Art Guide East

The Alps right in front of you, the salty tang of the Adria in your nose, the Balkans at your back. The small capital of a small country with a big cultural scene. By Antje Mayer

The sun is shining, the alpine peaks are glittering in the sun, the sky hints at the nearby Slovenian Riviera. It is so small, according to a Slovenian joke, that you have to carry your passport in your mouth if you go for a swim. The innumerable open-air coffee houses and bars are full to the last seat and radiate a Mediterranean warmth. I meet the Slovenian Maja Vardjan at the weekly market so that she can show me her Ljubljana. She is an architect, journalist and the manager of her own design gallery, the T5 Project Space. »The nicest thing about my city is that you only need to drive for an hour to get to Trieste for an Italian cappuccino«, she laughs. With just under 280,000 inhabitants, Ljubljana is small, and in the cultural scene everyone knows everyone else. »You have to go away often, for example to Vienna, to see international exhibitions. Here, sadly, no museum can afford them, if only because of high insurance costs. We are really a ›capital village‹.« We go to the Moderna Galerija (Museum of Modern Art), which celebrated its 60th birthday in 2008 but has been being remodelled for quite a while. In addition to Slovenian Modern art it also houses the Arteast 2000+ Collection, an excellent collection of contemporary art from Central and Eastern Europe from the ’50s to today, which has been collected by curator Zdenka Badovinac. The collection, which focuses mainly on conceptual art, has already been shown several times internationally. The museum also has an external branch, the Mala Galerija (Little Gallery), for more innovative exhibition projects and young artists. In the legendary Galerija Škuc we meet the artistic director Alenka Gregorič. At the unusually early age of 26, she took over as director of the gallery in 2003, replacing Gregor Podnar, an important figure in the Ljubljana art world, who had startet to find it too quiet. Now Podnar runs a commercial gallery with Slovenian and Scandinavian artists in Berlin and is active in Ljubljana only sporadically.

The gallery, now partly commercial, is still one of the most important places for contemporary art in the city. It was founded in 1978 as a protest against established art institutions. In the mid ’80s it was the centre of a sub-culture, where many legendary exhibitions (such as Homosexuality and Culture in 1984), performances and happenings took place. Between the death of Tito in 1980 and the 10-day war in 1991 actions critical of the state, punk concerts and also gay and lesbian bars characterised the underground. Important impulses came from the platform NSK – Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art) which was founded by three groups in 1984: Laibach (music), IRWIN (painting and graphic art) and Noordung (theatre). In those exciting times many personalities emerged who are still influential and internationally known, including many women such as the co-founder of NSK, Eda Cufer, now an expert in cultural theory and a dramaturge, the artist and architect Marjetica Potrč, the philosopher Marina Gržinić, who was also artistic director of the Škuc Gallery, and her even better-known philosopher-colleague Slavoj Žižek. The Industrial band Laibach, which created a furor partly because of its use of Nazi aesthetics and was banned by the Yugoslavian government.

We cross the Ljubljanica River over the Triple Bridge, a work by Jože Plečnik, and buy cigarettes at the tobacco kiosk nearby that he also designed. Hardly anyone has had such an influence on the image of the city as he has had with his general urban plan and more than two dozen monuments, squares, public buildings, villas, gardens and religious buildings. His most beautiful building is by many believed to be the Narodna in univerzitetna knjižnica (National and University Library), with its famous reading room. Not far from the library Maja shows me her »favourite Plečnik«: a street lamp with two strangely rolled-down phalli. A »Column of Double Impotence« is what the German architectural theorist Andreas Ruby calls them, one of those many interventions in the city area that are examples of the architect’s idiosyncratic sense of humour. Even today, the young architecture scene is very lively in Ljubljana. »In the ’90s the competitions were still open. As a result, a few small firms could establish themselves in their formative years with major projects.« 

Maja leads us to an old, abandoned tobacco factory called Tobačna Ljubljana, one of the many old industrial sites from the Yugoslavian period, which are now being restructured into offices and loft apartments for the country’s »creative industry«. Fashion designers, new architecture firms, graphic artists and galleries have already moved in. The art scene views commercially oriented project like this with scepticism. After all, people have grown accustomed to anarchic scenarios such as the Metelkova, a barracks occupied by the autonomous art scene since 1993, with state-supported galleries, clubs, studios, social institutions and a youth hostel in a former military prison. It is situated in the inner city, fiercely fought over by real-estate sharks, not far from the main railway station. The city authorities have tried repeatedly to tear the building down or at least to cut off the electricity, until now, without success. 

Maja and I end our walk at the market again, over a Slovenian coffee. »It tastes almost as good as in Trieste«, jokes Maja. When we say goodbye, I ask her whether the Slovenians have any problem with the term »Balkan country«. »No, at worst we make jokes about it. The Slovenian media artist Igor Stromajer once told me the following story: during the Balkan wars people wanted to transfer bears that had been driven out of their habitat to areas in the French Pyrenees. The local people protested: bears from the Balkans, they claimed, were too bad mannered.«

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