Sunday, 25 September 2011

Belgrade 2

It's turned quite a bit cooler here this week. On Tuesday and Wednesday, Belgrade was visited with a near-biblical downpour; subsequently, the sun has come back, but it is now in the pleasant mid-20s rather than the mid-30s, and it is noticeably colder when the sun sets, around 1830. It's *almost* jacket weather again, not quite yet, though. Full blown autumn is in the post, but won't be here yet for another 2-3 weeks.

It's been a very busy week here in Belgrade. This trip goes in waves; a few days of settling in, a long period of research, the a day or so's unwinding before the next long car journey. I have been doing 8-9 hour shifts in the art faculty library, trying to navigate my through a mountain of art historical telephone directories. In the main, my days have been spent in the company of Miodrag B. Protić, the first serious art historian of Yugoslavia, who was prodigiously active from the mid-50s right up until his retirement in 1981. Protić is a rather old fashioned writer, these days; his narrative is couched in the pseudo-scientific classificatory terms of art history in the 50s and 60s. he often categorises artists in rather strange ways, and his writing is fairly typical of art historical writing from Communist states; factual, "objective", and with regular references to the leading role played in artistic development by the guiding hand of the League of Yugoslav Communists, distinguished from the much more censorious Warsaw Pact art worlds, and the cultural liberalism of the West.

Miodrag B. Protić, The Water Flower, 1981
 In a sense Protić is a figure like Patrick Heron or Adrian Heath in 50s England; a painter-critic. He was prolific in the studio from the 50s until the early 70s, painting in a style which merged elements of French Informel and American lyrical abstraction. The results are often less than inspiring, but writing art history from a practicing artist's viewpoint often produces more interesting results on the page. Although dry, and technocratic, Protić's many volumes on different decades and periods in Yugoslav art are invaluable, as they include complete lists of exhibitions, year by year, and memberships of the myriad short lived avant-garde groups that re-emerged in Yugoslavia in the wake of the Informbiro crisis. (Amusingly, leading Communist Party intellectual and writer Milovan Ðilas had delivered a slashing attack on "bourgeois formalism" at the V. Communist party Congress in 1948; a few months later, he was obliged to do a very rough fifth-to-reverse gear change, to reflect the cultural cataclysm that Informbiro visited on the emerging Yugoslav socialist culture). An art historian attempting to do this, from scratch, in the present day, would find the task near to impossible, given the ephemeral nature of many of these exhibitions, and the scant documentation of some of them. I have taken photos of hundreds of pages from Protić compendiums, containing vital information on a vanished art world, and have also been able to make links and connections that i was previously unable to. These will be critical during the writing up process in 2012.

Sava Sumanović, The Shepherdess, 1924
 In recent years, names like Ješa Denegri and Misko Šuvaković have become important in writing about Serbian and Yugoslavian art history. Denegri produces a series of texts on Decades in Serbian art from the middle 1990s; in more recent times, Šuvaković has emerged as a kind of Duncan MacMillan in the Serbian context, leading a team of researchers in compiling the absolutely vast History of Serbian Art in the Twentieth Century. Šuvaković had a ringside seat in the development of late Yugoslav art from the mid 70s onwards, participating regularly in exhibitions at SKC, as part of the radical Grupa 143, and in subsequent avant-garde formations in the 1980s. This was a vital developmental period; students became increasingly disatisfied with the politically compromised "socialist modernism" of the period, that was hegemonic at art academies and dominant in the art market; new art practices emerged at the end of the 1960s, and lacked the space to grown and expand. Following student riots and demonstrations in Belgrade and elsewhere in the federation, in early June 1968, new cultural centres were created- in Belgrade, Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Novi Sad- partly as a means of providing a hole to allow the angry steam of a bored and restless younger generation to disperse.

BITEF logo from the mid-2000s
These centres- together with international festivals such as BITEF, and the Ljubljana graphics triennial- gave a space for the "new art practices" to develop in the 1970s. However, the Yugoslav state's manipulation of these developments was quite clever. Large sums were provided for early international festivals, to promote an image of liberal and tolerant cultural policy and artistic freedom; in practice, in the domestic market, the big international names were little represented and ather marginal, and the old socialist modernists such as Protić and his contemporaries continued to dominate the market for domestic sales, commissions and prizes. The odd paradox of creating international excitement, but being unheard of at home, was no doubt partially responsible for the exile of many of these younger people in the later 1970s; Gera Urkom and Zoran Popović to London; Marina Abramović to Amsterdam; Braco Dimitrijević to Italy, and Paris. By the later 1970s, the radical performance/happening/events scene had weakened markedly, and attention turned to issues of postmodernity, with painting and sculpture once again the main focus.

Lazar Vujaklija, Piper, 1965. Zepter Collection, Belgrade
 These nuanced and interlinked developments can be fully appreciated in the fine collection of the Zepter Museum, a few hundred yards walk from the Fine Art faculty. Alongside the Sudac Collection in Varaždin, Croatia, this must be one of the biggest publically accessible private collection so Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav painting. Most variations are here; there is a large section devoted to "socialist modernism", an example of which can be seen in Lazar Vujaklija's Piper above. "Socialist Modernism" was a paradoxical art form, an art which used the forms and styles of modernism, not to criticise the social order and propose alternatives, but a modernism directed from above and geared to building consensus for the Titoist status quo. There are also good examples of postmodern painting and sculpture, such as Dušan Otašević's Piazza de Chirico of 1995. (below)

Dušan Otašević, Piazza de Chirico, 1995. Zepter Museum, Belgrade
One of the more interesting examples of recent Serbian art can be found in Uroš Đuric's Portrait of Rasa T., finished in 1992. This is a very clever painting, showing Todosijević in the style of a late 1920s Malevich painting. Much of Yugoslav painting in the 80s was concerned with the status of the art object, and using the styles and techniques of a defunct and discredited Utopian modernism, in an ironic sense, in the present day.  Đuric's painting cleverly exploits and alludes to this seam of ideas in the recent Yugoslav past, and includes representations of two of the conceptual artist's best known works, as part of a nod-and-a-wink portrayal of him as an aesthetic "revolutionary". Đuric is currently part of a very interesting showing of contemporary Serbian art in Regensburg, Germany, called "donumenta"; it's a biennial showing of art from the Danube region, and this year it is Serbia's turn to be represented.

