Posts Tagged ‘ Art ’

Sarajevo Film Festival Review

Without wishing to sound redundant of the film descriptions on the website, I would like to point out a few regional films that I saw last week at the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival. As previously mentioned, the festival holds a large international appeal, with visitors and films from all around the world.  The festival was well organized, and tickets ranged from 2.5-7 euros.  Based on my interests, I mainly watched films from Southeast Europe.

Na Putu

In my opinion, the idea for the plot of Na Putu (On the Path; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany and Croatia, 2010) was extremely interesting.  The film portrayed a young couple Luna and Amar, very much in love,  living in Sarajevo and trying to have a baby.  Although from Muslim background, they do not attend mosque or practice their religion.  After getting fired from his job, Amar accepts a well-paid job at a Wahhabi commune.  The viewers watch as this fundamentalist Muslim community influences Amar’s personal beliefs, and inevitably, his relationship with his wife Luna.  I found the character development to be very weak in this film, and it is hard to believe Amar’s drastic transition.  However, the film is valuable in that it teaches something about the Wahhabi community in Bosnia, and how they clash with the moderate Muslims in the country.  Although I am not very familiar with this group, the film prompted me to do a little investigation.

The fundamentalist Wahhabi movement is a radical group which preaches a ‘pure Islam.’ It originated in Saudi Arabia in the early 18th century and preaches religious intolerance towards other religious groups, including moderate Muslims.  Wahhabi Muslims first came to Bosnia during the war to fight on the side of the Muslims, and many have remained in the country since.  They preach about a traditional Islam, have some schools around Bosnia, and even have operated a terrorist training camp in Southern Serbia.  According to one article, there is a growing number of Al Qaida sympathizers in Bosnia.  According to another article, Islamic studies experts consider this group a threat, and that most of their support comes from Saudi Arabia.  The article also states that according to intelligence sources, Five of the ‘9/11’ attackers had served as Wahhabi sponsored fighters in Bosnia.   Although I cannot comment on the accuracy of the portrayal of this community in Na Putu, I felt that the film provided a fascinating insight into the lives of Wahhabi Muslims in Bosnia.

Zajedno (Together), a documentary from Croatia (2009), featured other underrepresented communities in the region.  The film seemed rather low-budget, and it mainly consisted of interviews about the relationships of different people and couples.  For example, a lesbian couple is followed, and one can see how they act differently in Zagreb than in a smaller town in Croatia.  Many people are not accepting of their relationship.  The film also centers around members of the handicapped community in Croatia, and their limitations in society.  This film was not my favorite, but was valuable and even funny at times as various couples commented about love and relationships.

A Scene from Sevdah za Karima

I found Sevdah za Karima (Sevdah for Karim, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Croatia 2010) to be a gem of the festival.  The cinematography was artistic and interesting, and the character development believable and subtle.  Viewers witness the feeling of despair that young adults had in Bosnia immediately after the war.  The film centers around Karim, a Muslim man from Sarajevo.  He seems to be in his twenties right after the war finishes.  He is a failed philosophy student, trying to provide for his sister.  Despite the fact that his parents were killed by a mine during the war, and that Karim himself lost a leg from a mine, he took a job clearing mines in the mountains of Bosnia.  Obviously, this was not an easy film to watch.  The whole audience held their breath as Karim and his colleagues cleared mine fields.  They were not always successful at this highly dangerous job.  Karim had many friends who got mixed up in drugs and violence after the war.  Also, many of his friends from work decided to take jobs with the US military deployment in Iraq.  As a young person currently in my twenties, I thought about what I would do if I were in the position of the characters in this film.  Sevdah za Karima shows how the war continued long after the peace agreements were signed.

A novel by Slavenka Drakulic

Lastly, the best film that I saw from the region last week was Kao da me nema (As If I am not There, Ireland 2010).  The film was based on a book by my favorite author, Slavenka Drakulic.  She is a journalist and author from Croatia and has written many books and articles about the region.  I respect her ability to include just enough personal information into her writing about life in the former-Yugoslavia.  Her books are extremely insightful and well-researched, but they are enjoyable and read like novels.  This film was based on the book As If I am not There, which is called “S” on the English translation.  S. is the initial of the main character of the book… a young teacher in her 20s from Sarajevo, who accepts a job in a mountain village school in Bosnia.  One morning she wakes up and is told to board a bus and leave her home.  Women listen as the men in the village are killed, and they are forced to board buses and live for many months in a camp run by Serbian soldiers.  The film follows this school teacher, as she was selected for the “Women’s Room” in the camp, subjected to constant rape and violence.  The story shows how she survives this horrible part of her life, and how she deals with the emotional aftermath.  The novel and film both begin with this aftermath – S. is in a hospital in a foreign country, trying to deal with her newborn, unwanted child, that only instigates horrible memories.

