegro. I think that virtually every person I spoke to on this
trip referred to Abramovic. OK, maybe not every single person, but it really
felt like it. I found this interesting, because the reference for Central and
Northern (Eastern) European artists seems to be different. There, it was
Fluxus, Joseph Beuys and the Viennese Actionists that seemed to be the
reference point. But in the Balkans it is Marina.

And maybe this is the reason that people are reluctant to
admit that they are doing performance. Maybe her presence is so overwhelming,
the legend is too great, that no one thinks that their performative work could
compare, or could come close to the magnitude that is Marina Abramovic. But I
think it can. There is a lot of interesting and exciting performance art
happening in Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro, you just have to look
for it, and you have to be persistent. The longer I was in each place, the more
examples people found. By the end of my trip, the claim that “there are no
artists working in performance here” was pretty much refuted, by the very
people who told me that to begin with.

And this is where that Balkan flexibility came in handy for
me. Until now, my research had been primarily historical. I am mainly
interested in exploring and uncovering the artists who were working in performance
in the 1960s and 1970s, during the heyday of that genre, both here and in the
West. In the four countries I visited on this trip, there wasn’t really a
strong tradition of performance during that time, mainly – I think – because
these countries were on the so-called periphery. Some weren’t even countries at that time.
Montenegro and Kosovo were part of Yugoslavia, and even after they weren’t,
they were part of Serbia. Macedonia was also in Yugoslavia, and Hoxha distanced
Albania from all of the socialist and communist countries in the region. In
Albania, Hoxha ran such a tight regime that there wasn’t really any underground
to speak of; most experiments that veered from the state-prescribed Socialist
Realism took the form of unconventional colors or forms in painting. Furthermore, Macedonia,
Kosovo and Montenegro were on the periphery of Yugoslavia. Much of the state
funding went to the larger hubs within that country – Belgrade, Zagreb and
Ljubljana, and that is where much of the artistic activity was concentrated at
the time. People in Montenegro told me that most people went to Belgrade to
study, because Titograd, as Podgorica was called during those days, didn’t have
much to offer. Consequently, Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana developed thriving
artistic scenes. That is not to say that art in these smaller countries did not
thrive, but rather the scenes were smaller and less well-known – at least
during the Yugoslav period.

So, just like in a performance, I had to adapt and change to
the situation I found myself in, and to the reactions of the audience. Instead
of artists from the Yugoslav era, I met with and discovered younger artists,
fresh from art school, utilizing the medium of performance, along with other
genres and techniques. Their sources were not only local (and by local I don’t
only mean local performance artists, but also local and indigenous traditions,
including folk traditions, as well as current trends and events), but also
international, as younger generation artists travel
frequently, and participate in residencies across Europe and in the US. Many
of these artists spoke about the necessity of going abroad, to get ideas and
develop as artists. By broadening their world view, they are able to enrich
their own artistic creations back at home.

I am happy to report that the spirit of
Marina Abramovic is alive and well in the Balkans. Most artists still speak of
her with reverence. I only hope that they don’t allow the shadow of this
amazing Balkan “grandmother of performance” art eclipse their equally wonderful and
inspiring work.

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Balkan Stone Soup

A Rough Guide to Doing Research in the Balkans

Plan to be Flexible

“Americans are great planners,” someone once told me. It’s
true, we are a nation of planners. In English, we have several different ways
of talking about the future, with each tense expressing different grades of
certainty about it: for example, we use the present simple for train schedules,
because they are about 99% certain (the train to Belgrade leaves at 9AM), and
future simple for a resolution, because it is less certain (I will quit smoking
next year!) We even have ways of talking about the future as if we were already
in it, looking back on the past. For example: “by this time next month, I will
have been in the Balkans for 3 weeks” (future perfect). So we think about the
future a lot, and this anecdotal cultural linguistics demonstrates that
obsession.

In the Balkans, however, it is good to have plans, but is also
good to be flexible about them. Two weeks before my trip, I had hardly any
contacts in the region, and virtually no appointments or meetings set up. I was
nervous, and wondered if I was going on a wild goose chase. I brought extra
books with me, thinking that I would be spending a lot of down time in my hotel
rooms, killing time before my next trip. Oh, how wrong I was. 

Balkan Stone Soup

We are all familiar with the story of Stone Soup. A villager
wants to make a pot of soup, but doesn’t have any ingredients. So she starts a
cauldron boiling, and brings a stone to cook. The other villagers are confused
– what kind of soup is this? Little by little they bring vegetables, spices and
other more appealing ingredients, and by the end of the day, there is a pot of
soup for everyone.

