Petia Kabakchieva

The BG “Balkan” Artists – the Artists against “the Balkans”

The BG “Balkan” Artists – the Artists against “the Balkans”
title: The BG “Balkan” Artists – the Artists against “the Balkans”
year: 2005
place: Sofia
publisher: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia
ISBN/ISSN: 0861-1718
language: english
author(s): Petia Kabakchieva
source: Balkan Reunion/Pub(lic) Conference, 2005, Sofia: Institute of Contemporary Art – Sofia, ISBN: 0861-1718

1. The “Real” Balkans – the External and the Internal Glance

After Edward Said’s Orientalism and Maria Todorova’s Imagining the Balkans the problem of internal or external construction of a region became extremely important. The “Balkans” are well-known to have been constituted by an external Western perspective that identifies them as an entity, whose common characteristic is predominantly associated with Balkanization, seen as constant bloody conflicts, violent sub-regionalization, which entails multiplication of nation-states. Once a country, situated on the Balkans, becomes relatively problem-free and peaceful (Greece, for instance), it symbolically withdraws from the Balkans and calmly situates itself in Europe. Radicalized nationalisms: this is the external perspective from which the Balkans are usually thought. “Avoid the trip to the Balkans” – this image proclaims.

Nowadays we are witnessing another sweeping generalization – the Western generalized image is replaced with a homegrown and just as generalized one that highlights the positive, “Southeast European” face of the selfsame Balkans at the everyday level of a specific regionally spread common culture. This is the joyful and hedonistic face of the Balkans – strong handsome men and beautiful girls are singing and dancing, the food is spicy and delicious, the drinks are strong and shooting, the nature is gorgeous and wild. “Enjoy the life on the Balkans” – this image suggests.

But both those constructions oppose the Balkans to the West; the Balkans are presented as a still barbarian place with a specific culture having positive and negative aspects, quite different from the Western civilization. (Norbert Elias has brilliantly shown the construction of the dichotomy “West” and “East” as the opposition between “Civilization” and “Culture”). The Balkan societies are embedded in the nature, they are quite traditional, spontaneous, having nothing in common with the alienated urban life; they are mysterious, hiding secrets and surprises.

Of course, the Balkans are not so exotic and alien to the West as the Orient; they are Orient pretending to be Europe, or better Orient trying to catch up with the West. But in their speedy attempt to get out from nature and reach civilization, the Balkans are overloaded with events, with a short-term, quickly changing direction history. Being still in the Orient, they are overcrowded with people – shouting, laughing, eating, drinking, and killing themselves. So, the Balkans are noisy, exciting, full of energy and events.

After all these words about the Balkans let us have a look upon the images of the Balkans presented in the exhibition In the Gorges of the Balkans.

2. “The “Real” Balkans?” – the Reversed Perspective

When I opened the catalogue presenting the exhibition In the Gorges of the Balkans, the works of the Bulgarian artists surprised me. Their works were totally alien to the abovementioned clichés of the Balkans and Balkanness. Instead of intense overcrowded history, innocent hedonism, furious collective bodies, blood and nature, honey and terror etc. you see loneliness, emptiness, the focus is on a single person or on depersonalized objects like sights of a city, cobble stones. The intense history has disappeared, leaving worn out territories; now the only things that matter are objects, persons, and details. It seems that the Bulgarian artists had lost their Balkan identity. Or at least they are ironical about it, they are trying to reverse the image of the Balkans, to break down the existing clichés: Pessimism No More (Pravdoliub Ivanov); Lamentation for the lost machismo (Kiril Prashkov), The Insolent Art (Nedko Solakov) – why should I bore myself with a Balkan exhibition? In the works of Bulgarian artists the sound and the fury of the Balkans have disappeared giving place to silence and irony.

What does this mean? There could be several explanations. The first one, probably the most wide spread, concerns the romantic notion of the artist as dependent only on his/her imagination and universal values, being irrelevant to any specific local – regional or national – social context. The second one could be focused on the postmodern “mission” of the art – ironical treatment of clichés, playing with different images, mixing contexts, and reversing perspectives. The third explanation problematizes the status of spatial identities – regional, local, and national – in the process of globalization. I prefer to dwell a little longer on the third explanatory option.

3. Is there a local/regional perspective in the process of globalization? Whose culture matters?

The key question of the contemporary world, concerning its future development, is whether globalization processes are reshaping the relationship between national, local, and global towards elimination or, conversely, intensification of cultural differences.

Authors like Mike Featherstone, Jonathan Freedman, and Roland Robertson uphold the thesis that in the contemporary world we are increasingly witnessing ”global institutionalization of the life world and localization of globality” (Robertson 1992). Put in other words, a new glocal reality is appearing, which blows out all old identities such as national and regional ones.

Other authors argue that a new cosmopolitan identity appears but only for some elites who share the same social status – for example, NGO activists or “intellectuals, media intelligentsia” (Freedman 1997). Zygmunt Bauman states that the world is becoming divided into people who are increasingly living in time and for whom location is irrelevant because distances can be crossed instantaneously; and people doomed to be localized because their time is empty, nothing happens (Bauman 1999). In other words, there are two main types of people: global cosmopolitan individuals, who are alike; and people doomed to their specific locality, this means bond to their specific culture. The identities of these two types are diametrically opposite.

There is a third thesis uphold by authors like Samuel Huntington, Geert Hofstede for whom the historically shaped spatially organized cultures (be they religious or national or regional) still dominate over the other identifications, something more – the process of globalization even intensifies these differences.

Looking at the works of the Bulgarian artists it is obvious for me that their identification with the group of the artists is much more stronger then that with their Balkan mates, or with the East Europeans or with the Bulgarians as a whole. I myself, as a sociologist, who has made a lot of research, have great difficulty saying what Balkan identity means, or what are the specific features of a typically Central European guy in comparison to an Eastern European one, or even what does the typical Bulgarian look like. In my opinion there is much more in common among all the Yuppies, or artists, or sociologists, or farmers, no matter from which country they are coming, then between a BG Yuppie, a BG artist and a BG farmer, for instance. What about the cultural/national/regional specificity then?

I shall cite again Zygmunt Bauman: ““if the modern “identity problem” was how to constitute identity and keep it solid and stable, the postmodern “identity problem” is foremost how to avoid fixing it in one place and how to keep possibilities open. In the case of identity – the key word of Modernity was “building”; the key word of Postmodernity is “recycling”” (Bauman, 2001). In my opinion the interesting thing is the overcoming of a specific dominant identity – be it national, regional, even professional; in that constant interplay and mix of different identities: surfacing of old identities that are reinterpreted; imagining of new ones that seem to spin off from the earlier ones. The real challenge and pleasure for both the artists and the spectators is exactly the search for the traces, or signs of those “old” – “new” different identities, and their reinterpretation from the point of view of your own hidden identifications. I, a spectator, felt that challenge and that pleasure, looking at the “Balkan” images of the BG artists (dis)appearing here and there in the urban gorges of “the Balkans”.


Published in Articles
Read 431 times
Last modified on Feb 16, 2024
Vector. ICA-Sofia: Motives, Analyses, Critique is a project by the Institute of Contemporary Art - Sofia.
The project is realised with the financial support of the National Fund Culture, Critique Programme