We have tried to find the answers in various levels of contemporary art institutions, talking to the representatives of contemporary museums, commercial galleries, artist-run galleries and other alternative art venue representatives. At the same time we have scatched a subjective map of the rapidly changing contemporary art scene of Belgrade and Novi Sad.
A Serbian folktale, The Wonderful Hair [i] is basically talks about, that knowing our own history is one of the greatest values. The main character of the story, the tsar wasn’t disappointed finding a writing about everything that happened from the beginning of the world until today, after splitting the wonderful hairbreadth, what he has bought for lots of gold. The question remains of course, that who wrote the story and what he wants to do with it? The importance of knowing and forming the history is appreciated in the countries of the former Yugoslavia as well. However, this story is based on collective emotions, historical and political myths, instead of rational evaluation of facts. [ii] The written story has an effect on actual political decisions, which through cultural politics, has an impact on the possibilities of contemporary art. The spirit of folktales, or as this phenomenon is called by a Hungarian writer of the Vojvodina region, László Végel – the plebeian cosmopolitanism – can be captured not only in Novi Sad, but in the whole country.
In fairy tales usually the smallest boy takes an ashplant and hits the road to seek his fortune. Earlier on, in the ’90s it was much more difficult to hit the road, back then a possible direction of escape would rather be the independent art scene: this latter form of resistence is called by literature study, active escapism [iii]. The works of artists escaping this way in the ’90s, a decade later became materials for milestone exhibitons. The 10 part exhibition series of the Remont Gallery called The Belgrade Art Scene of the 90ies Project is one of them.
The political events of the ’90s, in a sense made local culture popular. The successful Yugoslavian cult film from 1992, We Are Not Angels, which was praised to the skies by critics, because of its dramaturgy, humor and the ever appearing pop-cultural references, was seen by so many people. It has happened partly because the blockbusters of Hollywood were banned from the Yugoslavian cinemas by the sanctions of the UN. Similarly, the absence of the international art scene in the museums directed attention to the local contemporary art, though this contemporary art was only partly equal to the one, which existed in the country at the ’90s, as the so called alternative art could not be present at the institutions. Even though (as it surprisingly appears in a volume titled From Consideration to Commitment, Art in Critical Confrontation to Society) artist weren’t specifically persecuted, censored or supressed in other ways during the Milošević regime, the outsiders were constantly struggling with financial difficulties, and also with the ignorance of the politically controlled media. Caused by the isolation of the country, connection with the rest of the world for alternative artists was practically impossible.
In the last two decades – after the colossal exhibition organized in Sarajevo in 1989, called Yugoslav Documents – the region has undergone fundamental changes. That exhibition was the last big common art exhibition before the breakup of the country. The wars of the ’90s have cut the ties with previous relations, on the territory of former Yugoslavia step by step new states have erupted, then a slow and laboured cumbersome process of democratization and the European integration has started [iv]. The devastating events of the last decade of the 20th century had affected both directly and indirectly the contemporary art and culture scene, chopping up the common space, environment and blocking the exchange of experiences. Eventhough the consequences of this change can still be traced down, but apart from the still solid maffia relationships, almost only the contemporary artists and the representatives and activists of the cultural scene weren’t neglecting the common past and the interest towards each others work.
The aforementioned, From Consideration to Commitment, Art in Critical Confrontation to Society titled volume, which was produced within the framework of Let’s Talk Critic Arts project, is also a fine example of this. In the 2000s the international contextualization of the regions and of Serbian art has begun. The after war international literature studies wanted to adapt the contemporary Yugoslavian art to the Western European cultural environment, while the created works tipically did not give any reason to apply such an intellectual context. The later appearing, more successful narratives marked differently the assessment of Serbian art. The strategy emphasizing nation- and location-specific elements, outgoing stylistic directions, east-west paralells is overtaking the postcolonial rhetorics and starts from particular problems of certain artists working inside the region. These are social problems, the history of the near past and the collective memory, the personal and the artistic subjectivity. One of the most known example of this is the After the wall: Art and Culture in post-Communist Europe (1999) exhibition and handbook, which had a great impact on the reception of the Hungarian art as well. Especially regarding the Balkan region a similar train of thought is followed by the „In search of Balkania“ (curator: Peter Weibel) in Graz (2002) and by Die Zukunft ist am Balkan (Harald Szeemann) in Vienna (2003). These exhibitions tipically weren’t organising the Post Yugoslav works around the actual borders, but rather around the Balkan concept. The location-specific based narratives mostly were so successful, because finally, after the long isolation, artists living in Serbia were invited again to the international contemporary art institutions. Serbian artists abroad were permanently exhibiting together with artists of the other Post Yugoslav states, solidarity remained, which besides the regionally based international presence was also strenghtened by local art initiatives. The proof of this is the exhibition organized in 2001 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade (Muzej Savremene Umetnosti, Beograd, MSUB) called Conversation or the opening of the October Salon towards an international presence, which started with the exhibition called Continental breakfast and continued in the following years, but also plenty other cooperation based exhibitions of contemporary Novi Sad institutions. These exhibitions have prepared the fundations for the international presence of Serbian art.