I felt privileged to watch this film at the festival.  Many of the actors were present, and my idol Slavenka Drakulic herself.  It was actually the first time she herself saw this film based on her book.  Sitting in the theatre, I have never in my life felt so affected by a film.  I felt completely paralyzed in my chair, unable to turn away from the horrible actions taking place on the big screen in front of me.  In fact, a noticeable amount of people actually left the theatre, unable to watch.  Despite the difficulty of this film, it was perhaps the most powerful film I have ever seen and I would recommend both the book and the film to anyone interested in the wars surrounding breakup of Yugoslavia.  Usually I like books better than the films based on books, but I felt that in this case, both the film and the novel had something different to offer.  In the book, readers witness more character development as they read the most intimate thoughts of the main character.  A film cannot provide such detailed thoughts.  However, the visual aspect of the film forced the viewers to watch the events taking place.  Although the book described the same horrible events, I was able to keep some distance while reading that I was unable to maintain while watching the film.

All in all, I immensely enjoyed the film festival, and I hope to attend next year.  Films from this region are not so accessible in the United States, and this was a great opportunity for me to watch some of the best films from Southeast Europe with English subtitles.

Advertisements

Introducing the Annual Sarajevo Film Festival

Sarajevo is filled with anticipation for the annual international film festival that begins today July 22 and lasts until July 31, 2010. The festival will take place earlier than normal this year because Ramadan is in August, and they are expecting about 100,000 visitors for the event. Tourists have arrived in the city, posters advertising the festival hang in every shop window, and men are hard at work setting up outdoor stages and rolling down red carpets. The program is mainly focused on Southeast Europe but will feature films from around the world, and several theaters around the city will show the films all day long.

The website boasts that this is the 16th year of the event, but those from the city know that the festival has a longer history. According to the website, the festival was founded in 1995 after the siege, and the cultural event helps to “recreate civil society” in the city. However, film students from the city tell me something different. The festival did in fact take place during the siege and was organized by Haris Pašović, a theater and film director from Sarajevo. Pašović organized the first Sarajevo film festival in 1993 called “Beyond the End of the World.” The city had no food, water or electricity, let alone projectors and screens to show films. Somehow by petitioning the international community, Pašović received around 200 films from around the world. He found a projector and a generator, and hundreds of people waited out front of the National Theatre for tickets, despite the constant sniper fire around the city.

In the article he wrote in Oslobodjene newspaper that accompanied the festival program in 1993, Pašović addresses the city under siege and the people being annihilated. After comparing the genocide of the Bosnian Muslims to the Holocaust and Jews, he writes “Sarajevo is the city in which the world of the twentieth century, the world to which we were born and brought up, has died. In other places the dying is taking place. Here we live beyond the end of the world.” This statement reflects the title of the festival, and he describes the fundamental human need for art, even (or especially) at a time of war. He states that being constantly close to death means longing for things like art and love in the strongest way.

Pašović did not worry about picture quality or sound at the 1993 Sarajevo film festival. The list of international supporters was very long, and the organizers stated in their newspaper program that they “could not promise anything.” It did not stick to the schedule, and many of the promised films and guests did not show. In 1993, there was no glamor, parties or red carpet. This is a striking contrast from this year’s festival which will honor special guest Morgan Freeman, and other stars will be whisked off to Dubrovnik for post-festival parties. The glossy program and efficient box offices today seem well rehearsed after many years of this annual festival. The organizers of the festival have changed, and so they write that the festival began 16 years ago and they do not mention its start in 1993. I wonder how the “Beyond the End of the World” festival felt for people of the city- they risked their lives for a bit of culture in a time of war, and heard gun shots outside as they watched films from around the world. I am happy for the city of Sarajevo, that they have come so far since the end of the war, and that they host such a well-attended international event. However, as I walk around the city and see artsy foreigners claiming to be emerging directors with their bold clothes and oozing confidence, I cannot help but to wonder about the humble beginnings of the festival in 1993.

Sources:

Sarajevo Film Festival Website

Haris Pasovic- The City Engaged

International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam

Hjorth, Daniel and Monika Kostera, ed.  Entrepreneurship and the Experience Economy.  Copenhagen Business School Press, 2007.  (Found on Google Books)

Note:  I will be attending films from this region, including Years Eaten By Lions, Sevdah for Karim, On the Path, As If I am Not There, Together, The Flood/Kapitalism, I Even Met Happy Gypsies, as well as Lebanon.  The website contains a synopsis for each film.  I look forward to writing about Southeast European film in a later post.

