Monday, 28 November 2011

Ljubljana Dérive (and anti-capitalism)

Yours truly when last in LJ, over Christmas/New Year 2008-9, in a miserably overheating Stojadin. The engine nearly blew apart owing to a faulty 1-euro thin cardboard gasket.  This picture later appeared on flickr, having been posted by an incredulous Slovenian driver.
So, with all the galleries closed today, I've taken the opportunity to have a good stroll around Ljubljana in the frosty winter sunshine, and to re-acquaint myself with the city. It's been three years since I last was here (see above), and I have missed it in that time, as it really is quite a unique city, and amongst my favourite three anywhere.

Austro-Hungarian post office, Slovenska cesta
Every time I come back here, the place seems to have become slightly more globalised. Smaller shops on the main drags seem to have been priced out in the last couple of years, so the dubious charms of Vero Moda have now been replaced by international brand names. Not that this process hasn't attracted much local dissent; this city is amongst the most heavily graffitied of any I've been to, ranging from the usual anti-capitalist slogans, to truly ornate street art around the Metelkova "autonomous space", which seems to shrink slightly with every new visit. There still seems to be a robust and defiant community there; good to see, as, with the waning of Christiania in Copenhagen, Metelkova must now be one of the better known communal spaces in a European capital city. The authorities have been frustrated many times in the past in an attempt to clear out the residents, and appear to have given up that idea for now.

Top-hatted Octopus, Metelkova
Ljubljana had a remarkable twentieth century. A person born in 1900 would have been variously a royal Austro-Hungarian subject, a subject of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes; a comrade-citizen of Socialist Yugoslavia, a citizen of independent Slovenia; a very few centenerians would have recently ended their days as an EU citizen, in late 2004.  This flip chart of successive short-lived identities also ignores the savage, brutal Italian-German occupation of here in 1941-45. From early 1944 the whole city was cordoned off with barbed wire, so pitifully poor was the hold of the Axis occupiers on a resentful and deeply divided local population. An incredibly complex and hard to navigate micro-civil war was fought here between Slovene Communists, democrats, clerical fascists, and out-and-out Nazis, somewhat cut off from the main thrust of the partisan struggle in Croatia, Serbia and BiH.

More than a tinge of Venice here
Slovenia had a reputation as being the most loyal of the non-Austrian provinces to the house of Habsburg; it joined the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, only because there was little other viable alternative, in the wake of the First World War. At the other end of Hobsbawm's Age of Extremes, Slovenia was the first to unshackle itself from an increasingly moribund Yugoslav federation. The moderate and pluralistically-minded leadership of the League of Slovenian Communists, under Milan Kučan, found themselves increasingly at odds with the centralising, new ethnic nationalism of Slobodan Milošević as 1989 wore on. The Slovenian party formally withdrew from the League of Yugoslav Communists at a stormy and vehement extraordinary congress in late 1990; half a year later, on 25 June 1991, Ljubljana became the newest capital city in Central Europe, after the dismal failure of Milošević's half-hearted attempt to call the Slovenes to heel, by force.

Stari trg (Old Square) in the afternoon sun
In the subsequent twenty years, Ljubljana has undergone a thoroughgoing reconstruction and redevelopment.  Culture has been central to this. For a city of not much more than 250,000 people, there is a remarkably diverse and thriving official, and unofficial culture. This has been the case here since the late 1960s, and the time of the remarkable and oft-mentioned OHO group; "alternative" culture, as a means of critiquing rather than calling for the overthrow of the Socialist government, took several large steps forward in the mid 1980s, with an alternative scene producing the likes of Laibach, the IRWIN grouping and the Neue Slowensiche Kunst phenomenon. From the 1990s, Slovenia has maintained and developed a cultural profile in inverse proportion to its relatively small population and size.

The city today bears strong traces of all its stages of development in the last hundred years. The pearl- like city centre, set around Joze Plecnik's famous three bridges, the Roman Catholic cathedral, and the apartment blocks all bear strong traces of the Habsburg period. Around the River Ljubljanica, with small boutiques, coffee shops and pleasant restaurants, there is an unmistakably Venetian flavour. Around the rather empty Cankarjevo Dom, now a cultural and shopping centre, and office blocks, is the heavy concrete footprint of the Titoist years, given a mournful aspect by the neglected revolutionary monument, constructed in 1975.