In the Balkans, I was the stone. I was the lonely, isolated
little stone that couldn’t really make a pot of soup without the help of the
villagers. Having done research in Eastern Europe for several years, I had a
tried and true method: start with the Centers for Contemporary Art (the former
Soros Foundations up across Eastern Europe that were set up after the fall of
communism, to help boost the development of contemporary art and culture in the
region, which had officially been under the yoke of Socialist Realism for
decades), then contact the museums, key art historians, etc., get the contacts
of artists, set up meetings, make appointments to come to archives, etc. While
this method worked brilliantly in Central Europe, it had no effect in the
Balkans. I wrote to several museums and centers for contemporary art and got no
response. Finally, I resorted to the Internet. I started Googling “performance
art in Albania/Kosovo/etc.” I found some names, and hesitantly wrote to these
random strangers, hoping they wouldn’t think I was some weirdo:

“Dear So-and-So, I am a researcher from the UK writing a
book on performance art in Eastern Europe…” all of my emails began.
Surprisingly, people started to respond. Some immediately, some after a while,
but absolutely all of them were more than willing to bring the vegetables and
meats to add to my pot of soup. Soon I had not only a delicious pot of soup
awaiting for me in each city I was about to visit, but I had a veritable feast.

“There are no books,
the best way is to meet people”

The other challenge with doing research in the region is
that there really are no books. Sometimes, there are catalogues. Sometimes,
they are in English, but there really is very little written material
available. This is why the personal connection is so important. Throughout my
2.5 weeks in the Balkans, I filled an entire notebook with pages of information
about artists, art works, and the art scenes in general. I devoured every bit
of the soup available to me. And I think this is why the personal connections
and networks are so important here, because everyone knows how scarce written
information is, and everyone is eager to share it, in the hopes that someone
will write it down. And that is also the reason I decided to start this site,
to offer one place where people might be able to go for this type of
information,

“Call me when you get
here”

As I said, Americans are planners. Personally, I like to
have at least some of my meetings set up in advance, to have some sense of
security that I will actually meet the people that I need to. I also worry that
they will forget about me, and jet off to the beach or some other place – after
all, it is summer. Indeed, people in the art world in this region travel a lot,
and there are plenty of people I missed because they were elsewhere. But I did
find that most people didn’t like to set up meetings too far in advance.
Everyone told me, “call me when you get to [insert name of city here.]” That is
all well and good, but why can’t we just set up a meeting in advance? You said
that you would give me some names of artists and people to contact. Why can’t
you give me those names before I arrive? In most cases, this worked out ok in
the end; I got the contacts and made appointments while I was in situ. So, I learned to take a more
relaxed approach. But in some cases, advance planning would have helped. For
example, when I was in Skopje I found out, on the day that I was leaving, that
there were some archives at the Center for Contemporary Art, and also at the
Museum of Modern Art, but it was already too late to visit them. I was also
given some contacts of artists when I was on my way out the door. I don’t think
that anyone was withholding information intentionally. I just think it was a cultural
difference. I was well aware of the short amount of time I had in each place
and the necessity of having a plan in advance. In the Balkans, there is a much
more casual attitude toward making plans. Most of the time, their system worked
for me, but sometimes, a little advance planning, and using of the future
tenses, would have helped.

The Place Where
Everybody Knows Your Name

It is quite fitting that there is a café in downtown
Podgorica called Cheers. Everyone’s favourite Boston bar from the 1980s, where
everybody knows your name (“Norm!”) has been transformed to a coffee bar, but
the principle is still the same. Because in Podgorica, and in the Balkans,
everyone does know everyone else’s name.

 Cheers Cafe in Podgorica

Cheers Cafe in Podgorica

I read a story online about an American guy who broke his
arm in Podgorica
, and soon the whole town knew who he was, and asked him how
his arm was as he walked around town. When I first read this, I thought it
might have been a bit of blogger’s hyperbole, but after having spent a week in
Podgorica and nearly three weeks in the region, I’m pretty sure that the story
is true. In the Balkans, everyone knows everyone, and once you know one person, you then know everyone, too.

