Opinion piece - Visualising life on the edge of the EU

Monday 11 February 2019

Jon Blackwood
Writing for The Sunday National, Jon Blackwood, reader in contemporary art and leads research at Gray’s School of Art, discusses the cultural sector in the Balkans and how politics and societal changes have affected the output of the region’s creative practitioners.

As Scotland, unwittingly, gears itself to be pulled out of the European Union on the 29th of March, in the opposite, south-eastern corner of Europe, many former Yugoslav republics seek to make the reverse journey; to complete the accession chapters, and to join the EU bloc within the next decade.

After his speech at Chatham House in July 2018, a journalist asked the Macedonian Foreign Minister, Nikola Dimitrov, as to why his country was so keen to join the EU, just at the moment when his hosts in the United Kingdom were intent on leaving.

“For people on the inside, perhaps it’s easy to forget how cold it is outside”, came the reply, a theme that Dimitrov has also rehearsed on twitter.

Of the seven former Yugoslav republics, two have already progressed into the EU: Slovenia as part of the Central and Eastern European enlargement in 2004, and Croatia as the twenty eighth member, in 2013.

All remaining republics have begun accession talks and are at varying stages of the process; Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia have all made significant progress in the last few years, whilst Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo, in their very specific situations, have a much longer way still to go.

I first began writing and thinking about art from the former Yugoslavia around fifteen years ago. I was frustrated and puzzled by the lack of information on art in English from the western Balkan region, knowing how rich and compelling it had been throughout history; from the conception of Yugoslavia in the collision between the waning of Ottoman power and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918, to its violent dissolution in the early 1990s, and the range and breadth of visual art production in contemporary times, in ex-Yugoslavia’s component parts.

Having spent significant time living and working in both Macedonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the last decade, I’d like to focus on politics and society there, and the responses to them of some of these countries’ artists.

Whereas Scotland has, at present, quite a well-founded and supported cultural sector, cultural infrastructure in both Bosnia and Macedonia, have degraded almost entirely since the break up of Yugoslavia in 1991.

The Bosnian sculptor Daniel Premec once said, that “Bosnia-Herzegovina is a spectator in the international art market, rather than a participant”. In one sense, the possibility of EU accession opens up marketplaces that have been very difficult for artists in these countries to access.

The broad themes that artists from Bosnia and Macedonia consider, from this vantage point, will be familiar to many involved in the arts in Scotland. In his remarkable painted mural “Where is this Ship Sailing To?”, made in 2013, the Macedonian artist Gjorgje Jovanovik lampoons some well known figures from the previous nationalist government, portraying them in a faux-ancient trireme, sailing around in circles.

This painting displayed a disconnect with and comical failings of the previous local political elite, a gap between people and polity that has become familiar all over the territory of the European Union in the last few years.

Similar frustrations with the shrunken and fragmentary nature of post-Yugoslav neoliberalism can be found in the work of Mladen Miljanović, a video and performance artist from Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina. In one of his more recent pieces, “Performance without Title”, the artist is sown holding a bull by the horns, with man and animal holding one another in static tension.

This can be read as a metaphor for the suspended political animation in Bosnia, a country still held back by the ethnic divisions written into the constitution by the Dayton accord in 1995. European integration offers Bosnia the best hope to move beyond the prominence of ethnicity in the constitution, but these aspirations are often blunted by a determination from local elites to maintain their grip on power.   

In the present time, whilst Bosnia tries in very difficult circumstances to make some progress towards European integration, Macedonia, in contrast, is being held up as a rare success story for Euro-Atlanticist statecraft. The fall of former strongman Nikola Gruevski in 2016, and his subsequent exile in Budapest to avoid a two year jail sentence for misuse of government funds, led to a new social democrat led government under Prime Minister Zoran Zaev,

The Zaev administration seems determined to steer a path of regional reconciliation and stability, and integration with international institutions long denied to his country, by Greek objections to the use of the name “Macedonia”.

For many Greeks, the name implies an irredentist claim to the part of Greece around Thessaloniki- Aegean Macedonia. It is this problem that has hobbled Macedonian ambition to join the EU and Nato, until the summer of 2018, and the signing of the much-praised “Prespa agreement” between the neighbouring countries.

Put simply, in return for Macedonia agreeing to be re-named officially “North Macedonia”, Greece has relented its opposition to Macedonia working towards EU and NATO membership. The final step of the process is a close vote in the Greek parliament, where approval for the Prespa agreement and the progression of the newly named “North Macedonia” is expected be endorsed by a narrow margin. Fierce opposition to the Prespa agreement in both countries- both from hardened right wing nationalists and left wing opponents to NATO- seems unlikely to prevail for the moment.

Amongst the issues of concern in Macedonia during this period is the need to arrest an alarming decline in the country’s population, by providing better working conditions and more opportunities for employment, as well as a more structured and re-vivified trade union movement.

An inspiring example can be found in the socially engaged project of the artist Filip Jovanovski and the curator Ivana Vaseva, who together founded a cultural centre in the southern textile town of Štip. The centre is focused on the textile industry and in helping the workers of the local factories to organise themselves and to argue for better pay and conditions from employers; an example of cultural and industrial workers coming together to the lasting benefit of both parties.

Set against the tense unfolding of international diplomacy and the rapid unrolling of Macedonia’s previous political disposition, some contemporary art, of course, does not engage at all with contemporary political realities at all. Indeed it sees art as a space where the individual creative can retreat from the daily pressures of life and wider society, and focus on more fundamental human concerns. A good example of such a strategy is found in Maja Kirovska’s piece “Temperature, Circulation, Gravitation”, which uses medical equipment and brightly coloured liquids as a representation of organic form and the beauty and fragility of individual life; a reminder of the need to re-focus on the unity of life both human and non-human, in times of population migration and species extinction.

Whatever the twists and turns of the acquisition of the former Yugoslav republics into the European Union in the next decade or so, it is highly likely that contemporary artists in the region will continue to respond in as compelling and wide-ranging a manner.