Monument to the Revolution, Cankarjevo Dom. 1975
On the surface, Ljubljana still appears to be in robust economic health, with many of the fatal existential doubts plaguing other parts of the EU little evident here. In common with the neighbouring Croats, Slovenia goes to the polls on the 4th December, after Borut Pahor's soft-centrist government fell in a vote of confidence; moderate, technocratic, middle of the road candidates stare out from electoral posters of all different hues. Purely in terms of graffiti, however, there does appear to be an appetite for a different kind of politics here; calls for the death of capitalism, or a renewed collectivism are hardly unusual, but the daubing here does seem driven by much more than the raging hormones of an angry sixteen year old with an aerosol can.
The trouble is, what is that alternative? No one knows. The student and anti-captialist protests across the EU and USA in the last year have been spectacular, but unfocused, rudderless and seemingly lacking any kind of political nous, or viable forward strategy. They have made good copy for the 24 hour news networks, but saturation media coverage is of dubious merit now; the permanently-ravenous permanent-breaking-news focus quickly moves on when the protests stagnate, and the collective memory is now so short, addled by the 'net, that such protests tend to blend quickly into one faded cartoon wallpaper.  
It may well be fair to say that people are jaded, cynical and sick to the back teeth of a professional, media savvy political class that pursues power as a goal in itself, in a post-ideological age. That acknowledged, the same very old, re-heated Trot and Anarchist slogans, shouted through a megaphone, or written in Gill Sans Bold 48-point on the front page of a newspaper that nobody reads, aren't going to persuade anyone of the viability of a radical alternative. If the forms and articulations of adversarial twentieth century democracy are played out, so to are the wannabe-utopian alternatives.
Revolutions and ruptures reflect the character of the age that produces them. Middle class opinion-formers have seen in the current student protests, a strong echo of their own youth in the late 1960s. However, this generation of discontent is utterly atomised and disunited, held together only by a rather vague, impotent "down with this sort of thing" sentiment, a loose farrago of 101 discontents crashing into one another and cancelling one another out, according to the specific local circumstances of the protest. 
The spectacle of unity, the spectacle of discontent, can easily be accommodated in late capitalist society, without so much as a pin prick of damage being caused to its architecture. For every latter-day revolutionary who wants to seize control of the means of production, distribution and exchange, there is a protestor waving a placard because he happens to be worried about his ability to re-pay a mortgage or car loan, in an age of spiking job insecurity. In the internet age, people relate to circumstances around them on an ever-more individualised, consumerist basis, which is a challenge that collectivist and radical strategies have never convincingly confronted. 
How is it possible to act on a basis of collective solidarity, in order to achieve collectively agreed aims, when such widely differing viewpoints have to be accommodated, in order to merit the label "collective" in the first place? A further problem is the discrediting of the label "collective" in post-socialist societies such as Slovenia. Here, there are far fewer Yugo-nostalgics than may be found further south and east; the Yugoslav period is seen, at best, as an interesting historical experiment which failed utterly, the political imperatives of that era never to be re-visited. 
One of the few old Yugoslav-era buildings left, across the road from Metelkova
All of which post-Marxian nurdling leads us, thankfully, back to Metelkova. Such autonomously minded small communities- consisting of only a couple of hundred or so folk at most- may point a way ahead for those who want to effect meaningful change in how their lives and those of their friends- are lived.This must necessarily be done on a very small scale, and incrementally. Over time, communities such as Metelkova have shown that it is possible to live collectively, with little reference to mainstream society. The answer that no one has yet come up with, is how to translate that very small scale, local change into a much wider transformatory movement. Maybe that's why I'm a bit frustrated with the glacially slow progress of the myriad protests around the world this year. Utopianism, a sensitivity to obvious injustice, and a good heart, aren't enough to achieve anything any more. The vague, woolly "it's not fair" sentiment of the protests won't convince a hard bitten political public who worked that out for themselves, over two decades ago.
Never before has a revolutionary moment such as this one lacked, so painfully, a popular political expression and alternative strategy. In an atomised, deeply individualist political culture, maybe immediate local gains, and the gradual transformation of local conditions are the way to start, in an attempt to build, over time, a fundamentally different collective patchwork.

Some of the things I'll be looking at this week...

...when everything re-opens tomorrow (almost all museums are shut on Mondays in Slovenia, other than the odd private gallery)...enjoy!

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Zagreb 2

Broken Relationships corner
So, at last, a relatively normal day, after a week of largely being confined to barracks. This morning I had new winter tyres put on the Fiat (mandatory in Slovenia, Austria and the Czech Republic). With that, and some other admin out of the way, I sloped off into town on the tram and managed to catch two exhibitions, both of which were some way removed from my normal "territory".

The first of these was the permanent display at the brand new Museum of Broken Relationships. The title sounds like a particularly bleak late 80s volume of poetry published by someone like Bloodaxe, but the reality is very much a twenty first century micro-biographical mosaic. The museum, which has shown some of its collection internationally, before opening in Zagreb at the beginning of this year, has already garnered a "most innovative new museum in Europe" award, and the displays are a mixture of the hilarious, the poignant, and the downright sad.

In the era of social networking, "micro-blogging" has become the dominant mode of expression; from status updates on facebook, pithy one-liners on twitter, to photo essays on tumblr, and flickr. People are more and more fascinated by, and more time is sunk into, producing and consuming on-line ephemera. The level of access that total strangers can now have to one's intimate thoughts and ideas is quite disturbing, as is the sheer colossal volume of information generated on a daily basis on these sites. I've always applied a very fine filter to the personal info I put online, but others are much more exhibitionist, with a range of observations from the quality of Morrison's own brand Rich Tea biscuits, to eye watering abuse of reality TV stars, and all points in-between, available for all to see on the internet.

It struck me, walking around this new space today, that this may be the first micro-blogging museum. The collection is made up of the detritus of relationships that have ended, a variety of objects from abandoned teddy bears, through sex toys discarded in an embarrassed hurry, through to the more disturbing broken glass and, er, an axe.  Accompanying each object is an anonymous story, written by the object's donor, as to the siginificance of the exhibit in their failed relationship, and it and the owner's fate in the months and years after the break up. This is the first collection that reflects our current all-consuming obsession with life as a Morse Code message, dots and dashes of hastily obsolete experience.

Amongst the objects currently on show are a cheap plastic frisbee (bought as a thoughtless second anniversary present for a girl in Belgrade- the resulting volcanic rage ensured that there wasn't to be a third); a "we broke up on skype" clock, together with a long account of breaking up via the medium of Estonia's most famous brand-name; a grey dress, bought for an eighth anniversary party that never happened; and, the aforementioned axe. This, it transpires, was bought in Germany and used to hack into small pieces the furniture of a girlfriend who seemed to both enter and leave relationships with little concern for the well-being of the other person involved.