 The place where everybody knows your name

The place where everybody knows your name

And the connections are amazing. In looking for some
Montenegran performance artists, I came across one who was then living in
Savannah, Georgia – Blazo Kovacevic. My boyfriend’s family lives in Savannah,
and I go there once a year to visit. I thought the coincidence was too
interesting (as was his art), so I contacted him, and asked him if we might be
able to meet in Savannah someday. “By the way,” I told him, “I’m in Podgorica
right now.” He wrote back immediately: “you are in Podgorica and I am not! I’m
jealous!” He told me that he was soon leaving Savannah, but invited me to visit
his studio in Podgorica. He said that there wasn’t much of his work there
anymore, but it was a kind of “performative space,” as his father was an
artist, and he grew up surrounded by art. He gave me the address, and it turned
out it was just a five-minute walk from my hotel! How amazing that we were both
so close to each others’ families, on opposite sides of the globe. I took him
up on his offer to visit his studio, and it was an absolutely amazing place. Full
of modernist sculptures, and the house itself had been designed and built by
his father. Another thing I discovered in the Balkans – most artists had
parents who were artists too. The art runs through the blood.

Unexpected Surprizes

On virtually every leg of my trip, there was a glitch. My
flight out of Edinburgh was delayed, which resulted in me having to take a
different flight to London and change airports along the way; my flight from
Tirana to Prishtina was canceled, making me a day late to Kosovo; my bus from
Prishtina to Skopje was not delayed – it was late, but that is usual. It was
also horribly hot. Finally, my flight from Skopje to Podgorica was changed from
7:30PM to the uncivilized hour of 7:30AM, and when I left Podgorica, the driver
for the car service I had booked overslept, and I nearly missed my flight. But
it all worked out in the end.

 Cooking up a pot of Balkan Stone Soup with members of the  Montenegrin Alternative Culture  NGO

Cooking up a pot of Balkan Stone Soup with members of the Montenegrin Alternative Culture NGO

And while I was there, little by little, my
calendar started to fill up, and the books that I brought to keep me occupied
were left untouched, bindings uncracked, never to be opened. So the lesson
learned, for this hyper-planning American, is to plan to be flexible in the
Balkans. When you do, you never know what is going to happen next, and quite
often, you will be pleasantly surprised with the delicious soup that you can
make out of a simple stone.

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Podgorica’s Potential

There is a massive and unfortunate typo in the Lonely Planet’s Western Balkans (1st edition, 2006). It reads:

“Unfortunately, Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, is its most unattractive spot. With no  sights and only expensive hotels, it is really a place to go only for a half-day, if you need to do your errands. It also becomes cauldron-hot in the summer, so don’t say you weren’t warned. It is a much wiser choice to go south and stay on the coast.” (p. 309)

I first came to Montenegro five years ago. I was traveling through the Balkans, and this was the only place I came to that had an outlet to the sea, so I was really coming to explore the coast. I had no real intention of coming to Podgorica, but even if I had, this Lonely Planet entry surely would have dissuaded me. This time, however, I was coming to do research and meet artists, so Podgorica was the place to be. When preparing for this trip, however, this paragraph about the city stuck in my mind from when I had read it five years ago, and I had some trepidations about coming.

I was also a bit nervous because I didn’t really have any contacts here. I had scheduled five full days in Podgorica, but only had two potential meetings. As I flew in on my connecting flight from Belgrade, I began to wonder if I had made a big mistake in including Montenegro on my trip. After all, one of the most significant performance artists from Montenegro, Ilja Soskic, currently lives in Rome, so I wouldn’t even be able to meet with him. What had I gotten myself into?

I arrived on a Sunday, which is probably a day that the Lonely Planet writer spent here. It was hot, and I took a short walk into town to get my bearings. I found a compact city laid out in an easily navigable grid, its streets lined with outdoor cafes and bars – all of them empty. The city was like a ghost town. Was the Lonely Planet right? Was this going to be five wasted days?

I calmed myself down by telling myself that everyone must be at the beach. After all, Montenegro’s stunning coastline is only about an hour from its capital. I settled into my hotel for the night, anxious but optimistic about what the next days would bring.