A Serbian art historian and critic, Ješa Denegri uses the frase glocal, to circumscribe the events of the contemporary art scene of post 2000s Serbia, which simultaneously conceals the tendecies of universalization and particularization[v]. The isolated contemporary art life of the – still, until the mid 2000s – closed society, in more then ten years has undergone a great transformation. The institutional background, eventhough as a result of a slow process, has also created more favourable terms. Two fundation stones of this are the MSUB in Belgrade and the MSUV in Novi Sad (Muzej Savremene Umetnosti Vojvodine), apart from that, many cultural centres, artist created alternative spaces and more and more commercial galleries dealing with contemporary art could be found in both cities.
At the beginning of February the main square of Novi Sad hosted the Festival Ljubavi, which seemed to be a kind of extension of Valentine’s day. From the morning until the evening the most known lovesongs were played through the speakers, „Everything I do, I do it for you”. You could buy heart shaped food and objects, learn I love you in different languages, and post yourself decorated by wings, as the angel of the festival in the community media. The wings reminded me of Igor Grubić’s series called Sooty Faced Angels, which is showing miners, who have participated in the strike of the Serbian Kolubara mine in 2000, with wings painted on an iron surface behind them. The story of the strike is well known in the country, as before this mine was able to exploit such a quantity of coal, which covered almost the half of the energy consumption of Serbia, so the miners were strong enough to force by their strike the last communist president, Slobodan Milošević to take a political step. The pictures are confronting us with the real Heroes of Labor, who contributed to the overthrow of the regime.
The contemporary museum of Novi Sad, the MSUV hasn’t got its own building, but operates in a building shared with the Historical Museum of Vojvodina, therefore tanks and other military vehicles are parking on the neatly organized ballast next to the museum. The renovated park is a sign that the city is preparing for the European Capital of Culture 2021 series, which will be hosted together with Timisoara. The activity of the foundation Novi Sad 2021, which was created to work on the preparation of this event, eventhough gives work and sustainable participation to lots of artist, is quite divisive. The assignment of the foundations associates wasn’t specifically based on professional funds, but the local artists are more worried about, wether the investments and the materializing art projects will really promote Novi Sads leading position in the contemporary culture of the region on a long term as well. They are also concerned about the program, which could be developed with the help of the associates of local institutions, who have presented serious professional programs, but for the time being it is organized with little reconciliation, almost on completely new grounds, beside a strong political controll.
The MSUV operating in a shared location with the Historical Museum of Vojvodina, in the last few years with a serious professional work, and an extremely strong curatorial concept worked on the introduction of the multicultural diversity of the region, on expressing its current problem, on the enhancement of the international context, including the creation and reservation of the networking relations between the new Balkan states. Novi Sad (Újvidék, Neusatz) was tipically a multicultural town, but at the moment on the territory of the whole former Yugoslavia nation states are being built, and this can be seen in the synthesis of the society as well. If Serbia would have the opportunity to join the EU soon, then Novi Sad could reconnect to a circuit, as it did before, but unfortunately this is very unlikely to happen for the moment. The contemporary institution together with the exhibitions of curator, Sanja Kojic Mladenov and her group are representing – in the eye of the wing, but all the more – the interests of the minorities. The Risk Change project going on since 2016 until 2020 is dealing with the diversity of significance and the collision of the approaches and aspects of the 21st century migration[vi]. The last big exhibition called My Art is My Reality is dealing with the historical isolation of the Roma population in the region, analysing it through shifting positions of power and investigating the enormous losses caused by the dominant perspective.
