The New Normal: Tom Holert on Contemporary Art in Belgrade

Article excerpt

IN APRIL 1999, during the bombardment of the Serbian capital by NATO planes, the photographer Vesna Pavlovic took pictures of guests in the Belgrade Hyatt. One of the photos shows a man lying on a deck chair at the edge of the hotel's swimming pool, draped in a white terry-cloth robe, checking his messages on his mobile phone (Herzlich willkommen in Hotel Hyatt Belgrad [A Cordial Welcome to the Hotel Hyatt Belgrade], 1999). While Pavlovic leaves it to the audience to decide whether the subject is a Western journalist or a local mafia boss, there's no ambiguity about this man's nonchalance in the midst of the airborne devastation befalling the city outside his luxurious redoubt: It's a grotesque demonstration of repression and ignorance, and an effective metaphor for a society's refusal to acknowledge its own secession from "normalcy." In fact, in Serbia during the '90s, the term normality became a kind of ideological password, part of a code meant to sublimate societal antagonisms through the invocation of "the nation" or of a postcommunist version of capitalism, or both. In this context, Serbian artists, like every citizen, were offered a choice. They could endorse and help maintain this official refusal of reality, or they could resist it, becoming, so to speak, refuses of refusal--probing the conditions of nationalism, war, UN sanctions, and social disintegration with a spectrum of practices ranging from figurative painting to public interventions, from performance art to critique of media representation and neo-Conceptualist tactics.

And yet to date, institutional attempts to take stock of the diverse forms of cultural opposition to Slobodan Milosevic's regime have generally presented Serbian art within a pan-Balkan frame-work that elides the differences between various local and national contexts. Resisting this wistful impulse, the recent "On Normality: Art in Serbia 1989-2001" (Sept. 11-Nov. 7, 2005) at the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade (MOCAB) was an important exhibition about a time that few people seem to remember, from a country whose continued existence the world often appears to want to forget. A team of three MOCAB curators--Branislava Andelkovic, Branislav Dimitrijevic, and Dejan Sretenovic--presented works by more than seventy-five artists and collectives, in what amounted to both an ambitious survey of the art of a difficult and disastrous decade, and a lesson on cultural production as a force of resistance and dissent.

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Some of the show's particular resonance might have derived from the fraught history of the venue itself: Following the 1993 sacking of then director Zoran Gavric, MOCAB mutated into a chapel consecrated to a bizarre strain of nationalist culture. The new director, Radislav Trkulja, a painter who enjoyed the support of right-wing ideologue Dragos Kalajic, promulgated an invented history of Serbian art based largely on mytho-erotic painting that aimed to legitimize an official politics based on violence (and, implicitly, sex) in the name of ethnic superiority. In 2001, after the departure of Milosevic's apparatchiks, the museum's current staff--a team of curators including Andelkovic, who today is also the director--took charge. All were part of a close-knit group of critics and curators who were influential actors on the Belgrade art scene throughout the '90s. Andelkovic, Dimitrijevic, and Sretenovic had been running Belgrade's Center for Contemporary Arts, arguably the most adventurous art institution in the Balkans at the time. Their curatorial and theoretical projects from this period were characterized by circumspection and political savvy: They eschewed nationalist kitsch, yet never shied away from critiques of the latent sexisms, racisms, and nationalisms in the anti-Milosevic camp, or from the uncomfortable fact that Serbia's dissident cultural producers frequently relied on the help of Western moneys and organizational support. …