Key Bottle Opener from Ljubljana  
This collection could quickly degenerate into the mawkish and narcissistic if badly curated, but the careful placing of certain objects in the displays mean that those depths are never in danger of being plumbed. A good example is the bottle opener, donated from Slovenia, shown above; at first glance it doesn't appear very interesting. Then one reads the accompanying narrative. The person speaks of a funny partner who was forever producing strange curiosities as small presents, and the donor's puzzlement as to why the relationship never really progressed beyond intimate friendship. The last sentence stops the visitor dead: "I only really realised how much he loved me after he had died of AIDS". Moments like that ensure that this never runs the risk of becoming the museum equivalent of Simon Bates' notorious Our Tune from the 1980s; in the end, it functions more like the late John Peel's Saturday morning Radio 4 programme, Home Truths.

I had gone in here a little sceptically minded (there's a shock readers) but emerged an hour later, completely won over. The museum is a brilliant and compelling cabinet of curiosities, and richly deserves the very generous praise that has flowed its way in the first year, as well as its swiftly rocketing-up-the-Zagreb-tourist-must-see charts-status. Interestingly, the collection remains open to new accessions, so if you have a poignant old object from a time past cluttering up your Hoover cupboard, you might consider sending it on with a brief account of the story behind it. Just be sure to keep shtum about it though, lest you become the talk of the steamie amongst your pals on facebook.

An old friend mentioned this summer that she wasn't on facebook, and spent as little time as humanly possible on the internet, as she enjoyed have a rich life in real time, and was far too busy with various things, to risk having her little spare time eaten away by pointless prospecting for non-existent on-line gold. Even this hard line stance may no longer be enough, if the Museum of Broken Relationships is anything to go by.  Social networking-style behaviour has just planted a big pixellated foot in the real world with this innovative little place.

Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese: Major Renaissance Masters

Round the corner, at the impressive home of the Renaissance-to-Modernist blockbuster show, Galerija Klovicevi Dvori, there is currently a major showing of the work of Venetian masters from Croatian collections (largely from the Dalmatian coastal towns and the islands). This was unfamiliar territory of a different kind. As an art historian, from the age of 19, I have pigeonholed myself as someone largely interested in modern and contemporary art. For reasons I've never really been able to fully understand myself, I just cannot warm to the Renaissance at all. Maybe it's just too remote in terms of time, maybe it's a disinclination for an avowedly non-religious person, to engage with so much religious subject matter, politics and patronage.

Of course, I had to study the Renaissance for the first two years of my undergraduate degree, and developed a love for Giotto, Piero della Francesca, and Mantegna. Other than that, though, I found Renaissance study hard going, and nothing like as compelling as art from the late eighteenth century (and the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768), to the present. I jettisoned the Renaissance as soon as I could, after a final course with the brilliant Jim Lawson in my third year, and have never looked back. Since then, the Renaissance has been a nagging blind spot, something that I feel that I should know a lot more about, but just don't.

This exhibition works chronologically rather than geographically, and focuses entirely on Venetian painting from the early fifteenth century until the middle of the sixteenth. I'm not going to embarrass myself by trying to write a detailed critique, but just thought that I should mention two paintings briefly.

Giovanni Bellini, St. Benedict and St. Augustine, 1490. Stossmayer Old Master Gallery, Zagreb
 The first is by Giovanni Bellini (c. 1430-1516), a painter descended from a very eminent Venetian artists' family, who was also related by marriage to Andrea Mantegna. The image above is a double portrait of Sts. Benedict and Augustine, painted in around 1490. The crystalline forms and jewel like clarity of the spare, restrained colour palette held my attention for almost half an hour, so much so that it wasn't until late on that I began to notice the enormous gilt frame that have held the two saints in place for half a millennia.
Giovanni Batista Moroni, Portrait of a Man, c.1560. Stossmayer Gallery, Zagreb
The second was a rather sombre portrait by Giovanni Moroni, one of the better regarded Italian portraitists of the second half of the sixteenth century. The colouring and lighting seemed very Northern European; there is little clue as to the identity of the 30-something affluent sitter.

Overall, this show was a sumptuous procession of altarpieces, religious narratives, Italiante landscapes and then Mannerist painting. I quite enjoyed it; for someone who knows their way around this territory, it will be an absolute treat. The show was particularly good in describing the links between Venice and Croatia in this period, with a surprisingly large amount of patronage for Venetian painters coming from this country- often from unremarkable villages who would mortgage an entire year's fishing catch and sizeable percentage of agricultural output just to have one of these images in the local cathedral.


Trundling down the hill to the tram home, I stopped in at the Antiquarian bookshop next door to Nokturno. Zagreb is unfamiliar in terms of its weekend habits to UK visitors; the whole city is thronged in the morning, then things begin to wind down noticeably after two o'clock, with many of the locals repairing for a long afternoon in the pub, in the coffee house, or in making an elaborate dinner at home. I was rather lucky to find this place open, as few shops remain open in Zagreb after mid-afternoon on Saturday.

