Sarajevo’s history is written into its architecture -- from the low Ottoman roofs and the Austro-Hungarian arches, to the Communist community halls -- all now pitted by bullets from the 1992-1995 civil war.
Here, cultures clash famously, but coexist and intertwine mostly -- this pluralism has long been a source of pride, humor and creative inspiration. Ten years later, artists are annotating the city’s visual history, investigating notions of communal identity and collective memory.
For international observers today, Bosnia-Herzegovina is frozen as the media last left it, victim to snipers, mines and other symptoms of the regional fratricide. When the siege ended in 1995, NGOs sprouted and international aid poured in an unprecedented amount of money per capita.
But the hope that these funds might trickle down to local artists was problematic, says Amra Bakšić Čamo, co-founder and "manager of the creative anarchy" at pro.ba, the multimedia production arm of the Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art. "We were fighting elevators, and the elevators always won. We would apply for funding and our application would be grouped with an office’s request for an elevator to replace the one stalled on their 26th floor. Today we have repaired all the elevators, and there is little money left."
The war’s devastation still shows in the struggles of the city’s arts institutions. The SCCA was founded as the Soroš Center for Contemporary Art in 1996, drawing on the deep pockets and good will of super-philanthropist George Soroš’ Open Society project. In 2000, more pressing causes called, and Soroš’ cash dried up. It has taken luck and pluck to survive the transition. Today, the SCCA occupies several small rooms on the uppermost floor of the Sarajevo Art Academy, and stays active on a project-by-project basis, calling itself a "mobile art center."
Two anecdotes about one of these projects vividly represent the potentials and pitfalls of contemporary art in the wake of war. The SCCA recently completed a two-year initiative titled "De/construction of Monument" (2004-2006), for which it asked artists to annotate existing monuments, invent ephemeral temporary "monuments" and erect new permanent ones.
The inspiration for this initiative was a project SCCA put on in 2001 with Amir Kurt and Samir Plasto, two artists who work together as Kurt&Plasto. In one of Sarajevo’s public squares stand stone pedestals inscribed with the names of famous Bosnian literary figures. During the war, the Writers Association evacuated the corresponding stone portrait busts to protect them from the shelling; the siege ended, but the busts remained in hiding.
By 2001, refugees were returning to the city -- so why not restore cultural icons to the pedestals? Kurt&Plasto’s intervention was both playful (in some cases, they placed bronzed molds of their own heads) and mournful (they installed photos of the actual missing figures, memorials to the lost works).
The faith-restoring epilogue: In 2002, the SCCA, piggybacking on Kurt&Plasto’s attention-grabbing project, used its clout to negotiate for the return of the original busts. The government did not intervene, despite the potentially inflammatory fact that the literary figures represented Croats, Serbs and Muslims. (In 2004, the artists did a second version of this project in another square for SCCA.)
The "De/construction of Monument" project’s more recent installation of a monument in Mostar, a neighboring Bosnian city, reveals a darker story. During the war in the ‘90s, the front line blazed down the center of Mostar. The city’s central symbol -- the beautiful bridge linking the east and west banks of the river for which the city is named ("most" means bridge) -- was destroyed.
In 2004, the bridge was restored. In November of 2005, as part of the "De/construction" project, artist Ivan Fiolić installed a new icon near the bridge -- a shiny, gold-plated Bruce Lee statue. Heroic and kitschy, it was a distinctly secular icon. Lee’s small stature belied his unmatched power, and the figure was intended to stand as a fighter for justice for all. As such, it was symbolically oriented to face the North, defending neither Muslim (east) nor Croat (west).
This time the outcome has been less favorable. Vandals so damaged the Mostar Bruce Lee Monument -- his nunchuck was ripped away, body bent forward -- that in March 2006 the city removed it for repairs. This winter, a security guard will watch over the restored and reinstalled Bruce Lee.
Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art
During the war, art had purpose -- it was then, in fact, that the Sarajevo Film Festival was inaugurated, and art and music during of the Sarajevo Winter Festival took on new urgency. But conflict takes its toll on the infrastructure of art, and today, of the art galleries in this culture-rich city, many are in fact rooms for artists to rent.
With so few formal venues for showing art, Sarajevo has turned to guerilla curating and art-making. Last year, for instance, six artists -- Muhamed Begić, Leila Čmajčanin, Samir Fejzović, Adnan Jasika, Emir Kapetanović and Demis Sinančević -- took over an abandoned factory and turned it into an alternative art venue and atelier, Barake ("Barracks"). "During the war, people learned to improvise everything. We carry this energy and we don't care about rules. What isn’t here, let’s make it," Kapetanović said proudly. At first, the space had no electrical power, yet its openings attracted hundreds of attendees. Sadly, the factory was razed this year, making way for a new Turkish embassy -- an example of political expediency trumping local innovation.
Ars Aevi is another example. One of Sarajevo’s preeminent collections of contemporary art, Ars Aevi has become the self-appointed keeper of the flame of artistic groups that were influential in the war and immediate post-war years -- it was Ars Aevi that chose the artists for the Bosnian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2003. It is also vigorously engaged with making a virtue of esthetic transience.
Starchitect Renzo Piano has offered a blueprint for a spectacular and huge museum in several parts, or "nuclei." Ars Aevi hopes to break ground by 2008. In the meantime, the institution is preparing a "fulltime-temporary" exhibition space located at the Dom Mladih (Youth House) building of the Skenderija complex, one of the most prominent structures in the city. Renovations of the space and installation of the collection are scheduled to be completed in September 2006. Architect Amir Vuk has designed temporary walls, wall panels and flooring that can be removed and reconfigured, all made of compressed plywood -- visitors will enter exhibitions as though they are sneaking into an enormous storage crate.
As for its collection, Ars Aevi hypes itself as "creating the postmodern museum," according to director Amila Ramović, "applying models of decentralization to build the collection." Exhibitions are temporary and migratory, without a single, central curator -- the staff in Sarajevo coordinates with directors of other international institutions. Artists donate their works to the Ars Aevi collection, and the catalogue of 147 contributions is impressive in diversity and caliber.
Of these, perhaps most notable is a site-specific work, Eight Locations of Meaning (for Sarajevo) by Joseph Kosuth -- a compilation of historical places and dates that changed the city (Illyricum, 4000 BC, Wien 1878, Sarajevo 1992) set in neon on the façade of Dom Mladih -- as cue, reminder, lesson and warning. Other works include Sol Lewitt’s black glossy squares, Marina Abramović’s skeleton, Ilya Kabakov’s fabric set on the floor depicting sunny sky, and Michelangelo Pistoletto’s wall-mounted mirror, which stands like a gateway to nowhere (or to oneself).
During 2005 and 2006, Ars Aevi has curated a series of solo exhibitions profiling six artists, "to promote them as core representatives of post-war Bosnian art," according to Ramović -- and the guerilla esthetic is represented here too. Each of the six artists -- Anur, Juriša Boras, Amir Kurt, Damir Nikšić, Samir Plasto, Nebojša Šerić-Shoba -- was at some point a member of Sing Sing, a hybrid improvisational rock band/performance group, known for cultural satire during the ‘90s conflict.
The spirit of public critique was continued in Anur’s project, a collaboration with another one-named artist, Ajna, Smrt Fašizmu (or Death to Fascism), shown in August ’06 at the National Gallery. The title piece is an enormous photographic close-up of a white molar. A swastika has been carved or corroded into its enamel.
The project is reminiscent of previous work by Anur, which he has called "artvertizing." Last year, for Ars Aevi, he installed his "Human Condition" series on bus stations and in supermarkets. In one, a portrait of a shirtless young man stands, punctuated by round-scars, a black bar censoring his face. Looking closely, one realizes that the "scars" are actually his own copy-and-pasted belly button. "Alienation is disease," you read, as the poster hangs above an aisle, next to ads for consumer discounts.
Kurt&Plasto also played with the false transparency of consumer vocabulary. For their 2005 project, a 12-poster series titled "Greetings for Europe," they chose 12 words, each containing the letters "EU," and set them in bright red type on a white background, accompanied by self-portraits of the artists performing goofy theatrics.
In NEUrosis, we see their faces peeping in blankly from the bottom of the frame, each wearing the EU flag wrapped around his head as though it were an Islamic headscarf. In Prinz EUgeni (named for the Austrian army commander who defeated the Turkish army at Zenta on September 11, 1697, and then burned and looted Sarajevo) the two men are swathed in white cloth diapers in a tableaux vivant coat of arms, featuring a quote from the 1878 Congress of Berlin, "Bosnia is a Special Case."
The most impressive of Ars Aevi's recent projects, however, belonged to Damir Nikšić, with his exhibition If I Wasn’t Muslim, shown at the Galerija Novi Hram in Sarajevo in 2005 (and in June 2006 at White Box in New York). Like Kurt&Plasto, Nikšic’s work often uses humor and performance as disarming and subversive tools to tweak religious and cultural presumptions. For instance, performing a little soft shoe after prayer (in his video Simpatico (2001)), or inviting viewers to have their feet kissed as he kneels on a prayer mat (in his performance Foot Kisser/I Kiss Your Feet for Free (2005)).
