The 1989 Jugoslovanski dokumenti exhibition sought to put Sarajevo on the map by curating a bold exhibit on contemporary Yugoslav art. Ambitious yet also grassroots, it was meant to embody what Croatian artist Željko Kipke would describe as the “trans-avant-garde” druga linija (“the other line”).
Sarajevo would grab global attention a few years later, but for far darker reasons than the celebration of a vibrant artistic spirit. Jugoslovanski dokumenti was one of the last nods to Yugoslav brotherhood and unity in a country quickly succumbing to, and crumbling under, rabid nationalism. Most of the art on show was lost or destroyed in the war, and the narrative of life in Yugoslavia from this time has become one of fragmentation and conflict, with little focus on the nation’s cultural and artistic legacy. However, the radical and eclectic nature of Yugoslav art before the war deserves exploration and celebration, not only for what it produced, but the context in which it did so.
Yugoslav art before the war was multifaceted and pioneering, with – to name just a few collectives – Neo-Geometric Conceptualists critiquing modernity’s mechanization and commercialization, New-Primitivists offering tongue-in-cheek lampoons of Balkan “backwardness” and provincialism, and the New Tendencies group exploring computer-generated art.
The fact that this type of radical art could be produced in an authoritarian socialist state is perhaps as interesting as the art itself.
This tension was probed at a recent discussion hosted by Contemporary Balkan Art (CoBA), a London-based art gallery representing emerging artists from the Balkans. During this event, COBA’s creative director, Dr. Ana Russell-Omaljev, interviewed art historian Dr. Marko Ilić on alternative art production in Yugoslavia from the 1970s and 80s.
Ilić stressed that Yugoslav artists during this time had the resources and opportunities to create art – often with financing from the state – without being asked to create propaganda for the regime in return.
“Socialist realism was discarded as an administrative intrusion,” Ilić explained. State-supported but nonetheless largely autonomous student culture centers and galleries became the home of performance and conceptual art – blending theatre, music, and new technologies.
During the COBA discussion, Ilić described how galleries and student cultural centers formed a transnational network that birthed boundary-pushing works, ideas and groups, including the “New Art Practice” which arose in the late ‘60s.
“New Art was paradoxical and complex” Ilić said. It embraced an eclectic array of performance, text, and abstracted figuration that often took to the streets rather than the galleries. “There was a reaction against traditional art, a dematerialization where art didn’t need be a sculpture or a painting. It broke though the idea of the art institution.”
Croatian painter and writer Josip Vaništa for example, questioned how art is consumed in Exhibition without Exhibits (1964), which put the viewers rather than art they were viewing on show, making the exhibit about those who attended, and how they engaged with each other. Vaništa also became known for creating art that was described instead of created. His work La Description (1964) types out the following on a piece of A4 paper: “A silver line on a white background, height 3 cm, length 180 cm, canvas size 140 x 180 cm.”
The OHO group, a Slovenian avant-garde artist group from the late 60s and early 70s, similarly tried to break down traditional understandings of where and how art should be consumed. Influenced by Reism – a philosophy that reduces all categories to concrete things – OHO used drawings, photographs, video, and fashion to subvert. “They looked at things independently from man’s use of them, using for example, plastic casts of bottles, to show it wasn’t about using the bottles,” Ilić said.
The production of avant-garde art in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s is surprising as Yugoslavia was not exactly an open country. Its authoritarian leader, Josip Broz Tito, quashed political opposition, and would send certain accused dissidents, Soviet sympathizers, and anti-Communists to labor camps. However, after Tito broke his alliance with the Soviet Union in 1948, he pursued an anti-Stalinist mode of left-wing government that opened up many new freedoms for Yugoslavians, who had a level of access to the West that was unknown to their Eastern European counterparts.
Although money was a limiting factor, citizens of Yugoslavia could travel abroad and import foreign goods, books, and magazines with relative ease. Many felt empowered by the rise of a market socialism centered around the principle of “self-management,” whereby workers had control over their workplace production and its redistribution of profits. This economic autonomy and “withering of the state” trickled down to the art world as well. Though blatantly anti-Tito art would have been problematic, the Party otherwise did not dictate what art should be created, despite providing the physical spaces and resources for it.
A consequence of this peculiar economic and political mode, which provided relatively high levels of artistic autonomy and state support, was hybrid and boundary-pushing experimental art. Many Yugoslav artists became known for pursuing what would become the “third way,” a means of creating and sharing art outside of the traditional “Eastern” or “Western” art scene.
Some of the art in Yugoslavia did chime in with broader European trends. For example, in the 1950s EXAT 51, a group of painters and architects in Zagreb, embraced form-focused and geometric art that echoed the Art Informel mode in Europe which adopted abstract expressionism. However, EXAT 51’s motivations were rooted in a different context, protesting the 1940s Socialist Realism art pressures that artists in France or Spain would not have similarly felt. Yugoslav artists in ‘60s through ‘80s, particularly those interested in conceptual art, remained outside of the “Western art” scene, which they found capitalistic and commodified.
“They were disillusioned with conceptual art, having gone to art fairs and seeing sheets of paper sold for thousands” Ilić explained. “Conceptual art had become commercial, but the objective of dematerialization was democratization.”
That being said, Yugoslav artists similarly did not relate to “Eastern” art that churned out political propaganda or tried to subvert it via underground dissident art. While art in Yugoslavia did not necessarily speak out against the regime, it also didn’t have to produce anything for it after the late 1940s.
This tension meant that Yugoslav artists in the late 20th century would approach the production, consumption and understanding of art from a unique vantage point. Their art was often apolitical, and embraced a creativity and expression that broke away from their own historical fine arts scene, as well as the trends seen in other countries.
In The Dialectical Chapel for example, which was exhibited in the 1976 Venice Biennale, Braco Dimitrijević placed two bronze busts next two each other, one of Leonardo da Vinci and the other of a random individual named Anđelko Hundić. Both are equally stately and glorified, leaving the viewer to decide whether each is worth commending, and how.
Yugoslav works from this time were often known for engaging with audiences using bold, in-your-face methods. Marina Abramović’s “Rhythm” series is a powerful example of Yugoslav art that put a mirror up to humanity’s face. In Rhythm 0 (1974) she invited individuals to use one of 72 objects she placed on a table – including a whip, lipstick, feather, saw, rosemary branch, and hammer – on her. The six-hour performance left her half-naked, bleeding, and with a gun to her head at one point. “I realized then that the public can kill you,” Abramović said after the performance.
Not all art from Yugoslavia was meant to be critical or spur contemplation about the human condition, however. In An Exercise With a Whistle in the Streets of Ljubljana (1969) Marko Pogačnik presented a light and irreverent project, walking through the streets of Ljubljana with a whistle in tow. When he whistled, the group around him froze, and when he whistled again, they would unfreeze.
The style of Yugoslav art in the ’60s through ‘80s is difficult to pin down – artists were incorporating everything from neo-constructivism to geometric symbolism, Art Informel to theatre, and new video technologies. However, what was created during that time period was a result of a completely unique mode of political, economic and artistic liberty and confinement.
This radical artistic element has unfortunately been somewhat forgotten, obscured by the dominant narrative of war and fragmentation that has come to define the former Yugoslavia. Perhaps it is time to pursue a “third way” in understanding the former Yugoslavia as well – through its bold artistic legacy.
Cover photo: New Tendencies