Uroš Đuric, Portrait of Rasa T., 1992, Zepter Museum, Belgrade
Tomorrow I am doing a lecture on contemporary Scottish art and art education at the Fine Arts faculty, kicking off at noon; later I have to meet some collectors, and put in a couple more days work at the library, before returning to Skopje on Thursday. I will be in Macedonia for another week, before heading north-west to Sarajevo via Užice, another former "hero city" of Yugoslavia. So, my next update will probably be sometime over next weekend from Macedonia.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Belgrade: "The House of Flowers"

Tito's grave, House of Flowers
Just as a brief aside, I went yesterday to the Museum of Yugoslav History, a little bit to the north-west of the city centre. This complex was established by Tito in his dying years, and as well as providing a truly vast exhibition space, it is also the former Yugoslav President's final resting place. Tito's mausoleum was designed by the ailing leader from around 1974, in close collabroation with his favourite architects and sculptors.

It may not suit some of today's ultra-nationalist historians to remember, but Tito's death in May 1980 was met by genuinely felt grief across the former Yugoslavia. The most graphic illustration, perhaps, was at the football match between Croatia's Hajduk Split, and Red Star Belgrade from the capital; the game was stopped, half way through, to announce the death, and both sets of players wept openly. (Red Star went onto win 3-1, a victory that would normally have ensured substantial bragging rights for their fans, but the result went by almost unnoticed.) On the same night, as you can see in this youtube clip, the TV newsreader struggled and largely failed to keep a check on his emotions:

Tito died in hospital in Ljubljana, and his body was carried around all parts of Yugoslavia before being laid to rest at the House of Flowers. It's a marker of how much has changed in the subsequent thirty years, that an ex-JNA Colonel, having re-trained as an academic following the end of Yugoslavia, is now selling his self published book on Tito from the back of a battered Lada Zhiguli outside the museum.

Jovanka Broz Tito getting off an aeroplane, Belgrade, 1959
There are two very comprehensive fashion exhibitions on at the moment; one focuses on Tito and his very glamorous second wife, Jovanka; the other, perhaps more interestingly, focuses on fashion in post-war Croatia, up to around 1960. This exhibition well illustrates the difficult post-war transition Yugoslavia underwent, from being a ruined country destroyed by four years of occupation and bitter, bitter civil war, to building up the infrastructure of a flourishing consumer goods sector, alongside a re-building of industry and a (controversial and costly) re-organisation of farming.

Croatian fashion, May 1945: Partizans liberate Jelačić Square in the centre of Zagreb
Croatian fashion c. 1960: a woman at work on the "Highway of Brotherhood and Unity" between Belgrade & Zagreb
Elsewhere, the museum features well-tended grounds, featuring works by Yugoslav sculptors very well known for public commissions and portraits of the party leadership, particularly by Antun Augustinčić, who died the year before his biggest patron. The mausoleum itself is rather odd. Shorn of its honour guard (Milošević ordered the removal of a military presence at Tito's grave in 1990, as part of a so-called "detitoisation" process), Tito's grave seems almost incidental, a mere curiosity to visitors, in between two rooms exhibiting all of his many batons (!) and a rather dull room full of delicacies and trinkets donated by fellow members of the "Non Aligned Movement" ( a group of countries started by Yugoslavia in the Cold War, as aligned fully neither with the Western nor the Soviet blocs.)

The exhibition space here is rather fascinating, but the overall impression of the mausoleum is one of a cloying sadness; that of a great historical figure from a time past, little remembered or noticed in a fast moving contemporary world, in which his ideas and concepts no longer really apply.

Belgrade 1

Faculty of Fine Arts, Belgrade
 It's not often that you can say that you are working in the place where World War One started. But that's exactly what I have been doing since the middle of last week. In a former life, the Faculty of Fine Arts in Belgrade was the embassy of Austria-Hungary; it was to this building that the fateful telegram arrived from Vienna in the summer of 1914, ordering the Austrian ambassador to hand over the declaration of war to his Serb counterparts. It was a decision, ultimately, which was to shape fundamentally the state that was to be called Yugoslavia, and its successors, right up to the present day.

SKC, Belgrade
 I've been here for over a week now, and it has been largely hard work. I spent a day or so in the archives of the SKC- the students' cultural centre- that launched the careers of Marina Abramović and Rasa Todosijević in the early 1970s; the place where Joseph Beuys and Michelangelo Pistoletto visited, amongst others; the venue for legendary exhbitions such as the April happenings and the October salons, in the past. these days, it's still a pretty lively place, with two floors of contemporary exhibitions, and eating spaces, as well as an archive, library and offices.

In contrast to the laid back ease of the various towns and cities that I visited in Macedonia, Belgrade is a frenetic city. The traffic is constant and constantly irritable; Belgraders drive on the horn and the accelerator, with the other controls of their vehicles being largely ornamental. Long, slow moving crocodiles of vehicles all peeping hopelessly at one another is a daily sight here. It is also quite a unqiue place architecturally. Belgrade has been attacked and at least partially destroyed so many times in the last few centuries, that the oldest living house is barely 300 years old; the oldest building is a mosque dating from the sixteenth century. It is a city which has developed in layers; one Utopian vision has been swept aside for a completely different other, resulting in a jumbled built environment quite unlike anywhere else in Europe. On most of the main streets, Hapsburg style appartments from before 1914, interwar French-style appartments, Tito era towerblocks and corporate post-1999 monstrosties all sit cheek by jowl with one another.

