Issue 2/2004 - Rip-off Culture

A Historical Corset

A large-scale anthology attempts to trace the Yugoslavian avant-garde movements of the twentieth century

Suzana Milevska

The long-awaited book aiming at extrapolating the avant-garde movements in ex-Yugoslavia has arrived in the bookshops under the clever title: Impossible Histories: Historical Avant-gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991. Many art-history scholars and other experts interested in this field had ordered it even before its publication, since such a compendium was lacking not only on bookshelves in the West, but also in the already split Yugoslavia.
Although several chapters and articles devoted to the avant-garde and conceptual art in ex-Yugoslavia were now and then included in some more general publications on the art scenes of eastern Europe (eg. Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since 1950s. Ed. by Laura Hoptman and Tomá_ Pospiszyl. MOMA, New York, and MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, 2002), information on the art scene of one of the largest countries in south-eastern Europe was until now scattered throughout various books and catalogues. They are mostly written in one of the local languages and deal with only one of the scenes in any of the six different ex-Yugoslav republics. It should be mentioned that the problematic, politically determined interpretations that predominate in many of these texts owing to political conflicts between the historiographies and historiographers of different national backgrounds made most of these publications unusable for serious historic research. Therefore, it feels as if such a book was just waiting to be written.

The continuous conflicts in the newly derived neighbouring countries, which not long ago were republics and constituents of the same federal community, and the impermeable borders between them were difficulties hampering any profound research on this topic, but difficulties convincing enough to justify the urgency of such a publication. These kinds of difficulties are very well described in the introduction written by the editors, who focus on the problems that they faced during the process of collecting the materials and communications with the publisher, often coinciding with extremely unpredictable and severe circumstances caused by wartime conflicts and political instabilities.
The inevitable irony is that, precisely because of the urgency of such a publication, any review of its content cannot ignore some of the concrete methodological problems of the compilation itself, nor can it allow the obstacles to its realisation to serve as an excuse for some of the omissions made in the whole structure. By imagining the book as a source book, a thorough survey of often neglected and unknown movements, phenomena, events and individual artists from ex-Yugoslavia, the editors delineated their primary aim very clearly. And, as far as this aim goes, they were successful - some chapters more, some less, mostly depending on the different approach of the commissioned writers.

More problematic is the other task they set themselves, also very well explained in the opening chapter, written by one of the editors, Miodrag ·uvakoviç: Why Impossible Histories? ie. the aim to reflect on the wider conditions that led to certain art phenomena specific to the Yugoslav art scene. There is an uncomfortable and unbridgeable contradiction between the task announced here of re-contextualising art production within the concrete social, political, and economic context, and the overall structure of the book, which is mainly divided into chapters devoted to the development of different arts and media (poetry, architecture, photography, theatre, film, or video). Such a contradiction necessarily entrapped the commissioned articles and their writers within the limiting maze of either a historical or a structuralist framework.

It is a little disappointing that Miodrag ·uvakoviç, an acknowledged author of several books on the aesthetics of postmodern art, has agreed to such a formalist methodological device, and has not attempted a more courageous methodological agenda. He should have better anticipated the internal incoherence between the ambition to deconstruct previous histories and to reveal the ‘impossible’, neglected histories of avant-garde and conceptual movements on the one hand, and the pragmatic choice of doing that by discussing the development of different arts and media in ex-Yugoslavia on the other. Or perhaps he did, in view of the fact that he reserved for himself one of the rare chapters in the book that is not solely devoted to the chronological development of a medium (the one on Conceptual Art), but can nevertheless be counted as among the better researched and written ones.

The other texts that avoided the schematics of linear historic development within one medium, such as ‘Neue Slowenische Kunst’ by Marina GrÏiniç, or ‘Inside and Outside ‘Social Modernism’ by Je_a Denegri, prove the assumption that texts dealing with phenomena specific to the Yugoslav scene are more urgent and justify the need for such a publishing effort. Therefore, the last part of the book, the compiling and translating of the manifestos and other authentic texts written by different artists, inevitably makes up the biggest enterprise of this compilation.

Several important questions: the issue of gender difference and representation of women artists in the context of overall art politics in ex-Yugoslavia, the specific politically correct system of (un)equal representation of the art of different nations and ethnic groups within the ex-Yugoslavian art scene and abroad (the system of quota), or the great outburst of various experimental and post-conceptual practices in the 80’s in all Yugoslav republics, are hinted at, but explored only in a fragmentary fashion, if not neglected or completely ignored. Some of the texts echo the hidden and unuttered political structures and statements, not to mention the obvious ignorance of the ‘others’ within Yugoslavia (usually the Macedonians or the Kosovo Albanians), which can be easily ‘illustrated’ by the complete absence of any text or reproduction of art works signed by any other national representatives but Serbs, Slovenians or Croatians (with the one exception of a reproduced work by the Sarajevo art group ‘Zvono’).

Without giving any comprehensible interpretation for such choices made of writers and artists from this country, which has non-existed already for 15 years, this book can only underline the absurdity of any effort to write and edit it when deliberately ignoring the serious influence of the political context on art production in these specific conditions. If the fact that, in ex-Yugoslavia, the politics of representation of different constituents and therefore their art used to be problematic and only professedly democratic is self-evident today (the slogan ‘brotherhood and unity’ even resonates with bloodshed), the newly published book could have at least acknowledged and deconstructed such a policy instead of miming it.
Thus one cannot but agree with the last paragraph from the editors’ introduction: ‘In closing, we recall the words of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, who once wrote that “a characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political”. Impossible Histories considers art and reveals, through art, the complex network of narration, fiction, and phantasms that managed or are being managed by the machinery of politics: art and politics intertwine in an unbearable drone’, but only if an additional and indispensable comment is allowed: that unfortunately the book Impossible Histories obviously could not have been spared such a destiny itself.


Translated by Timothy Jones


1 Vgl. etwa Primary Documents. A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s. Ed. by Laura Hoptman and Tomás Pospiszyl.
New York, MOMA and Cambridge, Mass./London: MIT Press 2002