The Montenegrins Are Coming

In the weekend before Christmas, at the National Gallery of Bosnia and Hercegovina, a show opened of the new Podgorica section of the ARS AEVI collection, curated by Petar Ćuković. It forms a really interesting exhibition in its own right, featuring work from international artists as well as a couple of younger practitioners from Montenegro itself, and some famous names from the wider ex-Yugoslavia. Pdogorica is the latest addition to the archipelago of art cities around the world to host an ARS AEVI collection, with further additions planned in the shape of Belgrade, and St. Etienne, in the New Year.

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Manet’s Young Flautist / The Fifer, 1866, is relocated in Cetinje by Milija Pevičević

The opening space is dominated by the work of Milija Pavičević; a witty series of large scale images featuring a park in Cetinje, with the comical appearance of Edouard Manet’s  Young Flautist / The Fifer of 1866, alongside the artist; an unusual juxtaposition that invites consideration of the changing relationships between the ex-Yugoslav countries and Paris, throughout the twentieth century. At various times Paris was a refuge for exiled Yugoslav artists (Ljubomir Mičić and Branko Ve Poljanski in the thirties), and was a powerful magnet pulling young artists from this region to study and develop elsewhere; Dado perhaps being the most prominent example from Montenegro. If Pavičević’s initial CT Park series of works invites us to consider the twists and turns of the relationship between Montenegro and France, his 2001 piece BIG ALCOHOLICS revisits a much more traditional Balkan stereotype.

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Oleg Kulik, New Sermon, 1994

The main hall sees a very rich selection of international work. A photograph of an early Oleg Kulik performance from 1994, New Sermon, sees the Russian artist casting himself in the role of the suffering Christ in a Moscow food market. It is a remarkable image of a society undergoing bewilderingly quick transition. The bleached light, the gestures of the market workers, and the gigantic pale blue Soviet era scales, could all have come straight from a propaganda poster concerning productivity and the ‘abundance’ of consumer goods in the USSR of the seventies or eighties. The appearance of Kulik offers a sharp dissonance; his adopting of the role of Christ is at once ‘blasphemous’ and also slyly acknowledging the rise in the power of the Russian Orthodox Church and religious belief in the former atheist state, at the beginning of the nineties. This image of martyrdom may also allude to the colossal difficulties faced by many artists after the collapse of the Soviet system, the overnight disappearance of familiar networks of state support and patronage; and the urgent need to adopt new (and largely prohibited) forms of artistic expression in order to leave that collapsed world behind as quickly as possible. Kulik stands out as one of the most inventive and uncompromising Russian artists from this period and a close look at this image gives away many of the reasons for that reputation.

Belgrade’s Raša Todosijević and Vlado Martek of Croatia contribute works relating to geography, mapping and arbitrary stereotypes of culture. Raša’s work Asia, Europe, America is quite unusual in the context of his installations; it is a very pared-back work, featuring three painted panels in the primary colours, juxtaposed with rectangles of patterned carpet. There is a very representative showing of Martek geographical drawings, with the familiar mapped outlines of ex-Yugoslavia and the USA juxtaposed with graffiti-like statements.

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Jelena Tomašević, Now That We Have Gone As Far as We Can Go, 2011

Perhaps the most interesting section of the show, for visitors already familiar with the work of the artists mentioned above, is the final part of the exhibition, featuring a cross-generational cross-section of contemporary art from Montenegro. Natalija Vujošević’s 64 Mose Pijade Street, an installation and performance, is a fascinating object in its own right; a series of subtle mirrored play featuring child’s toys. Ilija Šoškić, perhaps one of the most under-rated of Yugoslav performance artists from the seventies, contributes a series of eleven photographs of a performance in a wood, based on  Malevich’s Suprematist work. Malevich’s influence was particularly powerful in the eighties in ex-Yugoslavia, most notoriously through the work of the ‘Kazimir Malevich of Belgrade’, Goran Djordjevič; Malevich’s is an influence still being worked through and considered today. In Jelena Tomašević’s painting, Now That We Have Gone As Far as We Can Go, the remnants of a Malevich-style painterly space are intruded up by the ambiguous voyeurism and exhibitionism of a male couple; the cheap thrill of a throwaway, low self-esteem encounter set in the ruins of the painterly ideologies of the last century.

This is a powerful and subtle exhibition which traces deftly, through a wide range of work, the uncertain transition from an old, dead set of ideological and identificatory certainties to our contemporary era of relative, contingent, post-ideological flux. Eschewing easy observations based on nationalism and nationality, this show tells its story in various shades of grey instead of black and white; it considers the consequences of he collapse of an old system and the competing attractions of markers of identity in the new; a journey from the signs of Utopian avant-gardism, religion, new Balkan realities, all laced through with a fine sense of self-deprecating humour. It provides an interesting dialogue between the art world of Podgorica and neighbouring territories, and with developments in the wider European art world from the last twenty years. As such, it is another very important milestone in the development of the ARS AEVI project, leaving the viewer rather impatient for the instalments to come in the New Year.

‘Fluid Identities’ is open now at the National Gallery of Bosnia & Hercegovina, on the first floor.

Jon Blackwood

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