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State of the art: rethinking Yugoslavia, the dictatorship that embraced conceptualism

State of the art: rethinking Yugoslavia, the dictatorship that embraced conceptualism

The late period of Tito's Yugoslavia was an especially rich time for bold, conceptual, politically engaged art. A new show at Nottingham Contemporary finally gives it the attention it deserves in the UK

29 January 2016

“There are still assumptions that Yugoslavs were living in a totalitarian state,” curator Lina Džuverović tells me over lunch at Nottingham Contemporary, on the opening day of her show, Monuments Should Not be Trusted. There’s a sense of anticipation in the air, as gallery staff apply finishing touches to displays and caterers bustle about in preparation for the launch party. And so there should be — rather incredibly, it is the first major exhibition of Yugoslav art ever to be held in the UK.

Džuverović is right. There seems to be a strange blind spot in the UK when it comes to Yugoslavia, let alone its art. Mention the ex-country to a British person under 40 and the word will likely conjure little more than Tito, communism and the bloody wars of the 1990s. But for some from an older generation, particularly the thousands who went interrailing there to escape the gloom of 1970s Britain, Yugoslavia was a unique and hopeful place, not to mention a beautiful one. A socialist state quite unlike its Eastern Bloc neighbours, Tito’s Yugoslavia didn’t repress its citizens, allowing them freedom to travel and a limited form of consumerism, all the while carving out its own diplomatic path between East and West. “There was this sense of a society that was new, young and different, a sense of pride, especially over the Non-Aligned Movement,” says Džuverović, who grew up in Belgrade before moving to the UK in the late 1980s. “We were doing something positive and independent. We were proud of our Yugoslav passports.”

The experiment couldn’t last, of course. Yugoslavia was doomed to fail for all sorts of reasons and Tito’s death in 1980 marked the beginning of a decade-long slide towards messy disintegration. The resulting successor states have spent the past 20 years rewriting history, including art history, to fit their individual national narratives. But now, according to Džuverović, there is an “in-depth rethinking of Yugoslav politics and its effect on culture happening within the art scene”. And it’s about time. As Monuments Should Not be Trusted shows, the “golden years” of Yugoslavia — roughly speaking, the mid-60s to the early 80s — were an immensely fertile cultural period in which artists engaged passionately with questions of society and politics. And with the exception of a handful of artists like Marina Abramović, Neue Slowenische Kunst and Sanja Iveković, it’s a body of work that’s almost unknown in the west.

The exhibition, which takes its name from the title of a short film by Dušan Makavejev, gathers work by over 30 different artists from across these two decades. Much of it is conceptual, in media such as collage, performance or experimental film, and is associated with the New Art Practice and Black Wave movements in art and film, respectively. To some extent the exhibition is a way of learning about Yugoslavia through its art, as each gallery focusses on a different theme in Yugoslav society. But it isn’t simply didactic. Džuverović seeks to pose questions and problems. “It’s complicated”, she says. “If there was a tagline for this exhibition, that’s what it would be.”

One such complexity explored in the show is the Yugoslav state’s attempt to blend socialism with free-market capitalism, which it did from the mid-60s onwards, preaching the ascetic values of its partisan founding fathers while at the same time allowing consumerism to develop. “You could buy magazines but they were expensive,” remembers Džuverović. “So we just went to look at them, in reading rooms, for instance at the British Council. You had consumerism but not in the sense of full-on saturation. You loved it, you hated it, you were critical of it.” These contradictions are represented most starkly in Sanja Iveković’s film Sweet Violence, in which black strips of adhesive tape partially mask TV adverts.

The same artist also examines the unworkable expectations placed on women at the time. Yugoslavia had proclaimed gender equality after the war, exhorting women to help rebuild the country, but in private they were still expected to be mothers and home-makers. In Private — Public, Iveković places photographs of herself as a child ballerina around an image of a socialist monument of an idealised woman. The advent of advertising confused the picture further, presenting women as objects of desire. In Double Life, Iveković juxtaposes magazine pin-ups with photographs of herself as a young woman, resembling the poses in the advertisements while narrowly predating them. The artist is conscious of having internalised the body language of advertising, even while being critical of it. For Katalin Ladik, whose collages merge dressmaking patterns and musical scores, art offered a means of emancipation from her multiple roles as a working mother, homemaker and wife. Džuverović recalls asking Ladik, also a performance artist, about her critique of consumerism: “She said ‘Are you kidding me? We weren’t critical.’ She was talking about some sort of shiny plastic material and how excited she was to have it and to be able to use it, wash it, and reuse it in performance. There was this sense of desire versus critique.”

