Interview with Marko Ilic
(Dis-)Continuities in the Post-Yugoslav Art Space: Interview with Marko Ilic on New Art Practice
Russell-Omaljev: Marko, you are a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at UCL SSEES. You gained your BA in Art History from Cambridge University (2011) before completing both an MA (2012) and PhD (2016) at the Courtauld Institute of Art. CoBA welcomed you at the Serbian Embassy in London on 22nd of February where we hosted a well-frequented conversation about New Art Practice and alternative art production in Yugoslavia between 1966 and 1978. Your main point is that post-Yugoslav academics who argue that these cultural centres were marginalized institutions and artistic ghettoes were wrong. Why?
Ilic: I wouldn’t say that these interpretations are necessarily ‘wrong’, but rather that the situation was more complicated than it might appear on first impression. It’s true that the majority of art historical accounts of the New Art Practice have focused on its marginalised position in Yugoslav society. While they have noted that galleries of Students’ Cultural Centres as the sites for the federation’s conceptual and performance art scenes, they have frequently approached them as spaces of ‘controlled’ freedom. These perspectives are partially defensible. Coming from the ‘margins’ of Yugoslavia’s youth spaces, we could conclude that the New Art was impeded in terms of its potential influence and reach. But rather than adopting a defeated or disillusioned outlook, in my work I chose to focus on how and why these cultural institutions became agents in the promotion of the New Art – to highlight the ways in which they became both porous and accommodating to new forms of self-organisation in art, and encouraged a vibrant cross-fertilisation of ideas in the Yugoslav cultural space. With that, I wanted to tease out the contradictions implicit in ‘alternative’ New Art practitioners working through ‘official’ cultural institutions, while addressing the relationship between art and politics in Yugoslavia.
Russell-Omaljev: So much has been written about that country that is often presented as political failure and its 70 years old existence is coloured by its violent dissolution. However, in the worlds of Jesa Denegri, it was clearly a ‘diverse, interconnected cultural space, multi-centred and unified’. Today, a common cultural memory is being refused by all nations states. Can we talk today about ‘Yugoslav Art’ and ‘Yugoslav art history’?
Ilic: This is a very important question, and one that formed the main impetus for my own study. My project initially arose from the noticeable scarcity of art historical accounts acknowledging the common grounds of art practices emerging within a shared geographic space and historical experience. Beyond nationalist and anti-communist perspectives, and their opposing discourse, ‘Yugo-nostalgia’, I thought that a crucial element of the Yugoslav art scene was that is was more than just an agglomeration of national cultures, and that there were certain cultural phenomena that fused beyond the borders of the republic and autonomous province. Mapping the ways in which artistic ideas circulated with the Yugoslav cultural space – how they were recast, reinvented or reinvigorated in different spaces and through various distribution channels – I wanted to show how interactions between various art centres of the federation proved to be vital, and to demonstrate how these histories cannot be segregated through a strictly nationalist approach.
Russell-Omaljev: Today, Yugoslavia is placed into East European box, nevertheless it does not fall within the strict political definition of the Eastern Bloc. We all know that Tito said no to Stalin in 1948 and started to pursue a political path that was in opposition to both liberal West and Soviet Union, and in 1961 the Non-Alignment movement was founded. I am mentioning all this because it is important to stress that Yugoslavia was unique political environment from which such artistic activity originated. Should Yugoslavia be put into this ‘Eastern Europe art-historical discourse’ where you had official and dissident art?
Ilic: I think that it’s important to note that this ‘East-European art-historical discourse’ is in itself problematic and largely disputed. Today, there are several art historians who have dismantled this rigid reading of art production in socialist Eastern Europe through the prism of ‘binary’ or ‘grey’ socialism. During the 1990s, a series of exhibitions, staged in Western European cities, and dedicated to the monolithic ‘Eastern Europe’, included art practices from Yugoslavia, and were vital to introducing them to international audiences. But by placing them within the wider geography of ‘Eastern Europe’, they slightly undermined the fact that Yugoslavia was positioned between two military blocs, with a ‘third way’ political and economic system. This is why in my work, I chose to focus on how the New Art emerged within a system of state-financed institutions, together with its complex relationship to the politics of socialist-self-management. Of course, my research is not alone in this pursuit, and fits into an exciting new cohort of studies providing more nuanced interpretations of Yugoslavia’s New Art scenes.