Belgrade Street
 In Yugoslav times, Belgrade could claim not only to be capital of the federation's art world, but probably the most significant artistic city in south-east Europe. The National Museum, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, both boasted very impressive and representative collections, not only of Yugoslav art, but also of modern art from the European continent, as well as from the USA. Sadly, these days, both institutions are closed as a result of a lack of money, and an extremely long and time consuming re-building process. Older Belgraders joke that the National Museum was more accessible during the German occupation; it has now been closed for seven years. Few would hazard a guess as to when either will be re-opened, but presumably the medium-term target is 2020, when Belgrade is hoping to be named as European City of Culture. This rather implies membership of the EU by that stage for Serbia, which, as far as can be predicted, seems about right.

Belgrade is also an incredibly stylish and fashion conscious city. The main shopping streets are choked with a mixture of chain stores and smaller, independently run clothes shops; my completely unscientific straw poll of passers by suggest that at least four in every ten Belgraders commonly leaves the house looking like they just walked off the front cover of Elle or Dazed and Confused. Since the very bleak and materially deprived isolation of the Milošević period (1986-2000), Belgrade has fallen over itself to go through a reinvention as a fashion and clubbing mecca.

Ten years ago, Belgrade struggled for tourists; now it has emerged, particularly in the last 2-3 years, as a hedonistic place, seducing all the young Inter-Railers with their limited budgets for the weekend. It might have been expected that Belgrade would have "done a Vienna" in the wake of the disintegration of the Yugoslav federation, in other words, become a dominating capital bereft of much of its former purpose, surrounded by a small, provincial country. However, the feeling of faded glory that clung to Vienna does not apply here. The massive changes in Belgrade's function and appearance in the last twenty years are merely the latest steps in a never ending walk of renewal.

For all the inaccessibility of the national collections, Belgrade is still very much an artist's city. The city centre is filled with reproductions of the most significant inaccessible paintings from the national collection. (Mind you, not everyone appreciates them; i saw one academic portrait being destroyed by a drunk man brandishing a skateboard, whilst he bellowed in Serbian about "fucking academic bollocks". No one batted an eyelid). the current exhibition at the "Donumenta" festival in Regensburg, Germany, focuses exclusively on contemporary Serbian art; from the established enfant terrible of the 1990s, Uros Djurić, through the innovative Artklinika collective of Novi Sad, to interesting contemporary street photographers such as the "Belgrade Raw" collective, whose website is well worth ten minutes of your time. The potential is definitely here for Belgrade to fully re-establish itself on the art making map, once the tourists are brought back by re-opened national institutions.

I'll write more from here before the end of the week.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Art Before, During and After Yugoslavia

Yours truly with the Stojadin that took me from Dundee, to Tallinn, then to Zagreb and back, in 2008. The 6,000 mile round trip pretty much killed it.
Such is the rather ponderous (provisional) title of the book that I am currently researching in these parts. Casual visitors to this blog may have assumed that I was just another rootless "gap yah" type tooling around inconsequentially in Central and Eastern Europe; in fact, now that the holiday period is over, the whole motivation of my journey is working towards being in a position to produce a substantial tonnage of highly explosive verbiage on this subject, in the next year.

In my last job, at Duncan of Jordanstone College in Dundee, I did quite a bit of preparatory research into this large topic. In recent years, there has been a steadily growing bibliography on art produced in the former Warsaw Pact countries, particularly on work done in Poland, East Germany, and the Baltic States. It may surprise readers to learn that the English language literature on art in the former Yugoslavia, is still rather slight. Of course, major figures such as Marina Abramovic, Rasa Todosijevic, and the NSK/IRWIN/Laibach grouping, all have a substantial amount written on them as individuals; there is, to my knowledge, no overarching book that provides a basic survey of art produced in this region in the last hundred or so years.

There are books- such as the fascinating Impossible Histories by Misko Suvakovic and Dubravaka Djuric, and the East Art Map, edited by the IRWIN group. Nonetheless, despite their many merits, both these books require a certain level of pre-knowledge to get the most out of them. My aim, therefore, is to write the basic survey text which will provide both specialists and the general reader alike with a really good grasp of the many complex, inter-linked and ideas-heavy art work that has appeared from this territory. Ultimately, my aim is to consider and develop "Yugoslavia" as a cultural space, rather than add to the already vast and rich literature which considers the territory in political, military and social terms.

Banovina of Royal Yugoslavia, 1929-41
 Yugoslavia first appeared on a map in late 1918, titled as "The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes". The idea of a united Yugoslav state first originated in a group of poets, folk writers and administrators in nineteenth century Croatia, known as the "Illyrians"; individuals such as Ludovit Gaj and Josip Juraj Stossmayer, amongst others, spent much of their active lives arguing for a common Slavic territory, as a means of defending and distinguishing the national minorities in hat was then Austria-Hungary. Further south, the constant to-ing and fro-ing between Austrians, Serbs, Macedonians and Turks kept the south of what was to become Yugoslavia in a constant, febrile, tense state; by this time, Ottoman influence was waning substantially, and in the two Balkan wars Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey squabbled over Macedonian territory; the border between Austro-Hungarian interests, in Bosnia, and Serbia, became heated at various periods.

The Royal Yugoslav army parades in Serbia in the 1930s, with Sarplaninac dogs. Getting a dozen of these tough, strong-willed and fiercely individualistic creatures to walk in formation, and stay calm, is no mean feat.
 To cut a long story short, the new Kingdom emerged as a result of the Versailles treaty in 1918-19, based partly on the Wilsonian of self-determination for the national minorities who had desired independence from pre-war Austria-Hungary and Tsarist Russia. Of course, this was a principle selectively applied; the new state was to have its capital in Serbia, and be overseen by the Serb Karadjordjevic dynasty. This situation came about as a "reward" for Serbia's conduct in the 1914-18 conflict, when substantial parts of the country were left in ruins, and 775, 000 soldiers and civilians lost their lives. In Western Europe, there was considerable sympathy for the plight of the "gallant Serbs"; some historians have argued that the twentieth century myth of Serbian military strength derived from the tragic losses in the first war.