Conflicts of Ostalgie: Budapest’s Statue Park

After World War II, the Soviet Union’s political, economic, and military consolidation of Central and Eastern Europe was enforced through a highly visible ideological campaign.  Symbols of change and progress were constructed in the form of buildings, bridges, and towers adorned with the Red Star of Communism.  Posters of Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin ushering in a utopian future hung in classrooms and factories, while statues of triumphant workers reflected that under the Soviet regime, art was used as a tool to educate the masses about the rewards of a collective society.  Other propagandistic monuments honoring the Soviet Army’s triumph over Nazi fascism were seen in every park and city square throughout Russia and the Soviet bloc countries in the post-war era.  These public works were blatantly symbolic of a new future.

Entrance to Budapest's Statue Park

The fate of these monuments in the post-Communist era, that is, after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall and the 1991 fall of Communism, differed in each country of Central and East Europe.  Focusing on the monuments of one place, Budapest, one can examine the collective memory of Hungarians through memorialization of their recent history.  This former Soviet bloc country has dealt with the symbols of its Communist past in the form of an open-air sculpture museum called Statue Park. Many Hungarians have found this to be a useful though problematic solution for what to do with their Soviet era statues, which reflects collective memory of Hungary’s unique history during the Communist period.

Propaganda Poster of Comrade Rakosi

Hungary is a special example on which to focus because of its history during Communism, which began with practically a dictatorship and ended with relatively good living conditions in comparison to neighboring countries. Mátyás Rákosi, the chief secretary of the Communist Party during the Stalinist period, exercised totalitarian rule over the country and ruthlessly persecuted innocent people deemed to be “state enemies” with his special police force.  No other leader was trusted more by Stalin, and Rákosi developed a cult of personality with his images and statues spread throughout the country to remind everyone of his “wisdom”.

With a failing economy, poor living conditions, and virtually no freedom of speech, student demonstrators attempted to regain control of their own government with both large and small demands during the 1956 Revolution. In addition to demanding the removal of the Soviet troops and insisting on the right to free press, Hungarian revolutionaries insisted upon many symbolic changes, such as the replacement of the Soviet military uniforms with the old Hungarian style uniforms, the restoration of national holidays, and the coat of arms switched back to tradition.  Visible symbols are extremely meaningful and as in the words of George Schöpflin, the ‘use of flags, monuments and ceremonies is not a superfluous extravagance, but a central component of identity creation and maintenance”.  Although the Revolution worked for a short time, within weeks the Soviet Army regrouped and returned to control Hungary with a vengeance.  Many of the demonstrators were killed or injured, and after the Soviet Union regained control, thousands were imprisoned for having participated in the rebellion, and over two hundred people received the death penalty.  Until the fall of Communism in 1991, the records of this Revolution were hidden in Hungary and Hungarians were not permitted by the government to mention the events that took place in 1956.

1956 Hungarian Revolution

By the mid-1960s, life in Hungary improved with János Kádár as prime minister. He conducted a great deal of counterrevolutionary terror in the beginning years of his political office, but he also reorganized and reformed the Communist government.  In contrast to Rákosi, Kádár worked under the motto of “who is not against us is with us” and populations of other communist countries looked at developments in Hungary with envy.  He produced a set of economic reforms and allowed peasants to own private plots of land and to sell their products at uncontrolled prices in an open market.  The country’s economy thrived and Hungary had many goods and amenities not available in neighboring countries.  Greater value was placed on public opinion and human rights improved.  Often the period under Kádár with its mix of ideologies is referred to as “goulash communism” which is a witty pun on the national dish with many ingredients.

This unique communist history of Hungary influenced the debates that emerged over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments that still spread throughout the capital city Budapest in 1991. Statue Park, one solution to the Soviet monument problem, is a physical manifestation of the mixed feelings Hungarians have towards their communist past. Budapest’s post-Communist city authorities were divided over the question of what to do with the most visible symbols of the old Soviet regime.  Numerous statues and monuments stood throughout the city honoring both Soviet and Hungarian Communist leaders and many suggestions were proposed for how to handle these symbols”.  One group campaigned to have all of the statues removed in order to cleanse the city of Communist traces.  A more extremist group threatened to blow up the statues if they were not taken away.  Yet another group thought the statues should remain in their respective places as reminders of Hungary’s experience with the Communism, which helped to shape its history.  There were many residents of Budapest who did not care one way or another.

In December 1991 the General Assembly of Budapest reached a decision.  Each individual district of Budapest would decide for itself which of the statues were to be removed and which would remain in place.   This process exemplified the new democracy in Hungary.  If a district opted to have the statues removed, they would not be destroyed; rather, they would be relocated to Statue Park, the new sculpture park on the outskirts of the Budapest. The cost of relocation was estimated at an exorbitant $616,000 due to the sheer size and massive weight of the Soviet style public sculptures.  However, Budapest city authorities predicted that these costs would be recovered by the financial gains of a sculpture park that could tap into the huge foreign tourist boom that the city was experiencing since the fall of Communism.