I left several hundred kuna lighter, and with a box of books waiting for me on my return in late-January. Foregoing the charming pleasures of an Edwardian red-jacketed volume entitled The Adventures of Two Englishmen in Montenegro, and a copy of Rebecca West's ubiquitous Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the shop owner came up trumps; an eight volume encyclopaedia on Croatian art, which looks like a pretty comprehensive dictionary; an unfinished two-volume encyclopaedia on Yugoslav art, published in Zagreb, and terminated because the country itself had begun to disintegrate, and a sumptuous catalogue of an exhibition of Croatian church art published by the Vatican. Attempting to cart these several kilotons of verbiage across the city would have reversed alarmingly the progress my back has made in the last 24 hours, so I'll pick them up when I return to Zagreb in late Janaury, on my way to wherever I'm going next. My first task once I've settled will be to find bookshelves of reasonable quality. Two of my long serving bookcases were landfilled, before I left Perth in July, having been pulverised to chipboard atoms by several years of holding up the combined tonnage of my library. I have acquired many, many more books on this trip, all on the subject of Yugoslavia and Yugoslav art, so I'll need to somehow find them an appropriate home urgently. They are currently spilling out of a slowly shredding large dry cleaners bag on the back seat of my car.

Three and a Half Weeks and I'll Be Home

So tomorrow it's a short drive to Ljubljana and the familiar surroundings of Hostel Celica for a fortnight. I have some meetings with Slovene artists and art historians lined up, as well as visits to the recently re-opened Moderna Galerija, and the brand spanking new Museum of Contemporary Art, which is opening tonight, a Rory Delap throw-in away from the front door of the hostel itself. With all this to get through, as well as trips to Maribor, Celje and Lipica, it won't be long before it's time to motor north westwards towards Calais again. Almost unbelievably, my five months on the road will soon be just a memory.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Bad Back, Sarajevo, Zagreb

Apologies for the lack of updates in the last fortnight. I'm afraid that, out of nowhere, my back has really started playing up. I woke up this Saturday with an *excruciating* agony in the right hand side of my back; it took me nearly two and a half hours to crawl out of bed. Today is the first day I have managed to shuffle further than the little bakery next door to the hostel where I have been staying. It would be nice to regale you with tales of having wrenched it during wild partying or some such, but the honest truth is that I have absolutely no idea where it has come from. It's not from a bad posture, as normally I stand as straight as a guardsman. It must have happened during some very weird sleeping maneouvre.

All that seems to be likely to cure it is time, and this steroid gel that the hostel staff very helpfully got for me, which seems to be working, very slowly. I can safely say that it's the most intense pain that I have ever felt in my life: white hot flashes of all-consuming livid agony from shoulder blade to just above my kidneys, when I try and stand. Today has been slightly better- I was able to get the tram into town, and have dinner at my favourite place in Zagreb (the wonderful Nokturno), which has been more than enough adventure for one day- the damn thing was beginning to twang alarmingly again, on the way home. I have to be careful and not overdo it, as I drive to Ljubljana on Saturday. That would simply have been an impossible task in any of the last four days. However, with proper rest, my adapted wartime slogan (The Art Historian Will Always Get Through) should hold true enough.

Hopefully, tomorrow, I'll be fit enough to make it back to the library. It's been a frustrating few days in the hostel, although it has given me the time to review the material that I have gathered so far, plan my journey in between here and Calais on the 20th December (Zagreb-Ljubljana-Brno-Leipzig-Cologne-Antwerp-Calais, in case you're wondering) and give serious thought to how the year 2012 is going to pan out in this small corner of the Yugoslav historical industry. 

Sarajevo Take Two

Josef Beuys at ARS AEVI, Sarajevo
I had an interesting second spell in Sarajevo, and was finally able to get to see two of the spaces that had eluded me in my first visit there. The first of these was the ARS AEVI collection, based at the Skenderija cultural centre / shopping mall. ARS AEVI, an anagram of "Sarajevo" meaning "art of the epoch" in Latin, is an internationally ambitious project, born out of the years of the siege (1992-95); the headquarters of the organisaton are in Sarajevo, although branches of the collection also exist in Ljubljana, Venice, Vienna, Bologna, and Prato. The aim is to build up a representative collection of international contemporary art and to use that collection to intervene wherever it is possible in Sarajevo. At present, the ARS AEVI collection is itinerant, and shown in various locations around the city as time and circumstance permit.

However, a permanent site has been identified for the collection, which is currently scheduled to open in 2014. At the point that the new museum opens, the plan is to re-patriate all the elements of the collection that are currently housed abroad, and unite it for the first time under one new roof. Some of the problems of the Sarajevo art world noted in my previous entry below, may yet see this timetable slip somewhat, but the project seems well advanced, and driven with an impressively ruthless focus by a small, extremely hard working team of curators and administrators.

The collection itself is extensive. I was able to see only a small fragment during my visit, as the space was at that stage closed to the public (it has now re-opened with two exhibitions of different groups of artists in two different sites in Sarajevo). Works by Cindy Sherman, Joseph Beuys and Jusuf Hadžifejzović are amongst those currently on display, and I was able to glance through the collection quickly, before my meeting began.

When ARS AEVI opens, there is the potential for it to help transform Sarajevo's international image. This was unfortunately set back a couple of years by the recent incident of a Muslim fundamentalist taking pot shots at the American embassy in downtown Sarajevo, with an AK47, before the police shot and disarmed him. This has given rise to much ill informed hyper-ventilation in the international press, about Bosnia being the solitary hotbed of Islamic radicalism in Europe. This is patent nonsense; wannabe jihadis are in a vanishingly small minority in the country, and the individual in question was actually from Serbia. The incident was disturbing and frightening, for sure, but more than a sceptically raised eyebrown should be offered at any interpretation suggesting that such action has widespread support in Bosnia; it simply doesn't.