On Monday morning I saw a much different picture of Podgorica – the cafes came to life and the streets filled with people. Living in Aberdeen, one thing I really miss is outdoor drinking and dining; its simply too cold there. But not in Podgorica! I started my day by attempting to check out Montenegro’s Center for Contemporary Art, located in the beautiful Petrovic Palace. I walked about a half hour across town, climbed up the marble staircase to the top of the hill, only to find it closed. I love walking up big hills to contemporary art centers and modern art museums to find them closed, really I do. I loved it in Prishtina (although admittedly, the hill wasn’t that big), loved it in Skopje, so why not in Podgorica, too? I thought that since I was there anyway I would maybe check out the library or archive if they had one, so I knocked on the door and asked if there was anyone there who spoke English. The woman I spoke to called for someone else, who told me to go to the next building, ask for “so-and-so” (a name I immediately forgot), and they could help me. I went to the second building, asked if anyone spoke English, was told to sit down and wait. The kind man I spoke to made a phone call, and proceeded to hand me the phone. A conversation ensued in which I understood that the woman I was speaking to was a translator for the museum and the wife of the man who gave me the phone. I explained to her what I was looking for, and she asked me to give the phone back to her husband. They exchanged a few words, and he escorted me to the door, told me to go to the next building, and someone there would help me. And help me, they did. I was given catalogues, books and contacts for artists in the area whom I might contact about my research. I may not have seen the interior of the Center for Contemporary Art, but it did provide me with a window onto the art scene.

From there I proceeded to explore the city that, according to the Lonely Planet, only warranted half a day. I discovered a 15th-century Ottoman bridge, a lovely riverside cafe, the Turkish Old Town (Stara Varos), complete with two mosques and an 18th-century clock tower, the 16th-century St. George’s Church with its frescoes in tact, and perhaps the coolest place I have ever come across – not just in Podgorica but in general – the Karver Bookstore, located in a Turkish bathhouse, under a bridge (downtown). The city apparently lopped off the top half of the building to build the Novi Most Bridge, and someone with a vision recognized the potential in this place and turned it into a bookstore and cafe. The underside of the bridge is filled with graffiti, and the banks of the Ribnica River make it the ideal setting for the city’s bohemian crowd. Perhaps I should write for Lonely Planet?!

Podgorica is a city with great potential. It has a thriving cafe culture that makes it the ideal place for artists, writers, and intellectuals to while away the day. Let’s not forget that this country is filled with the spirit of the “grandmother of performance art,” Marina Abramovic herself (she was born in Belgrade, but her parents were both born in Montenegro). At night two of the main roads in the downtown area are closed to traffic, and pedestrians flood them, bringing life and vibrancy to the city as it cools off from the summer heat. (Oh, and “cauldron-hot in summer,” Lonely Planet? Well, that’s every city in the Balkans, really. If you can’t take the heat, then stay out of the cauldron, or the Balkans!) But Podgorica is also a really green city, with lovely parks dotting the downtown, and tree-lined streets keeping it shady. And there are all sorts of unusual and cool little places where interesting things could happen.

A lot of the artists I spoke to here lamented the fact that there were no real spaces for contemporary art in Podgorica. Even the already-petite Center for Contemporary Art will soon lose some of its exhibition space, which is being converted to offices. But I think there are real opportunities here to develop places for contemporary art, even pop-up or temporary venues. I suppose one of the good things about getting a bad write-up in the Lonely Planet (and, just to be fair, that paragraph was written several years ago, so maybe things were different then…) is that Podgorica is still kind of “off the beaten path,” so many of the interesting places and spaces that would be overrun with tourists or popular and mainstream in other cities are still captivating and unique, and full of potential to become a place where interesting things happen. Karver seems to be one of those places, but there are others yet to be discovered in Podgorica. So, don’t listen to your guidebooks. Podgorica’s the place to be!

 Pretty Podgorica Pretty Podgorica

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My Favorite Guy in Skopje

This will probably be my least academic/art historical post so far, but I just loved this guy that I came across in the National Gallery of Macedonia:

 Aleksandar Ivanovski-Karadare,  Lottery Ticket Seller , 1981. National Gallery of Macedonia. Property of the Artist.  Aleksandar Ivanovski-Karadare, Lottery Ticket Seller , 1981. National Gallery of Macedonia. Property of the Artist.

Just look at his face!

 Aleksandar Ivanovski-Karadare,  Lottery Ticket Seller , 1981 (detail). National Gallery of Macedonia. Property of the Artist.  Aleksandar Ivanovski-Karadare, Lottery Ticket Seller , 1981 (detail). National Gallery of Macedonia. Property of the Artist.

I think his expression says it all.

I suppose that one could argue that there is something performative about the piece, in the way that much sculpture is performative. I also found it interesting and coincidental that Aleksandar Stankovski did a similar performance, selling pumpkin seeds at the Museum of Modern Art, thirty years later, although the two pieces are completely unconnected.

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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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