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

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