Ivan Mestrovic in Zagreb, in the mid 1920s
In London, oddly enough, sympathy for the Serbs in part spurred on two very well received exhibitions, at the V&A, by the Croat sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. Mestrovic, whose work today can be seen all over the former Yugoslavia, was seen by many as an equal to Rodin in the 1920s and 1930s, although he was kept so busy by public commissions in the new Yugoslavia that many folk in Britain lost sight of him after this period. No fewer than four books and catalogues were published on Mestrovic in London, between 1918 and 1933.

Anton Azbé, Zamorka, 1895. National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana
 Mestrovic was however a rarity in this period, being a Yugoslav artist who exhibited extensively abroad. In Austro-Hungarian times, artists from Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina tended to aim for Vienna, or in some cases Munich; the most influential painter was the Slovene portraitist and academic Anton Azbé, who established a private school in Munich and numbered Wassily Kandinsky amongst his pupils. The academy in Belgrade, particularly strong in painting, accounted for most Serbian, Montenegrin, and Macedonian students, although artists from what would be Yugoslavia also studied in Romania and Greece. The emergence of a new state in the 1920s necessitated the construction of the new cultural space that would become Yugoslavia and, by definition, the emergence of the first avowedly Yugoslav avant-gardes.

We have to be careful, here, though, as there was never any such thing as "Yugoslav art"; i.e, a confluence of practices, styles and ideas worked on consistently by artists across the country. Throughout the existence of Yugoslavia, the individual character of artists from all the different countries was maintained. In Tito's time, certainly until the later 1960s, art produced in Yugoslavia can be described as "SHS" art; Serbia-Hrvatska-Slovenia. Ljubljana became known for graphic art, Zagreb for sculpture and so-called "naive" painting, and Belgrade for fine art painting and later installation and performance. It was only in the last twenty years or so of Socialist Yugoslavia that functioning art scenes began to coalesce in Sarajevo, Skopje, Subotica and Titograd (present day Podgorica).

Ljubomir Micic posing in front of a Zenitist image, 1921

In Royal Yugoslavia, the first artists identified as avant-garde included Banija's Ljubomir Micic, founder of the first avant-garde movement known as Zenitism; its fusion of Utopianism, Dadism, Futurism and a Balkan localism was Yugoslavia's first consistent connection with the European avant-gardes. Later, Zenitism's Zenit journal was proscribed by the Royal Yugoslav police, and Micic and his brother Branko Ve Poljanski were obliged to go into exile in Paris for a period. Another artist who fell foul of the intrusive royalist authorities was the Slovene constructivist and abstract artist August Cernigoj; Cernigoj's radical compositions owed much to Bauhaus and German abstraction in the 1920s, and his implicit criticism of the Belgrade authorities was taken badly. Cernigoj went on to found another avant-garde journal, Tank, which he promoted from exile in Trieste.

Composition by August Černigoj. Černigoj Museum, Lipica, Slovenia
Alexander Karadjordjevic's new kingdom quickly became an unpleasant and repressive despotism, with his subjects enduring a near-Tsarist level of intrusion from his political police. A constant refrain in the politics of early Yugoslavia was a battle for influence between Serbs and Croats. The ghastly murder of Stjepan Radic, leader of the Croat Peasant Party, at the Parliament in Belgrade, by a Montenegrin deputy, in 1928, showed how far attempts at negotiation and equal sharing of power had broken down. King Alexander's response was to "abolish" the Yugoslav nationalities, establish an entirely artificial series of new banovina (Governorships), and take an authoritarian grip of the country at the expense of the democratically elected parliament. This poor decision making and increasing repression led almost directly to the murder of King Alexander,  along with the French Foreign Minister, during a state visit to Marseilles in 1934. The murder was arranged by Ante Pavelic, a Croatian Nazi, who was subsequently given shelter by Mussolini, having been funded directly by the Italian dictator for a number of years.

The historian Vesna Drapac, in her book Constructing Yugoslavia: A Transnational History, argues that these inherent instabilities in Yugoslavia in the 20s and 30s were as much the creation of well meaning but ill informed international politicians, as they were created internally. People knew how unpleasant Yugoslavia had become, and knew how much of a mess the royal despotism was making of the country, but Alexander was known and tolerated as the only real figure Western diplomats and politicians knew could keep the country together. There was some liberalising of the regime after the assassination, and a return to negotiation between different interest groups, but government and society was never far from open conflict.

The same cannot be said of art in the 1930s. By then, strengths of academic production in the three main art cities was well advanced, with particularly strong cultural links with France. Many Serb and Croat artists spent time in the French capital, then in its last years as the unofficial "art capital of the world"; the links between France and Yugoslavia persisted in the Tito years, with the French holding the biggest ever survey of Yugoslav art mounted outside of the region; the vast Four Thousand Years of Yugoslav Art, shown in Paris in 1970.

There is not time to explain the complex, multi layered and nuanced developments in Yugoslavia during the Italo-German-Bulgarian occupation of the country during 1941-45. The young King Petar fled with his ministers to London, in May 1941, as the Germans swept aside the hopelessly out-gunned Royal army in just ten days, and Belgrade was subjected to a truly horrific mass bombing raid from the Luftwaffe. Although King Petar tried to keep a grasp of things in his kingdom from London, he was never to return. Poor leadership, the weakness of royal institutions after twenty three years of (largely) misrule, and the intriguing of politicians in Petar's circle for their own narrow ends, ensured that the monarchy was finished. After an exhausting, painful and extremely costly struggle, Josip Broz Tito emerged as new president of a Communist Yugoslavia in the second half of 1945.