Russell-Omaljev: Before you try to clarify what is New Art Practice, perhaps we should start from Socialist Modernism, a movement that the New Art Practitioners were against?
Ilic: The term ‘socialist modernism’ implies Yugoslavia’s abandonment of Socialist Realism dogma after the country’s expulsion from the Cominform in 1948. It connects Yugoslavia’s art production to the introduction of forms of self-management that brought an end to Party dictate in culture. According to mainstream accounts, during the 1950s, those who had fought for the abandonment of Realism became leading figures in Yugoslavia’s cultural milieu – Professors at Fine Art Academies, Museum Directors and Commissioners, etc. By the 1960s, ‘socialist modernism’ had, so the master narrative goes, become a kind of ‘semi-official art ideology.’ As a politically neutral art, poised between the modern and the traditional, it both supported Yugoslavia’s need to be internationally open and satisfied bourgeois tastes. In the absence of a ‘Western-style’ art market and direct state input, accounts of the New Art have tended to use this stable definition of ‘socialist modernism’ to establish its complementary opposition. But such polarities suffer from an oversight – that being, that ‘socialist modernism’ was never an ‘official’ cultural programme, but rather a heterogeneous phenomenon, encased within a wide range of institutions and associated with a variety of individuals. This is why, in my work, I chose to focus on the system of institutions that supported the New Art – and why I assembled a series of narratives tracing the landmark events of Yugoslavia’s Students’ Cultural Centres, which resulted in an art system that was both autonomous from, and operating in parallel with, the ‘official’ cultural programme under self-management.
Russell-Omaljev: Can you tell us more about the New Art Practice and the activities associated with it?
Ilic: The term ‘New Art Practice’ stands for a form of artistic engagement that emerged in the cities of Belgrade, Ljubljana, Novi Sad and Zagreb from the mid-1960s, which, fuelled by the youth movements of 1968, took on a more socially engaged form in the early 1970s. It was first historicised through the timely The New Art Practice exhibition at Zagreb’s Gallery Contemporary Art in 1978, which simultaneously highlighted the subtle multiplicities in the country’s New Art scene, while acknowledging a common cultural agenda. The show’s catalogue, which in many ways provided a departure point for my own work, began with an entry on the OHO group from Ljubljana. OHO was formed in 1966, and pursued the unique intellectual framework of ‘Reism’, aimed at discovering new relationships between humans and everyday objects (More on OHO here). Other important practitioners included in the catalogue were the group of artists and cultural workers associated with Zagreb’s Students’ Centre Gallery, which was one of the first spaces in Yugoslavia to pursue conceptual and ‘dematerialised’ art practices; the KOD group working through both Novi Sad’s Youth Tribune and the city’s student publication Index, which began with conceptual works and crossed into political provocation at the beginning of the 1970s; the informal group of artists affiliated with Belgrade’s Students’ Cultural Centre and its Gallery, which participated in the international art scene through the space’s programmes and initiatives, including its notorious April Meetings; and Zagreb’s Group of Six Authors, formed in the mid 1970s and known for their outdoor ‘Exhibition Actions’, which were aimed at transcending institutional constraints. There are many others who were affiliated with the phenomenon, but these stood at the forefront of my work.
Russell-Omaljev: We have to ask what relationship the New Art had to Belgrade’s 1968 student demonstrations, which protested against the rising middle classes that emerged in Yugoslavia. The moment surrounding 1968 was very prolific not only in visual arts, but in literature, philosophy and film. Can you tell us more about Praxis, Korcula Summer School and Yugoslav Black Wave Cinema?