Ariel View of the Design of Statue Park

A competition called for designs for Statue Park, and the Hungarian architect Arkos Eleod was chosen democratically through a juried selection process.  Eleod’s intention was to create a park both politically and artistically neutral, neither celebrating nor condemning Communism.  His purpose was to acknowledge the statues as part of the history of Hungary.  Eleod did not want to create a park to express his own anti-propaganda message, as he did not want to erase the original meanings of the sculptures.   Although Western critics have unfairly labeled Eleod’s park a “theme park,” Statue Park was intended to be and succeeds at being an open-air museum that thoughtfully commemorates a significant aspect of modern Hungarian history.

Statue Park, built on a half-acre of land in southern Budapest, opened to visitors in 1993.  Despite its name, the open-air museum contains more than just statues.  It consists of a wide variety of monuments from the Communist period, most dating from after the 1956 Revolution. Of the forty-one sculptures in the space, seventeen are statues or busts, thirteen are memorial plaques and the remaining eleven are metal or stone monuments.   Situated near the entrance of the Park are the sculpted boots from the Stalin monument that the 1956 revolutionaries demanded to be removed and ultimately chopped down at the knees.  For several days after the Revolution, Stalin’s disembodied boots symbolically stood on their pedestal, as they do today near the entrance of Statue Park.

Stalin's Boots Through the Entrance of Statue Park

The carefully designed Statue Park assigns these re-located massive statues new meanings.   Considerable attention was given to the organization of the Park so that it would avoid looking like a dumping ground for old memorials.  The design and layout contains many references to the Soviet period.  Statues of Marx and Lenin stand within an imposing façade at the entrance.  The red brick structure mocks Neoclassical Socialist Realist architecture, a style that aimed to make Russia “a natural successor to classical architecture but on its own legitimate terms”.   The Park itself is arranged with figure eight-shaped pathways that radiate off one central straight pathway.  The statues and monuments are displayed around these figure-eights. In the center of the Park, there is a flowerbed that forms the shape of a Soviet star.  Whichever direction visitors walk, they are led back to the same starting point.  The central pathway that abruptly leads to a brick wall is essentially a dead end. This obstacle, along with the whole layout, according to historian Duncan Light, represents the “dead end” that Communism represented for Hungary.

Based on Western museum models, Statue Park is owned by the city of Budapest but operated by a private company.  The company charges a small admission fee and manages the modest souvenir shop. The shop sells t-shirts with anti-Communist slogans, lighters depicting Lenin’s face, CDs of Communist music, as well as assorted candles, postcards, and posters.  One poster, as a spoof on the cartoon South Park, features Communist figures Lenin and Stalin standing in what is labeled “East Park”.  Such clever merchandise tempts the many Western visitors to the Park.  Yet the souvenirs are not the only reason tourists come to Statue Park. Many foreign visitors come to this unusual tourist attraction to gain a deeper understanding of Budapest’s history.  Their seriousness is revealed by the fact that they must seek out a bus to travel about 30 minutes from the city center to get to the Park, located in an out-of-the-way district of the city bordering a working class, industrial suburb.

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Graveyard for Fallen Monuments, Russia

Statue Park, while unique in many ways within Central and Eastern Europe, is not the only park of its kind in former Communist countries.  Both Russia and Lithuania have placed their respective Communist statues in parks as well. Neither the Russian nor the Lithuanian park functions as an outdoor museum, and the Russian park does not appear to be as well planned as Statue Park.  In Moscow, Russian officials placed some Communist-era monuments in a park named ‘Graveyard for Fallen Monuments’.   Here, a few Communist statues are haphazardly displayed among hundreds of other monuments that have little to do with the politics of the Soviet era, many perhaps commissioned during Lenin’s public art campaign in 1918.  All the statues have been removed from their original locations and dispersed throughout a grassy field.  This carefree atmosphere detracts from the Communist statues, which are inexplicably placed next to sculptures of cats, Ghandi, and other subjects.  The seemingly arbitrarily chosen and arranged statues suggest to visitors that Russia is brushing over its Communist history.

The Lithuanians have taken a more methodical approach with their outdoor statue display called Grutas Park.  Coined “Stalin World” by the locals, the park presents Lithuania’s Soviet-era statues along a beautifully landscaped path surrounded by lush trees and a lake. In addition to this open-air display and an outdoor gallery, Grutas Park is also host to an amusement park, a playground, a campsite, and even a zoo.  In this context, the Communist statues become part of a “Disneyesque” entertainment park, which in turn diminishes the seriousness of the Lithuanian effort to memorialize its history.

