Sunday, 11 September 2011

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such as the small artist-run Press to Exit space, face a very uncertain future, as government funding has been withdrawn.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.

No comments:

Post a Comment