- By Sophie Arni
Belgrade (Beograd, capital of Serbia) might be known as the nightlife capital of the Balkans, or as one of the center stages of the 90s Yugoslavian war. But it might also be known as the hometown of art world phenomenon Marina Abramovic. She is one of the few artists from ex-Yugoslavia to have gotten international acclaim. Indeed, not enough governmental budget or attention has been given to the arts in this region and this is a shame, because not only does it have a rich cultural heritage, its contemporary art scene is burgeoning.
Beginning in the 1960s, Belgrade had a connection with French avant-garde postwar artists which resulted and in many Minimal, Fluxus and Conceptual artists showing their works in Belgrade, with Serbian artists taking notice and developing the canons of Western modern art as we know it. Today, due to minimal art world attention and little market value, most of them haven't made it to the big ranks, although they are well preserved in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade (MoCAB). The MoCAB , unfortunately closed for the public since 2007 for the "adaptation, reconstruction and extension of its building at Ušće" as its official web-statement says, is a highlight of the Yugoslavian era. It is a landmark of Belgrade. A competition was organised in the 1960s to pick two architects to build a concrete masterwork of modernist utopia to house the large collection of conceptual art the State was sponsoring. The museum would be a blank state to preserve and practice the most developed curatorship possible. Indeed, the Yugoslavian pan-Communist, quite nationalistic era, made contemporary art a priority for cultural policy. Already in 1958, Cultural Council of the Peoples’ Committee of Belgrade established the Modern Gallery, an institution the purpose of which was to supervise the development of contemporary art in Yugoslavia.
This exhibition titled 'Fluxus u Beogradu' (Fluxus in Belgrade) was a recreation of an show which first opened in 1986, which included works by Yoko Ono, Erik Andersen, Joseph Beuys, Džordž Breht, Albert M. Fajn, Robert Filiju, Henri Flint, Milan Knjižak, Takehisa Kosugi, Džordž Mekjunas, Džekson Meklou, Elison Noulz, Nam Džun Paik, Ben Paterson, Vilijem de Rider, Džejms Ridl, Mieko Šiomi, Tomas Šmit, Endre Tot, Emet Vilijams, Ben Vautier (excuses some of the spelling Serbianized). Some of these works figure in the MoMCA's collection while other were lent from private institutions. This exhibition was a wonderful inspiration for many Serbian artists who are now considered part of the global 70s/80s Fluxus movement too. A re-creation of the same exhibit took place in the Salon for Contemporary Arts just a year ago. While the MoCAB is closed, a few venues have sprung up as bandage aid to the lack of contemporary art.One of them is the above-mentioned Salon for Contemporary Art, a beautiful space next to the main shopping street and the historic Kalemegdan fortress. The show on view when I visited was titled 'Formless: Fluid Reality in New Media Art'. The show title and scope is definitely proof that Belgrade is not cut-off from the global contemporary art. Think of this show in conjunction with what Hito Steyerl is doing in Berlin and showing in NYC. Formless was dealing with post-internet artists working with issues as diverse as post-industrialization, gender, race and the omnipresent impact of technologies and selfies.
The museum is now closed for renovation, for an undecided amount of time. The curators are still active however. The collection manager acts as the main liaison for lending works of the collection, while the Contemporary Art curator Una Popovic is a central figure in Belgrade's art scene and in fostering young talent from the whole Balkan region and beyond.
I had the pleasure to meet her at the Salon. Popovic spent a residency at the Tate Modern in 2013-14, and mounted a show called 'Inverted House' showcasing the works by two Serbian artists, Tina Gverović and Siniša Ilić for their first UK museum show. She explained the difficulty of not having a central large space for large exhibitions, which would draw the crowds of Belgrade and beyond, facilitate international artists residencies in the city and overall support the artists better. The MoCAB Salon aside, a number of galleries provide some instances to see art in the city. I noticed the very traditional gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts scenarios. Institutionalised galleries showing their accredited artists - a notion that may seem like an oxymoron to today's sporadic and international galleries where the only prevailing rule is the market. The perfect example was the Serbian Gallery of the Fine Arts Academy (Galerija Crpske Akademije Naika i Umenosti).
On another note, a very nice surprise on how the trend of Global Art is hitting literally all corners of the world welcomed me a few meters from the previous galleries.
An exhibition tiled 'Eccentric Exercises: International Contemporary Drawing' was on view at the Kulturni Centar Art Gallery. Curated by Henriette Noermark Andersen, from Denmark and featuring Portuguese, Israeli, Mongolian and Serbian artists, this show explored the techniques of drawing in contemporary art making practices, viewed from a fresh and varied global perspective. One could find Chinese ink painting-like landscapes, and more conceptual Louise Bourgeois' style scribblings, including an installation of carpets which weaving technique could be conjectured with drawing.
Another space was small edgy gallery U10 Gallery, presenting a solo show of artist Natasha Kokic, titled 'Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts'. Works on paper were showcased in a white box setting. From far, it looked like a gallery setting found in New York City. Approaching the walls however, and I see the cracks of the fresh white paint. I see that the floor is not a smooth surface, but grey-painted very bumpy concrete.
I start questioning the conceptuality of frames lacking and minimal curating: could it actually be the case that the works are hung in this way because of budget cuts? This is an interesting moment. When one lives in one of the art capitals (New York, London, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, L.A., potentially Dubai and Sao Paolo), one takes for granted how the minimal white cube actually comes from a heritage of correct traditional European art infrastructure. The white cube is rejection consequence. In satellite art cities, like Belgrade, diminish the importance of their artistic heritage and head directly to SoHo in the 70s or L.A. warehouse style. The white cube, as neutral and heterotopian it is, can sometimes feel out of place. It works however, to some extent. It is a vehicle for showing contemporary art in a global neutral sense.
With the development of 'Beograd Na Vodi' (Belgrade on Water), a UAE-sponsored Dubai Marina type residential development in the heart of Belgrade, and with other Emirati investment in the country, Belgrade is slowly on its way to become a vibrant economical hub and tourist attraction. With that will have to come some development for the arts, beginning with the re-opening of the MoCAB. But as always, problems of corruption will slow down the process. The other way things could be handled is a private buyer amassing the collection before it is opened to the public. This would be a shame for the artistic patronage and heritage of modern and contemporary Serbian art, which hasn't hit international acclaim yet but could, if enough buyers get interested in it. Some beautiful works on art are in the museum's collection, which is ran by professionals who care deeply for the arts and not speculators. We can only see what will turn out. Please find on the side an important resource: Belgrade's art map of Contemporary Art Galleries, updated 2015.