Ilic: Yugoslavia’s ‘1968’ began at the University of Belgrade in June as a week-long series of demonstrations condemning police brutality and campus living conditions, but quickly growing into an attack of the failures of Yugoslavia’s path to self-managing socialism. Though it encompassed a broad spectrum of voices, it has generally been historicised as an expression of resentment over the country’s rising ‘red bourgeoisie’ and the class stratification that emerged from the country’s turn to market socialism in the mid-1960s. But while students wanted to expand social justice, reform the economy, and to mend the system of self-management, according to mainstream accounts they lacked a clearly defined ‘alternative’ vision. For many, it was this lack of differentiation from the Party’s official politics that resulted in the almost immediate suppression of the demonstrations, together with numerous arrests, trials and prison sentences for some of its participants. Looking back on the events of 1968 today, it seems fair to conclude that the students failed to hold the Party accountable for the lack of self-management and solidarity in Yugoslav society. But on a cultural level, the ‘1968’ moment ushered in a temporary strengthening of artistic freedoms in the country, not only in the field of visual arts, but, as you say, also in film and literature. This shift was particularly felt in Yugoslav New Wave cinema, which after 1968 began to focus on the contradictions involved in socialist modernisation after market reform. In the case of the ‘New Art’, much of the practices that emerged at this time were aligned to the global political agenda of the New Left, which penetrated Yugoslavia’s youth through intellectual contacts with the West and the circles of philosophers connected to the Praxis school that gathered at the Korčula Summer School. But though the New Art was informed by a complex range of ideas that emerged in and around the watershed year of 1968, its development was by no means analogous to similar currents in American and Western Europe. While Yugoslavia’s ‘1968’ invigorated the New Art Practices, at the beginning of the 1970s the League of Communists once again began to reaffirm its control over society, following the purging of liberal leaderships in all of the country’s republics. It would once again be loosened during Yugoslavia’s political and economic decentralisation from the mid 1970s.
Russell-Omaljev: Interestingly, Yugoslavia’s political decentralisation during the 1970s resulted in the awakening of Ljubljana’s and Sarajevo’s cultural scenes. Tell us more about that very interesting period.
Ilic: Yugoslavia was notorious for its constant economic reforms and political constitutions, and the period between the mid 1960s and beginning of the 1980s were particularly decisive in the country’s development. In my work, I proposed that the simultaneous emergence of alternative art scenes in Ljubljana and Sarajevo were results of, and reactions to, the political decentralisation implied in self-management’s late phase, along with Tito’s death in 1980. In the first half of the 1980s, when the potential of self-management was increasingly coming into question, Ljubljana saw the emergence of cultural activities beyond mainstream culture that reflected on, and adapted to, the country’s swiftly deteriorated social climate. Interestingly, but not coincidentally, it was the weakening of the central government and the unprecedented state autonomy this granted the republic of Bosnia & Herzegovina, that also resulted in the awakening of Sarajevo’s cultural scene – including the emergence of the Zvono group and the city’s notorious ‘New Primitives’ subcultural group. It was also Sarajevo that played host to the largest, final and most decisive contemporary art manifestation in the federation, the Yugoslav Dokumenta, which took place in the wake of the country’s disintegration, in 1989.
Russell-Omaljev: To conclude, I want to ask you about feelings of marginalisation. You say that experiences of marginality are so painfully relevant to the Yugoslav experience. What can change that?
Ilic: To this day, Yugoslavia’s art histories remain largely organised into isolated, local mythologies. The result of this has been an art history consisting largely of three seemingly disparate cities – Belgrade, Ljubljana and Zagreb –as the only familiar locales in a territory that was once formed of eight constitutive parts. Conscious of the polemics and competition for cultural capital in the post-Yugoslav space, in my work I wanted to provide a balanced and unbiased reading of experimental and ‘new’ art practices in Yugoslavia. While highlighting the specificities of local art scenes, I wanted to offer a wider narrative to make sense of the multi-centred, yet clearly interconnected Yugoslav cultural space. Though some of the stories are already well known, and others less known than they should be, my main aim was to bring artists and cultural workers together through a new critical frame – and to offer a focused and rigorous reconsideration of their works and practices. While beyond the scope of my own project, it remains to be unveiled how these dynamics came into play in Yugoslavia’s other cities, together with its less-advantaged and developed regions. The open question remains: what can the ‘Yugoslav cultural space’ further reveal about the dynamics between ‘centres’ and ‘peripheries’ in the distribution of artistic and cultural production?