An Introductory Exploration of the Concept of Balkan in Art

/, Essays, Blesok no. 52/An Introductory Exploration of the Concept of Balkan in Art

An Introductory Exploration of the Concept of Balkan in Art

Further research into several of the shows reveals that they are not, in fact, entirely representative of the Balkans despite such sweeping titles. For example, the show Imaginary Balkans primarily exhibited Croatian and Serbian artists, which meant that no more than a small cross-section of the many Balkan nations was present. Breda Beban was ‘commissioned by the Site Gallery to make an extensive survey of the Balkan art-scene as it stood immediately after the war. All the artists she chose for the show contribute[d] something towards what she [took] to be the meaning of the term “Balkan”’. Perhaps the fact that the Site Gallery commissioned a well-known artist from the region to help curate reflects a conscious effort to diffuse some of the western curators’ notions of Balkan. However, simplistic ideas about the Balkans are still present in this show. For example, Beban says ‘some people will be unhappy that I use that word [….] It seems bound up with all those awful clichés about loving easily and hating easily. But maybe we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. The unique art created in this region comes from the most incredible blend of the ancient and the avant-garde. That, to me, is “Balkan”’. 5F What does that statement mean? It is vague and does nothing to either dilute or support the exoticizing concept of Balkan. And with the inclusion of mainly Croatian and Serbian artists in the show, the curators, even if unintentionally, are evoking the past war by only giving the show the two infamous faces of the 1990s. Why do curators in the west (whether they are indigenous to the west or not) identify exhibitions of South Eastern European artists as Balkan (as understood to mean ‘Otherness’) above all other types of classification?
One of the reasons might, perhaps, be based on the idea that the West still sees the former Yugoslavia, and South Eastern Europe generally, as one entity. The nuances of identity and culture that differentiate the now-separate nations of this peninsula are apparently lost on the western mind. It seems there is enough similarity between the nations of this region, still forming one entity until a short time ago, that we are more comfortable viewing them as one. Could it be that the western world or those representing the art and artists from this diverse region are unable to let go of the nostalgia for the former Yugoslavia, or simply cannot be bothered by what they consider a mere geographical nuance? Perhaps it is something more. There exists a real danger here: that the simplification of the region that is made manifest in such acts as exhibiting Balkan artists instead of Croatian and Serbian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Slovene or Macedonian artists, may shove the region back into a bygone historical area. Are we resentful of the breakup of Yugoslavia and, thus, out of spite incapable of referring to the new nations for what they are? Perhaps it is because, as Žižek says, that ‘Balkan regularly served as a kind of blank screen on which Western Europe projected its own repressed ideological antagonisms, generating a series of fantasmatic images of Balkan’.6F It might be far-fetched to say that this is akin to exhibiting Americans and Canadians in a North American show because they come from the same part of the world, which would be too simplistic for even the most uninformed of viewers. But because of simplified exhibiting practices with regard to Eastern European art, we are essentially lumping the art from a multitude of different artists who are, in fact, working from varied contexts that do not always have a shared common denominator because of their geographic proximity to each other. It seems that the Western art world is pigeonholing these artists by forcing them into a collective ‘Balkan’ context rather than giving due recognition to their individual merits.
Scholars as Bojana Pejić are keenly aware of this situation. Pejić makes a good point about the futility of contextualizing art and artists, which is precisely what is done with the art and artists from the Balkans. The level of western perception is plain; first and foremost, Balkan artists are recognized as Balkan. This stereotypical context infuses their art with the only meaning it could possibly hold in the west—that of being Balkan and trying to communicate this experience to the western world. During a 2003 MoMa (Museum of Modern Art in New York City, NY) symposium titled East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe, Bojana Pejić noted one of the major problems facing the integration of Balkan art into the mainstream is that ‘[…] the curators active in the post-Communist world often complain that the Western curators do not understand “our” context’.7F It seems that a historical, cultural and even geographical remedy is needed for these artists to be understood when they arrive in the west. It is beneficial to note, then, that ‘currently, the close relationship of art to history and geography is never being questioned. Both history and geography are often used as background material for the artist’s ideas’.8F If ‘Western curators […] claim that they are not including eastern artists in their exhibitions in Western institutions because, as the argument goes, Western audiences don’t comprehend the context enough to understand such art’ then the simplification of such contexts must make this ‘Balkan’ art more accessible for Western viewers.9F This is the principal problem encountered when dealing with the issue of the Balkan context in the art world. Either the context is simplified to its caricature form so that the west can understand it or Balkan art is relegated to the margins of this art world, bogged down with years of historical context it does not need. On the contrary, contemporary artists in the western world, such as those in Britain, can easily use a very personal context in their art, like, for example, Tracy Emin’s My Bed or Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, instead of relying on a national, historical or geographical setting. Is it fair to assume, then, that westerners are only capable of understanding each other’s context and thus are not open to art that is portrayed in any other light beyond their basic understanding?
During the same symposium speech, Pejić said that she‘[…] always ask[ed] [herself] why we insist on the notion “context” only when we speak of non-Western contemporary art. Historically speaking, we often forget that we refer to art movements specifically, going so far as to study “Zurich Dada” and “Berlin Dada”’.10F She goes on to say that ‘the main questions that puzzle [her] are: First, can an (“Eastern”) artwork simply be reduced to the “context” in which it was produced. And second, what remains in/of this artwork if we take it away from “the context”’? These poignant questions are perhaps best explained by looking at the actual artists who are awash in this sea of contextual drift. Artists from the Balkans, like Breda Beban, are known first and foremost because of their story—their context—and only then from the artwork they produce, which is subsequently viewed through this contextual lens. For example, most reviews for Beban’s curatorial work on Imaginary Balkans (2002 Site Gallery, Sheffield, UK) found in British newspapers first give Beban’s context: She fled from her homeland, the former Yugoslavia, in 1991 at the outbreak of the war, lived in Italy and then England. She creates art that is not always about the former Yugoslavia. However, most of her works are viewed in that regard. In The Independent, Imaginary Balkans is peddled as ‘a collection of work by artists from Beban’s “part of the world”’.11F Imaginary Balkans was a show that attempted to break down some of those contextual and stereotypical barriers between the West and the South Eastern corner of Europe despite the reviews that refer, albeit somewhat ironically, to artists from that “part of the world”. Whether done on purpose or not, the title of the exhibition is remarkably close to the title of Maria Todorova’s landmark work on the concept of ‘Balkan’ and Balkanism, Imagining the Balkans, which was published in 1997. Just as Todorova breaks down the concepts of Balkan, Balkanism and Balkanization into terms and contexts that are tangible for westerners, the show Imaginary Balkans attempts to do the same with art works while taking the venom out of stereotypes by mocking them in certain works. According to Martina Pachmanová, ‘up until now there has been very little done about publicizing documents that are key for any serious historical research related to art activities in this region.’12F

#b
5. Alfred Hickling, ‘Whoops of Joy’, p. 10, Arts, The Guardian, 14 October 2002, [accessed 8 March 2005]
6. Slavoj Žižek, “The Spectre of Balkan’, The Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 6, No. 2 1999, [accessed 27 March 2005]
7. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003, [accessed 3 March 2005]
8. Iara Boubovna, ‘Polar Bears on the Balkans’, Art Margins Main View, [accessed 15 March 2005]
9. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003.
10. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003.
11. Peter Chapman, ‘Imaginary Balkans to 24 Oct Site Gallery’, p. 14, Arts, The Independent, 19 October 2002, < http://web.lexis-nexis.com/professional/form?_index=pro_en.html&_lang=en&ut=3290044556> [accessed 8 March 2005]
12. Martina Pachmanová, ‘The Double Life of Art in Eastern Europe’, Art Margins Reviews, 2002, [accessed 3 March 2005]

AuthorJessica Gearhart
2018-08-21T17:23:10+00:00 February 20th, 2007|Categories: Literature, Essays, Blesok no. 52|0 Comments