ARS AEVI has the potential to challenge such negative images, as it is calibrated explicitly not as a collection of contemporary art calibrated for Bosnians by Bosnians; rather, it explicitly states that the collection is a collective expression of the international community, ranged in opposition against isolationist, ethnically-based, exclusivist narratives that dominate in Bosnian politics. It seeks to provide an outlet for international creativity in Sarajevo, in a manner not seen since the "Yugoslav Dokumenta" exhibitions in the city in 1987 and 1989: thereby fully connecting Sarajevo once again with other centres of contemporary art both in and beyond the Balkan region.

Problems there may be in the Sarajevo art world at the moment, but, much in the manner of the duplex 10m2 "DEAL WITH IT" show, the team at ARS AEVI see these difficulties as unfortunate factors to be overcome in time, rather than using them as an excuse to do nothing. Sadly, during my second stay in Sarajevo, another serious problem for local culture emerged; duplex 10m2, which for years has put on a challenging and wide-ranging visual programme, will close at the end of this year, as it's major backer, the French government, has decided to withdraw funding from contemporary art in Bosnia-Hercegovina. So, come 2012, ARS AEVI will be soldiering on almost alone.

League of Yugoslav Communists membership card. Part of the popular cultural detritus kept by the Čarlama collection
 I say "almost" advisedly, as another collective of artists are trying to re-invigorate the arts scene in Sarajevo. Jusuf Hadžifejzović, one of the prime movers behind the Yugoslav Dokumenta series at the end of the 80s, now runs a loose federation of empty spaces in Skenderija, under the umbrella title "Galerija Čarlama". Čarlama features the work of many varied contemporary artists from around the world, who have donated pieces to the collection, and the space functions as part art gallery, part meeting space for the contemporary scene in the city.

Piece by Neue Slowenische Kunst at Čarlama
Čarlama has the potential to be a living centre of contemporary art in Sarajevo. Jusuf is the remarkable focal point in the place, holding court with a shifting audience of artists, art historians, curators and casual passers-by. The gallery also functions as a space where work is made as well as exhibited; the sculptor Gordana Andjelic-Galic was busy working on a new piece whilst I was there. Across the passageway, si the Gradska Galerija- the oldest contemporary art space in Sarajevo, with an ever shifting programme of events and exhibitions.

Old adversaries: two relief carvings of Tito and Stalin, dating from c. 1945-48, at Čarlama
An example of the kind of project emerging at the moment were the two relief carvings of Tito and Stalin, found by Jusuf during a visit to Banja Luka. Monumentally heavy, the artist somehow lugged these back to Sarajevo in a heavy duty plastic bag, and intends to make some future work with them. These carvings are rare and from a very specific historical period (probably between the end of World War Two and the beginning of the Informbiro period in summer 1948) so they seem likely to form part of a very striking new installation.

I must admit that it took time for Sarajevo to grow on me, but after my last week there, it has emerged as a genuine possibility for my base in 2012. The arts scene is nascent, and so inclusive; outsiders are welcomed with open arms. The city is shortly planning a bid to become European capital of culture (sometime after 2014) and the ingredients are all there for the visual arts to play a very strong role in these coming developments. The next few years could be an exciting time to be in the city.

Sarajevo or Skopje, then? Lots to think about on the way home.


I pitched up in the Croatian capital last Sunday. Unlike the other cities that I have visited so far on my journey, I already knew Zagreb reasonably well- this is my fifth or sixth time in the city since I first visited in late 2007. Alongside Ljubljana and Berlin, Zagreb is amongst my favourite places anywhere in Europe. There is a lively jazz scene, an art world which chugs along despite some of the obstacles and indifference it has to surmount from officialdom, a fascinating mixture of Habsburg and Yugoslav architecture (the Habsburg style dominates the centre, with the suburbs largely featuring Yugo-era sprawl) and a laid back, generous, warm set of locals, who for some reason instinctively warm to Scots and Irish visitors.

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb
The major difference for this visit, however, is that the new Museum of Contemporary Art has opened, a little bit out of the city centre on Dubrovnik Avenue. The museum itself is not well signposted, and half hearted visitors may be put off by the lack of clear signage and rather vague directions on the official website. However, it is worth persisting with the quest, as, once there, the museum proves to be interesting architecturally, generously spaced inside, and provides a comprehensive overview of modern and contemporary art in Croatia in the last sixty years.

Šelja Kamerić Bosnia Girl 1996

The opening space is dominated by a large scale version of Šelja Kamerić's famous Bosnia Girl, a disturbing self portrait overlaid with some revolting racist graffiti daubed by a Dutch UN "peacekeeper" at Srebrenica, during the Bosnian civil war. This stark portrait quickly focuses the mind on the collection, and is a very effective grabber of the attention. The collection, "themed" in various not-always watertight categories, works through the familiar moments of post-war Yugoslav and Croat art history: EXAT '51, Nove Tendencije, conceptual, performance and installation art, particularly featuring the late Tomas Gotovac, and a very wide ranging look at the work of the influential Slovene reist grouping OHO.

Tomislav Gotovac I Love Zagreb performance, 1971. The street is Ilica, just off the main Ban. Jelačić square
The display stretches over three floors, and there is more than enough work to convincingly fill such a large space. Those already very familiar with the story of Croatian art may chafe at what they might see as a conservative presentation, but I thought it functioned as a very good introduction to the subject. There are also temporary spaces for the exhibition of the work of younger artists; one of these was closed, the other devoted to the recent work of Igor Eškinja, who has his hands full at the moment, with an exhibition in Milan concurrent with his showing here in his home capital city.

