Bosnia & Herzegovina Pavillion, 55. Venice Biennale
For the first time in years, Bosnia & Hercegovina has a representative at the Venice Bienale. The Banja Luka based post-conceptual artist Mladen Miljanović has filled four rooms of the Palazzo Malipiero with his Garden of Delights, jointly curated by Sarita Vujković, and Irfan Hošić. These represent an entirely new body of work from the prolific Miljanović, who has been building an international profile, adroitly, in the past five or six years. The exhibition opened last Thursday in front of a large and curious audience, with Miljanović performing for the full length of the opening.
This is a complex and dense show which has to hold together the competing imperatives of presenting new work as well as summing up the themes of past pieces already completed. Miljanović does not shrink from this task, finding inspiration in the work of Hieronymous Bosch, and re-capitulating the trajectory of his own art career. In his interview with us last summer, the artist tells the story of his early skill as a funerary portraitist; in this exhibition, engraved work on granite dominates the central room of four, as well as providing a heavy burden for the artist’s own performance.
On opening night, Miljanović performed in the first, small room of this exhibition space, standing against a wall with his form obscured by one such heavy granite slab, on which text messages were reproduced. In the lead up to the show, the artist contacted friends and contacts to try and ascertain what they would expect to see from an art exhibition representing BiH. The answers, varied in terms of seriousness, present one of the major themes of the show; the molten, uncertain, variable definitions of ‘Bosnian’ or ‘Hercegovinian’, and the failure to think clearly of a working definition of either category, beyond the moronic commonplaces of ethnic politics. In terms of a performance, it also neatly symbolised the ‘burden’ carried by the artist, of the hopes of all the people who were not there.
The site for the Bosnian show couldn’t really be much better in terms of its central location, but internally, the curators and artist had a difficult space to work with. The rooms are small, with a low ceiling, so the danger is that the kind of large scale, ambitious work produced in recent years by Miljanović, would not work in such a tight space. The central piece, the Garden of Delights, however, fits perfectly against a back wall and dominates this main area. This is a triptych of engraving on granite, taking its inspiration from Hieronymous Bosch’s 1503–1504 Garden of Earthly Delights in the Prado in Madrid.
The Belgrade artist Mileta Prodanović wrote a celebrated essay on the fashion for opulent tombstone decorations for deceased Zemun criminals <i>; this take on Bosch, too, reflects on the contemporary fashion for ‘unique’ tombstone engraving that reflects upon the main characteristics of the deceased. The artist takes the opportunity to present us with his own perception of the ‘hell’ of transition in BiH. A myriad of occupations, preoccupations and eccentricities are carved here, with no clear or convincing overall picture emerging. The artist’s critique of contemporary BiH society also mirrors wider concerns regarding narcissism, social isolation and a retreat into the virtual, characteristic of the social media age. This retreat into a private, semi-fantastic world, it could be argued, leaves public life and public debate impoverished and attracting little attention other than a cynical detachment. The well carved figures here represent a mixture of the prosaic and the absurd: from the vested Milicija man writing a ticket for a Stojadin driver, to a partisan figure on a horse. The dominant representation of the military and various types of police in this tableau indicates the extent to which this is still a militarised, traumatised society.
The video piece Sweet Symphony of Absurdity continues this theme of discord and neurotic absurdity. The members of the Banja Luka Philharmonic slowly emerge into out view, one by one, each playing their own favourite piece of music, or ideal concert piece. The result is caterwauling anarchy; each individual is of course, performing a well known piece flawlessly, but the overall result is one of continual over-writing and permanent conflict. The parallels with politics and society are not hard to grasp here. The consequences of such a situation continuing are found in the small room on the other side of the central space; a little arched walkway is installed, with Jusuf Hadžifejzović’s observation ‘From Kitsch to Blood is Only One Step’ carved in granite at the end, assuming a rather menacing overtone.
All in all, this is a busy and engaging show full of ideas. Miljanović successfully found a language to give visitors a good idea of cultural concerns and debates within BiH as well as engaging an international audience in the language of contemporary installation, performance and post-conceptualism. It will be interesting to see how the artist’s career develops in the next few years after this level of exposure. But,ultimately, the litmus test here will be what happens with Bosnia-Hercegovina’s representation at the next Venice Biennale. This showing displayed a level of professionalism, and slick presentation, which was clearly a surprise to visitors unfamiliar with the art scene in BiH.
But, as Mladen and his team from Banja Luka take their bow and accept deserved bouquets from the Venetian audience, attention at home must already turn to the next Biennale. In a sense, who curates it, and who the artists will be, is not so important, as is a continuing level of guaranteed funding and support from the authorities. This show gives a tempting glimpse of what can be achieved when both entities in BiH work together to achieve a common aim. The trick for all of us involved in culture in this country, is to make events like these the norm, rather than the exception. Of course, they have been happening at grass roots level for years; perhaps all that hard work is slowly poking a reluctant and indifferent political establishment, at last, towards a fairly obvious co-operative solution.
Mladen Miljanović ‘The Garden of Delights’ is showing at Palazzo Malipiero now, and will be open until the 24th November. A catalogue, featuring essays by the curators, and a full account of Miljanović’s work to date, is available at the cost of 20 euros. If you are unable to go, please have a look at these links for a good idea of the show:
<i> Mileta Prodanović, ‘Heroisation of War Criminals:The Symbolism and Aesthetics of the Tombstones of Serbian Warlords and Mafiosi in the 1990s’ in Cristina Demaria and Colin Wright eds.), Post-Conflict Cultures, Rituals of Representation, Zoilus Press, England, 2006, pp. 88-97
Other Ex-Yugoslav displays – yes, us anoraks at SCB went to all seven of them, a review will be up later. On Wednesday, articles on the highlights of the Biennale and a text on curating contemporary art in BiH will be added as the final parts of our coverage from Venice.