A relaxed attitude

Nothing spectacular, but each week there is something happening in Zagreb’s art scene. By Marko Rajković

Culture doesn’t poke you in the eye while you stroll around Zagreb. Visually the city doesn’t inspire. The usual Eastern European transitional craving for Westernized goods, and the aesthetics that accompany that trend, can be seen on every corner. People are obsessed with following global trends; no wonder Croatia was so hard hit by the financial crisis. Fifteen years ago everybody was dreaming about the EU. Today Croatia is sulking because of the fact that, in many ways, under-developed Balkan countries like Romania, and Bulgaria hitched onto the EU before Croatia, which was omitted primarily because of the unsolved legacy of the civil war that followed the political demise of ex-Yugoslavia. This hurts even more when you consider how Croats hysterically claim to have nothing to do with the Balkans. Currently, EU sceptics are becoming more common in every perspective, and yet everybody is taking for granted that in a couple of years Zagreb will become another EU capital. On the surface, art is invisible, both in media and on the street. Only high profile international exhibitions and a handful of artists get any proper media coverage. But in reality, the scene is very much alive.

»For a person whose life evolves around art, Zagreb is a place that can satisfy your needs«, says Jasna Jakšić, a 31 year curator that works for the state run Museum Suvremene Umjetnosti (Museum of Contemporary Art). Nothing spectacular, but each week there is something happening. There are a lot of small galleries, independent galleries, street art, festivals and interesting artists. Contemporary art has a long tradition in Zagreb; conceptual, socially engaged artists like Sanja Iveković, Braco Dimitrijević and Mladen Stilinović got Zagreb natives accustomed to living with contemporary art and learning from it. Sadly, those days are gone with the wind, or, more precisely, with the bombs. The civil war after the demise of Yugoslavia caused a plague of cultural dumbness and insensitivity. This sparked the founding of many NGOs that aimed at fighting this virus and, in the end, gave birth to Clubture, a platform that unites independent cultural initiatives. Today we have a great network of intellectuals and artists working together and making a difference.

Still, the reality in Zagreb is that culture survives as long as it doesn’t stand in the way of commerce or transportation, and finds its way into the headlines only before election time, when politicians somewhat absurdly try to polish their redneck images by backing some initiatives that they then usually discard with a ready made split-second »I’m sorry« apologetic smile. So far in 2009, the new Museum of Contemporary Art has opened, and next the Centre for Independent Culture is going to receive a grant to use abandoned spaces in Zagreb. Even the smelly squatters from the anarchic organization Attack have received the right to use Medika, an abandoned pharmacy factory close to the city centre. Here, it’s good to have elections. The organizing virus also hit contemporary art. Two great examples are the curator collectives WHW(What? How? For Whom) and Kontejner. WHW is a socially engaged collective run by four young women who lit up the scene after a successful debut commemorating 152 years of the Communist Manifesto. They were instantly recognized by the European art community but are not so popular with senior state cultural workers, who felt offended that some »little girls« were criticizing their mistakes. Kontejner, on the other hand, is not so political and focuses on creative projects that connect art with science, technology and the human body. Their contributions to Zagreb’s calendar of events are the Touch me festival, Device_art and the Extravagant bodies festival. The cultural scene is well organized, but the artists?

»The artists work quietly. There’s a very intimate relationship between most artists in Zagreb«, says Davorka Perić, an art journalist and part time curator. »Artists are very supportive of each other; they often collaborate, as individual artists have greater difficulty in receiving state funds, a legacy of the Socialist dislike for the individual. But there is no large programmatic movement. The common thing about most contemporary visual artists is their everyday routine. They usually survive by doing commercial jobs such as camera work, web design, scenography, illustrations, photo shoots, and still they produce a lot of great work.« 

The state funds usually cover costs, but then work is seldom bought as the market for contemporary art resembles a desert with only three or four »oases«. If you’re not loved by the »oasis« curator, you must spend a lot of energy doing the ephemeral jobs that buy food in the end. Or you can do what some Croatian artists do: leave the country. Yet very few leave for good. The great thing about artists in Zagreb is that they are usually very open, they don’t mystify their work and they really do art because they love it. Otherwise they’d be filming commercials for the mobile company billboards that dominate the visual world of everyday Croats. 

There’s something really good about the art scene in Zagreb. It exists as an almost separate entity, as an outcast on the fringes of everyday life, but it has a very faithful following and a relaxed attitude. A great place to experience this is when an exhibition takes place in the atelier complex Zhitnjak on the outskirts of Zagreb. Politics is seldom the topic; usually people discuss projects, have fun and hold fine and impressive theoretical discussions about the quality of the barbecue.

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