A crafty tactician. Josip Broz Tito plays chess at his Bosnian HQ during 1943-44.
Tito, an extremely astute and capable military leader and politician, was never really that interested in art. He and his advisers were, however, interested in the effect that art could have in binding the population closer to his regime. (A Croat artist I met a few years ago spent almost his entire military service with the JNA painting portraits of Comrade Tito, at the orders of the regimental colonel). Immediately after the war, Yugoslavia went through a brief Stalinist phase until 1948; as the critic Branco Dimitrijevic points out, the few instances of "socialist realism" produced in Yugoslavia date from these years.

Socialist Yugoslavia, 1945-90
 Dramatically, in 1948, Tito and the Yugoslav Communists had a major disagreement with Stalin, and the party and the country were expelled from the COMINFORM, entering a period of fraught and dangerous isolation that endured until the middle 1950s. The point of mentioning this period of dispute- known here as the Informbiro period- is that it shaped fundamentally the post-war Yugoslav cultural space. Overtures were made to the West, who for their own reasons were delighted to establish closer relations with a Communist country. A quite unique cultural exchange was established between Yugoslavia and the Western cultural world, with major exhibitions of contemporary Dutch, French, and American contemporary art touring the country in the early 1950s. In no other country in the Communist world would an exhibition of American abstract expressionism been possible in the 1950s.

Socialist Modernism: detail from Borko Lazeski's The National Liberation War, which was painted between 1951-56 for the railway station in Skopje. Sadly, these frescoes were destroyed in the 1963 earthquake.
The Communist regime devolved most cultural powers to the level of the government of individual republics- each republic had its own cultural apparatus and Union of Artists. Exhibition spaces and opportunities were rolled out extensively from the late 1940s onward; it seems logical to point out that the basis for cultural production in the contemporary ex-Yugoslavia dates from the Titoist period (indeed, in Macedonia, little seems to have changed as regards how art is funded, with the exception of the money available). A new style of so-called "socialist modernism" emerged across the region; an art that was allowed to experiment with the forms and ideas of the Western avant-garde, as long as the political content of the work was acceptable. "Socialist Modernism" was important across the visual arts, with resistance to this compromise between party and visual culture only beginning to come into question in the later 1960s.

OHO Group, Mount Triglav happening, Zvedza Park, Ljubljana, December 1968.
In the later 1960s, artists experimenting with new forms of production- performance, installation, process art, reism, happenings- began to appear as a challenge to the Socialist Modernist consensus. one of the more notable examples was the staged happening by the Slovene group OHO in a Ljubljana park; in a performance entitled "Mount Triglav", the three members gently alluded to a separate Slovene identity, and were arrested for their pains- although later released without charge. Manifestations of national separateness were one of the few things strictly forbidden in art, as well as in all other aspects of life, during the Tito years.

At about the same time, the curator Biljana Tomic began to invite performance and process artists from all over Europe to attend her BITEF theatre and arts exhibitions in Belgrade; Josef Beuys and Michelangelo Pistoletto were amongst the artists who took part in these ambitious displays. Simultaneously, the young Marina Abramovic and Rasa Todosijevic began experimenting with performance art at the Student's Cultural Centre in the Federal capital. Abramovic's astonishing Rhythm series of performances, in which she tested her physical and mental endurance to the absolute limit, alongside Todosijevic's Decision as Art series at around the same time. Performance quickly became centrally significant to art produced in Yugoslavia in the second half of the 1970s; Braco Dimitijevic in Sarajevo; Balint Szombathy in Subotica and Novi Sad; Simon Uzunovski in Skopje; Sanja Ivekovic and others in Zagreb.

Sanja Ivekovic, Trokut (Triangle) performance, Zagreb, 1979.
Tito died in May 1980, and, with hindsight, the death of Yugoslavia was on a timer from that very moment. What was true politically did not hold culturally, however. In the 1980s, the notions of post-modernism and trans-avant-gardism became central in the cultures across Yugoslavia. Artists such as Goran Djordjevic, a.k.a. "The Kazimir Malevich of Belgrade", and the artists group IRWIN, growing out of a very strong and fertile counter-culture in Ljubljana, were the best examples: IRWIN, in particular, had developed a high profile European practice, and were almost uniquely well placed to survive the collapse of the Communist state, and of Yugoslavia itself, during 1990-91.

The former Yugoslavia in the mid-2000s. Kosovo has now declared UDI, in a move not recognised by the Serbian government, but by many countries internationally, including the US / UK.
 The events of the past twenty years have been covered in exhaustive detail, from all conceivable points of view, so I don't want to dwell on them too much if possible in this mini-dissertation of a post (those needing to refresh their memories on what happened should watch the BBC series The Death of Yugoslavia on youtube). The final part of my book will focus on what became of art production in the two decades following the break up of the Yugoslav federation. In many ways, the "variable geometry" of the Socialist Yugoslav art world has persisted, but formalised as the independent art structures of many new republics. My aim will be to concentrate not only on the vastly differing experiences of the former Yugoslav republics, but also to say something about the "Yugoslav diaspora" of artists working abroad, and to base my writing on the showing this year of the former member countries at the Venice biennale. Interestingly, I shall also consider the very real evidence of the persistence of a Yugoslav cultural space, at variance with the irreversible socio-political decisions that have led to the death of the federation; and, also, artistic play with the notion of "Yugonostalgia" in contemporary production.

So, there you have it. That, in rough and broad terms, is why I'm here; researching this book, deciding how I'm going to do it, and what I'll be looking at when it comes to writing it up in quill pen, by the light of a guttering Skopje candle, in 2012. Maybe some thought that I was a bit mad leaving my job behind to come here and do all this research, but I find it utterly absorbing and compelling, and am still learning new things and hearing new perspectives on an almost daily basis. It's nice to have a happy ending, so it's worth also stating that, having taken this opportunity when it presented itself, I'm as happy as I've been in a long time.

Skopje (final part)

Makedonska Square, Thursday

 So my proposed regular updates from Skopje didn't quite materialise as I'd hoped. For readers back home, that's a good sign; regular updates about Balkan marginalia on here mean that I'm not very busy, hence spending too much time arsing about on the internet.