Mladen Stilinović, An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist, 1993

Zagreb, with the Mestrović studio, the Gallery of Naive Art, the Moderna Galerija, and the Stossmayer, had been well served anyway during the period when the Contemporary Art space was being built, but this new gallery is a very worthy addition to the city's cultural brand. The challenge now is to get all these disparate spaces working together for the city with a particualr aim in mind- which will require further investment.

So, I have three days left here before heading north west to Slovenia, back permitting. I'll write more about Zagreb in my next entry, from Ljubljana. Right now though, I'm going to get up and walk about, before it seizes profoundly.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The Road Ahead

Bizarre display of department store clocks on Kralja Milana, Belgrade
 It seems astonishing, but I will be actually going home in just over five weeks. I've been on the road for almost four months now, and have still quite a bit to achieve before pointing the Panda in the direction of Blighty.

Sarajevo leaves. Damn my Sambas, I just couldn't get them out of shot.
 As opposed to the unseasonally early winter last time I was here, Sarajevo is now enjoying a golden autumn. In the city centre, big fat russet red leaves lie deep on the pavement, like cornflakes waiting for milk. It was the Muslim festival of Eid yesterday and town was pretty quiet, as many people rose early to go to the mosque, and then spend the day at home with their families. Today is also a public holiday, so, from tomorrow, I will be getting through a few meetings before the end of the week and my departure from here for Zagreb.

Old Yugoslav map of Europe in Museum of Yugoslav History
 Having spent so much time shuttling between Skopje, Belgrade and here in the last two and a bit months, it looks unlikely that I will make it to either Kosovo or Montenegro before I head home. This is no problem, however, as I will make a point of visiting these places early in the new year, and try to arrange my usual round of meetings and libraries before settling down to begin work on the great tome in earnest. I think I will need to spend a few days in Cetinje, where there are many galleries, and a day or so in Podgorica, before heading back south-eastwards through Priština and seeing if all the hype in the tourist magazines is true.

One or two younger Kosovar artists have been picked up recently by Italian curators and gallerists, and there's meant to be a lot going on in the capital at the moment. There's also the slight problem (more than slight, actually) where the Serbian border guards regard a passport stamped with Kosovo stamps as null and void, and don't allow you back into Serbia. I am hoping that this problem will be one of the early ones resolved in the current impasse between Priština and Belgrade. The situation there has been very tense for over a month now and, however impatient the international community may be for it to be resolved, months if not years of patient negotiation will be necessary, if any progress is to be made. For obvious reasons, I can't risk my passport being voided in the eyes of the Serbs, so, much as I want to go, it looks like to will be a bit difficult for now. We'll see. Maybe I can ask the guards not to stamp my passport.

More immediately, I have to get through a lot in Zagreb, not least of which is seeing the new Museum of Contemporary Art; this is a project which has been long in the making, and I have heard mixed reviews of the results. The Museum of Modern art has finally re-opened in Ljubljana, too, after a long closure and re-building; there are many other things to pick up outwith the Slovene capital, as well, particularly the OHO archives, the Černigoj museum in Lipica, and the Museum on Celje, which has been very active in advertising international residencies in recent times. The journey home will take less time than when I was on holiday in July/August; after popping in to Vienna and Brno again, I should make Calais in three or four days, crossing Germany, a bit of Belgium, and France.

Once back home, it'll be a fairly frantic round of visa application, offloading the Fiat and buying a van, getting my stuff out of storage and doing one last final drive across Europe to my new home, wherever that might be (Skopje still looks likely but there are possibilities wherever I've been, so I still have to mull everything over and probably won't decide finally until the New Year. I also have to find a flat and once there, a new (well, old but new) car. In addition to my book, I have two essays to write for publication, and will shortly be deciding on the final line up for the session I am co-chairing on Balkan art for the 2012 Association of Art Historians conference at the Open University. Then, with all that out of the way, book-writing will begin in, plenty to keep this place chuntering on for a while yet. Phew, eh readers?

Oktobarski Salon, Belgrade

Mladen Miljanović Do You Intend to Lie to Me?, 2011

 October is an important month in the Belgrade calendar, as at some point the Oktobarski Salon, an annual display of domestic and international contemporary art, takes place. Together with the annual book fair (which sadly I missed) it's a notable time for culture in the Serbian capital. This year, the main body of art work is located at the Museum of Yugoslav History, with both upstairs exhibition galleries crammed with material; other, smaller showings are scattered around the city in smaller spaces. 

This main show, curated by Gailat Eilat and Alenka Gregorić, is entitled It's Time We Got to Know Each Other. It features the work of thirty artists and art collectives from the UK to Israel, mainly sculpture, video work and installation. The theme of power, both from the vantage point of those who hold, and of those who are subject to the operation of power, is central, as is a discussion of the limitations of politics, and the operation of overt and covert censorship.

This is the same space in which I saw the exhibition of Croatian fashion in September, and although both rooms are huge, they still feel a bit cluttered as there i simply so much to see here. An exhaustive summary would take several blog posts and probably make readers lose the will to live, so I'm going to focus on three particular pieces for my review.

The first of these is a film by the Bosnian artist Mladen Miljanović. His video piece Do You Intend to Lie to Me? features a dramatic raid by Republika Srpska special forces on a café in Banja Luka. Their targeted fugitive is none other than Veso Sovilj, an artist and academic in that city. The viewer sees the special brigade storming the café and rather roughly carting the old man off to headquarters for interrogation. Once there, we witness Sovilj's interrogation, hooked up to a computerised lie detector, by an anonymous detective. He is mainly asked questions about his artistic career, together with some awkward questions about his activities in Yugoslavia and the civil war period. The subject, who was unaware that he had been arrested and was being questioned as part of his former student's film, affects an air of bewildered calm throughout the exercise.

