Representing the Balkans

Traveling this June from Belgrade to Vienna I was looking forward to check out its samples of the Balkans fashion. I was mainly curious about the Blood & Honey show and its representation of the contemporary art in the Balkans (Essl Collection, curated by Harald Szeemann), but the public spaces of Vienna offered just enough of little Balkan details too…

(…Lying in the cozy-blue-bench-beds of Museums Quartier I could sense the heavy smoke coming from two pigs being roasted in its yard for the 10th Anniversary of the Architecture Institute…The pork was accompanied by a tune familiar to me…Hajde Jano kucu da prodamo, da prodamo Jano duso, samo da igramo1…as some medley of Macedonian-Bosnian-Bulgarian music was played… Some Yugoslawischen… international band…the organizers of the party couldn`t remember its name…)

The food, the music & the wars were coming from the Balkans…Art & artists too.

In the last two years, almost everyone I knew from Belgrade art scene or from the ones of neighboring countries had something to do either with Graz or Vienna. It seemed that intensive representation of Balkan art was going on outside of its borders and that Austria played the important role in it. After the exhibition In search for Balkania (Graz, 2002), Blood & Honey was already the second big show of artists from the Balkans in Austria. I was curious…why Austria? Why now? In what ways is it done? When I went to see Blood & Honey show I had these questions on my mind and Todorova`s Imagining The Balkans in my bag. Both THE TITLE of the show and the content of the catalogue resembled the key words of this book…

The title evokes the poles of anger and tenderness, disaster and idyll, of something deeply human and universal. (H. Szeemann)2

Balkanism - discourse of ambiguity -
border - blood - bridge - honey - crossroad - blood -
half-breed hybrid - monopoly on violence - neither west nor east
exotica of europe - museum - ethno - live3

Balkan is a bloody honey, good for Western hangover after a completion party of over-cooked cartographic folklore crime symposium, recommended with yogurt. (Huseyin Bahri Alptekin)4

Browsing through THE CATALOGUE, one could continue imagining the Balkans…

as the living past …
The Kanun says…according to the Kanun…The Kanun talks…The Kanun, the ancient Albanian code…The Kanun, quoted extensively by Harald Szeemann in his text On the exhibition of contemporary art from the Balkans…5

with its shifting borders…
Almost all of Greece is cut off from the Balkans map in the catalogue, but Slovenia and Moldova are there. There is no chapter on Greece in the text called History and Politics in the Balkans, but it mainly tells about the wars in ex YU. There is one Greek artist in the exhibition, but living in New York.6

and dis/missing histories…
Be careful boy! There has never been a happy end for Austria in the Balkans (…), Erhard Busek quotes his mother, mentioning 1914 and assassination of the heir to the throne in his text Austria and the Balkans, but not 1908 and Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina…A little bit further, from the sentence on Habsburg monarchy & Tsarist Russia the author jumps into1989 & former Yugoslavia in the next one…skipping Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and its multiethnic state…7

QUIZ: Which of these two was better in multiculturalism: Habsburg monarchy or Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia?

THE EXHIBITION itself presents the works of 73 artists, which are in different ways related to the Balkans:
" some of them just by the author`s place of birth
" others - by being ironic to the notions of geographic identity, exoticism and the Balkans as a place of tradition and violence
" another - by referring to the social, political and economical context of the Balkan countries or
" by critique that starts from that context and points to the global (local) capitalism, media and advertising, USA star wars, emigrants policies etc.
Apart from the first group of works, all others are of my interest here, since they have to do with representing the Balkans. To these provisionary groups, I give provisionary names: Balkan - Balkanism, Balkan - self-referential, Balkan - imperial…
And ofcourse, there is one more to add: Balkan - the setting of the exhibition, the concept of the curator.

The emblematic work for Balkan - Balkanism is Draculaland by subREAL, Romania. As artists say - the hybridization of Vlad Cepes/Dracula and Mona Lisa…aimed instinctively at simplifying our relationship with culture that found and finds it problematic to relate to the "region" (Central/East/Balkan Europe) otherwise then in terms of exoticism.8 If Disneyland is the common way of representing the "region", then representations become logos that communicate different us and them and hierarchy between the lovable- blood- sucking- creatures and the masterpieces of Louvre. Another work that questions the idea of geographic identity is Emre & Dario, by Aise Erkmen who lives and works in Istanbul and Berlin. In the empty white cube the young guy dances to the song by Dario Moreno, Istanbul C`est Constantinople, which goes in loop. It was real fun watching him dance as I danced myself lots of times in Belgrade clubs to that song performed by some Western (?) ska bands. By that memory I had, by his clothes or movements in the white space, he could be just anywhere…By the mix of Turkish citizenship and the choice of song, it could be a statement on relation to identities imposed to you - dancing to your mirrors, aware of them, confronting them, liking them, indifferent to them…

The play with identities and exoticism is important part of works by some of the artists from Kosovo and Albania too. Balkan identity - the bride and Kanagjeci by Erzen Shkololli (Kosovo), Vajtojca, by Adrian Paci (Albania) and June in Albanian means the month of cherries, by Alban Hajdinaj (Albania) have a similar pattern - nothing is, as it seems to be at the first glance. The Erzen Skhololli`s bride is all dressed up in traditional costume, but she`s crying herself to death on her wedding, the wailer in Vajtojca is mourning in traditional manner, but she is a professional that Adrian Paci paid to perform his death ritual for him. Playing with representations of the Balkans as ethno museum, the artists introduce cynical distance and contradictions to such stereotypes. Apart from these images of tradition, images of violence are exploited too. In June in Albanian means the month of cherries the photograph shows the young man sleeping with a white sheet on his stomach having dark red stamps as if he had been just shot and dead. But instead of violent death, all around him are baroque cherries spreading their juice on everything. It`s nothing tragic but just a joke inspired by the beauty of the fruits and sweetness of the month (…) (Alban Hajdinaj)9.

If these artists play with representational logic of Balkanism, some others refer to their immediate socio-political context within the Balkans. Their works are often immersed in the themes of suffering, loss and violence or point to different social problems that people & artists experience in their countries. I labeled them Balkan - self-referential, but not in the terms of some indigenous Balkanism which would be more true, but as a critical reflection and/or action within one`s surrounding. Most of the works expressing experiences of suffering and violence come from the space of ex Yugoslavia. Milka and When angels are late by Sokol Beqiri from Kosovo, Women at work by Maja Bajevic from Bosnia&Hercegovina and Labin Art Express from Croatia, express and reflect traumatic and tragic experiences of the wars in ex Yu and communicate critical and active stances towards authoritarian regimes of the nineties. Here again, Balkan - self-referential shouldn`t be about reproducing another Balkanist manner where the ex Yu wars are called the Balkan wars and labeled as some war-like Balkan fate, putting the war stamp on the people in other Balkan countries too and offending them in that way. And something more - it intrigues me if and how these works change their critical potential when moving from artist`s home town to Essl Collection for example, if their tragic element and criticism turn more into a stereotype on the ever suffering and violent Balkans…

In that sense, maybe the exhibitions of art from the Balkans should have a WARNING on their entrance: potentially emotionally exhausting! Watching and listening to someone telling personal experiences in family violence, ethnic discrimination, police violence, patricide, attempt of suicide etc - as in Leon by Franc Purg (Slovenia) or watching the repeated killing of the cow with knife - as in Milka by Sokol Beqiri - could have such effects…I don`t mind to cry for art and I liked Leon - this wasn`t about criticizing it…but about noticing the difference between Leon`s testimony and the ones in another work done in the manner of TV testimonials in this exhibition: Smell you. Smell me. by Jenny Marketou, Athens/New York…If in the first one, we listen to Kosovarian Albanian living in Slovenia - how he was harassed from the day he was born (before he killed his father!), in the second one we listen to the subtle and beautiful stories of ten people living in the States talking about smells and scents & what do different smells and scents mean to them…Coincidences!?

But there are other approaches in Balkan - self-referential too: the ones that explore connections between art/ists and their countries. These are:
- Hot soup. Home community by Kalin Serapionov, Bulgaria
- Curses by Zeljko Kipke, Croatia
- East Art map - Irwin, Slovenia and
- Colour project by Edi Rama, Albania.
They point to the position of artists in Eastern/Central/South-Eastern Europe who lack referential system accepted and respected outside the borders of a particular country and any solid support in their activities (Irwin)10. They take a notice of home-made art communities and cursing the institutions…Set up the projects of mapping the fragmented art scenes and taking the city into the hands of artist…Pose questions…Do artists eat and where is the office in your home…What do you do with the touch of evergreen in your art & culture institutions…Do you plan to end all of these problems and become a mayor as Edi Rama did in Tirana…And finally you could do with the look of your city what you always wanted…Turn it into a Color project.

And finally, in Balkan - imperial…it is useful to read the very titles of the works in order to get some idea what is it all about…
- An artist who cannot speak English is NO artist, Mladen Stilinovic, Croatia
- King Kong to America I say, Dalibor Martinis, Croatia
- Coca Collah, Basir Borlakov, Turkey/Russia
- Marlboro Country, Jozsef Bartha, Romania
- Transition, Erzen Shkololli, Kosovo
- Holly war, Damir Niksic, BiH
…and some less obvious...
- Gen XX, Sanja Ivekovic, Croatia
- Nada Dimic File, Sanja Ivekovic, Croatia
- Alla`s secret, Alla Georgieva, Bulgaria
- In Straufraum, Esra Ersen, Turkey
Among these works that could be framed by CNN breaking news and Nike campaign, for example, there are the ones that bring forward democracies in our own countries in transition too. Gen XX and Nada Dimic File by Sanja Ivekovic are such exciting examples of art with political stance. By making a minimal change in the advertisements (Gen XX) - erasing the name of product & company and substituting it by the names of national heroines who died as anti-fascist activists during the WW II in Croatia - the artist communicates different layers of meaning. She points to the politics of the nineties in Croatia where the anti-fascist activists that were proclaimed as heroines in the socialist times are being erased from collective memory in democratic ones. She intercepts seducing strategies of advertising images of femininity by juxtaposing fashion models to plain documentary text on the lives and deaths of young women who had the courage to fight against fascism. Affirming the memory that communists led anti-fascist struggle and women activists too, she criticizes the politics driven by nationalism and sexism in transition to democracies of free markets. Other works that take advertising almost as a symbol of living transitionally are Marlboro country and Alla`a secret. Because of their promises and because of the stark contrast with reality…where Romania is the country with the largest number of per capita smokers in Europe…or women in Bulgaria maybe don`t have a place of their own to perform one of Alla`s ad-slogans…When I want a man to see my bra, I take him home…What home? Erzen Shkololli plays ironically with that very word - transition…He shows his transition in a row of photographs from a Christian to a pioneer and then to a saint with EU stars around his head…relating & equating these as ideological rites…

I related all of these artworks according to the position they take in representing the Balkans. The first ones ridicule or destabilize stereotypes about it. The second ones are critical inside the Balkans and possibly stereotypical outside of it. Third speak critically from the Balkans to the nowadays liberal democracies in the world of USA military imperialism and global capitalism. And what about curator? From which positions he creates the setting for this exhibition? What points such setting suggests? I am not really tactical here: he just reinforces stereotypes about the Balkans. Music is ofcourse there…All the time while watching exhibition, you listen to the music from the Balkans, that is - ethno/folk, like no other music ever existed after the XIX century in the Balkans…Ferdinand`s hearse in which he was assassinated in Sarajevo is among the artworks, reminding of the eternal sin assigned to the Balkans - guilty for the beginning of First World War…And it is one object among the others creating the surrounding for the artworks that place them in the context of violent history, ideology (i.e. communism taken as a paradigm of it) and ethno-tribal-rustic idyll…