Grutas Park, Lithuania

James Young studies the ever-evolving relationship between a state and its memorials.  He writes that, “on the one hand, official agencies are in position to shape memory explicitly as they see fit, memory that best serves a national interest.  On the Other hand, once created, memorials take on lives of their own, often stubbornly resistant to the state’s original intentions”.   Although speaking of Holocaust memorials, these sentiments are true for the memorials in Statue Park.  The Communist authorities created the Soviet-era statues in Statue Park for propagandistic reasons.  In post-Communist Hungary, new meanings are assigned to these “leftovers” that reflect the new independent state.  Statue Park, the carefully constructed site of these statues, acts as a memorial in itself.  As Young explains, “New generations visit memorials under new circumstances and invest them with new meanings” .  Statue Park allows for a location for this act of collective identity construction.  As a place to reflect, the park shows Hungarian’s mixed feelings of the country’s recent past.

A preliminary interpretation of Budapest’s Statue Park asserts that the creation of such a park reflects Hungary’s confidence in the post-Communist era.  The Park suggests that the country is accepting of its past and wants to remember this critical period in its history.  Despite Hungary’s initial debate over what to do with the Soviet-era monuments throughout Budapest, there was surprisingly little protest over the construction of Statue Park.  This acceptance of the Park reflects the country’s history of “goulash communism”, which was a mix of ideologies and not communism in the strictest sense. Although Hungary had a harsh dictator for the Stalinist era, by the mid-1960s life in the country improved in comparison to neighboring countries.  With this history of political extremities, collective memory of communism in Hungary reflects mixed sentiments, as shown in Statue Park.    The National History Museum in Budapest, another popular tourist destination, seems to take a similar stance of acceptance of communism, but one that is also tempered with historical amnesia.  Opened in 1996, the museum contains a gallery that includes patriotic posters, a statue of Stalin, and displays on the gradual collapse of Communism over many decades.   The artifacts are presented as symbols of how Hungary overcame Communism but with little mention of the hardships the country endured.

Upon further consideration, Statue Park also represents how Hungarians are uneasy with their communist history.  The Park was built on the outskirts of Budapest, so that only the most dedicated of tourists will visit.  The statues were removed from the most prominent locations around the city to the periphery.  Although the park was carefully designed, the location alone shows that Hungarians are not entirely accepting of their communist past. Although the economic situation in Hungary prospered after the mid-1960s and many consumer goods were available that were non-existent in neighboring countries, people did not have the freedom of expression of a democratic society.  For example, people were not allowed to speak of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 throughout the communist years or they would be considered subversive.

Statue Park promotes this multi-faceted way of remembering the Soviet period, as the sculptures carry meanings from their original contexts in the streets of Budapest and assume new, more critical meanings from their placement in the Park. Some native Hungarians are perplexed and even saddened that Statue Park draws such tourist appeal.  Perhaps these are the Hungarians who wish to ignore or erase the Communist period of their history.  However, other Hungarians are attracted to the nostalgia the Park offers.  For decades, Communism was the only life they knew.   Germany has a term for this sentiment: ostalgie.  The word, which is a combination of ost for east, and nostalgie for nostalgia, describes an East German longing for items that were no longer sold after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of East and West Berlin.  Some East Berliners missed specific food brands and old television shows, which led a re-unifed Germany to cater to this market, despite the fact that these products symbolize oppression under a former Socialist regime.

With regard to Statue Park, this concept of ostalgie comes into play most overtly with the souvenir CD of Communist propaganda songs that is sold at the gift shop and played over the loud speakers in the Park itself.  The shop originally released the CD, which satirizes the Soviet era and presumably expresses disdain for that time.  Ironically, the album is loved by young Hungarians and reached number one on the Hungarian music charts.  This suggests that feelings towards Communism in Hungary are not only complex and but that the meanings of Statue Park and its merchandise are far from monolithic.

Statue Park Logo

Statue Park can be seen as an ideal way for a country like Hungary to at once remember its past and look to the future.  Statue Park symbolically overcomes the Soviet era without ignoring it completely.  The outdoor space keeps the memorials in a contained area removed from the city center.  Hungarians and foreign visitors who were once confronted constantly with the Communist statues throughout central Budapest must now make a special trip to the outskirts of the city to seek out the experience.  Tourists can make the trip, as can nostalgic, curious, or historically conscious Hungarians.  By displaying the individual memorials in a closed-off space, far from their original locations, the Park allows Hungarians to preserve their history but also put it in its place.  Although Hungarians remain ambivalent and divided about Statue Park and their own unique Communist history, they are confronting their past in ways that suit their cultural needs and political ambitions.  Statue Park, in its strategically chosen location and well-thought out design, reflects Hungary’s desire to compartmentalize its past while forging ahead with its future.

