Iara Boubnova, Luchezar Boyadjiev

Just what is it that makes today’s Balkans so different, so appealing?

Just what is it that makes today’s Balkans so different, so appealing?
title: Just what is it that makes today’s Balkans so different, so appealing?
year: 2005
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Iara BoubnovaLuchezar Boyadjiev
source: Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference, 2005, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

Well, is there anything that doesn’t...?!? Just kidding...

– Why Balkan?
– Why not...?

After so many shows* it is still unclear why... Might have been a coincidence; might have been a combination of various factors playing up to each other. In any event, between the spring of 2002 and the late fall of 2003 there was a slow build-up of suspense around the artistic Balkans, as well as, to no less extent, around the cities where the shows were taking place. There were hardly any surprises due to the fact that an exhibition, especially one the size of a biennial (let alone three of them within 18 months) takes a long time to prepare and one gets accustomed to the fact of its coming along. In some cases the processes of preparation overlapped, e.g. around April and May 2003. In many cases the participating artists, works and local partners were identical. It is also true that each show was quite different from the others just as were the approaches, methods, agendas and personalities of the lead curators. Still, the questions remain: why now; why these venues; why these particular curators; why us?

(* Fall of 2002: “In Search of Balkania”, Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria with curators Peter Weibel, Roger Conover, Eda Cufer; Spring of 2003: “Blood & Honey/Future’s in the Balkans”, The Essl Collection, Klosterneuburg/Vienna, Austria with curator Harald Szeemann; Fall of 2003: “In the Gorges of the Balkans”, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, Kassel, Germany with curator René Block)

Let’s try some guesswork, shall we? So, what is it that drives three top curators/personalities from nearly the same generational span, at the top of the profession and the art world hierarchies, with incredible track records, reputations and contributions, with a very active agenda of projects on their hands, etc. to all of a sudden (or was it?) develop not only a private interest for the contemporary art context of the Balkans and its numerous artists – established or upcoming, younger or older (with many of whom these curators had already worked on a variety of occasions), but a publicly pronounced liking, or even obsession with one and the same context in its entirety, complexity, vitality? Look into the little clues, the subtitles, and the personal backgrounds: for Peter Weibel and his team it is “a search”; for Harald Szeemann “Future’s in the Balkans”; for René Block “In the Gorges of the Balkans” tolls the bell of childhood, his fascination with Karl May and the quest for unknown lands, full of adventure and passion, that he nonetheless never visited. (Karl May, that is...)

The guesswork could go on with bits of insiders’ knowledge: Weibel was “triggered” by his team, namely Roger Conover who as early as January 1999 already was out on a “treasure hunt” for manuscripts around the Balkans in his capacity as an editor and “manuscript purchaser” for the MIT Press in Cambridge, Massachusetts aided (or even coached into the complexities of the region) then and later on by a local, Eda Cufer, from Ljubljana. In this case there was a slow build-up of intention, plan and action. It might be useful to keep in mind that Austria, and Graz in particular, the venue of “In Search of Balkania”, is a lot closer to the Balkans than many other regions in Europe.

Szeemann was “warmed up to the idea” during a strange, for his milieu, new media workshop in the city of Labin in Croatia. Melentie Pandilovski, a new media curator from Skopje, is proven to have been seriously involved. It must have happened around 2000, judging from the e-mail messages artists started to receive urging them to send visual materials to the famous curator who had just been “hooked up”... Reasonable artists did not do as urged for it was obviously meaningless to apply pressure, not least since the guy was at the deepest end between two back-to-back Venice stints. Then there was the notorious case of the appropriated/adjusted title of the show, and so on. Obviously in late 2002 or early 2003 the Essl Collection near Vienna had stepped in to provide the venue and we were all set to go...

It was more complicated with René Block who started out earlier than anybody else. In 1995, he curated the Istanbul Biennial and stayed quite a while in the city. Later on, in the fall of 2001, he started asking questions about the Balkans with a focus on history, childhood stories, inter-relations, etc, first informally, then systematically, to finally, by late 2001, advising his professional contacts in the region about his serious intentions. Still, when in the spring of 2003 he had already specified not only the venue but also the opening date, the other Balkan shows were already public knowledge and a subject of the art media. That might have been both a curse and a blessing... His exhibition, which was probably the most attentive to the Balkan context as a whole, got the least of publicity and media attention.

It’s now or never...