Kale Fortress

Last week was incredibly busy, far much more so than I'd expected before coming to Skopje. It was a very interesting time to be in the city, during independence week. As a partial consequence, the Museum of Contemporary Art had a rather impressionistic two floor showing of Macedonian art in the last twenty years; further, the young artist Filip Jovanovski was developing an exhibition on the ground floor of the museum, with the subject being still life. However, the "still life" in question is one of his university professors, so Filip is slowly filling his space with a changing installation featuring some of the professor's paintings as well as his own objects and ideas.

Filip Jovanovski's work-in-progress at MOCA
In total I think I had seven or eight long meetings last week with various academics, critics, curators and artists. As a result, I now have a very good idea of some aspects of Macedonian art history beyond Martinovski, as well as the politics and difficulties of the contemporary art world in the country.

Speaking more broadly, there are many very interesting young artists working in Skopje; the Lokomotiva collective,  and OPA for example; the trouble is that a lack of money restricts meaningful exhibiting opportunities, and prevents the art world infrastructure from growing beyond a very basic "there's just enough money for this gallery to exist" level. Other interesting initiatives, such as the small artist-run Press to Exit space, face a very uncertain future, as government funding has been withdrawn. Much of the infrastructure and art world networks are still intact from Yugoslav times, only without the money that was available back then. As a result, being a working young artist can be incredibly hard and frustrating in Macedonia, and requires a level of survival-ingenuity and invention to a much greater degree than in other cities that I have visited. It is precisely this tension, between a government who has one rather prescriptive view of visual art, and a majority of artists working who resist this view, that makes it so compelling for a visitor.

The OPA (Obsessive Possessive Aggression) duo
 There was a strange atmosphere in town last week. Skopje is a customarily easy going place, with Makedonska Square and the surrounding streets, and the Stara Carsija, full of coffee or beer drinkers at all times of the day and night; Makedonska Street is thronged till late at night, with chatter just about audible above a high decibel soundclash between Latino music, Euro-disco and Serbian turbofolk, played by differing bars and clubs. However, this week, accessing the city centre was difficult, particularly between Tuesday-Thursday, in the run up to the massive independence rally on the Main Square.

On Tuesday night, the massed ranks of the Macedonian army, police, and air force paraded through the city centre, with one black-clad group of paras bellowing "MA-KE-DON-IJA" repeatedly as they marched past; frankly, all a bit sinister. Helicopters constantly circled buzzingly overhead. Amongst the by-standers, prevented from crossing the road by the police as the troops crunched past, there was a mixture of a ripple of applause, sullen irritation at the disruption to a journey and, in one or two cases, suppressed laughter. As it turned out, the Independence Day parade and celebrations passed off very well, with a huge red-and-yellow-clad throng packing out Makendonska Square and celebrating long into the night. The Prime Minister delivered a long celebratory speech, but I suspect most were there to hear the singers and bands that followed.

Overall, the impression taken from the independence celebrations is that this a city and country suddenly undergoing massive ideologically-driven change, and it appears that whilst the government has many supporters for its project, there are many more who are far from convinced by the path that they have decided to take. Ultimately, a successful government in Macedonia will do all it can to raise the shockingly low wages and lifestyle expectations that many citizens have to contend with, and it seems rather obvious to point out that such a long term task cannot be achieved by statues, parades and flags.

Monument to the Liberators of Skopje, designed by a collective of Yugoslav sculptors, including Jordan Grabulovski (he of Illinden monument fame)
This is such a beautiful country, and the sad thing is that it is so little known outwith the Balkans. The only time we really hear of Macedonia in the UK is when one of the home nations is playing them at football. News on Macedonia in English is still pretty hard to find on the internet- a puzzle, as all the other former Communist countries from Montenegro to Russia have at least one reliable and decent source of journalism in English.

Macedonia still has major wildernesses and national parks, which in Western Europe are, at best, a rarity these days. There is a huge possibility to develop environmental tourism here, although whether it would be desirable to have hordes of Western Europeans filling up the narrow roads of Mavrovo or Pelister, with SUVs, is another matter, although undoubtedly this would help improve living standards for many people. As I mentioned in my last entry, Skopje is an intriguing and much more compelling place to visit than it might appear on a one day stopover. There is a functioning and interesting art scene, very good restaurants, new pubs and clubs springing up in the Stara Carsija, decent bookshops and stalls, and some of the friendliest and most welcoming people anywhere on the European continent. I came here a week ago knowing virtually no one here, and left with more than a dozen new pals whom I will keep in touch with.

Yesterday I slowly ground my way up the road to Belgrade, arriving here about 2100hrs. But, my plans have changed slightly; I will return to Skopje and Bitola for a few days at the beginning of October, and some more meetings, and then head directly to Sarajevo from there. There was not time to meet everyone I wanted to meet, and there is also an electronic music festival happening in the city around that time; one of my favourite DJs/producers/artists anywhere in Europe, Frankfurt's Isolée, is playing at Club Havana on the 2nd October, so it would seem rude not to come as I'm pretty nearby. And, longer term, this would be a good city to write my book in next year, as it is possible to live here on comparatively little money compared to elsewhere, as well as with good access to libraries, archives and other nearby cities. A plan is forming, but I'll keep my powder dry on that one for now.

I have a lot to do on the internet today- sending many emails and making calls, so my promised entry on the book project, and the reasons for it, should be up later tonight.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Skopje (part two)

So I'm sitting writing this in an open air cafe on Makedonska Square, the central point of Skopje; the sun is beating down and it's about 35 degrees, with the air conditioning hissing under the umbrellas. As it's Sunday, town is quiet; if people are in the sun at all, they're taking it very easy.