Click below for a list of my resources for this post…

statue park bibliography

Painting Politics: Why Edi Rama Matters

Edi Rama

A former painter turned politician, Edi Rama is the chair of the Socialist Democrat party in Albania and the capital city of Tirana’s three-term mayor.  While teaching at the Academy of Arts in Tirana, he was active during the anti-communist revolution and he co-authored a book in 1992 condemning Enver Hoxha’s regime.  The book called “Refleksione” discussed thoughts on emigration, economics and the future of Albania. Rama criticized the Democratic Party because of its corruption and more specifically, he often spoke out against Sali Berisha while abroad during his time as an internationally recognized visual artist.  Now that he is mayor of Tirana, it seems as though Rama is still struggling with the same fights today.

Albania applied for NATO membership on April 1st of last year, and submitted its application to join the EU less than a month later. It now has to receive a positive European Commission assessment of its preparedness for accession talks to be recognized as an official EU candidate.  The country’s future looked a bit brighter until the parliamentary elections on June 28, 2009. Prime Minister Sali Berisha’s right-wing Democratic Party (DP) and its coalition partners won the vote and a second term with a marginal 1.5% victory over the Socialist Party (SP), led by Edi Rama. The SP contested the election results, claiming they were manipulated, and called for a thorough investigation into the poll and a recount of votes, but Berisha rejected that demand. As a result, the SP, which won 65 of the 140 seats in parliament, has been boycotting the assembly since September, thus paralyzing the adoption of EU required laws. While the ruling DP-led coalition has a 75-seat majority in parliament, most of the bills the country must pass to make further progress on its EU integration path would require a three-fifths majority — 84 votes.  The point is that Albania’s government has not functioned since September because of this boycott and a year that could have been used to start adopting EU law was wasted.

Edi Rama's Colors

Rama has a bold style when it comes to reform, and he rid the city of many illegally constructed buildings, expanded roads, and built many parks.  Although I have not been to Albania (yet), I first learned the name Edi Rama when I read about the brightly colored buildings in the capital.  Sparking a great deal of controversy, Rama issued a decree to paint the gray communist buildings with bright, even a bit garish colors.  They bought red, blue, yellow and green, and even mauve, lilac and taupe and the city was transformed.  I like the idea of this project for many different reasons.  Even though I have not been to Tirana, I’ve spent enough time in East Europe to know that communist buildings can be a bit…gray.  Also, this project taught the residents of Tirana to share responsibility for their city.  This aesthetic and political act prompted many other social reform projects, and even livened up the art scene in Tirana, which now has an international contemporary art biennale.  In my opinion, however, the biggest success of what is now known as “Edi Rama’s Colors” is that the project gives visible evidence to social change, using the city itself as a canvas.

Despite Rama’s positive reforms and popularity, he led this boycott of parliament, which created a lasting political crisis and paralyzed the government.  He felt that the elections were fraudulent and he is unwilling to let the Socialist Party remain the opposition for another four years.  The EU, USA, Council of Europe and OSCE have tried to mediate talks between the parties, but neither side will budge.  The OSCE mission in Albania says that the country’s elections never meet international standards, although some progress was made during this last round.  In fact, in every election held in Albania since the end of the communist era in 1991, the “loser” has complained, accusing the “winner” of electoral fraud.  This election was no different.  Rama led a series of protests around the country over the past 6 months, but currently, they seem bigger and more exasperated than ever.  This weekend tens of thousands of people protested in Tirana starting on Friday, demanding a recount of the votes.  Some people are even claiming that they will not leave the square until the recount takes place.  Tents were erected, and a few hundred people (including a couple of dozen parliament members from the SP) are not giving up.  There are even talks of a possible hunger strike.

Because I am a former art student who now studies East European history and politics, I have a bit of a soft spot for Edi Rama.  He often makes comparisons between politics and conceptual art, and I appreciate his passionate and bold reforms.  However, I think that this stalemate in Albania’s parliament has lasted way too long.  I think that Edi Rama seems like the type of person who sometimes creates messes and doesn’t know how to fix them.  He must have thought the boycott of parliament would work by now, but he needs Plan B.  Are hunger strikes really the answer?  And what is the point of the OSCE monitoring elections?  The OSCE says that the elections are never up to international standards, but do they have the power to do anything about it?  Probably not.  If the elections were democratic in the first place, Berisha wouldn’t mind a recount, but most likely he knows he does not deserve to be in power.  Finally, I wonder when these politicians will think less about their own power, and more about the future for Albania.  Albania is ready to start making the necessary reforms on the path to EU membership.  First however, the country needs to wait out the several decade long bickering of archrivals Sali Berisha and Edi Rama.