In one word, it’s not like these curators decided to “go Balkan” all of a sudden. Their professional decisions did not come out of the blue but as a result of building up information, motivation, contacts, etc. On the other hand, it’s not like these were the first shows ever to concentrate on the contemporary art from the Balkan scenes. Nor was it a case of taking on board that many unknown artists or authors. A brief revisiting of the records would have brought up a host of local initiatives starting with the late 1998 and Edi Muka’s “Permanent Instability” show in Tirana, the “Inventing a People” in 1999 and “Becomings” in 2001, with all those taking place in some cities round the region, then came the BAN initiative and so on and so forth. From our perspective, the 1992 Istanbul Biennial is just as worth mentioning, with the catalogue essay on the Bulgarian participation that is probably the first one in the art context focusing on the region’s peculiar state. The same event is associated with tying up some of the early professional contacts between artists and curators belonging to a common pan-Balkan generation.

However, all these events were in no way underpinned by a concept of a common identity or a “marketable” label. There was perhaps a certain convenience of terminology employed in an attempt to facilitate the links among professionals from neighboring art centers. Even though that might have been a tactical rather than an identity-based way to move – in the absence of adequate infrastructure around the region it seemed logical to take matters into your own hands and start doing something rather then wait.

It can be claimed that the three big shows of 2002/2003 did not happen in a vacuum but in the wake of a period of at least 4-5 years of local activities far too plentiful to be listed here. It’s also true that most, if not all of these, did not attract as much art world attention as they should have done. There are just as well specific examples of a host of artists coming from Balkan cities that since the middle of the 1990’s have been attracting attention and are already enjoying international careers. Significantly enough, they did not necessarily need to be “labeled” as Balkan artists, either earlier on, or now. The same goes for a number of internationally active curators from the region.

Yet, harking back to 2002/2003, why were the waters running so thick back then giving rise to speculations of a new curatorial trend in the international art world? To say the least, we do not think there was ever a trend. Might have been an impulse of sorts. It has run out – nowadays even as much as mentioning the phrase, “contemporary art from the Balkans” in an international art world context is enough to raise eyebrows... None of this provides a credible answer because, personal or not, long cherished or “on the spur of the moment” any curatorial decision to put together a show of this or that kind of art or artist is as ever dependent on institutional support, extensive funding, on audience expectations as well as on many other factors lying outside any curatorial whimsy. And this is where the larger picture wades in.

The local Balkan contemporary art initiatives after 1998 were triggered by the urgent need to counter an-ever-so-inadequate infrastructure and a chronically unstable political reality. The “powder-keg of Europe” was again in turmoil (although the wars in ex-Yugoslavia were just wars in ex-Yugoslavia rather than all-inclusive Balkan wars, their reverberations were strongly felt by the artistic communities throughout the region). But it seemed the more ridden with problems the real-life situation became, the more vigorous the contacts and common activities grew. By the end of the 1990’s, the art scenes across the Balkans were brimming with fresh energy and strength that was mostly the result of taking matters into their own hands. Indeed, this would have been a lot harder had it not been for the support of a string of cross-border foundations based in the region. Still, the initiatives and growth were budding from within and that was based on urgent reality and life rather than on ancient mythologies or “Balkan blues”... Respectful to the dominant cliché, Europe was looking upon the Balkans as upon a child – the stigma of hate and horror, conflict and brutal action could not be refuted but it was only a part of a larger picture and certainly had nothing to do with artistic life on the spot. On the contrary, the art scenes were pregnant with potential and suppressed energies. The hardships of the times and the frequent lack of even the bare necessities of life were exacerbated by absent infrastructure. At the same time none of the Western art scene features were present. As Mladen Stilinovic wrote in his ironic essay “The Praise of Laziness” (1993): “Their (of the Western artists) involvement with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, gallery system, museum system, competition system (who is first), their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away from laziness, from art. Just as money is paper, so is a gallery a room... Artists from the East were lazy and poor because the entire system of insignificant factors did not exist”.*

(* Stilinovic, Mladen. “The Praise of Laziness”. In: Moscow Art Magazine, # 22, www.guelman.ru/xz/english/XX22/X2207.htm)

Although in retrospect this may sound like a bit of an overstatement, there was a time when the art scenes of the Balkans (and not only those of ex-Yugoslavia) were bonded by community awareness, friendships and collaborations, mutual respect and support, and above all, a lack of most of the traditional for the art world animosities and rivalries.

