CoBA’s Inaugural Exhibition: New Actionism and A Lot of Love

By Alexandra Lazar

Contemporary Balkan Art has launched their London art initiative in the loft-like expanse of The Library in Covent Garden. Vividly fronted by three artists – Roman Djuranovic, Tadija Janicic and Zolt Kovac – and titled ‘Point of View’, the exhibition was an excellent taster for the current happenings of the Balkan art scene.

Roman Djuranović

Roman Djuranovic

Tadija Janičić

Tadija Janicic

Žolt Kovač

Zolt Kovac

More educated and interconnected than ever before, the Balkan art scene is diverse and difficult to generalise; however, some specificities set it apart from the art produced in the West. The resourcefulness harnessed out of need to present a mature and sustained art practice amidst economically unreliable climate results in certain common aims and strategies. Words you will hear the most when encountering the art produced in the Balkans are: criticality, cooperation, diaspora, transformation, informality, and – love.

Owning a lot to its layered past and its ongoing political and economic transformations, the most distinct characteristic of the current Balkan art scene is its reflective criticality. Creativity may be individual and hard to define just like anywhere else, but making and showing of work in the Balkans is a deeply social and socially conscious process, dependent on the fluctuation of society as a whole. Critical models of art making make this process visible. Criticality – especially in more compact and interconnected spheres – is a strategy for production of knowledge, and it is present on the scene in the form of collaborative projects and art works that interrogate the social, cultural and political ideas and environments.

As the closest and the largest regional arts capital, Belgrade is a hub of arts projects and a place where artists from both Serbia and Montenegro (such as ‘Point of View’ artists Roman Djuranovic, Tadija Janicic and Zolt Kovac) produce most of their work. The nature and motivation behind some of the aesthetic and thematic threads that connect the artists and culture producers has certain similarities to the actionists of the 1960s. There is a deep inquiry going on which can sometimes seem almost hostile, but its strong positioning is a response to some pressing questions: How can we continue to create in today’s climate? Are we to agree to precarious working conditions? What are the institutional limits? How do we self-organise and model the local cultural scene?

Participatory public events place these questions in a wider arena. At the end of May in Belgrade, artists came together during an event titled ‘Actopolis: The Art of Action’, organised in collaboration with the Goethe-Institut Belgrade and the curators from the region: Pelin Tan from Ankara, Elpida Karaba and Glykeria Stathopoulou from Athens, Boba Mirjana Stojadinovic from Belgrade, Ștefan Ghenciulescu and Raluca Voinea from Bucharest, geheimagentur from Oberhausen, Danijela Dugandžić from Sarajevo and Ana Dana Beros from Zagreb. City Guerilla project and Urban Incubator coordinator was Zorica Milisavljevic, and participants in Belgrade included Aleksandar Nikolic, Aleksandra Sekulic and Ivica Djordjevic, Anica Vucetic, Irena Ristic, KURS, Mariela Cvetic, Marija Rados and Miroslav Karic (Remont), Marijana Cvetkovic, Nebojsa Milikic and Tadej Kurepa, Nikola Radic Lucati, U10 Art Collective, Vahida Ramujkic and Noa Treister, City Guerilla and Urban Incubator.

‘Actopolis’ was a series of events, performances, debates, presentations and publications that gave artists and art producers the space to publicly showcase projects they are working on and issues that accompany them. For example, ‘Rehearsal’ by artist Irena Ristic was a performative look into self-organised cultural scene in Belgrade; the group KURS produced an issue of Wall Newspaper in cooperation with Iskra Krstic, titled ‘A Carnival Amidst Ruins’, questioning how cultural production, and especially the creative industries backed up by international foundations, can serve the aim of privatisation and gentrification in culture. Curators, such as independent art association Remont’s Miroslav Karic and Marija Rados, presented ‘Case Study: Description of the Position’ in attempt to illuminate unsustainable conditions of cultural models, and to bring them back to social environment. Other events presented artists’ books, Lo-Fi video revival (Aleksandra Sekulic / Ivica Djordjevic), etc.

DSC_0049What may sound like art therapy – providing a safety valve to resist, reveal, expose and vent out the pressing issues on the cultural scene – serves as a platform for solidarity, communication and information, helps to overcome agoraphobia in a country that needs visas to travel to any major art centres, and presents ideas that would perhaps stay dormant in the form of projects, micro-residencies and publications and so on.