Sarajevo’s Contemporary Art Scene

Even though I only visited Sarajevo for a few days this summer, I did not get the impression that the city has a thriving contemporary art scene.  We toured the National Museum and the Bosnian History Museum but did not have enough time for gallery-hopping.  Sarajevo is a great city for strolling through the narrow, bustling streets but one does not see public art while walking.  In fact, the only public art that I did see was outside the National Museum- an ironic concrete block with the inscription: “Under this stone there is a monument to the victims of the war and Cold War.”  I snapped a photo as I am interested in public art and memorializing without realizing until today that the piece is by the only Bosnian artist I know, Braco Dimitrijević.  In October 2007, I drove four hours from my university to hear him speak near my parent’s home in Philadelphia.  He spoke at the Slought Foundation on his series “The Casual Passer-By” and although my father fell asleep in the audience and I did not understand everything he discussed, these early experiences led me to study the Balkans today.


Still, there must be more to Bosnian contemporary art than Braco Dimitrijević.  Today I am thrilled to read an article in the NY Times travel section discussing this very topic.  The article illuminates the struggles of contemporary art in Sarajevo, the gallery scene, and hopes for the future.  I am pleased to read that abandoned spaces in the city are now used to showcase local contemporary art.  Apparently the Ars Aevi contemporary art museum is open by appointment only because of financial reasons, but other galleries are mentioned that I would like to check out on my next visit.  Finally, I learned that Bosnia is planning a biennial for contemporary art to begin in 2011 if all goes according to plan.

Organizing a biennial with Serbia’s Ministry of Culture shows commitment towards creating a unified national identity and forging a future of tolerance and acceptance.  Hopefully the Council of Europe will follow through on their promise of finances, because this event would be a great opportunity for Bosnian artists with different ethnic backgrounds to work together.  I am a firm believer in the powers of art to create a sense of community.  If this biennial is a success, artists currently lost in the country’s rehabilitation process will be recognized.  Maybe Bosnia and Europe will see the need for more public art especially in the city of Sarajevo in order to help the country deal with the past.  A Serbian friend once cynically remarked that the Balkans have bigger issues than worrying about modern art.  Although I admit to being somewhat idealistic, I think that art is a great way to deal with some of these “issues”.  A greater importance placed on art in the Balkans in general and Bosnia specifically means steps towards a future of acceptance and peace.  The article in the NY Times today gives me hope.

For those traveling to Sarajevo, these are the galleries noted in the article:

Charlama Depot Gallery, Centar Skenderija, Terezije; (387-33) 203-178. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Saturday (9 a.m. for the Sub Dokumenta exhibition).

Galerija 10m2 and Duplex/10m2, Stakleni Grad, Ferhadija 15; (387-63) 952-197; galerija10m2sarajevo.unblog.fr and www.duplex10m2.com. Both galleries are open 2 to 7 p.m. (closed Wednesday and Sunday).

Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art, Obala Kulina Bana 22; (387-33) 665-304; www.scca.ba and www.pro.ba; visits by appointment only.

Obala Meeting Point, Hamdije Kresevljakovica 13, Skenderija; (387-33) 668-186. A cafe where mini-exhibitions are often on display; video pieces by artists are sometimes screened in the adjacent cinema.

Tribute to Dan Perjovschi

Last week traveling through Romania (hence the lull in writing), I had the good fortune of stumbling upon an exhibition by one of my favorite artists- Dan Perjovschi. The exhibition, entitled Chestii tripartite (Printed stuff), was held at The City Museum of Art, in Cluj-Napoca, a large university city in Transylvania. Dan Perjovschi was born in Sibiu, Romania in 1961 and currently lives and works in Bucharest. He transformed the medium of drawing, using it to create installation and performances. The drawings, simple in form, communicate volumes about global and local issues and present a political commentary in response to current events. Dan’s wife, Lia, is also an artist, mainly focusing on performance art and they often work together. Between the installations and the performances, viewers need to be in the right city at the right time to see the work. Dan has exhibited all around the world, including Portugal, Germany, the United States, Romania, Kosovo…etc.

Installation at MOMA (2007)

In the summer of 2007, I stood in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, transfixed by the drawings that took over the atrium walls. Everyone stood with heads tilted back, staring at the drawings stretching a few stories high. It was the first time I had ever seen or heard of Dan Perjovschi, and I was newly interested in East Europe at the time. Immediately I realized that there was something inherently different about his outlook on the world from the typical Western-centric perspective of which I am accustomed. The “political cartoons” touched on a diverse set of issues, including the US military, globalization, identity, fashion trends, global warming, and art politics. The collage of images provided an installation that transformed the usually sterile museum walls and the space as a whole, drawing the viewer into the artwork.

Judging from his cartoon-inspired drawings today, one might not guess that Dan was classically trained in fine arts in Romania. During the Ceausescu dictatorship, he was identified at a young age as possessing a special talent for art, and he began the state-run art school at the age of 10. However, Dan was quickly disillusioned with the restrictions of state art, and he did not feel that he could fully express himself with the medium of painting and the subject matter chosen for him. Drawing and performance later became his means for fully expressing himself in response to social and political issues. Censorship was very strict for artists in Romania under Ceausescu, and Dan states that “self-censorship ruled” as artists were forced to comply. Desperate for freedom of expression in the 1980s, Dan covered his whole apartment in white paper and drew all over, and he said it was as if he were “living in his own drawings.” One can notice the influence of this repressive time on the format of his later work. Dan’s installations, like the one in MOMA, takes on similar collage form, and the viewer is truly invited into the mind of the artist. Dan spent two weeks drawing on MOMA’s walls, and visitors to the museum could actually watch the artist at work.

