Postcard from Belgrade

From murals to monuments to a thriving performance scene: a cultural report from the Serbian capital city

BY Timothy P. A. Cooper in Critic's Guides | 25 AUG 16

Seasoned pedestrians will all be able to read the gestures of a fellow streetwalker at 50 yards: whether to begin to drift imperceptibly to the opposing side and together share in the flow of people traffic or to brace for a bony shoulder or the zip blades of a shoulder bag. Not in Belgrade. Whether bearing down on drunken turbo-folksters in the early hours, or tottering bag-laden shoppers in the sweltering July heat, the street decorum is impeccable. Bask in the sheer couth of it. But for a city whose people have such remarkable pavement etiquette the street stalls of Belgrade flog an awful lot of T-shirts bearing the face of Ratko Mladić, the butcher of Srebrenica. In fact, Belgrade is so replete with murals of anti-heroes (see, if you dare, the Radovan Karadžić mural in New Belgrade; I didn’t) one starts googling the names to diagnose whether it’s a citywide ailment, a contested public visual culture of divergent opinion, or if there is just one, unstoppable, evil Muralist on the loose.

A mural depicting Radovan Karadžić in Belgrade, Serbia, 24 March 2016. Courtesy: EPA/Koca Sulejmanovic

Yet it’s in the Savamala district, a creative hub of all-night ruin pubs, Refugee support initiatives and ubiquitous street art, that public culture is most passionately contested. UAE petrodollars have decided to drop anchor in Belgrade’s underused waterfront for a project of condo and skyscraper construction salted with a token opera house. To begin laying the groundwork Savamala needs to be levelled, a part of which was on the night of 24 April when masked men arrived, hogtied witnesses, and bulldozed Hercegovacka Street. The area is an incubator of studios, small galleries, and start-ups – not to mention the beating heart of Belgrade nightlife – and its community and club-land cohorts are understandably incensed. Artists in Belgrade have long had to make up for the absence of state infrastructure with a culture of innovative recycling and co-habitation. It’s nine years since the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, opened in 1965 and one of Europe’s oldest contemporary art museums, closed to the public for reconstruction. The organizers have been unable to raise the remaining €8 million. For the record, the adjacent Belgrade Waterfront project boasts a budget of €3.5bn.

Maquette of the planned Belgrade waterfront development

In the absence of an institution that narrates the rich terrain of Yugoslav contemporary art in Belgrade – think Marina Abramović, OHO Group (1966–71), and Dušan Otašević – the Zepter Museum tells the story of its modernist pre-history.  Following the victory of the Yugoslav Partisans in WWII and the accession of their commander, the benevolent dictator and quasi-saint Josip Broz Tito as leader, the country quickly broke with its allies in Moscow and along with it the Soviet doctrine of ‘socialist realism’ in art. Foreshadowing the break, a freer form of painterly expression that relied on figurative transformation of the depicted object was manifested in the work of Petar Lubarda, whose landmark exhibition in May 1951 at the Art Gallery of the Association of Serbian Artists was a major departure from the confines of Socialist realism. The import of the French movement, Art Informel marked the decisive rejection of the staid toolkit of the Communist bloc and coincided with a high-Modernist turn towards abstraction and radical minimalism. Serbian art of the Yugoslav era was personified by a sense of accommodation; a federation as full of forms and styles managing to accept one another and coexist as it was of ethnicities and faiths.

Public performance by US artist Sylva Dean and me at Kalenic market, Belgrade, 2016. Part of the Galerija 12 Hub year-long performance art education programme initiated by artist Marta Jovanović and curator Milica Pekić

To fill the vacuum of the absent Museum of Contemporary Art, I set off in search of the reportedly vibrant gallery scene, struggling for a few days with institutions more or less invisible before a providential gallerist at REMONT Gallery blessed me with an expansive map of Belgrade’s contemporary galleries, all 48 of them. At REMONT a concise, stripped-down group show of Bulgarian artists, ‘Instead of a Head of a Poet – A Forensic Prophecy’, acted as a sequel to a show held by Kamen Startchev in Plovdiv, Bulgaria titled ‘The Body of Orpheus’. It turns out this kind of curatorial dialogue across and between institutions is a running motif of Belgrade’s outward-facing contemporary scene. At U10 Gallery a group-curated show entitled ‘Dr Kuckucks Labrador’ initially took shape at last year’s LISTE Art Fair in Basel, in which an open call to artists resulted in a friendship book of entrants, of which all were accepted. As with many exhibitions this summer, ‘Dr Kuckucks Labrador’ had a performative element interwoven into side events and documented happenings. Thanks to Marina Abramović, Belgrade is always destined to be associated with performance art, but the reality is more productive than mere surface associations. At Galerija 12 Hub a collaborative year-long performance art education programme initiated by artist Marta Jovanović and curator Milica Pekić allowed young artists to be mentored by current practitioners, academics, and curators, and contribute to a series of workshops that culminated in raw and visceral performances that strove to preserve a sense of urgency from the methodical confines of pedagogy.

‘On The Revolution’s Roads: Memorial Tourism in Yugoslavia’, installation view, Museum of Yugoslav History, 2016. Courtesy: Archive of the Group of Architects, Belgrade

At the Museum of Yugoslav History, a temporary exhibition showcasing a collaborative project of artists and architects across the former Yugoslavia titled ‘On The Revolution’s Roads: Memorial Tourism in Yugoslavia’ looked at the position and function of WWII memorials in the development of tourism as a social and economic system in Yugoslavia. The wider project, ‘Inappropriate Monuments’, uniting researchers from Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo, reflects the lingering traces of a specific Yugoslav style of socialism. This was anchored in two modes of thought: the policy of non-alignment to either of the dominant Cold War powers, and a form of self-sufficiency grounded in Marxist traditions of ‘Praxis’, or active engagement. For lovers of Tito-kitsch the House of Flowers, built as a winter garden for Tito and a study, now houses his mausoleum and is flanked by his collection of Youth Batons he received on Youth Day. Totemic and transformative, the relay batons are batons by name alone; donated by and representative of the guilds, movements, and groups that designed and offered them as gifts, they are testaments to a federal country that seemed to work, at least in baton form. Better still, the adjacent Old Museum houses the gifts given to Tito by countries that were allied with Yugoslavia in the Non-Alignment Movement. The movement, led by India, Indonesia, Yugoslavia, Egypt, and Ghana, held its first official conference in Belgrade in 1961, and gave us the long-distorted label ’Third World’, to denote countries that were allied to neither the Soviet bloc nor NATO.

‘The Storeroom Opens’, 2016, installation view The Museum of Yugoslav History, Belgrade. Courtesy: Archive of the Museum of Yugoslav History, Belgrade

Perhaps because of the distribution and reception of cinema from fellow Non-Aligned nations, the Yugoslav Film Archive is the fifth largest in the world. Like all good film archives it follows in the doctrine of Henri Langlois: preservation through projection. Two films per day; one Yugoslav, one foreign (usually from the US, the UK, France or Italy), offered me the chance to see the masterwork of the Yugoslav Black Wave:  Aleksandar Petrović’s I Even Met Happy Gypsies (1967), a searing critique of patriarchal violence in Croatia in Krsto Papić’s Lisice (1969), Srđan Karanović’s sorrowful Petrijin Venac (1980), an epic, picaresque forerunner to Emir Kusturica’s distinct magical realism, and Stipe Delić’s Battle of Sutjeska (1973), the most famous in the Partisan film genre, and in which Tito got to pick who played him in the staging of his most dramatic exploits. His choice, Richard Burton, had to learn Serbian for the role and was flown, daily, from his penthouse in sunny Dubrovnik to the film shoot in mountainous Bosnia by helicopter. Better still, the English-language films are shown seemingly in preference to discarding them, so degraded and scolded are they by use and age. Projector burns and intermittent spool tears accumulate a degraded surface on the projected image that recalls the vulnerable Savamala district, too decrepit to restore, too precious to discard.

Main image: Comfort, 2016, by PerformanceHUB student Sara Kostic at Kolektiv gallery, Belgrade. Part of the Galerija 12 Hub year-long performance art education programme initiated by artist Marta Jovanović and curator Milica Pekić . Photograph: Katarina Markovic

Timothy P. A. Cooper is a researcher and essayist. He lives in London, UK.