Blesok no. 82, January-February, 2012
Balkan Art after the Conflict?
The need of new aesthetics
As far as the horizon stretches: a dusty road surrounded by vast fields, rich with ripe tomatoes, gigantic sunflowers, and copious corn. The sun, high up in the blue sky, scatters golden beams as if it shines on Gods, not mortals. We hear a little spring as it echoes in the distance, or the waves of the lake crush upon the beach in front of us. Suddenly, the idyllic image is stained with blood: murder, rape, suicide, or another violence suffocates the day, just as the story of every well-known uprising goes. This, of course, is the setting of almost every Balkan movie that has made some kind of break-through abroad. Balkan literature, on the other hand, is rather oriented toward themes from the past and is still dipped in the well of mourning, producing the mother-thou-shall-dig-my-grave aesthetics. The spatio-temporal location is rural, back in the glorious past, where men are heroes who are impeccable and courageous, and women sing their litanies of death and eternal darkness. If we could speak of any XXI century art that has remained so faithful to Thanatos, it would definitely be the Balkan art.
This kind of image follows the path of the romantic etymology of the term ‘Balkan’ discussed by Maria Todorova, according to which the toponym itself is a combination of the Turkish words for honey (‘bal’) and blood (‘kan’). The Balkan region is always regarded as a wild strap of land untouched by the human hand (presuming that the communities that inhabit the region are still not entirely capable of influencing nature); a place where one could end up murdered for no reason at all. It is challenging to analyze the transformation of the geographical term ‘Balkan’ into a cultural determinant, with the ‘withdrawal’ of Greece and Slovenia, two countries that refused to accept the Balkan as part of their identity. Subtracting the two most developed countries from the regional equation, the image of the Balkan forms under the pressure of poverty, conflict, corruption, and violence.
Yet, as in the honey and blood equation, the situation is not that black-and-white! The image of the Balkan region and its people also includes the idea of hospitality and the special talent for singing, dancing, and performing, in general. However, is this really the positive half of the image that shows the region in better light, or is it just further proof of the scarce knowledge that the Western World has about the Balkans? In this case, what actually takes place is the process of so-called ‘orientalization’, or ‘tsiganization’, which once again confirms the notion that the Balkans, in the eyes of the West, are an exotic place, still unknown and uninvestigated.
Still, in the era of global communication and mutual dependence, is it really possible for any region in Europe to stay so untamed and wild, as the image of the Balkan suggests? Doesn’t Belgrade have an underground sewage system? Doesn’t Dalmatia have one of the most popular coastlines? Doesn’t Skopje have it’s opera house? It seems that the artists from the Balkan region find it easier to work with the image of the region that is already established by the foreign observers, and refuse to reflect their own reality and their time.
In 1979 a Macedonian film director, Stole Popov, shot ‘Dae’, a short documentary about the celebration of Gjurgjovden among the Roma population in Macedonia. The motif was then picked up by the Bosno-serbian director Emir Kosturica, who exploited the image through a wave of films, inspiring many regional filmmakers into following that aesthetics. Suddenly, the image of the Balkan man coincided with the image of the Gypsy: according to the stereotype, both are lazy, extrovert, impulsive, cunning; they lack discipline and strong values, but posses an explosive talent for performance. Gaining elements from the rich semiology of the Gypsy motif, which is significantly older and has come to exist as an archetype of sorts, the identity of the Balkan man is constructed as a binary opposition to everything bearing the sign of ‘European’, permanently differing from the urbane.
Taking advantage of this situation, the artists from the region aim to achieve their break through on the western market by keeping the rural aesthetics and showing the Western World ‘something different’. Balkan art doesn’t experience tectonic changes, it does not go through major experiments – simply, it does not have the luxury of the liberated creativity. Apparently today’s art continues in the same direction: artist follow the well known formulas and pull the card of exoticism and national romanticism (only after the break up of Yugoslavia, every small country from the ex-federation considers these traits as its own). A walk through the Museum of Contemporary Art (MSU) in Zagreb, confirms the same impression: art is directed toward traumas from the past, toward war conflicts, toward criticizing Tito’s ideology, toward pain. Stories of tortured women during the years of conflict, images of bombed buildings and mutilated bodies of civilians, dominate the repertoire in almost every gallery and museum.
However, it is likely that the Western World will become ‘immune’ to this aesthetics and will look for something new. The danger in this case is the following: in panic, the artists will begin to insist aggressively on urban stories, urban characters, urban settings. Yet, regardless of all coproductions and collaborations, the core of the stories will retain the legacy of the post-conflict period, that is, of today. New themes will not be able to achieve the necessary universality and will continue to be held down by the need for discussing the national, collective history, rather than a personal and intimate story. By stressing the historical legacy today, the Balkan art runs the risk of closing in itself and becoming ‘window-shop art’: the wide audience will be interested in the reactualization of the regional stories for a short while, but it will never communicate with it on a deeper level.
In order to escape this peril, Balkan art needs to liberate itself from the notion of collective responsibility and turn toward the individual: that of the artist, but even more important, that of the age.
This change needs to take place for ourselves, not for the Others, not for the place that our art will have on the Western market. In order for us to leave our own traces.
– Said, Edward. 1979. Orientalism. Vintage Books. New York;
– Racin, Koco. 1991. White dawn. Makedonska kniga. Skopje;
– Todorova, Maria. 1997 Imagining the Balkans Oxford University Press. New York;
– Luzina, Jelena. 2000. Teatralika. Matica Makedonska. Skopje;
– Casule, Kole. 2002. Darkness. Blesok e-publishing. Skopje;
– Seleva, Elizabeta. 2011. Cultural essays. Second Edition. Magor. Skopje.
– Popov, Stole. 1979. Dae;
1997. Gypsy Magic;
– Kusturica, Emir. 1988. Time of the Gypsies;
–Mancevski, Milco. 2001. Dust;
– Unkovski, Slobodan. 2005. Darkness 005.
This essay is part from the project "New Image of the Balkans", organized by the Office of the Vice President of the International PEN in Skopje (Poetics), and the project Diversity.