For Ars Aevi, Nikšić engaged in a similar conversation between past, present and presumed identities: If I Wasn’t Muslim -- a music video transposition of Tevyah’s "If I was a rich man" plaint from Fiddler on the Roof -- finds him in a farmhouse, dancing, shrugging and pleading to Allah.
At first you laugh at the campy melodrama, the confessional close-ups, the shimmies, the "ya ha deedle deedle dum"s. But his fears and questions are honest: "What will happen in a year or two / Will I have to leave or stay and die / Drop my pants to be identified and be put aside / Just ‘cause I’m a Mussulman?"
The space in which the video is staged is dense with significance: A Croatian barn directly across from the Bosnian border and Brezovo Polje, the town in which Nikšić was born. In 1992, Muslims in Brezovo Polje, including his family, were violently forced from their homes, many transported to concentration camps.
When I spoke with Nikšić, he said he was flirting with the idea of staying and opening a gallery in Sarajevo. Then again, he also told me that he might dress himself as the King of Bosnia and jump-start a campaign to "Pimp up Bosnia," since "we are living in a pimp and pomp culture in Bosnia; everyone is exploiting the country, exploiting themselves."
Another new artist-run gallery is Galerija 10m2. In 2004, two young French artists, Pierre Courtin and Claire Dupont picked out a vacant storefront off of café-crowded Ferhadija, Sarajevo’s central pedestrian thoroughfare. The gallery’s name is quite generous -- but 7.29 meters squared (the actual dimensions) doesn't sound as sexy. Despite, or perhaps because of its size, the space has become a vibrant and friendly hub of activity for young artists -- summer afternoons find clusters of local and international Sarajevo residents discussing art, bemoaning politics, sharing beer, playing chess.
"Artists generally make a project for the space specifically," Dupont told me. Recently, Zlatan Filipović created Balance for 10m2. The beautifully hazy, meditative video loop was projected on a screen gently suspended at the center of the space. The image reflects completely and infinitely against the gallery’s glass walls, showing several soft globules floating slowly up and down in a thick atmosphere, softly colliding and moving in and out of the screen.
The gallery was closed for the project, so that viewers looked in through the glass on the hanging screens, much as the actual protagonists of this film are enclosed -- in fact, the film depicts juniper berries soaking, floating, fermenting, prepared by Filipović’s mother to become "Smreka," a traditional Bosnian drink. A jar of actual soaking juniper berries sat in the gallery.
With a program that focuses primarily on artists from the region (about 80 percent, says Courtin), the gallery is a showcase for youth and experimentation. At the most recent Sarajevo Winter Festival in 2005, the gallery hosted a performance from Jusuf Hadžifejzović, Venice Biennale alum and one of Bosnia’s most internationally renowned and collected artists. Hadžifejzović turned the glass box into a shooting gallery. He posted a portrait of his extended family to the gallery wall, then threw colorful darts at the picture and wrote the names of pierced family members on the wall -- individuated when hit.
Hadžifejzović’s performance was punctuated by other poignant and bizarre actions, including a moment stoically standing in front of the abused portrait, holding on his shoulder two plastic birds that sang in tinny staccato voices I’ve Got You Babe. In a space so intimate, the visitors were implicated in his acts, and their discomfort, shock and laughter became part of the performance.
Most important, perhaps, is the role 10m2 plays for next generation of emerging artists. "In the years during and directly after the war, artists followed a formula: irony plus shock. Their works were applauded by the international art community. Now artists are rediscovering things that they weren’t able to explore before," says Ibro Hasanović. In his recent performance at 10m2, To be Good to be True, he took a soft pencil and, without picking up his hand, wrote these words on every inch of the gallery walls. He plays on our obsession with these superlatives, and the ways in which each viewer might fill in that blank (to be a good artist, a true artist. . . to be a good Muslim, a true Muslim).
Adla Isanović is another young artist who used the space to play with imagined lines of territory and identification. For Greetings From…, which appeared at 10m2 in 2005, Isanović created two image databases of pictures from the mass media -- one of "theme spaces" (anonymous apocalyptic landscapes, tanks on the move, palm trees uprooted) and one of "type bodies" (figures in traditional, cultural dress). Viewers are invited to flip through and choose a combination of images. The result is printed and the "interactive postcard" is complete -- you have invented a false historical moment of which you are voyeur, author and, if you mail it, propagator.
Isanović asks her audience to rebuild art from fragments. This simple gesture is a more faithful representation of contemporary Sarajevo, and the place artists find themselves at within it, than any one monument.
MOLLY KLEIMAN is an art critic living in Sarajevo.