Another gallery addresses what has been termed the “secular religiosity” felt by many of the Yugoslav people towards their leader. It contains a wonderfully bizarre display of presents given to Tito by individuals and organisations, including models of hiking shoes and dentures, an array of curiously shaped batons, a golden heart made from the melted-down wedding rings of the women of Novo Mesto, and a framed star composed of matchsticks sent to Tito by a secondary school student (“My picture contains the same number of matches as the number of words you that you pronounced while speaking during the 21st session of the Yugoslav Central Committee in Karadjordjevo”, reads the note — a “pure conceptual art piece”, says Džuverović). Tito’s cult of personality may have been sustained by the people rather than imposed from the top down, but nevertheless this most glamorous of dictators knew how to control his own image. “He watched a film a day. He was media-savvy. Today he’d probably be tweeting,” says Džuverović. Various filmmakers used Tito’s medium of choice to subvert his propaganda machine. In Parade, for example, Dušan Makavejev trains his camera on the backstage business and humdrum preparations for Labour Day celebrations in Belgrade, ignoring the parade itself.

Many of the artists exhibited are concerned with their role in society. Partisan art (made during the antifascist struggle that gave birth Tito’s Yugoslavia) had once been “central to the building of the socialist society” but 20 years later the state was merely commissioning huge monuments — “hardly people’s art”, in Džuverović’s words. The New Art Practice, a term denoting a turn to conceptualism inspired by the 1968 student demonstrations, was radical in the true sense of the word, in calling for a return to the roots of the socialist revolution. This meant making art for the people, and on the street rather than the gallery wall.

Without this context it would be easy to misread Marina Abramović’s seminal 1974 performance Rhythm 5, in which the artist, one of the leading lights of the New Art Practice, lies down in the middle of a burning five-pointed star. In Soviet Russia it would have been interpreted as an act of defiance against the political system, whereas in Yugoslavia it was a plea for the artist to be restored to her rightful place at the centre of the system. “These are not mainstream artists but they are not dissident artists either, by any stretch of the imagination,” points out Džuverović. Želimir Žilnik’s Black Film, part of the experimental Black Wave movement that also appeared in the late 1960s, examines unemployment, an awkward problem for a socialist government to have — but it does so in a spirit of constructive, enquiring activism and with a conviction that art has a role to play in social progress.

The extent to which the Yugoslav government, a one-party state, valued and supported avant-garde art during this period seems incredible now, especially in London, where slashed arts funding and sky-high rents have made surviving as an artist all but impossible. In response to the 1968 demonstrations, the state created the Student Cultural Centres in major cities, where much of the New Art Practice’s activities would later take place. This was surely one of the only countries, at the time or since, that enabled radical performance artists to have pensions, free education, healthcare and social security. “Art never felt for me like a niche activity, something you’d do on a Saturday,” says Džuverović. “It was everywhere, all the time.” In the 1980s, the state provided a budget to commission art for television, which was seen as a means of democratising culture (“Growing up there, I thought it was completely normal to have artworks on TV,” says Džuverović.) One screen in the exhibition shows a televised interview with Laibach, the musical wing of NSK, repeating abstract slogans from their manifesto at great length while dressed in quasi-fascist uniforms. They wouldn’t have got that long on the BBC.

There were certainly limits to the state’s tolerance, and some works, such as Sven Stilinović’s Yugoslav flags made out razor blades and cotton wool, were concerned with testing these boundaries. Lazar Stojanović’s film Plastic Jesus set out to provoke by drawing a comparison between Yugoslav socialist imagery and Nazi symbolism (it succeeded, landing him a three-year jail sentence). There was censorship, too, but it was respectful, if such a thing is possible, rather than brutal. Džuverović recalls a text in which Želimir Žilnik described the censorship process as an interesting and civilised conversation with professionals from the field of culture, where he [Žilnik] was very welcome to contribute. Given that the state fully funded his films, you can almost forgive it.

Monuments Should Not be Trusted is not only important and overdue; it is a timely reminder of a world in which art played a central role in society. How far away that world seems today.

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