Before departure to Belgrade I thought about what I should concentrate on and what questions I could pose to the protagonists of the local art scene whom I had arranged to meet. Given the specific and dramatic recent history and the war related to the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, current political tension, when attempts to reach stability are failing and Serbian society is beginning to wake up and demonstrate, and also with regard to the European immigration crisis, which is here part of everyday reality, I was probably most curious to find out whether these pressures and events impacting Serbia and the neighbouring Balkan regions are reflected in local art production and how they affect the operation of the Belgrade art scene.
Upon arrival I received a brief and clear answer from Lidija Delić who is an artist and one of the founders of the U10 independent art space: “The result is that we do not have enough funds and support from the state and art and culture are the last thing they care about.” After a walk through the city, the centre of which continues to be dominated by monstrous ruins of buildings as unofficial memorials of shelling by NATO units in 1999, visits to several state institutions including the Museum of Yugoslavia and the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art with the current exhibition of Yugoslav art, as well as many private galleries and independent art organisations, and after several hours of debates with artists, curators and gallerists it started to dawn on me that the social and political situation is reflected in the working of the art scene mainly as a quest for an identity of their own and concerns about the insecure future.
Need for revitalisation
The operation of the “young” art scene and the different venues for contemporary art generally relies on the enthusiasm and dedication of the artists and curators as well as financial support by individuals. A model example is the above-mentioned U10 art space established in Belgrade in 2012 by a collective of artists who had nowhere to present their works. The impetus was therefore provided by the absence of a place open to contemporary art by young artists, its presentation, discussion and reflection within a broader context. One of the founders, alongside Lidija Delić, is the artist Marija Sević, whose neon installation Kultura non stop from 2010 standing in front of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAB), which was closed for over ten years due to reconstruction, illustrates the situation at that time.
In the beginning U10 primarily served the needs of its founders but gradually developed into a standard working gallery space and a venue for exhibitions, meetings and discussions with a focus on providing support to the younger emerging generations. To this day U10 has organised hundreds of group and solo exhibitions of contemporary art from Serbia and abroad. During my residence I had an opportunity to visit the opening of an exhibition by students of the local academy and I could feel an air of enthusiasm and joy over the chance to display their works in a sophisticated gallery space with support by an experienced team of curators, which evolved from the original group of artists and today includes an art historian as well. As I got to understand after some time, apart from the inadequately financed culture and the absence of a well-established and stable system of state support, the operation of the local art scene also suffers from an outmoded education system, an absence of curatorial studies and art theory courses and ensuing relative isolation or lack of contacts of the academic environment (the art history course at the Faculty of Arts) with what is happening in the field of contemporary art. Naturally, this goes hand in hand with insufficient reflection upon contemporary art by experts and the general public – as I’ve been told, apart from the Supervizuelna online magazine there are no other media that would consistently follow contemporary art.
According to the Serbian art historian and curator Saša Janjić the beginning of the millennium and the opening of the West to the Serbian art world did not bring anything new or revolutionary, and entry to the international art scene mainly happened through presentations of individual artists and a few exhibitions abroad dedicated to Serbian art.
Around the year 2000, however, there was the emergence of independent art organisations endeavouring to resuscitate what survived from the art scene and to open up to the world. One of them was Remont, an independent organisation which has been continually hailed as one of the pillars of local contemporary art and which, in addition to running a gallery in the city centre, is involved in publication activities and other projects and undertakings in collaboration with Serbian and foreign artists and organisations with the aim of amending what is missing and revitalising the art scene, after all as its name suggests. A meeting with the curator and art historian Miroslav Karić, who together with Saša Janjić and a few other art historians makes up the core of the Remont team, was for me personally one of the most enlightening encounters, mostly thanks to his original view and reflection upon how the situation in the field of art gradually developed from the dramatic second half of the 1990s, which is a very important period for getting a grasp on the present situation and by all indications continues to be underestimated.
The independent scene vs. dead culture cathedrals
The drive to keep contemporary art in Serbia “alive” requires tremendous effort in terms of support which can never be taken for granted (e.g. Remont itself was at some point on the brink of winding up due to zero financial support and was saved by its own campaign and an auction of works donated by artists) as well as communication and establishing contacts with local cultural institutions. Here I will return to Saša Janjić, who describes some institutions which refused to come to terms with the new reality and failed to disengage from the old communist system as old culture cathedrals bogged down in the illusion of their own importance.