Skopje bakes in the Friday lunchtime sun
This is my second time in the Macedonian capital. I came here on holiday a couple of summers ago, and since then, the city is suddenly undergoing a huge re-building programme. There is an absolute orgy of new public sculpture, in what must be the biggest government investment in new monumental statuary anywhere in Europe. Two years ago, this square was still a largely empty Tito-era parade ground and mass rally space, the centre point being a rather nice circular display of amber, red and blue local flowers. Today, the place where the flowers were has vanished, to be replaced by a truly gigantic bronze statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, balanced on a marble column about thirty feet in the air. Alexander can be seen from pretty much everywhere in the centre of the city.

Makedonska Square and Alexander the Great from the Stone Bridge. I'm writing this under the umbrellas in the shade to the left
This bronze behemoth would be more than enough to attract the eye, but the square is also now choked with other figures from the new narrative of Macedonian statehood; Tsar Samuel, Goce Delchev, other patriots, warriors and churchmen from history. The overall effect is rather claustrophobic; one can't really stand back and look at the sculptures individually, without being physically aware of the presence of others looming very nearby. For sculpture to work, of course, scale and proportion in relation to the physical environment is as important as a successful three dimensional image; it seems that scale and proportion have been deemed of secondary importance to the need to have a graven image of absolutely everyone near to hand. The sculptures continue across the ancient stone bridge, the enduring symbol of Skopje's survival and permanence; on the other side of the River Vardar, there is effectively a giant building site, as a new government and civic quarter is created. Two new mock-classical buildings are arising under a dense network of scaffolding and clamour of building noise; it is going to be a new museum of "Macedonian struggle", and some government structures, with the workies already having finished the new foreign affairs building on the other side of the stone bridge.

21st century classical architecture rising on the banks of the Vardar
This frenzy of new architecture and sculpture is part of a government plan to re-design the city centre by 2014; the authorities have already spent 200 million euros on statuary alone (and it shows); the new buildings will cost at least three times that. A complete new Skopje tramway is also planned, presumably in order to retire the fleet of local, very old, clouds-of-diesel-fumes buses that chug around presently. For some, these monumental new structures are a symbol of Macedonia emerging from a tough and contested first twenty years of independence, towards a hoped for prosperous future in the EU; for others, it represents an overblown, pompous and inappropriate historical classicism, ignorant of Macedonia's Albanian and gypsy minorities, and ruinously expensive in a country where up to one in three adults of working age are officially unemployed. It's not for me to say who is right, but the overall effect is odd and unsettling; a newly populist, right wing version of Macedonian history, in conflict with its Yugoslav architectural past.

Typical Skopje apartments
Re-invention, however, is not a new thing for Skopje or its citizens. 80% of this city was destroyed in a massive earthquake, in July 1963, with tens of thousands killed, injured and missing. The old classical Skopje disappeared in a few minutes. In response, Tito and the Yugoslav government issued a major call for international aid and invested heavily in rebuilding the ruined city. A Japanese architect worked with locals to redesign the city entirely; the result was the emergence of a plantation of tower blocks and wide boulevards. Only one small corner of Makedonska Square gives any evidence of the old classical appearance of Skopje. Just outside the central block of few streets, wide highways are choked with traffic, and one has to be rather careful crossing the road, even when the green man is showing.

One of the by-products of the earthquake was the establishment of the Museum of Contemporary Art, which sits just behind the Kale fortress, on a hill overlooking the city centre. At present it is closed, but it re-opens on Tuesday night, with a major exhibition of Macedonian art since independence. Macedonia celebrates its twentieth anniversary as an independent country on Thursday; on 8 September 1991, 74% of the country voted to secede from crumbling Yugoslavia, with the only completely peaceful withdrawal of the Yugoslav National Army negotiated shortly afterward.

Basketball frenzy in Makedonska Square
To the casual visitor, Skopje might appear to be a drab place, but this first impression is unfair. At night, it is very lively indeed, with packed nightclubs along the River Vardar, busy restaurants, and the customary Macedonian sight of large family groups and friends out for a leisurely evening stroll. It's also worth putting in the effort to walk as much as possible; many of the most interesting places are hidden up side streets, such as a tea and hookah garden; little more than a small wooden hut with some outdoor sofas, at the end of an entirely unremarkable one way street. Skopje is also quite a book town; I have browsed through two or three excellent bookshops, whilst mobile carts of books can be found on most streets in the city centre. The charmingly entitled Macedonian for Foreigners was a bargain at just 250 denars (£3.50).

There has been a celebratory mood here, this weekend, too. Yesterday, the Macedonian basketball team- for the first time ever- triumphed in a bitter derby battle with the Greeks, by 72-58. I know virtually nothing about basketball, but apparently that's a bit of a gubbing. The entire square was filled with celebrating Macedonians last night, with the large electronic screen turning off its rotating series of adverts and replacing it with an image of the red and yellow Macedonian flag. On the boulevards, long, slow moving queues of cars filled the air with a tremendous din of tooting horns; a young bloke hung almost completely out of the passenger side of a Zastava Osmica, the boxy outline of the old grumbler almost completely obscured by a gigantic flag. I suspect there may be more celebrations tonight, as they are currently beating the Finnish team, as well.

Yes, it really happened. Makedonija 72: 58 Grcija
There was an edge to the Greek game, of course, as successive Greek governments have been implacably hostile to the emergent new Macedonia since the 90s; complaining about its flag, its name, its aspirations to integrate fully with international institutions; Greece has been quite ludicrously intransigent on all these issues. Even Barack Obama was moved to declare himself "bored" of the Macedonian-Greek quarrel a few months ago. However, given the catastrophic extent of the current Greek financial crisis, they may well have expended their political capital on these issues, and Macedonia may finally be able to progress a bit. It could be argued, of course, that the sudden sprouting of the Makedonska square statuary could be some kind of sculptural response to a national identity that feels itself threatened.