It is tempting to speculate that this aspect made an impression on at least one of the curators mentioned above. It suffices to recollect the artists’ table after the opening of “In the Gorges of the Balkans” in Kassel in late August 2003 to appreciate the easy going, friendly, mischievous and tantalizingly creative atmosphere, which in a way is reminiscent of the Fluxus times...

The still life is no longer “still” – pass over the blood and honey, but pass over the liver and bees first...

The already mentioned text by Mladen Stilinovic is a good reminder of yet another aspect. The art scenes of the Balkans after 2000 were both pristine and corrupt, sufficiently aware of the overarching situation in the international art world and the world at large. All the traumatic and post-traumatic experiences notwithstanding, it might be somewhat cynically argued that what Perestroika did in drawing attention to the Moscow art scene in the late 1980ies was done, for the Balkan art scenes, by the close of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia. It would appear that, within the artistic context, it was the transition from war to peace rather than the personal motivation of curators that caused a significant shift in the perception of the Balkans. The region became fascinating all-around, apart from and independently of the artistic interest and action. This might have been the decisive factor enabling the talks with potential sponsors and audiences in view of bringing about large-scale contemporary Balkan art events. Indeed, such talks require a spearheading force, seductive catch phrases and labels designed to sell the project. And thereupon just as naturally come along the indispensable clichés, stigmatizations, etc. As it happens, the notion of the “Balkans” with its formidable connotations kit becomes twisted to an identification label almost by default.

However, the important aspect is that although it’s hard to argue against the “blood and honey” still life metaphor, we would much rather concentrate on that, which comes before the corporeal associations – the “liver” and the “bees” as producers and actors in a dynamic social and artistic environment. An example of such an approach is offered by Kendel Geers in his, “The Work Of Art In The State Of Exile” (in: Milica Tomic, National Pavilion, La Biennale di Venezia, Venice 2003) where the focus is on art of the life’s context. Geers proposes the term “realism of lived experience” that fits in perfectly with a lot of recent art production from Serbia, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc. But this notion can just as well provide a basis for further speculation on the subject of what is it that makes the recent art from the Balkans “so different, so appealing”, away and outside of the trauma both recent and historically sustained.

Maybe it is the freedom from restrictions? In an international art context, artists from the Balkans are somewhat informally viewed as “Sunday Painters”, as proponents of naïve forms of art, etc. That must be because in their works reality seems to be treated in an almost “unfiltered” manner, away from reflection and carried on the fresh breeze of undisguised bluntness. In many cases an attitude sets in that these are artists unspoiled by the Western system of theory and practice, with an “almost European” reality going through their works along paths no longer accessible to their West European colleagues.

True or otherwise, this vantage point remains outside our subject here. Still, it seems that the artists from the region have faith in their own ability to deal with anything in any way they see fit, beyond the restrictions of trade, knowledge, skill, or medium. An artistic fire seems to have been set ablaze, as a type of mentality akin to urban folklore: I can straightaway fix an attitude and cope with what I see; I don’t need to preconceive and speculate over plot and process, medium and structure; I see no use for discernible positions, statements or strategies to be sustained over a period or throughout a career that can make artist and works easy to recognize, classify and incorporate into the system. There is only a passionate, naïve art type of reaction to whatever is perceived...

The problem is that far from everybody involved feels that much Balkan, whatever that means... Once labeled as Balkan by default, we had to cope with it and try to make it clear if it would be possible and how do we go about defining ourselves (or discarding the definitions) as Balkan. The bottom line of the Balkan Reunion Pub(lic) Conference in Sofia (June 2004, part of the second leg of the “In the Gorges of the Balkans” trilogy, titled “In the Cities of the Balkans”) was just that – they already have labeled us Balkan anyway, rightho, no offence, let’s now look to see what’s Balkan about us; is it a matter of the Balkans as Europe or the Balkans versus Europe; will the stigma hold water if we take it for a given and try to dismantle it on its own terms. The outcome seemed to be that nobody really feels like being just Balkan and nothing else. The present day harbors complexities far too many in number and far too diverse in nature for people to feel “simply Balkan”. Yet everybody seemed to agree that there is no other format at hand, not least for the political lobbying factor as well as for an environment, which is instrumentalizing the stigma over and over again.


While this publication was going to print Harald Szeemann died. This marked the end of an era. We would like to express our deepest appreciation for his work, professional contribution and extremely warm personality whose energy will always be an example to follow for all of us! Thank You, Harry!

Institute of Contemporary Art-Sofia


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