It should be added that the text by Janjić is ten years old and some changes for the better are bound to have happened. As an example we can mention Dom omladine focusing on the presentation of contemporary art and beyond where I visited the opening of an exhibition of Kristina Nikolić organised by the Voždovačka gallery, which operates as a travelling gallery without a space of its own. The operation and support to the local art scene is also influenced by the Belgrade Cultural Centre (KCB) residing in a magnificent building from the 1960s in the city centre, accommodating three gallery spaces, a cinema and a bookshop. It was there that I met Katarina Konstandinović, a coordinator of foreign projects and curator of one of the galleries, who is also engaged in other projects outside the institution (she is a member of the What could/should curating do? programme launched last year in Belgrade and offering lectures and courses to beginning curators – which had been missing).
Konstandinović criticised in particular the failure of support on the part of the state and the impossibility of any profound research and more extensive art projects involving multidisciplinary co-operation. In her words the local art scene is divided into several enclosed groups which do not communicate. But there are also events which may interconnect the art scene within itself and with the world – in this respect we have to mention the Belgrade festival of contemporary visual art, October Salon, which started back in the 1960s. It is financed by the city and considered one of the most important visual art events, an opportunity to showcase current Serbian art production and to make contacts with the global world of art.
A unique independent space in Belgrade is undisputedly the Magacin (MKM) cultural centre residing in a former warehouse of a publishing company in the Savamala district near the Danube embankment which has been threatened with eviction several times since its founding in 2007 and which has been constantly facing a lack of understanding on the part of local authorities. I was guided through the centre’s extensive area of 1000 m2, subdivided so as to include, aside from exhibition spaces, a dance hall and a cinema as well as different rooms used for various purposes by many cultural organisations, groups and individuals, by artists and members of the group in charge of running the centre, Jelena Mijić and Luka Knežević-Strika.
The centre’s operation follows an interesting model based on the principle of an “open calendar” where anyone who does not have the opportunities and a place to realise their plans, to create or just practice a performative act, can book one of the spaces inside the centre within the limit of one month via the internet and use the equipment available. When Jelena showed me the calendar, it was almost full (ca. 3 events take place every day). In 2016 the MKM also incorporated the Ostavinska galerija, situated on the same street, a few steps from the centre. In addition to exhibitions, screenings and performances it also features a library specialised on art. The gallery works along the lines of the organisation’s spirit, which means it is accessible to all without restriction and based on interest only.
Jelena says that in summer things get really crazy: “As an example, we had several exhibition openings taking place in one day, each of the exhibitions lasting 15 minutes, and each featuring a different approach.” As the city could not provide the spaces to Magacin officially, it was arranged via an intermediary, in this case the above-mentioned Dom omladine Beograda. It was to have been preceded by reconstruction and renovation which never happened. As a result no contract was signed and MKM’s residence there is still uncertain. Three years ago it was Dom omladine itself making an attempt to oust the MKM in the hope of using the space to commercial and more lucrative purposes. This did not materialise, again thanks to a campaign by the ICSS association (Independent Cultural Scene of Serbia) and support by many other organisations, artists and friends for whom the centre is an important, living and open hub (more).
Re-establishing lost contacts
From the narration of several gallerists that I had an opportunity to meet, I learned about the fresh existence of an art market, which until recently used to work (or rather not work) here in a way when artists would sell their works to various “art lovers” based on an acquaintance or a studio visit and they quite often undervalued them. There was no quality gallery specialising in contemporary art which could support, represent and present them. This deficiency and the potential of Serbian contemporary art recently inspired foreign and local gallerists to open private galleries with the aim of filling a niche in the market, helping young artists, who usually have no chance of engagement after school, or with an ambition to target the global art market and present young Serbian artists at prestigious art fairs throughout the world.