Which brings us to the second characteristic of the Serbian art scene: a desire to leave. It’s natural that those that don’t quite fit in want to be accepted elsewhere. Artists that strive towards professionalism need to have an environment that will expand their knowledge and possibilities. Academic achievements dry up if there isn’t a platform to be anything other than critical. Addressing this question was the core topic of the series of exhibitions ‘From Diaspora to Diversities’. An ongoing regional project organised by the independent art association Remont (Belgrade), European Cultural Centre Esperanza (Skoplje), Kunst Ost (Graz) and the Institute for Contemporary Arts (Zagreb), it examines the concept of diaspora in contemporary world. The first exhibition (4-22 April 2016) showed work by artists Mladen Bundalo, Adrijana Gvozdenovic, Aleksandar Jestrovic Jamesdin, Vahida Ramujkic; the second (30 May-17 June 2016) showed work by Nermin Durakovic, Ivana Ivkovic, Hana Miletic i Neli Ruzic. Each of these artists had a different focus on personal diasporic experience, and also considered the overarching themes of migration, emigration, nomadism, adaptation, identification, integration. By using drawing, text, embroidery, video, photography, maps, diagrams, images and objects they attempted to analyse and question both long-term and short-term displacements from one’s place of origin. The artists were careful to examine the changing relationships, experiences and dynamics of this process. This is a very valuable, gentle contribution to the phenomenon of diaspora in contemporary heated contexts.

Both examples given so far include collaborative regional co-operations; that is the case with the third one as well. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade in partnership with the City Art Gallery in Ljubljana co-produced the project ‘Upside Down: Hosting the Critique’. The first exhibition ‘Inside Out – Not So White Cube’ was held in City Art Gallery in Ljubljana from 24 September to 22 November 2015; the second exhibition opens at the Belgrade City Museum on the 24th of June. ‘Upside Down’ (the Belgrade leg of the project) attempts to analyse those art practices that often criticise the museums and institutions, their programmes and working conditions, and to give them space to pursue or examine alternative cross-institutional or trans-institutional models. What does this mean? In practice, that art institutions must team up in order to present some more elaborate, costly projects, and that as always they look up to the artists to show them the best way to collaborate. An integral part of the exhibition about to open in Belgrade consists of the three Study Rooms that ask What Happened to the Museum of Contemporary Art?, look into Artists Run Institutions and Initiatives, and present some key Artists’ Museums, the Wunderkammer-style collections conceptualised and run by the artists. Showcased, among others, is Mrdjan Bajic’s Yugomuseum collection, Dragan Papic’s Inner Museum, Vladimir Dodig Trokut’s Anti-museum, etc.

Which brings us to love.

Art is difficult to love sometimes.

Along aforementioned critical models of art making, which foreground research and analysis, there are models that favour instinct and intuition. In a marked contrast to the socially involved, critical presence of the above projects, this year’s 56th October Salon, Belgrade’s largest art manifestation, delivers a firm support to the visual. As an authored concept of renowned curator David Eliott, it is titled ‘Ljubavni zanos’ (Plaisir D’Amour or Love’s First Dream) and conceived as a tribute to the first Parisian Salon D’Automne in 1903, it re-establishes the artist as a person who thinks about culture through visual means. Quoting Jean-Paul-Égide Martini, ‘Love’s first Dream lasts but a moment. Love’s grief lasts a lifetime’, the upcoming October Salon is dedicated to the emotions in contemporary art. The fresh curatorial team of the Salon (the art critic Dejan Djoric, artists Djordje Stanojevic, Nikola Bozovic and Bozidar Plazinic, and the art director of the Cultural Centre Belgrade Ivona Jevtic) as well as over fifty regional and international artists, promise to deliver a tribute to that first flush of love. The concept reclaims the passion towards the visual, allowing the eloquence and exuberance of the individual expression.

Love is the raison d’être of the CoBA art platform as well. The title of their first exhibition, ‘Point of View’, suggests some possible overlapping threads and realities, not a static singular vision. As those few (of many!) projects above attest, the multiple strands of expression and experimentation do not always crystallise into a univocal vision or body of work. Through their criticality and solidarity, their cooperation and desire to be heard, artists cultivate their individuality as well as their awareness of the forces and influences that shape their practice.

Alexandra Lazar is a London-based artist, writer and art historian.