Actually, the visitor can be surprised by the mere fact that the invited, partly Roma artists are opinionating from their perspective, as the drawback created during decades makes the freedom of opinion and expression available to everyone, invisible for the ones living on the edge of society. One of the exhibiting artists, Emilia Rigova besides cultural and social stereotypes is focusing on the politicization of the body. In the last years she was investigating how did the European cultural area appropriate the Roma body. The Vomite, ergo sum! transforms René Descartes famous phrase according to the stereotypes of mainstream culture of the Roma people. This is me, according to you! – throws it in the visitors face.
Beside the museum, the Cultural Center of Novi Sad (Kulturni Centar Novi Sad) also runs several exhibition spaces, where contemporary artists can show their works as well. Besides bigger institutions we can find the Sok Gallery, which was created by the activist artists of the Šok Zadruga (Shock Cooperative). Since 1993 the activity of the community, which operates in several locations and under different names is continuous. The Sok or Shock Gallery works as a part of an initiative called Art Clinic, which goes off of the utopian idea, that art is able to heal and change the world. The barely two square meters big exhibition space creates a unique relation between artwork and visitor, as of the latter one or maximum two can enter the space. In the last years several dozen young creative artists have introduced their work in this provocative environment.
The Kuda.org is a Novi Sad based new media centre, especially dealing with activism, art and politics. The independent organization since 2001 brings together theoreticians, creative artists, researchers and musicians to think together with a broader audience about the changing frameworks of contemporary art practices. Their project-based programs are realized together with other various organizations and institutions, in a form of workshops, exhibitions and conferences.
The MSUB reopened its doors in 2017, after finishing a weakly financed, ten years lasted complete reconstruction. The reopening wasn’t an obvious celebration, which was expressed by a protest performance of the Incorruptible Saloon (Salon Nepotkupljivih). The artist group gave voice to their discontent about the general state of the Serbian culture funding, the political pressure coming from the parties and the media control (artportals report of the events here).
The political control of the bigger institutions and the ignorance of the technical examinations are strengthening the position of independent contemporary art spaces, out of which the commercial galleries started to spring up in the last few years. Unfortunately there are not enough artist-run or alternative venues, but they do exist and due to the difficult circumstances, they work with an operating model, which reacts quickly to the actual situation, creating exciting events, publishing niche publications.
The lack of venues are obstructing, but not inhibiting the youth from organizing their actions. On the day when I have arrived to Belgrade, a group of students from the University of Arts in Belgrade (Univerzitet Umetnosti u Beograd) – who had organized a campaign to renovate a burned down house in one of the Roma slums of the town – already had a celebration going on in the secret club called Chillton. As one of the organizers, Jelisaveta Rapaic told me, there was a reason to celebrate, as hundreds of works arrived for the one day long fair and this well created event, placed at the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights (Beogradski centar za ljudska prava) has managed to fundraise the cost of the reconstruction in a few hours.
Eugster II Belgrade
One of Belgrades relatively new and popular commercial gallery is located about a half an hour walk from the downtown towards the port, crossing rail tracks and loading davits, passing by warehouses. On shaping the exhibition space itself and the building it hosts, a group called TEN has been working. This group of researchers, architects, designers and writers are tipically cooperating with a wide spectrum of independent cultural productions. The unusual location, as the curator, Natalija Paunic has mentioned it, is attractive for the audiance interested in contemporary art, and at the same time it is more affordable, than a downtown estate. The gallery opened in 2017 and Natalija who has studied architecture in Belgrade, then participated in a curator training in London, joined the team sometimes after its foundation. According to her few years of experience it is a real challenge to establish and run a gallery in the region, but the public who is interested and also would’t mind spending money on contemporary artwork, is slowly growing.