Although I checked to see if the Perjovschis had any exhibit in Bucharest before embarking on my university trip, I did not think to check the museums in the city of Cluj-Napoca. I could not believe my luck when I walked by the city museum only a few hours before heading back to Krakow to discover that I was just in time to see a retrospective of Dan Perjovschi one hour before the museum closed. As the title suggests, the exhibition was a collection of Dan’s printed work- mostly books and catalogues of his site-specific sketches. Although I was somewhat disappointed that this exhibition did not include a new installation, the show provided an invaluable opportunity for me to review his work from the past decade. I could flip through books and compare the drawings he made in different places in different years. The information is hard to obtain in the United States and I felt completely overwhelmed to see evidence of so much work in one place by such a prolific artist.

If you ever have the opportunity to see some of Dan Perjovschi’s work in person, I guarantee you will not be disappointed. Coming from a country that seems to be pretty cynical in general, Dan’s drawings are extremely insightful and witty. He provides a unique perspective on today’s world, and I think that the 2007 show in MOMA is a huge part of the reason I am studying East Europe today.

Download Dan’s Newspaper of Work from the 2007 MOMA Exhibition Here

Lego (1996) by artist Zbigniew Libera

libera01

Zbigniew Libera, contemporary Polish pop-artist, unapologetically pushes boundaries by depicting subject matter sanctified by modern culture. The issue of how to depict the Holocaust is debated in many art forms, including theatre, writing and the visual arts. Some artists only carefully depict what is already known about the Holocaust, rather than raising new questions and debate surrounding the topic.

Libera, born in 1959 in Poland served time in prison for drawings that the communist regime considered “pornographic”. After the fall of communism, the artist was able to travel extensively and exhibit abroad. Most of his work focuses on commercialization and it’s impact on society, and criticizes the regime in which he grew up. His most provocative and well-known work is entitled Lego (1996) and is a limited edition of three LEGO sets of a concentration camp. The larger boxes of the set show the entire concentration camp with buildings, gallows with one inmate being hanged, inmates behind barbed wire or marching in and out of the camp. Also included is an entry gate similar to the one at Oswiecim, but without the German inscription “Arbeit Macht Frei.” The guards are the same as the policemen in other LEGO sets, and the prisoners are from the medical and hospital sets. Another set shows a crematorium with smoke coming out of the chimneys and a guard wearing a red hat, looking as if he belongs in a Soviet gulag rather than a Nazi extermination camp.

When Libera presented the piece at an international conference in 1997, he was pelted with insults and criticism, despite the fact that the conference was concerned with how to keep the discourse of the Holocaust alive. The artists were unsure whether or not the set was a limited edition (yes) or a mass-produced piece. Although this was not what anyone was expecting, Zbigniew Libera raised many new questions and answers about the Holocaust through his piece.

When searching for the roots of the genocide, it is interesting that Libera’s work is made almost entirely from pre-existing LEGO pieces. When LEGO corporation heard about the artist’s use of their product, they tried to sue him. Also, the box of his piece states that LEGO sponsored the work of Zbigniew Libera, which the company adamantly refutes. However, three sets were already sold and European copyright laws permit the use of corporate logos for artistic purposes, so the lawsuit was quickly dropped. LEGO spends a lot of time and energy explaining to museums and the public that Libera’s piece is not their product. The fact that the set is produced in multiples suggests that history repeats itself. As the artist grew up in Poland, concentration camps were in his immediate surroundings, although there is nothing specifically German about the construction of the work. This fact proposes the idea that these camps could be located in the Gulag or anywhere genocide is taking place. Elements for such a massacre exist in the world and all that is needed is for the right person to “assemble” the pieces correctly. Holocaust survivors were present at the international conference where the artist first presented the piece. When Libera is asked about his respect for the victims he responds “I am from Poland. I have been poisoned.”

In May 1997, Libera was invited to display in the Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale, but asked not to bring Lego. The artist ended up withdrawing from the exhibition. Despite the provocative nature of the work and its easy ability to offend, Lego sparks a new dialogue about the Holocaust. Libera shows us that all of the elements for genocide surround us. Now that we are in the 21st century and a few generations past the Holocaust, there is a certain degree of complacency surrounding the topic. Libera forces his audience not only to look at the past, but also at life today.

Sources:

  • The artist statement
  • Stephen C. Feinstein
%d bloggers like this: