Blesok no. 52, January-February, 2007
Essays


An Introductory Exploration of the Concept of Balkan in Art

Jessica Gearhart


    The concept and term ‘Balkan’ is well known and oft-used in several academic and political arenas in the modern world. The Balkan region has achieved notoriety in the west in the flurry of books and media coverage on the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s. As a TV-viewing people, we westerners have recently become intimately acquainted with a simplified version of contemporary Balkan history. We, for example, know Slobodan Milošević by face. Within the past several years, the concept of Balkan has also been thoroughly researched and deconstructed by academics like Maria Todorova. The multi-layered understanding of the concept of Balkan as promoted by contemporary academics is becoming more widely used in the arenas in which the Balkans have traditionally been included, such as politics and history, breaking down our stereotypical preconceptions about the region. However, there is one area in which the concept of Balkan has not been thoroughly examined or deconstructed: the mainstream art industry is struggling to free itself from the archaic concept of Balkan that it still employs as a means to classify and identity art and artists from the Balkan peninsula. The art world seems to be rather reluctant to adopt a less sensationalized and simplistic version of what is termed Balkan into its discourse. In fact, little research or literature on the subject of Balkan (as it will be referred to in this essay in order to simplify the use of this term and the characterizatoin it recieves) in the mainstream art world has been produced. Clearly there are questions left to be addressed. Why does Balkan art remain marginal in the art world? What role will it play in the contemporary art world in years to come? Surely these questions are important to the very idea of how the collective Balkan identity is to be perceived by the Western world.
    In a review of a 2002 book titled Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, Martina Pachmanová notes that ‘for a long time, art in East Central Europe has been placed on the periphery of interest of most academics in the West’.
[1] During the past five years, several art exhibitions have addressed the concept of Balkan, displaying works of art that explore everything from identity to feminism to censorship using sundry mediums. However, rarely has an art show attempted to decipher on a critical level the constructs of Balkan identity that inform these art exhibitions. This essay will serve as an introductory survey to some of the general problems that Balkan art faces in the mainstream art world due to the general acceptance of the concept of Balkan without regard to the impact that this concept’s western presence has on Eastern European—Balkan—artists. The following disucussion will hopefully have the effect of raising an introductory awareness about the current state of the concept of Balkan in Balkan art.
    In both the west and east, the concept of Balkan has become a stigmatizing label, which carries with it notions of blood feuds, backward primitiveness and, most recently, the inability to live in a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural state without fighting. In an interview prior to the launch of her book, Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova gives a succinct description of the term Balkan and the stereotypical light in which the Balkans have been cast:
    First of all, what one understands by the Balkans nowadays is usually a synonym for southeastern Europe and it covers several countries: Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Rumania, part of Turkey and all of the lands of the former Yugoslavia. [….] Historically, the word Balkan is a Turkish word which simply means “mountain.” It was a neutral term and was not used pejoratively in any sense until the end of the 19th century when those countries began to reappear from within the Ottoman Empire as independent entities. [….] Even after the most uncivilized violence was perpetrated by the Germans during the Holocaust, Europe continues to view the Balkans as barbaric and always warring. […] The Balkans are “white;” they are part of Europe; they are mostly Christian. [2]
    The persistent lumping together of Balkan countries has a long history in popular western discourse and understanding. In ‘The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention’, Todorova explains that this phenomenon dates back to ‘the German geographer August Zeune [who] was the first to use the term “Balkan peninsula”’.[3] Even though Todorova in many ways exposes the concept of Balkan for the academic construct that it is, the ‘barbaric’ concept of Balkan seems to dominate in the art world. In the past, there has been a shared legacy in this part of the world, and it is easy to see how some might think the concept of Balkan simply pertains to a shared history and culture of the geographical region of South Eastern Europe. This shared past was called Yugoslavia. However, no matter how strong the nostalgia for Yugoslavia might be in certain circles today, that 'shared' Balkan history ceased to be reality during the 1990s, some would say earlier. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find an exhibition that does not use the word Balkan instead of specific Balkan countries or movements in the exhibition titles, thus illustrating that the pulp conceptualization of Balkan peoples is not limited just to academia, but extends to popular art and artists as well. In the context of popular art and understanding, it seems that Balkan artists are limited to the stereotypes and contexts imposed on them by the west, pinning down their individual merit as artists in their own right.
    The habit of grouping the region’s artists under the umbrella title of ‘Balkan’ or ‘former Yugoslav’ is, indeed, evident in the titles of the exhibitions, which showcase art from South Eastern Europe. In a review of the exhibition Blood and Honey— The Future’s in the Balkans (Kosterneuberg 2003) for the website Art Margins, Nicole Haitzinger says that 'the curator Harold Szeesman collected in his journey throughout numerous countries representing contemporary art - an external view on the art in the Balkans'.[4] Szeesman embarked on an investigation that was akin to an archeological dig to unearth the art of the Balkans, searching for the gems of a shared heritage that bordered on extinction. The titles of this and other recent exhibitions from this area are strongly indicative of the attitudes that have formed in the western art world, take for instance the significance of the aforementioned: Blood and Honey—the Future’s in the Balkans (Kosterneuberg 2003), or others such as, Imaginary Balkans (Sheffield 2002), Beyond Belief (Chicago 1995), Balkan Matrix (Nottingham 2003), In the Gorges of the Balkans (Kassel 2003) and In Search of Balkania (Graz 2002). Each show acknowledges the concept of Balkan, by simply making it the first thing that the audience sees as part of the title, before they are exposed to the content of the exhibition. The effect of this labeling on the general public is neither as ephemeral nor subjective as the interpretation given to the actual material. Whether it is photography, painting or collage, the medium is no longer as important to the art-going public as the definitively Balkan context given to the art objects. This amounts to a categorical misrepresentation, resulting in a prejudgment and stigmatization that may have insipid consequences.



Further research into several of the shows reveals that they are not, in fact, entirely representative of the Balkans despite such sweeping titles. For example, the show Imaginary Balkans primarily exhibited Croatian and Serbian artists, which meant that no more than a small cross-section of the many Balkan nations was present. Breda Beban was ‘commissioned by the Site Gallery to make an extensive survey of the Balkan art-scene as it stood immediately after the war. All the artists she chose for the show contribute[d] something towards what she [took] to be the meaning of the term “Balkan”’. Perhaps the fact that the Site Gallery commissioned a well-known artist from the region to help curate reflects a conscious effort to diffuse some of the western curators’ notions of Balkan. However, simplistic ideas about the Balkans are still present in this show. For example, Beban says ‘some people will be unhappy that I use that word [….] It seems bound up with all those awful clichés about loving easily and hating easily. But maybe we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. The unique art created in this region comes from the most incredible blend of the ancient and the avant-garde. That, to me, is “Balkan”’. [5] What does that statement mean? It is vague and does nothing to either dilute or support the exoticizing concept of Balkan. And with the inclusion of mainly Croatian and Serbian artists in the show, the curators, even if unintentionally, are evoking the past war by only giving the show the two infamous faces of the 1990s. Why do curators in the west (whether they are indigenous to the west or not) identify exhibitions of South Eastern European artists as Balkan (as understood to mean ‘Otherness’) above all other types of classification?
    One of the reasons might, perhaps, be based on the idea that the West still sees the former Yugoslavia, and South Eastern Europe generally, as one entity. The nuances of identity and culture that differentiate the now-separate nations of this peninsula are apparently lost on the western mind. It seems there is enough similarity between the nations of this region, still forming one entity until a short time ago, that we are more comfortable viewing them as one. Could it be that the western world or those representing the art and artists from this diverse region are unable to let go of the nostalgia for the former Yugoslavia, or simply cannot be bothered by what they consider a mere geographical nuance? Perhaps it is something more. There exists a real danger here: that the simplification of the region that is made manifest in such acts as exhibiting Balkan artists instead of Croatian and Serbian, Bosnian, Montenegrin, Slovene or Macedonian artists, may shove the region back into a bygone historical area. Are we resentful of the breakup of Yugoslavia and, thus, out of spite incapable of referring to the new nations for what they are? Perhaps it is because, as Žižek says, that ‘Balkan regularly served as a kind of blank screen on which Western Europe projected its own repressed ideological antagonisms, generating a series of fantasmatic images of Balkan’.[6] It might be far-fetched to say that this is akin to exhibiting Americans and Canadians in a North American show because they come from the same part of the world, which would be too simplistic for even the most uninformed of viewers. But because of simplified exhibiting practices with regard to Eastern European art, we are essentially lumping the art from a multitude of different artists who are, in fact, working from varied contexts that do not always have a shared common denominator because of their geographic proximity to each other. It seems that the Western art world is pigeonholing these artists by forcing them into a collective ‘Balkan’ context rather than giving due recognition to their individual merits.
    Scholars as Bojana Pejić are keenly aware of this situation. Pejić makes a good point about the futility of contextualizing art and artists, which is precisely what is done with the art and artists from the Balkans. The level of western perception is plain; first and foremost, Balkan artists are recognized as Balkan. This stereotypical context infuses their art with the only meaning it could possibly hold in the west—that of being Balkan and trying to communicate this experience to the western world. During a 2003 MoMa (Museum of Modern Art in New York City, NY) symposium titled East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe, Bojana Pejić noted one of the major problems facing the integration of Balkan art into the mainstream is that ‘[…] the curators active in the post-Communist world often complain that the Western curators do not understand “our” context’.[7] It seems that a historical, cultural and even geographical remedy is needed for these artists to be understood when they arrive in the west. It is beneficial to note, then, that ‘currently, the close relationship of art to history and geography is never being questioned. Both history and geography are often used as background material for the artist’s ideas’.[8] If ‘Western curators […] claim that they are not including eastern artists in their exhibitions in Western institutions because, as the argument goes, Western audiences don't comprehend the context enough to understand such art’ then the simplification of such contexts must make this ‘Balkan’ art more accessible for Western viewers.[9] This is the principal problem encountered when dealing with the issue of the Balkan context in the art world. Either the context is simplified to its caricature form so that the west can understand it or Balkan art is relegated to the margins of this art world, bogged down with years of historical context it does not need. On the contrary, contemporary artists in the western world, such as those in Britain, can easily use a very personal context in their art, like, for example, Tracy Emin’s My Bed or Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995, instead of relying on a national, historical or geographical setting. Is it fair to assume, then, that westerners are only capable of understanding each other’s context and thus are not open to art that is portrayed in any other light beyond their basic understanding?
    During the same symposium speech, Pejić said that she‘[…] always ask[ed] [herself] why we insist on the notion “context” only when we speak of non-Western contemporary art. Historically speaking, we often forget that we refer to art movements specifically, going so far as to study “Zurich Dada” and “Berlin Dada”’.[10] She goes on to say that ‘the main questions that puzzle [her] are: First, can an (“Eastern”) artwork simply be reduced to the “context” in which it was produced. And second, what remains in/of this artwork if we take it away from “the context”’? These poignant questions are perhaps best explained by looking at the actual artists who are awash in this sea of contextual drift. Artists from the Balkans, like Breda Beban, are known first and foremost because of their story—their context—and only then from the artwork they produce, which is subsequently viewed through this contextual lens. For example, most reviews for Beban’s curatorial work on Imaginary Balkans (2002 Site Gallery, Sheffield, UK) found in British newspapers first give Beban’s context: She fled from her homeland, the former Yugoslavia, in 1991 at the outbreak of the war, lived in Italy and then England. She creates art that is not always about the former Yugoslavia. However, most of her works are viewed in that regard. In The Independent, Imaginary Balkans is peddled as ‘a collection of work by artists from Beban's “part of the world”'.[11] Imaginary Balkans was a show that attempted to break down some of those contextual and stereotypical barriers between the West and the South Eastern corner of Europe despite the reviews that refer, albeit somewhat ironically, to artists from that “part of the world”. Whether done on purpose or not, the title of the exhibition is remarkably close to the title of Maria Todorova’s landmark work on the concept of ‘Balkan’ and Balkanism, Imagining the Balkans, which was published in 1997. Just as Todorova breaks down the concepts of Balkan, Balkanism and Balkanization into terms and contexts that are tangible for westerners, the show Imaginary Balkans attempts to do the same with art works while taking the venom out of stereotypes by mocking them in certain works. According to Martina Pachmanová, ‘up until now there has been very little done about publicizing documents that are key for any serious historical research related to art activities in this region.’[12]



The exoticizing of the Balkan artist is another aspect of the problem with contextualizing the Balkan artist within the concept of Balkan. These artists who are exhibited specifically as Balkan, in the way that the west understands that term, are smothered by the persistent belief that to this day that the South Eastern corner of Europe is exotic and is the ‘Other’. In ‘The Spectre of Balkan’, Slavoj Žižek wryly comments on the border between ‘the truly west-European civilization against the Balkan madness’, sarcastically raising the question: ‘is Balkan not the very epitome of national identity going awry, of the vortex of dark and self-destructive ethnic passions that form the very contrast, almost a kind of photographic negative, of the tolerant co-existence of different ethnic communities?’ By doing this he is mocking the stereotypes about the Balkans that are so common in Western belief. He is making a point of ironically re-asserting our Western idea of the Balkans before talking about what those in the Balkans, perhaps, believe to be Balkan. ‘Where does it [the Balkans] begin?’, he asks.
    ‘For Serbs, it begins down there in Kosovo or Bosnia, and they defend the Christian civilization against this Europe’s Other. For Croats, it begins with the Orthodox, despotic, Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia defends the values of democratic Western civilization. For Slovenes, it begins with Croatia […]. For Italians and Austrians, it begins with Slovenia […].’
[13]
    Within and without of the Balkans there is a constant othering of those perceived to be Balkan, or, in other words, those that seem to represent the negative civilization that is not the democratic West. As has been discussed, in the art world, a wide range of evidence of this can be seen in the content and titles of exhibitions, the reviews written by Western art critics and, to this day, the marginalization of South Eastern European artists because of their perceived otherness. ‘From being the subject of a post-totalitarian and post-war reality that constructed the Balkans as the historical, political and social definition of the Other, the emphasis of the isolationist subjectivity should move to the realization that “Balkan-citizenship” is no more and no less than a geographical affiliation,’ states Boubovna.[14] The western-imposed exotic nature of Balkan artists has yet to be altered enough so that these artists fit seamlessly into the commercialized, collector-oriented mainstream art world of the Western Europe and the United States.
    Despite all that has been discussed it should be made clear that it is not the case, generally speaking, that Balkan artists do not desire to be a regular part of the mainstream art world. This critical notion, when coupled with the many implications that have been brought to light in this essay regarding the mass contextualization of art as Balkan, reveals an inherent difficulty for scholars. Much like the difficulty involved with the appreciation of art, the difficulty of popular western perception of this area of the world lies in a profound paradox: the identity of the individual, at more than a few levels, is inevitably a part of the identity of the whole of society. Thus, the desire of South Eastern European artist’s to ‘globalize’ their art in order to gain appreciation in the mainstream is symptomatic of the paradoxical problems of contextualization alluded to in this essay. Boubovna states that ‘although the arts in the Balkans seem to be free at first sight, they are in fact enslaved by the constant pressure to prove their adequacy within a global context, to show that they are more than a product of national or regional exotics’.[15] No matter what the effect of contextualizing art and artists as Balkan may be, if the side-effect is to place the artistic creativity of this uniquely diverse and special part of the world within the box that popular western peceptions have made for it, then surely a great deal more will be lost in translation.

