Monday, 19 September 2011

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.

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