Their activity is mainly based on local collectors, because however there is a certain international interest towards the contemporary art of the former countries of Yugoslavia, although it is not only focused on Serbian authors, and on the other hand it’s not a big enough market on itself. The founder of the gallery, has worked together with famous contemporary artist for years, and based on this experience opened up the, back then, uncertain enterprise. The place basically supports itself as a commercial gallery, but they are also planning such cooperations, which would use the support of international cultural institutes. The Eugster II Belgrade Gallery – which earlier operated in another place, with another swiss owner – during the last few years has inspired similar activities in the neighborhood. There are more upstart and established – that is working with top of the heap artists as well – commercial galleries has been opened since 2015, as for example is the Laufer and the Drina, to only mention two.
This gallery is operated by an independent art association already for more than two decades, in constantly changing political and economical circumstances. It is an achivement in itself. The art scene is referring to it as the punk place, and after entering the office I understand why: books, newspapers everywhere, piles of documents on the tables, and a faint smell of cigarettes. As Miroslav Karic, one of the pillars of the community has put it, the Remont is a committed helper of the contemporary art scene of Belgrade. Hearing about the many examples and seeing all the catalogues, publications – he shows me every minute –, which are all a proof of cooperations, I don’t even doubt it. Since they have started in 1999 they are restlessly working on joining the local powers into the international circuit. Their project called Review: The Belgrade Art Scene of the ’90s in 2001 and 2002, in a format of a ten-part exhibition series, gave the first serious overview on the local art scene of the ’90s.
The contemporary art scene they work in is much more diverse today, so the activity of the Remont has changed accordingly. The gallery has remained and its program is selected from the annually incoming applications by a diversly compound group. They have also published a Contemporary Art in Belgrade map, which marks all the interesting contemporary art locations of the town, and it contains a short description of them as well. The publishing of the map is a niche and shows very well the developments of the last few years in the field of the commercial galleries. Miroslav doesn’t talk to the wind, when he is saying that the dissension doesn’t have any sense, the members of the small local scene are in the same boat.
The most interesting project of the Ostavinska is a 15 minutes long exhibition, modelled on the 15 minutes of fame, which is a certain reply to the chronic lack of art spaces, that are appropriate for a debut of a beginning artist. On the event each applying artist has forty minutes to install, open and hold his/her exhibition, then gives a way to the next artist. The project also questions, whether the actually used formats of contemporary art, the characteristics of introduction are suitable at all.
According to the young organizers the most emphatic parts of art events are the openings, which at the same time are social events as well, and this is when the exhibited work gets the biggest attention. The project keeps this moment of the course of exhibition, but similarly to the TED talks speeds it up. It is an interesting experience for the participating artists to give in 15 minutes the clearest picture of their actual work and to partly translate it to the now popular genre of artlecture or lecture performance.
The Kvaka 22 is an independent art space, which has opened scarcely a year ago. In the building where it works – which has started as a squat, but by now funcions partly legally – beyond the gallery several ateliers, a smaller concert hall and a mini-museum has been created as well. The Kvaka 22, as an alternative venue offers place equally for the emerging and for the already known artists too. Accidentally, I have bumped into Marco Nektan, a performance artist. According to Marco there is a lack of exactly these types of places in Belgrade and in Serbia, therefore the youth doesn’t really have opportunities to gradually reach the more serious institutions. Partly due to this shortage the Kvaka is getting more popular, but according to Petar Aleksic, one of the founders and directors of the place, thanks to the amount of invested work they managed to achieve, that more and more artists find them with exciting initiatives, plus they dare to plan more.
Previously introduced at the Budapest Art Market, lately at the aqb, U10 is a so called artist-run gallery. Since it was founded in 2012, it is running exhibition programs on a solid standard. The independent venue belongs to those few places, where in particular local artists from the mid-generation also can appear with their works and can contact with curators, theoreticians. During my stay, the exhibition called Latent Commons was just on, which has invoked the role of a fungus species living on the ruins of capitalist life. The works showed such ephemerous conjunctions, which are strenghtening our complex worlds common character and where the interactions are generating interdependence and constant rivalry. Martin Rhozo for example has worked with the marks left by leaf-mining insects. The Colombian artist calles upon the visitor to choose and take home a copy of a path from different patterned leaves, originating from different places and to walk the path in his/her own scale.
