It is now almost 30 years since the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, the urge for independence in some of the country’s constitutive republics, fueled in part by ultra-nationalist tendencies, proved a particular trial for a peace order in south-eastern Europe that long seemed impossible. Ongoing wars, repeated flare-ups of conflicts and the kind of ethnic “purges” that occurred in the 1990s continue to have a traumatic impact that resonates to this day in ways scarcely considered possible on the threshold to the 21st century.
At times unstable peace agreements have meanwhile become established, although these are somewhat disputed and continue to spark further conflicts. Separatist tendencies and border demarcations within and around the region remain burning issues that—overshadowed by other, more “visible” conflict regions—often keep smoldering away unnoticed nowadays. Even remembrance remains controversial, or rather the question of how these wars, conducted with such ferocity and brutality, are commemorated. The various successor states have very different cultures of remembrance, which also means that to this day there is no uniform interpretation of the Balkan wars. As in other regions, there is also a real sense that the democratic process has stalled, often due to tensions that had already emerged in the 1990s. In any case, the transformation process from what were initially often authoritarian systems to a democratic order did not proceed as smoothly and readily as had been initially hoped.
What does that mean for this region’s art and culture? What impact does it have, especially on a younger generation of artists who in many cases were children during the war, yet were still decisively shaped by those experiences? How are the fairly recent disintegration of the state structure and the at times horrendous phenomena accompanying that process manifested in contemporary artistic approaches?
The Post-Yugoslavia issue addresses these questions and gives artists and authors from the region space to have their say. This issue has been produced in cooperation with the “Westbalkan” artist-in-residence program, run by the Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs (BMEIA) since 2016 in conjunction with Q21 at MuseumsQuartier Vienna.
At the initiative of Karin Cervenka, to whom we wish to convey our sincere gratitude for her cooperation in preparing this issue, over the past three years, many renowned artists from the successor states of Yugoslavia and from Albania have been able to realize projects under the aegis of this program.
Some of these projects, accompanied by or embedded in broader critical reflections, are documented in this issue or adapted for the magazine format. Although it is impossible to fully represent here the two dozen or so artists who have participated in the “Western Balkans” program to date, the projects selected are intended to provide an insightful cross-section into the artistic creation addressed. This artistic work does not ignore the long shadow of war while, conversely, critically assimilating various cultures of remembrance and commemorative policies.
Lana Čmajčanin’s Project Blank Maps, which is presented at the beginning of the thematic section, is emblematic of this historico-critical work. The palimpsest of superimposed historical maps of the Balkan region conveys in a nutshell the conflicts, eradications and re-drawings of borders that define the region to this day. Jelena Petrović uses this as a basis for her reflections on the framing conditions for a resolutely “post-Yugoslavian” art. Her main focus is on the concern or unease that many artists feel about the geopolitical categorization imposed on them. Alban Muja depicts such rigid definitions in his conceptual photo series Borders Without Borders: it shows border posts, erected at some point along the EU’s external border, that are now functionless, while at the same time warning us of the border regimes that can be reactivated at any time (and are historically contingent).
The work EE-O by Lala Raščić also addresses the question of the direction taken by a Europe that has integrated parts of former Yugoslavia but excludes others. A number of other pieces shed a critical light on the emergence of “new” nation states, symbolized by Raščić through the mythical spider figure Arachne: Danilo Prnjat explores the temptations and dangers of trying to unify nationally connoted art (in this case that of Serbian-born artists) under some kind of common logo.
The absurdity of such restrictive recoding is revealed in a historical overview of important episodes in Yugoslavia’s modern art and culture: in their essay, combining text and images, Jelena Vesić and Darinka Pop-Mitić demonstrate the far-reaching scope of a notion of solidarity that extended beyond the national framework in the 1970s, when the idea of the commons could easily spread across continents.
The flip side of this notion of the commons is unfurled in Damir Arsenijević’s impressive piece on the painful, though necessary, politics of remembrance in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It not only highlights key aspects of what the cruel process of disintegration meant in tangible terms for a country like BIH, but also asserts individual (in this case class-specific) perspectives.
One of the greatest challenges of the present lies precisely in the crucial mediation between such individual perspectives and ideas of a broader commons that extends beyond the frame of the national level. That is a challenge for which “post-Yugoslavia” could prove an extremely revealing case-study.