Amazing art from the ‘Yugo-sphere’ is here
Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAB) brings high-voltage surrealist and absurdist art from across the land.
Serbia — the land of blaring ‘turbofolk‘, Nikola Tesla, rakija shots, rapper Mimi Mercedez and, of course, Željko Ražnatović, a.k.a. Arkan, the legendary leader of the ‘Tigers’ and badass Balkan crime boss who got capped back in 2000. There’s also a kickass clutch of conceptual artists hailing from the region, mavericks like Tamara Cetkovic, Vladimir Nikolic, Dušan Otašević, Marina Abramovic, Milica Tomic, and a radically re-charged art scene that we fucking love!
The Former Yugoslavia has been pretty shaken up over the past century — the darkness of war, crippling sanctions, conniving kleptocrats and a whole lot of social strife. But Belgrade, Serbia’s swish and swirling capital, is once more poised to seduce visitors and adventurers with its vibrant contrasts, Non-Aligned ethos and rejuvenated art institutions.
The city’s neoclassical-meets-brutalist beauty — its rolling hills and suspension bridges rising above the Sava and Danube rivers — sits uneasily alongside decrepit constructivist architecture, bombed-out ministries and minimally populated mini malls. It’s a cool and convulsing place, for sure — a hybridized hub of communist kitsch, Kafkaesque weirdness and cosmopolitan frisson.
Belgrade, or ‘Beograd’, as the Serbs say, is currently buzzing with avant-garde energy, freshly renovated galleries/museums galore and a cool underground creative scene. For culture vultures interested in the Yugosphere, especially excellent art, here’s what’s poppin’ in the southern Balkans.
Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art, a veritable microcosm of Yugo-everything, just re-launched…and it’s bangin’! Here’s a quick floor-by-floor synopsis with visuals…
After a decade of dilly dallying with some occasional major repairs, Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art finally reopened its doors. The reboot is pretty awe-inspiring. The main showcase, called “Sequences”, incorporates more than 300 paintings, objets d’art, eye-popping installations, and first-rate contemporary gems. It’s all about how Yugoslavian artists made sense of their helter-skelter experiences, and is at once intensely visual, emotional and political.
Jam-packed with works from local, provincial and international artists like Gabrijel Savić Ra, Sava Šumanović, Nadežda Petrović, etc., the exhibit collectively reflects the angst and entanglement of a culture constantly on edge, with ethnic, religious and territorial tensions ebbing and flowing and a society hijacked by nativism and nationalism. The aim, according to curators Mišela Blanuša, Zoran Erić and Dejan Sretenović, is to encourage a new cultural conversation around transcendence and contrition, and to connect old and new works within the context of Socialist Realism, Serbo-Croat-Bosnian heritage and frontline contemporary genres.
The museum features fierce pan-Yugoslavian works with an emphasis on surrealism, dialectical processes, late contemporary pieces and various modes of Neo-Expressionism. Dubbed ‘Avant-Garde: from Dada to Surrealism’, there are kinetic collages from Radojica Živanović Noe, DIY dadaist things from Koča Popović, and variants of anti-art that challenged the day’s dogmas and aesthetic definitions. These artists were focused on ‘moral revolt’ via mixed media, political sedition and radical self-expression.
‘ZENIT’, first published back in 1921 by Ljubomir Micicone and one of the former Yugoslavia’s finest art zines, will get your visual juices flowing. There is also a rollicking range of Dada periodicals that span almost 75 years covering nouveau réalisme, pop art and Fluxus.
VIVISXN is especially enamored of avant-gardists like Marina Abramovic and Rasa Todosijevic, who turn the museum space into an existential circus of freaky introspective self-help. Abramovic herself, either alone or with her onetime partner Ulay, has perfected virtually all of the insane, agonizing, masochistic, narcissistic, politicized and nail-biting activities you can think of (like staring contests with viewers, self-asphyxiation, and exhibitionism involving screaming or urinating). In one performance (Freeing the Memory, 1976), she literally chanted until her mind went completely blank — a hysterical riff on Eastern metaphysics and an ‘attempt to empty the memory and ego.’ The footage is freaky deaky. Rasa Todosijevic’s controversial wall-hung, swastika-inspired symbology is hectoring, haunting and hardcore (see below).
The vast venue is festooned with fascinating and fiery works by Bora Iljovski and Velizar Vasa Mihić, among others. They are creative master blasters whose art crackles with neo-Dada pep and pomo panache — all with an Eastern Bloc edge. Dušan Otašević, a rogue political Pop artist associated with the “New Figuration” movement in Belgrade, has mind-boggling stuff on display. He mocks anyone and everything, and slays many sacred cows along the way. Dušan explores and critiques the things Yugoslavians are unfortunately used to: authoritarian and totalitarian tics, para-military formations, xenophobic drivel, ‘historic amnesia’ and other taboo socio-political topics. His controversial work “Comrade Tito, White Violet, Our Youth Loves You” is full of wit, sarcasm, subliminal symbols and savvy cynicism.
By the time the 80s and 90s rolled around, Belgrade was a city mired in conflict and besmirched by corruption. Tito was gone. Slobodan Milošević had seized total power. Yugoslavia’s federation was rapidly unraveling, and Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia were locked into a beastial conflict. Artistic expression was either snuffed out or driven underground. Klub Industrija became Belgrade’s beating musical heart and pirate radio insurgents like B92 and Teenage Techno Punks (TTP) had to broadcast from the shadows.
It was an uncertain and violent era for Serbia, a place where politicians frequently used state-run media as a powerful weapon to incite hatred and cultural chaos. Countless people and movements got swept away in the period’s pogroms and chaotic stew. During the 1999 NATO bombings of Belgrade, 14,000 bombs were detonated and 2,000 civilians were killed by uranium-tipped missiles and cluster munitions. Nevertheless, compelling material was being sublimated into art.
Artists like Uroš Đurić, Petar Lubarda and Milo Milunović, who addressed the region’s fissures and ruptures through Cubist methods and new forms of figuration, are fascinating. Vladimir Veličković, who collided traditional motifs with global styles, made visually arresting frescoes and iconography referencing the region’s hyper-vexed history; and Katalin Ladik, a kickass performance artist from Novi Sad, innovated around new frontiers of audio art, sound poems and experimental theater. Taken together, it is a wonderful Gesamtkunstwerk — or ‘synthesis of the arts’ — that should be experienced by all.
Echoing Fyodor Dostoevsky’s quote about ‘beauty saving the world,’ Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art is doing just that, and continues its curatorial mission to preserve and propagate some of our culture’s coolest, most emotionally-charged and meaningful art. Culture should bring people together, and often it does. MoCAB helps in this important endeavor ♡.