The very existence of an independent "Macedonia" makes some Greek politicians nervous; the new national narrative, with Alexander the Great at the centre of it, irritates them enormously. That said, the Greek suspicion that Macedonia will some day lay claim to the part of Greece also named "Macedonia" seems, to this observer, paranoid. The number of Macedonians dreaming of a "greater Macedonia", incorporating ethnic Macedonians in present day Greece, Bulgaria and Albania, would struggle to fill a Transit minibus. Yet, the contents of that hypothetical Transit have been enough for the Greeks to throw up every obstacle in the way of Macedonia integrating fully with instituions such as the UN, NATO, EU accession talks, and so on. In its first twenty years, Macedonia has been locked in a permanent existential crisis, with the Greeks openly skeptical of its national aspirations; Bulgaria has tempted some Macedonians into claiming Bulgarian citizenship (the lure being an EU passport, and he ability to move and work in the EU without a visa); there was also a threatened very nasty ethnic conflict between Macedonians and Albanians, at around the time of the Kosovo conflict in 1999-2001, although that, for now, has been peaceably resolved.

The captivation of the locals with the successful exploits of the basketball team couldn't be in starker contrast to the rank indifference shown to the national football team's ailing Euro 2012 qualification series. The Macedonians played Russia on Friday night, with John Toshack in charge for his first game as national team manager. I was one of only three people watching the game in the pub (indeed, there was more causal interest in the Scotland-Czech Republic match, yesterday afternoon). Macedonia played quite well, and were unlucky to lose 1-0 to a very unimpressive Russian side. They looked decent both in defence and midfield, but carry no real threat up front. It will be interesting to see how the gifted but cantankerous Welsh nomad gets on here, as the basis is there for a decent and competitive team, that both Scotland and Wales will find difficult in their 2014 World Cup group.

Street in Skopje's bazaar
Today I've been for a leisurely stroll around Skopje's old bazaar, a tight warren of streets located around three separate mosques. The call to prayer echoed across the largely empty streets at 1pm. In the weekday, this place is busy from dawn until dusk, with a myriad of small shops, a fruit market, and a series of permanently popular cafes. Today, it was very quiet, so I was able to get some decent photos.  The bazaar was founded in the sixteenth century, and although it is now designated as the "old commercial centre", it still seems to trade very briskly when open. As with the much smaller bazaar in Bitola, trades, leatherwork, exchange bureaux and food sellers predominate here; there is also another gallery of modern art, located in an old Turkish bath house, that I will return to later in the week.

This week is my first full week of work, and I have several meetings with art historians, artists and curators lined up. I am also going to have a very close look at the collection in the Museum of Contemporary Art, and there is an archive from the old Soros Centre here, that chronicles Macedonian contemporary artists in some detail, which I will need to spend about a day in. As for on here, I'm going to write a detailed entry later on about my project, for those who want to hear more about that; there should be another couple of updates from Skopje before I leave for Belgrade next weekend.

More photos can be seen here

Thursday, 1 September 2011

In Skopje (& Prilep)

On the road between Prilep and Veles
Just a quick update tonight- I'm now in Skopje, having driven three hours north from Bitola today. The road north was extraordinary- in between Prilep and Veles, there was a steep climb then a seemingly endless descent on a mountain A/B road; I stopped and took some photos of this extraordinarily parched landscape, with only chirruping crickets and the occasional passing heavy lorry for company. The landscape is rocky, tough, yellow and green, full of dust and stones. Away from the main road, it seems like it sees very few people indeed; over the winter, I can imagine even a main road like this being borderline impassable for days at a time.

Mountains recede northwards
The road between Veles and Skopje was remarkable. It's a main road- the equivalent of the road between Dunfermline and Edinburgh- yet it is very narrow, rutted and populated with all kinds of exotic motor species; ancient GAZ lorries still pulling a full load fifty years after first being built, at no more than 45 km/h; poisonous yellow Zastavas chugging along pulling trailers (Communist-era car colours are always vaguely suggestive of unpleasant medical remedies, or nuclear waste); even, on many occasions, horses and donkeys pulling carts chaotically laden with haphazard mounds of vegetables. Eventually, the road spiralled and corkscrewed through a ludicrously improbable series of tight turns, before giving way to a motorway, about 20 miles south of the capital. It was a beautiful drive for a visitor, but must be an extremely wearing road to have to deal with on a daily basis.

Prilep: socialist "hero city"
Skopje has changed quite a bit and seems to be in a frantic phase of re-building, since I visited here two years ago. I'm going to hold off saying too much about it here, though, until I've spent a few days in the capital. Instead, I should mention Prilep briefly. Prilep is about 25 miles east of Bitola, and couldn't be more different from either there or Krusevo. As a former "hero city" of socialist Yugoslavia, Prilep is all wide boulevards, towerblocks and Yugoslav-era public sculpture; this rectilinear order is in stark contrast to the jagged, angular, rocky mountains that surround this dusty place. Although smaller than Bitola, Prilep somehow felt more lively when I was there; the little cafes and pizzerias surrounding the old bazaar were crammed at lunchtime.

Prilep, in addition to being a "hero city", is home to the longest-established artists' colony in Macedonia. It was first designated as such in 1956-57 and is still home to many working artists and the large cultural centre <<Marko Cepenkov>>, as well as a major theatre. Unfortunately, the Marko Cepenkov seemed closed yesterday, so I had to content myself with taking some snaps of 1970s Yugoslav sculpture, and a rather puzzling gable end mural. Most remarkable of all, though, was a very strange, monumental angular sculpture, which you can see in the picture above. i was completely unable to find out anything about its purpose, although, with its globe cradled in giant steel legs, it did have more than a whiff of the Tony Montana about it; all that was missing was the legend "THE WORLD IS YOURS" in neon around the globe. Prilep's other claim to fame is that it is a major tobacco town; if you smoke Phillip Morris cigarettes, its more than likely that at least some of your tobacco originated in one of the ginat processing facilities on the outskirts of town. Although I had been frustrated in my attempts to see art, I liked Prilep a lot; it had a good feel about it, and folk were friendly.

My next updates on here, over the weekend, will say a little bit about Skopje, and the whole purpose for me being out in this part of the world in the first place. Until then...