A Croatian artist, Marko Markovic who has been invited to the Moscow Biennale for Young Art, but his invitation letter ended up by chance in the inbox of a Serbian Marko Markovic, who is also a fine artist. (This name is quite common in the region, as for example John Smith.) According to the Serbian artist the identity change matched well the tematics of the Moscow exhibition, so he has entered into the spirit of the game and confirmed, then participated in the biennale instead of the Croatian Marko Markovic, who was totally unaware of it. In favour of the perfect identity change he has suggested to the curator of the biennale, that he would participate in the exhibition as the embodier of the performance artist, the Serbian Marko Markovic. The curator accepted his idea and has started to work with him as the Serbian M.M., who he really was. The U10 introduces the correspondence between the curator and the artist in the framework of an installation, and on a projector we can follow the talk, where originally both Marko Markovics were invited, but finally only the Serbian has came. The hacking of personality was examined here by the interlocutors from legal, ethical and artistic point of views. For example: did the artist deceive the other, when travelling instead of him to the exhibition? According to the Serbian Marko Markovic, the fact that from an artistic point of view the project raises exciting questions regarding the functioning of the machinery of contemporary art industry, it can legitimize the other aspects as well.
The Supervisuelna is an online, straight from the beginning completely independent site, operating with the active and enthusiastic work of different representatives of the profession, which came into being to ease the inappropriate attention the electronic and printed media gets and to relieve the lack of professional press. Its makers, first of all are friends and only secondly are the editors of this professional press organ. They share the tasks between themselves according to various areas of interests, so that they can more or less give a complete picture of the exciting initiatives of the contemporary scene. One of the editors, Ivan Suletic considers that in 2013, when they started the work, the scene had to be shaken up, stimulated somehow. Since then conditions has changed and the online magazine got to a situation where it has to reconsider its function in the more commercialized art world. At the moment the Supervizuelna is not so active as before, but it is still an exciting database of last year’s happenings.
Steping into the new millenium, Serbian contemporary art finally could free itself from the partial art fundings of the closed society of the ’90s, and from its consequences [vii] . A real independence is perceptible in the last ten years, when diversified art venues appeared, cooperating with various local and international private individuals, companies and organizations, which are already invited to the more important art events, are participating in the processing of socialism and of years of war, and also in the the making of English publications about this period. Thanks to the penetration of commercial galleries the scene has been polarized further and though slowly, but the circle of local art collectors opened to buy contemporary works, started to grow. Young artist are not pampered, there are not too many scholarships and the art academies are also relatively slow in accomodating themselves to the changing frameworks of the new milleniums art education. And the country still carries the heritage of isolation: though the borders are open, but the visa requirements still make travelling more difficult.
Belgrad, as well as Novi Sad with its activity of the MSUV, has a great impact on the international presence of contemporary art of the South Slavic states. A number of cooperations are connecting artists, curators, theoreticians of the successor states of former Yugoslavia. The collection of the MSUB is unique in the region, various selections of it are continuously seen in the spaces of the restored museum. Though rewriting of the culture and history of young national states of the Balkans is still widely happening – and according to many nothing has been finished yet, and even a new war can break out anytime on the borders of Serbia – anyhow it’s good to see, that the cooperation of artists coming from neighboring countries doesn’t brake by the constantly maintained political tensions and conflicts. Whenever I ask the artists going hand in hand at a common table about territorial disputes, lost country chakras, or about the strenghtening nationalism, they all just wave their hands.
[ii] Magdalena Reksc: Post-Yugoslav Collective Memory: Berween National and Transnational Myths
[iii] Active Retreat, p. 387.
[iv] From Consideration to Commitment. Art in Critical Confrontation: Introduction, p. 6.
[v] Ješa Denegri, Symptoms of Serbian Art Scene After Year 2000, p. 10.
[vi] Risk Change 01, MSUV.ORG, 2018, Novi Sad, Serbia, p. 7.
[vii] Stevan Vukovic: Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will, p. 54.
The author wants to thank the help of the following: Jelisaveta Rapaic, Miroslav Karic, Natalija Paunic, Petar Aleksic, Sanja Kojic, Ivan Suletic, Olja Triaška Stefanović és Sanja Andjelkovic.
Translation by Irén Sós.
Photos: Krisztina Erdei. The opening picture is a clip from Emilia Rigovas video.
The article was made in the framework of the East Art Mags program, with the sponsorship of Erste Stiftung.