One of these private galleries that also plans to sell in the future, is Hestia Gallery, which apart from the gallery operation proper organises residential programmes. It is specific mainly in its focus on contemporary art of South America, the postcolonial experience and intercontinental art dialogue with the art and experience of East Europe and the Balkan regions. At the time of my visit they held an exhibition of Vangjush Vellahu, an Albanian artist living in Berlin, whom I had met by coincidence in Prague as one of the finalists of the StartPoint Prize. The exhibition and an accompanying publication are the result of many years of art-documentary research in regions with an experience of unrecognised or self-imposed independent states in the post-Soviet, post-Yugoslav and post-colonial regions (Transdniestria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Kosovo), by which it acutely touches on the current events in relation with the recent recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state which Serbia has rejected.
The gallery concentrates on the subject of post-colonialism from two geographically different points of view which is made possible thanks to residential sojourns of South American artists in Belgrade and by establishing contacts with the local art scene. Foreign artists are also in the focus of the new Galerie Novembar, although it exhibits and represents only artists of Balkan origin who emigrated abroad and became established as artists in the field of international contemporary art. In the opinion of the gallerist and curator Maja Kolarić the fact that many young people (not just artists) leave the country in search of better education and job opportunities is a great problem depriving the local art scene. The gallery’s aim is to re-establish contacts with artists who are out of touch with their homeland, such as the artist and activist Selma Selman from Bosnia and Herzegovina working in New York or Marija Avramović from Belgrade living in Paris. This trend of reviving lost contacts is exemplified by one of the planned exhibitions in the newly opened Museum of Contemporary Art being the very first retrospective of the most famous Serbia-born artist, Marina Abramović.
The list of respected local galleries concentrating on contemporary art has to include Laufer Art and Eugster, both founded by Swiss gallerists. I was led to the Eugster gallery which is a short ride away from the centre, unlike the other galleries, by the curator Natalija Paunić. It resides in one of the port warehouses at the Danube, which was turned into a monumental gallery space after a successful conversion of its architecture. As there was no exhibition on during my visit, Natalija showed me the represented artists and their works in the repository and the exhibition projects that took place there during the relatively short period of the gallery’s operation. One of them was an exhibition by the Serbian artist Saša Tkačenko Ruins of Future Utopia exploring nostalgia from the point of view of an artist belonging to the generation of “a dead nation with a special feel for utopia”. The multimedia installation included models of the Museum of the Revolution (planned but never built), which was to have been topped by a burning flame. A view of the ruins coupled with melancholy and nostalgia may invoke a strange feeling of gratification and it occurred to me that this art project is indicative of something like a collective conscience, or something that’s in the air. At least as I was able to sense during the short period of my stay in Belgrade.
What to expect from the MoCAB?
Shortly before my departure I managed to visit the Salon gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAB), which remained in operation throughout the long period of the reconstruction of the museum building. At the time of my visit they were showing an exhibition entitled Conquistador. From Culture and Art by the artist and theorist Mariela Cvetić, who is a professor at the local university. In an interesting way it questioned the geography and history of the Balkans as seen from the West and through the psychoanalytical methods of Sigmund Freud, whereby she leaned on his biographical facts and the attitude he adopted after return from the Balkans and which was stuck in a colonial way of thinking. According to Lidija Delić and Iva Kuzmanović from U10, to whom I came to say good bye, in Salon you could always see excellent exhibitions of established artists, but it was definitely not a place open to the emerging generation of artists.
It seems that the re-opened museum, where a decision concerning the new director was about to be made during my stay, has to face great expectations and after a long period of inactivity this will not be easy. Today it is displaying a permanent exhibition of its collection of Yugoslav art curated by Dejan Sretenović, which is to be re-hung every three to five years. It traces Yugoslav art and its development from 1900 to 1981 and is structured into smaller exhibition units showcasing particular periods and the formative milestones. When I once absent-mindedly referred to the institution as the “Museum of Modern Art” instead of “contemporary”, someone noted that it’s actually correct and corresponds more with reality. Let us hope that the institution residing in a building considered the acme of 1960s museum and gallery architecture, which has a potential to develop into a lively centre of contemporary art, will open itself more to the general public and experts including the local art scene rather than becoming a dead culture cathedral.
Cover image: Marija Sević, Kultura Non-Stop, 2012. Courtesy of the artist
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of Erste Foundation.