As for the history and ideology, there was one whole separate room for it…The red room…where different artworks were taken out of their context and put together just because they had something to do with wars or with communism…There was a whole exhibition of sculptures from communist period, taken from Albania, with the title Homo Socialisticus…There was a painting from 1978, by Agim Zajmi from Albania, done in some style of romanticism…but it was there since it depicted Raising of the flag in Decic in 1911…and some men with guns… Next to that painting, Aleksandar Stankovski from Macedonia was placed with 8 of his paintings…In some different setting for his work, maybe I would understand why is a painting in expressionist style that doesn`t really show consciousness of its visual language exhibited as contemporary art, unless it was for its title Refugees…It seemed that art approach doesn`t really matter in this room, that artists were represented more as commentators of history and politics in the Balkans…The years were mixed as well, as time doesn`t matter too…1911 or 60ies…1975 or nineties…it`s all about red color of blood…

The ethno-tribal-rustic idyll was exhibited in different way. For some reason, Mark Verlan from Moldova had a solo exhibition within this exhibition. He had altogether 20 works there, dispersed throughout the whole space…So, as you are walking along…in every room you find some Mark Verlan…After the fifth one, you feel sick…It`s not that all of it is bad…it`s just that it`s too much of that sweet-kitschy-far away-village-fairy tale-around the fire atmosphere that is all around the exhibition. The irony doesn`t help here…The visual impression of exoticism is prevalent. The grouping of the works that have strong ethno component together - Balkan identity - bride and Kanagjeci (Erzen Shkololli), Vajtojca (Adrian Paci)…- was suggestive of such atmosphere too. What was striking to me was the contrast between the general exotic approach of the curator and the ambivalent approaches of these authors to the Balkan-ethno-vibe. If they were introducing cracks to such stereotypes, the setting of the exhibition suggested pleasure in them. I was thinking how different that pleasure would be if the works that I labeled Balkan - imperial were concentrated like that…When I went out of Essl building, the show continued as there were cevapcici at the artwork/kiosk Paradiso (Sislej Xhafa, Kosovo/USA)…It was nice to eat them as something that is supposed to be exotic in Austria, but is trivial since I have it on every corner of Belgrade…Anyway, they were very good…

As I am writing this, I feel some slight uneasiness about these bad words for this big show on the art from the Balkans. Because, isolation certainly isn`t better. And certainly, it is great that artists from the Balkans now have more opportunities to travel, communicate and exhibit…What is the problem then? Where does all this will for criticism come from? It is for the imposed frameworks where they can perform these actions…If you look at the biographies of some of the artists in this show, you can see the transition of these frameworks. First, they went through Eastern European exhibitions, and now the Balkan ones are on the menu. The Pact for stability sponsored one of the first such exhibitions - Bound/less Borders… First Outdoor Touring Balkan Project…The exhibition was sponsored as some conflict resolution project or political integration of the region through the culture…Bringing Balkan cultural identity…Personally, I`m not really sure if such a thing exists…As far as I can see, people in the countries of the Balkans don`t know much about their neighbors…(That is a shame ofcourse…but maybe they`ll get to know each other now in Vienna…) What exists is a similar position, similar experiences and problems that we encounter. Sometimes only people who have been through some of the living in poor countries problems can understand each other. Understanding based on the similar situation can be a start for working together and Balkan Cultural Identity is a way to raise money for good projects. Unfortunately, for bad ones too…

What is at stake here with such geopolitics of art is the way it frames the voices coming from some region and what are the expectations from them. As Slovene theoretician Renata Salecl, put it in 1994, still in the post-socialist era: If, for example, Western feminists speak about feminism they can discuss such abstract issues as `women in film noir`, `the notion of the phallus in feminist theory`, etc; but someone coming from the Eastern Europe must speak about the situation of women in her country because of the `horrors` going on there. But are not similar backlashes happening to women in the West in regard to their abortion rights, sexual harassment in the workplace and the rise of moral majority ideology?11 Someone coming from the Balkans seems to be having monopoly to speak about the ethnic violence, the taboos of patriarchal society, the social conflicts of transition etc…and the food and music ofcourse. It creates the contradictory situation where the same artwork that is critical within the Balkans easily turns into communicating degrading Balkanist stereotypes outside of it. That is why the exhibition Homo Socialisticus probably doesn`t mean the same to its audiences in Albania and in Austria…This creates the need for double-talk, each for different audiences… Because of that impossible double-talk - be critical within the Balkans but not reinforcing Balkanism outside of it - I`m getting tired of ideology…I would like to have a rest with some artworks coming from the Balkans but not having anything to do with it…the ones that I didn`t mention in this text…As Veaceslav Druta said in the statement for his work, Portraits of my grandparents:
I like those works where different technologies, different colours and different sounds are used. If I can do this in my work I`m happy.12

(…To be continued In the Gorges of the Balkans, Kunsthalle Fridericianum, August 30 - November 23, 2003, Kassel, Germany; exhibition`s curator - Rene Block)

Danica Minic

1 C'mon Jane, let`s sell the house, let`s sell the house, Jane dear, just that we dance…

2 On the exhibition, Harald Szeemann, Blood & Honey Catalogue, Edition Sammlung Essl, p. 26

3 Starting from Edward Said`s analysis of Orientalist discourse, Maria Todorova draws a difference between Orientalism and Balkanism, defining the former as a discourse on imputed opposition and the later as a discourse on imputed ambiguity. Following the history of Balkanist discourse she points to the metaphors that were mostly used in relation to the Balkans: the bridge or crossroad between cultures, races, religions, often with a meaning of hybrid or something half-breed. She argues that while Orientalism deals with differences between types, Balkanism deals with the differences within one type. Taking religion and race as crucial categories of difference in the opposition European/non European, she considers that Balkanist discourse doesn`t construct the Balkans as incomplete Other, but as incomplete Self (of Europe). Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, Oxford University Press, New York, 1997, p. 13 - 44

4 Huseyin Bahri Alptekin, Hotel Balkan: Honey and Yogurt. Unconditional Hospitality, Instant Hostility, Blood & Honey Catalogue, p. 176

5 H. Szeemann, Blood & Honey Catalogue, pp. 26-27

6 Blood & Honey Catalogue: Map of the Balkans, p. 12-13; Cyrill Stieger, History and the politics in the Balkans, p. 60-72; Jenny Marketou, p. 168

7 Erhard Busek, Austria and the Balkans, Blood & Honey Catalogue, pp. 41-46

8 subReal, Draculaland Forever, Blood & Honey Catalogue, p. 274

9 Alban Hajdinaj, Blood & Honey Catalogue, p. 244

10 IRWIN, East Art Map, Blood & Honey Catalogue, p. 272

11 Renata Salecl, The Spoils of Freedom, Routledge, London, 1994, p. 2

12 Veaceslav Druta, Blood & Honey Catalogue, p. 234

Due to the size of this exhibition, it was hard to grasp it other then in terms of selection of selection of it. In the first selection - according to the ways the Balkans were represented in this exhibition - I had to leave out different works that I liked and appreciated, but which had nothing to do with that issue. By further choices of the artworks, I tried to cover the diversity of the approaches to the Balkans. Still, not all of the works relevant for this matter are here…Gott liebt die Serben, by Rasa Todosijevic (Serbia and Montenegro) is one of such missing pieces…It is lacuna of this text…Maybe I was too related to the context of that work to write about it here…Because of that, it seemed to me that a whole separate text could be written about exhibiting that work within this exhibition…since it opens a number of subjects…Serbian nationalism, Western politics of isolation towards Serbia, Austrian past - WW II, nazism, swastika as a sign, communism, conceptual art, politics of symbols, recent retrospective of Rasa Todosijevic in Serbia in new art and political context… too much to fit in 2 -3 sentences that go per one work when there are so many of them…Still, there was another reason for this lack - Rasa Todosijevic is a referential figure now and you can fill out this lacuna yourself by many other texts … And I had some art from neighboring countries to get acquainted with.