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.

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