A Question of Fever: Balkan Art at the Austrian Cultural Council
ARTINAMERICA.com–Like their nations of origin, artists from the former Yugoslavia and neighboring countries have witnessed piqued interest in their work and problematic assimilation over the past decade. Major exhibitions in Vienna, Brussels, London and Rome, and newly erected national pavilions at the Venice Biennale are credited with generating a “Balkan fever” that continues to captivate the Western European art world. The artists supposedly eliciting said fever have complained of their work being exoticized and homogenized, the topic of conversation on the opening night of an exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum titled “Serbia FAQ.”
“These works are not exotic,” Belgrade-based artist Uroš Djurić reminded his audience in a panel discussion that opened the show. Curators Andreas Stadler and Branislav Dimitrijević were explicit in challenging Serbia’s “bad reputation” as an “intolerant and nationalistic people.” While the exhibition features artists from eight countries, spanning from Austria to Turkey, presenting a nuanced view of the wildly diverse peoples who populate the Balkan Peninsula is no easy task. The history of the Balkans, Mr. Stadler explained, is a “difficult, complex story” and “stereotypes are about simplifications.” “Serbia FAQ” is neither an attempt at explanation nor a celebration of difference. The show’s 19 artists deftly scan the topography.
On a tour of the show, Mr. Dimitrijević highlighted a video by Albanian artist Anri Sala featuring a man seated in a dim recording studio, mimicking the shrill of a Tomahawk cruise missile into a microphone. This sobering pitch, Mr. Dimitrijević explained, is familiar to every Serb “as the sound of NATO’s  bombing campaign.” The man’s gesture is a childlike antic that articulates an ingrained sense of mortality. The work evokes Hanna Arendt’s famous term, “banality of evil.” But what is evil in this case—the genocidal Serbian army or the disproportionate threat of NATO’s highly sophisticated military force? And was it not to protect the Albanian majority in Kosovo that NATO undertook its campaign? The best work in “Serbia FAQ” has this effect: leaving the viewer with no explicit path toward understanding the intricacies and sentiments of this historically conflict-ridden region. What makes Sala’s work successful is that it resists any easily identifiable logic of cultural signification.
Many of the works, like those by Raša Todosijević, Johanna Kandl and Zorana Todorović, take a defiant stance toward oversimplification, be it aesthetic or geopolitical. They navigate themes such as belonging, alienation and instability—and the fact that these are the clichéd themes of so-called Balkan art. The purpose of the show, it turns out, is not to “answer” those frequently asked questions but to “bring visibility to these artists… after 20 years of war in Yugoslavia,” Ms. Stadler said candidly to his opening night crowd. Whether this visibility is blurred by such a past remains to be seen.