It's a very interesting piece. the work is revealing in focusing intensely on the plight of an ordinary man subject to state force and an interrogation. The interview questions- written by Miljanović- focus almost as the unravelling of his old tutor's biography; his independent streak, commitment to the old Yugoslavia, and arms-length relationship with the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s. There's also a sense of the "readymade" here- in that a well known art tutor is taken from his usual context and examined in a starkly different set of cirucmstances to the ones where he would normally be encountered. the edginess of the filming is due to the fact that Sovilj was unaware that his "arrest" and interview were to be made into a film. Once the camera was turned off, Miljanović apparently entered the room and gave a full explanation of his project- much, according to the catalogue, to Sovilj's delight. This is a clever and engaging piece looking at the militarisation of ordinary life in Bosnia and the arbitrary nature of arrest and detention, and a subtle unpikcing of power dynamics in such a situation.

Jan Fabre, I Let myself Drain, 2007-11
The most unsettling work in the show is the Belgian artist Jan Fabre's I Let Myself Drain / I am a one-man movement. A life sized image of the artist is shown with his nose pressed against a well-known painting from the Serbian National Gallery, Jovan Popović's Portrait of a Man with a Fez, dated 1845. When one first encounters this piece, one has the same discomfiting, disturbing feeling when confronted with Ron Mueck's Tourists in the National gallery of Scotland. The figure is life sized and meticulously accurate, so that one cannot help but respond to it as though it is a living figure. Then the spectator is confronted with the blood; at that moment, after a stomach-dropping churn of horror, one realises the artifice.

Fabre's intervention is threefold. Firstly, he suggests the feelings of inadequacy of the contemporary artist when confronted with great pieces from the past; secondly, the time honored notion of the artist as suffer/martyr/abject figure. Located in the context of Belgrade, however, the work takes on a third meaning; a comment on the impoverished cultural landscape of Serbia, with the seemingly endless closure of the National Gallery and Museum of Contemporary Art. In so doing, Fabre's piece intervenes at the level of cultural politics; the powerlessness of art in a society where official indifference and apathy seems to dog attempts to re-build a cultural world and an awareness of Serbian art in the new century. In such a society, how can an artist meaningfully function when, through no fault of their own, local people have no opportunity to engage with art from the past? The main solution, as Belgrade's contemporary art world seems to illustrate, is to innovate, to re-invigorate ideas of the site-specific, and to use the tactics of radical political activism.

Perhaps the most striking piece came from the young Tel Aviv duo, Yossi Atia and Itamar Rose. Their video piece Darfur from 2008 sees a fake "checkpoint" set up in a city street, and Israeli passers by are invited to participate and react as they would if manning a border checkpoint into Israel.(see the film yourself in the youtube clip above). They are confronted by a series of "African immigrants" and the wide spectrum of their reactions form the subject of the piece. Most resort to aggression and harsh questioning fairly quickly, with only one old man- right at the end of the film- responding in humanitarian terms, and letting the immigrants cross the border unchallenged. The film enters into a much broader discourse about immigration from the developing to the developed world, and the economic and environmental roots of much of migration. It also implicitly questions how immigrant peoples are portrayed in national media and how this shapes and conditions the response of ordinary people when confronted with migrants in real life. One senses that, without the fake "border", many of the ordinary Israelis filmed would have reacted to the tales of woe and hunger with kindness; however, add in the border, the paranoia about national defence, and the exaggerated rhetoric and half-truths surrounding migration, and the reactions become very different.

Imogen Stidworthy, The Work v 2.0 (detail), Mixed media installation, 2011

There are many other interesting pieces here and few failures. there are contributions from the IRWIN group, re-imaging a little-remembered exhibition of there's from 1984, and a striking photo and sound piece from English artist Imogen Stidworthy in the first room, focusing on those army veterans who struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Overall, as an examination of power, authority, truth and lies, and as an exercise in re-building links between international artists from three different continents, this part of the Oktobarski salon is a really thought-provoking, highly engaging success. It is an unashamedly political exhibition which refuses easy clichés and cheap laughs in favour of a series of highly committed social works, which achieve their aim of making the visitor think again about many of the issues raised. The curatorial touch is light, too, with the artists engaging directly with their audience, without heavy handed or prescriptive interventions. It's a long time since I;ve seen such an avowedly political exhibition and as a result it was rather enjoyable.

FK Željezničar 1, FK Sarajevo 0

The calm before the storm. Grbavica stadium before kick-off

Oddly, it's warmer now in Sarajevo than it was in October, when I first came here. The weekend was clear, sunny, and calm, and it is still tolerably warm even when the sun has gone done. Which was useful, as Saturday's derby match between bitter Sarajevo rivals Željezničar and FK Sarajevo, at "Željo"'s home ground, Grbavica, didn't kick off until five in the evening, with daylight a recent memory.

This, after the Partizan-Red Star rivalry in Belgrade, and maybe the Dinamo Zagreb-Hajduk Split game in Croatia, is probably the biggest derby anywhere in the Balkans. "Željo" are the older of the two teams, founded in 1921, and probably have the biggest support of any team in the country. They are a railway workers' team (Željezničar literally means "railway workers") and their blue shirt derives from the colour of a railwayman's uniform. Their opponents, FK Sarajevo, were founded just after world war two and have had a similar amount of success as their old foes in a shorter period of time. They play in maroon, so given my long experience of derby matches between teams in blue and maroon (Montrose v Arbroath), I quickly found myself rooting for Željo. These two sides, together with the "Red Army" of Velez Mostar, are the three biggest and best established clubs in BiH. At kick off, Željo lay second in the league table, just ahead of their city rivals, who lay third with an inferior goal difference.

