Monday, 7 November 2011

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.

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