Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Art in BiH

Writing
"...the general current social environment in Bosnia and Hercegovina, a country which a press article by Clemens Ruther has described as 'the last yet undead living part of the corpse of Yugoslavia' and as 'being kept alive in an international intensive care unit', a country where post war trauma, everyday nationalist political madness, corruption, a catastrophic economic situation with an average unemployment rate of 50%, demonstrations of power instrumentalising religious confessions, homophobia and macho structures meet, where a feeling of powerlessness, demoralisation and disatisfaction prevails and which seems to be trapped in a dead-end street of depression, lethargy and complaining, without a critical mass believing itself ready to actively address these conditions..."

This stark quote forms part of the exhibition guide to the DEAL WITH IT show, made by members of the German Porschismus collective, at Duplex 10m2 in Sarajevo. This little space, alongside the ARS AEVI collection, is one of two main spaces covering contemporary art in the Bosnian capital. 10m2 was established by two French curators at the end of 2004. The gallery claims an international perspective, with an obvious focus on contemporary Bosnian art. The current show features nine artists who have some connection with BiH, even if they don't actually live there. There is no sense of self-pity or introspection about this show; rather, it seeks to present the creative response of artists dealing with a virtually impossible set of cultural circumstances, yet still managing to keep making work and have it discussed and seen.

DEAL WITH IT group exhibition, gallery 10m2
Across Europe, since the beginning of the credit crunch in October 2008,there has been a deepening gloom about the status of the arts and arts funding. In the UK, the I Value the Arts campaign has used a mixture of public advocacy by well known creative figures, and a relentless social media campaign, to raise awareness of the challenges that the arts face in a climate of dramatically reduced public funding. Newly graduated students have had to adapt to a changed cultural climate where the money that may have been available before 2008 has suddenly gone; they have had to be far more resourceful, ingenious, and co-operative in developing careers. Across Europe, governments have selected the creative arts as an easy early casualty of a supposedly necessary "austerity" package in response to a fiscal crisis entirely the making of incompetent bankers, venal speculators and spineless, regulation-averse politicians.

Serious though the problems facing arts and arts education funding in the UK may be, they seem frankly trivial compared to the problems facing the various sectors of the shrunken Bosnian art world. This is a country where the government currently does not put a fenig towards the National Gallery and its serious collection of BiH, Yugoslav and European paintings, sculptures and photographs; this is the principal reason for the current indefinite closure of the facility. Shockingly, the new BiH government failed to take on the responsibility of maintaining the National Gallery after 1995, and this major collection has had to subsist on money from abroad for the last sixteen years. That the institution was open and maintained a reasonable programme, until recently, is in itself something of a minor miracle and a great tribute to the hard pressed staff there. Only once since independence- with Braco Dimitrijević's show in 2009- has Bosnia-Hercegovina been represented at the Venice bienale, a miserable record by comparison with all the other former Yugoslav republics.

On top of this institutional paralysis, BiH is home to no fewer than four art schools- churning out graduates into a domestic art market which only barely exists. Those who do manage to fashion some sort of career for themselves usually do so by either selling their work abroad, or by moving away from the country altogether. The well developed art world in BiH prior to 1992 was a casualty of the civil war, along with so many other aspects of society; many artists simply left, and the few that remained have had to cope with a catastrophic collapse in both government patronage of the arts, in the private art market, and indeed in the audiences for art; so many Bosnians now have to focus on sheer survival, that the leisure time available to go to an exhibition is a rare, luxurious commodity that not many can afford. Add to the permanent ethnic division of the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina-Republika Srpska has its own art academy and national gallery based in Banja Luka- and the small crumb of the Bosnian art world is atomised even further.

Jusuf Hadžifejzović, Trophy's Depotgraphy, 1995
 One artist still based for most of his time, in Sarajevo, is Jusuf Hadžifejzović. His contribution to the show, along the back wall, is intriguing; he presents a series of prints, each of which have a disquieting effect on the viewer; a coat hanging from an AK47; a deer's head; a stark bottle opener. Each of these objects provoke individual responses within each viewer, from imagining the role that these may play in the artist's life, to the contemplation of them as purely aesthetic objects. The Italian artist Diana Righini intervenes in a sensitive piece about Macedonian national identity; she has framed a 1978 academic magazine, featuring an essay discussing the nature and origins of Macedonian identity; of course, these are key issues which form a fault-line down the middle of contemporary Macedonian (and, more broadly, Balkan) society. Skopje's Edo Vesjselović contributes a floor installation, with the floor of the gallery transformed into a cityy map of the world, underlining the display's universal as well as local appeal.

Diana Righini, 1978-2011

This is a really thought provoking and interesting exhibition. Contemporary art either from or dealing with Bosnia-Hercegovina is, in spite of the absolutely abysmal circumstances in which it has to be made, is challenging to the viewer and contains many interesting insights into present day creative life. Together with the rich and well curated exhibitions, based on colour, in the National Gallery, both should form key parts of the face that Bosnia-Hercegovina presents to the outside world. After all, cultural tourism- in spite of the economic difficulties faced by the arts Europe-wide- should be a key facet of BiH's attempts to re-build for the future. That is is not, and indeed seems to occupy a marginalised and near-subterranean position in the stagnating, ethnically divided society, is one of many national tragedies. Sadly, until things are fixed at the level of high politics- and there is no end in sight to the permanent state of deferred crisis which has choked Bosnian re-development since Dayton- nothing will be fixed for Bosnia-Hercegovina and its artists, either.

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