"In Search of Balkania," Oct. 5-Dec. 1, 2002, at the Neue Galerie am Landesmuseum Joanneum, Graz, Austria.
One of the more interesting exhibitions on view during the 2002 "Steirischer herbst" ("Styrian Fall") art festival in the city of Graz, Austria, was "In Search of Balkania" at the Neue Galerie in Graz, a show featuring works by more than 60 artists and artist collectives from Southeastern Europe. Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Turkey and Yugoslavia were the countries featured.
Once one had found one's way through the dense array of the installation, the works on view turned out to be fresh, international and topical. The selection was diverse, with a notable number of performance and video works by younger artists.
Esra Ersen's Hamam (2001), a video projected onto a screen within a comfortable cell-like installation, irresistibly draws the spectator into a conversation between two women friends in a Turkish bath in Istanbul, the ongoing nonchalant babble revealing an intermix between private and public, tradition and innovation. Clear-cut and simply conceived, it was one of the more interesting works in the show.
Crowded into a corner was a short documentation of Yugoslavian artist Tanja Ostojic's outstanding web project Looking for a Husband with EU Passport (2000-2002). Posting her image as a web advertisement, Ostojic posed naked, with shaved head and body, as if available to be married to whomever could get her into the EU. The artist actually received more than 500 answers. As part of an ongoing public performance covering each detail of the arranged marriage, including the couple's first meeting (in front of the Contemporary Art Museum, Belgrade), Ostojic finally got married in January 2002 to German artist Klemens Golf, thus receiving permission to live in the EU permanently. Now, as she says, "the next step is to get an EU passport, and I hope it won't take more than 10 years to get it."
A video documentation of Bulgarian artist Ivan Moudov's Traffic Control Performance (2001) took a humorous approach to cultural clichés. In an event organized by the art space Rotor, Moudov, dressed in the uniform of a Bulgarian police officer, directed traffic flow in the middle of an intersection in the provincial and peaceful city of Graz -- ignoring the traffic lights, which he could not see from his position -- before eventually being stopped by the Graz city police. Gesturing and whistling wildly but authoritatively, Moudov could count on Austrians' respect for the law, even if his uniform bore the Cyrillic inscription "Policija," unreadable to them.
For his installation Heroes (1999), the Bosnian artist Soba (Nebojsa Seric) collected goods produced during the communist era that had been named after World War II Partisan heroes of the "Yugoslav nation." These included a long-outdated sewing machine, known as "Bagat," which was presented under a photograph of the "National Hero" Vlado Bagat, as well as a "Koncar" brand TV, paired with a portrait of the late Rade Koncar, a member of the Croatian anti-fascist movement. Similarly, the pairing of some KRAS chocolate with the intellectual and resistance fighter Josip Kras now eternally links his memory with that of children's candy.
The young Albanian video artist Anri Sala, who currently lives in Paris and is widely exhibited, had two works on display: Byrek (2000) and his "classic" Intervista - Finding the Words (1998), a moving short documentary-like film in which the artist, in an ongoing reconstruction of archival image and sound material, confronts his mother with her political past as a member of the Albanian Communist Youth Movement. Intervista shows how intricately one's personal and private life is linked to the political situation of one's country -- as an Albanian proverb runs, "Ask for one thing, and you'll get two."
The exhibition also devoted several galleries to specific political and cultural issues. One showroom featured items from the Museum of Nikola Tesla, the Serbian inventor and scientist whose personal history is as complex as the history of his reception. Another gallery included parts of the show "Tirana/Tyranny" (2002), curated by Albanian writer Bashkim Shehu and organized by the Centre de Cultura Contemporaneia de Barcelona. This show examines the power structures and symbols of the communist era in Albania, including the 200,000 bunkers built between 1975 and 1990 (out of the 700,000 planned) to make the Albanian people safe from hostile aggressors. Any similarity to the ways that Western countries used the Cold War in their own propaganda strategies is entirely coincidental, of course.
