Art Guide East

The art scene in Belgrade counters its international isolation and nightmarish economic situation with unconventional strategies and subversive humor. By Herwig G. Höller

Monuments of the past glory of Yugoslavia are to be found all over Belgrade, but the regime of the ’90s, and its opponents, have also left clear traces on the cityscape. Grass is now growing on the ruins of the military building bombed by NATO in 1999 – real estate deals for a comprehensive restoration, though already announced, are still waiting to be concluded. If the dissolution of the Milošević regime was associated with great hope, the euphoria around that historical day of October 5th, 2000, the day of the bloodless transfer of power, has long since evaporated. In 2003 the charismatic Prime Minister, Zoran Djindjić, was shot. The political establishment continues to work on the »Kosovo Complex«, which climaxed in 2008 with the province’s declaration of independence.

The inconstant general political climate of recent years has not let the art business rest either, which is manifested in part by foreign policies like the EU’s rigid immigration laws. For Serb artists, traveling is still associated with heavy restrictions; the word »isolation « has become a term that sums up the emotional condition of an entire generation of artists.

The ambivalent political sensitivities have spread in particular to state institutions, such as the Belgrade Muzej Savremene Umetnosti (Museum of Contemporary Art or MSU), which received a breath of artistic relevance in 2001 from a new team headed by director Branislava Andjelković. Until now they have shown such important exhibitions as On Normality. Art in Serbia 1989–2001 or more recently a presentation of Kontakt – The Art Collection of Erste Bank Group, which concentrated on the conceptual tendencies and important artistic currents of the ’60s and ’70s in Central and South-Eastern Europe.

Creative circles now have a better relationship with Serb cultural politicians than they have had in the past. The well-known Belgrade art theoretician and curator Branislav Dimitrijević now functions as a top civil servant in the Ministry of Culture, where he is working on developing urgently needed international contacts.

The crystal-shaped MSU building from the ’60s is currently closed, however, partly due to a bomb that struck the neighbourhood in 1999. It is currently being renovated, but the state budget is tight and a reopening is not to be expected before 2010 or even 2011. In the meantime, MSU activities and exhibitions are taking place in the »Salon« of the museum in the inner city of Belgrade. The big museum is closed, but meanwhile a small »museum« has opened. Not far from the central bus station of Zeleni Venac Boris Šribar, Maja Radanović and Milica Ružičić sit in their communal workshop, which with pleasant optimism they have dubbed »Muzej«. The artists, who have stirred up the Belgrade art scene in the past two years with projects loosely labeled Dez Org (Disorganisation), give exhibitions in their workshop and hold parties that help fund the »museum activities«. There is no website; information flows through an increasing number of Facebook friends. Šribar, Radanović and Ružičić drink tea and talk about some of the abstruse aspects of artistic life in Belgrade. For example, the significance of the concept »platform« – this word simply has to be used in applications for subsidies because it drastically increases the likelihood of getting public support (albeit modest).

And then there is the matter of a smoldering generational conflict. Curators, who were already active when Yugoslavia still existed, accuse the younger Post-Milošević generation of laziness. Today they have many more opportunities to exhibit and produce art but, as the accusation runs, they only complain about a lack of money. This is hard to believe when one sees projects, such as the Muzej, providing evidence that delicate institutional plants are sending out new shoots in Belgrade.

»We have an incredible range of ideas and we think our opportunity is to involve people who previously had no interest in art in our actions« the »museum directors« proclaim self-confidently. While the charm of Muzej is in its informal nature, another new foundation of recent years has developed differently. The Kontekst Gallery, founded by curators Vida Knežević and Ivana Marjanović in 2006 in the centrally located Kapetan Mišin Street, has successfully committed itself to international cooperation and engaged political art. In 2008 Kontekst became a victim of the »Kosovo Complex«. When the gallery wanted to show contemporary art from Kosovo it was attacked by Serb nationalists. The police could »not guarantee the safety of visitors and curators at the exhibition«. It had to be closed. 

In the same street and just a few buildings further along there is one of the rare new artworks in the public space of Belgrade. What looks like an official street sign names an intersection the Salvador Dali Corner. »We simply wanted to beautify the neighbourhood«, said Pavle Ćosić from the group with neo-situationist tendencies Ilegalni poslastičari (Illegal Confectioners). The group achieved international attention with a hoax press release from the Serb TV and radio station B92, asserting that the American embassy in Belgrade had demanded that an senior citizen’s cafeteria called »Osama« (in Serbian »lonely« or »isolated«) must change its name for political reasons. B92, the heroic underground medium of the war in the ’90s, now full commercialised and a kind of Serb RTL, is one of the Confectioner’s favourite enemies.

In present-day in Belgrade any market for contemporary art exists only in a rudimentary form and better-known Belgrade artists, such as the painter Biljana Djurdjević, sell mainly abroad. Uroš Djurić, a popular artist in Serbia, not least because of his affinity for pop culture and football, has hired himself out as a permanent guest on a quiz show in commercial television, while others live patchwork lives and work on the side in »art-related« jobs such as advertising. 

Even in the difficult ’90s, says Jelena Krivokapić, curator of the Prodajna galerija (Sales Gallery) and who has been selling art since 1963, there were more active art collectors than there are today. The absence of an art market also has something to do with attitudes. For that reason, according to Krivokapić, it is important to promote new role models. Collectors should not just accumulate art but should, at the same time, work as art dealers, curators and critics.