Thunderflash smoke hangs over the Željo end
There the comparisons with the Angus derby end, though. A good crowd for a Montrose-Arbroath game is 1,500 these days; twelve thousand were packed into this rather bitty little stadium for the match, and generated quite an unbelievable atmosphere. It's meant to be a friendly rivalry this, more Liverpool-Everton than Rangers-Celtic, though apparently in recent times some young nuggets on both sides have been desperately trying to act out Green Street. As a result, the ground was ringed with Robocops in full riot gear, together with barking Alsatians, and with truncheons and pistols on prominent display. It was a show of force, as inside the ground they refused to be provoked by a seemingly endless stream of thunderflashes, echoing with a loud bang, fireworks and bog roll being thrown onto the pitch. On more than one occasion the referee had to stop the game and ask that smouldering fireworks be removed from the pitch, presumably so that the players could actually see through the thick clouds of smoke, that hung over the arena like a dead jellyfish on the surface of the sea. The astonishing noise and display was much more worthy of the 10 mark entrance fee (£4.70) than the actual game itself.

Željo try and mount an attack early in the game
Grbavica is a strange, quite unique ground. Like many former Communist stadia the playing surface is a giant, open bowl; the main stands (visible in the picture above) are small, hole and corner affairs. The lungs of the ground are the singing terraces at either end; Željo's fans gather on an open terrace at the North End of the ground, which was absolutely rammed full, and also take part of the Southern stand, which is the only modern part of the ground; Sarajevo's fans, as the away team, were penned into the opposite corner of this structure. There was also the dramatic jagged outline of the mountain behind the goal to look at, with a minaret, lit up for the coming festival of Eid, prominent.

Crowds are rather different here. In an Angus derby, there is of course lots of singing, but it is spontaneous and largely dependent on the (usually large) quantities of alcohol imbibed before hand. The singing is broken up by absolutely murderous abuse directed at opposition players, and vitriolic character assassinations of the match officials, usually involving unflattering comparisons with traffic wardens, blind men and cuckolds. In this derby, there is very little abuse of opponents, and the singing is much more orchestrated; a gigantic chorus, spurred on by two or three bellowing alpha males, continues unabated throughout the game, regardless of what's actually happening on the pitch. The only time the singing actually stops is when there is an attempt at goal, paradoxically.

Overall, it was a poor spectacle on the park. Derby games of course are notorious for being nervous, error-ridden, scrappy affairs and this was a very good example of the genre. Sarajevo had a couple of early chances, forcing the Željo keeper to save smartly on one occasion, the other being hit wide of the post. The home team seemed consumed with the occasion and struggled to string two passes together for the first fifteen minutes. However, as the game wore on, the roles reversed; Sarajevo began to really struggle, particularly in midfield, whereas Željo found some sort of rhythm. The game's only goal arrived just after the half hour, when a retreating Sarajevo defender, under pressure from an opponent, turned a cross high into the net past his own goalkeeper.

Željo's fans celebrate their team's goal. Good grief. Such displays in the UK would be met with an instant declaration of martial law.
The North terrace immediately erupted in an absolute frenzy. A gigantic roar pummeled the ears. A massive red flare was immediately sparked in the South stand, causing punters to scramble away from the thick, choking white smoke that billowed upwards. To the north, the terrace lit up like the warning lights on a Lada's dashboard. From one end to the other, brilliant yellow and red flares popped up, with the silhouettes of fans dancing and jumping about dementedly in their light, like a dubstep video on a youtube. Smoke rifted across the ground and it wasn't possible to see the goal at the far end for a good few minutes. Sarajevo's fans answered the gloating of their rivals with non stop chanting that lasted until half-time. Some cretin amongst the Sarajevo fans set fire to a Željo scarf, producing another dense cloud of white smoke, and was met with armour-piercing stares from the gathered riot cops.

In the second half, Željo largely dominated, mounting wave after inconclusive wave of attack on the Sarajevo goal. Sarajevo were reduced to the odd hit and run raid on the Željo goal, and utterly lacked penetration; their two forwards looked as menacing as the infamous non-scoring Graeme Sharp-Andy Gray Scotland front line c. 1986. Eventually, Željo were awarded a penalty after one of the maroon centre halfs clumsily entangled with a forward right under the referee's nose, and was red-carded for his pains. However, Sarajevo goalkeeper Adi Adolivić, whose brother Eldin plays in midfield for Željo, made a terrific save low to his right, and the score stayed the same. The Sarajevo fans celebrated their reprieve with a ferocious cannonade of thunderflashes and fireworks, some of which landed alarmingly close to the police contingent.

In the last ten minutes, the game rather petered out. Sarajevo clearly could have played until 6.30 on Sunday and not scored; Željo had done enough. At the final whistle, an enormous roar once again echoed around the ground as the players celebrated with the home fans, and the defeated maroon hordes scuttled for the exits (with a cheery "See you later Bitches" from the Željo fans echoing in their ears). All told, this was a pretty poor game with no real individual standing out from either team, though it wouldn't surprise me if both Adilovićs moved onto bigger things in the next few years. Overall, the standard of the match was maybe the same as something like St. Mirren against Dunfermline in the lower reaches of the SPL. The atmosphere, however, was crackling and I'll remember that long after the details of this scrappy affair have slipped my mind.