One of the most rewarding pieces in the show was yet another documentary film, shot by the Romanian expatriate Andrei Ujica, who currently teaches at the Art Academy in Karlsruhe, Germany. His Out of the Present (1995), which today must qualify as one of the most popular documentaries of the 1990s, tells the story of Sergej Krikalev, the Soviet cosmonaut who left his country in 1991 to be stationed at the space station MIR for ten months, twice as long as planned. When Krikalev returned from space in 1992, the Soviet Union no longer existed, and his country was called Russia. This often absurdly funny, always moving 90-minute film is comprised mostly of original video material shot at the MIR station that Ujica has incorporated into the seductive narrative of a space movie, using the soundtrack of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
"In Search of Balkania" is a good example of the longstanding and committed artistic exchange that Graz, which has been designated as the "Cultural Capital of Europe 2003," has had for years with its Eastern neighbors -- both the Steirischer Herbst festival and art spaces in Graz like Rotor have frequently brought exhibitions of Eastern European art to Austria. The aim of the three curators of this exhibition -- Peter Weibel (from the Neue Galerie), Roger Conover (MIT press) and the Slovenian theatre critic Eda Cufer -- was to portray contemporary art of the Balkan countries as a heterogeneous array of diverse artistic cultural backgrounds, generations and media.
Sometimes they succeeded too well. As the curators explained, the installation was designed to "build a complex of metaphors derived not from the white cube of museum logic, but from the street collisions and market chances of Balkanic knowledge." As a consequence, however, the well-meaning "Eastern-style" presentation has been criticized -- rightly, it seems to me -- as building upon the cliché of a Balkan "patchwork," emphasizing a wild, disorderly, colorful and romantic esthetic, rather than a more "Western"-style presentation that some of the artists would have wished for.
After all, the term "Balkania" (like the term "Balkan") has evolved out of the imperialistic strategies of Western European countries, not the least among them the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire. With a pedigree that dates back only to the beginning of the 20th century, these two terms have provided a comfortable shorthand for the political, economic and cultural "inadequacies" of the countries of the Balkan region, obscuring the real political and socioeconomic reasons for the problems they have to cope with every day. The real borders, formed by the Schengen Treaty, the weak economy, recent wars and civil wars, cultural and religious differences are so much more real than the imagined, mystifying, "kitsch" differences evoked by the term "Balkan" that, as "a curatorial operation and artistic experience against expectations," the show is indeed problematic, as it has incorporated so many images and prejudices for or against the "Balkan."
However, even if shows conceived on the base of geographic criteria can often be problematic in suggesting also a cultural unity, a focus on countries of the Balkan region makes a lot of sense: With the exception of -- obviously -- Greece, Slovenia and maybe Croatia, the political and economic situation in the Balkan counties compares poorly to better-off former Communist countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland or Hungary -- a disparity that is often keenly felt. Balkania, apart from being a problematic and misleading term, is more than just an imagined entity, a "symbolic geography," as the curators said in their statement.
The ambitious and well put-together series of publications accompanying the exhibition (including In Search of Balkania: A User's Manual, Balkania: A Non-Standard Cultural Dictionary, ed. Roger Conover and Eda Cufer, and Balkan as Metaphor: Between Globalization and Fragmentation) explain and partly relieve many of the problems of the show. For one thing, in Balkan as a Metaphor, the provocative and heavy-handed use of the terms "Balkan" and "Balkania" is justified as a counterreactive, and actually an emancipatory gesture.
Altogether, the exhibition, if often provocative, proves to be well selected and extremely informative. It's a pleasure to hear that there has been quite a lot of positive feedback from visitors as well as a vivid interest by international institutions -- also from the U.S. -- to take the show in traveling form. Though venues have still to be determined, "In Search of Balkania" probably is slated to tour in Europe, and eventually around the globe.