Bibliography:

1. Nicole Haitzinger, ‘BAL-KAN—The Irritation of Lingua: A Few Notes on the Exhibition Blood and Honey—the Future's in the Balkans’ (Vienna June 2003), Art Margins Reviews, [accessed 3 March 2005]
2. Tomas Pospiszyl, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript, 23 March 2003 [accessed 3 March 2005]
3. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003, [accessed 3 March 2005]
4. Martina Pachmanová, ‘The Double Life of Art in Eastern Europe’, Art Margins Reviews, 2002, [accessed 3 March 2005]
5. Dubravka Ugrešić, ‘Balkans, My Balkans’, [accessed 3 March 2005]
6. Natasa Pertresin, ‘Location of the Problem: Always a Bit More to the South East’, Art Margins Reviews, 2004, [accessed 14 March 2005]
7. Laura Cumming, ‘Cast away your preconceptions: Western eyes often view Eastern European art through the lens of politics’, p. 10, Arts, The Observer, 1 September 2002, [accessed 8 March 2005]
8. Peter Chapman, ‘Imaginary Balkans to 24 Oct Site Gallery’, p. 14, Arts, The Independent, 19 October 2002, [accessed 8 March 2005]
9. Alfred Hickling, ‘Whoops of Joy’, p. 10, Arts, The Guardian, 14 October 2002, [accessed 8 March 2005]
10. Iara Boubovna, ‘Polar Bears on the Balkans’, Art Margins Main View, [accessed 15 March 2005]
11. Slavoj Žižek, “The Spectre of Balkan’, The Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 6, No. 2 1999, [accessed 27 March 2005]
12. Maria Todorova, ‘The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention’, Slavic Review, vol. 53, no. 2 1994, pp. 453-82.
13. Slavoj Žižek, ‘MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript: ‘On (un-) Changing Canons and Extreme Avant-gardes’, 23 March 2003, [accessed 16 March 2005]
14. Rozita Dimova, ‘Balkan as Metaphor’, Art Margins Reviews, [accessed 16 March 2005]
15. Dusan I. Bjelic, ‘The Balkans’ Imaginary and the Paradox of European Borders’, 15 December 2003, Eurozine, [accessed 2 March 2005]
16. Theodor Adorno, Asthetic Theory, trans. by C. Lenhardt, (London, Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984).
17. Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, (New York : Oxford University Press, 1997).


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1. Tomas Pospiszyl, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript, 23 March 2003 [accessed 3 March 2005]
2. Interview with Maria Todorova, ‘UF Professor Explains How Balkans Got Their Reputation: Following is an interview with Maria Todorova, professor of history, who has been researching the history of the Balkans for the past 20 years’ [accessed 1 April 2005]
3. Maria Todorova, ‘The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention’, Slavic Review, vol. 53, no. 2 1994, p. 464.
4. Nicole Haitzinger, ‘BAL-KAN—The Irritation of Lingua: A Few Notes on the Exhibition Blood and Honey—the Future's in the Balkans’ (Vienna June 2003), Art Margins Reviews, [accessed 3 March 2005]

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5. Alfred Hickling, ‘Whoops of Joy’, p. 10, Arts, The Guardian, 14 October 2002, [accessed 8 March 2005]
6. Slavoj Žižek, “The Spectre of Balkan’, The Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 6, No. 2 1999, [accessed 27 March 2005]
7. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003, [accessed 3 March 2005]
8. Iara Boubovna, ‘Polar Bears on the Balkans’, Art Margins Main View, [accessed 15 March 2005]
9. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003.
10. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003.
11. Peter Chapman, ‘Imaginary Balkans to 24 Oct Site Gallery’, p. 14, Arts, The Independent, 19 October 2002, < http://web.lexis-nexis.com/professional/form?_index=pro_en.html&_lang=en&ut=3290044556> [accessed 8 March 2005]
12. Martina Pachmanová, ‘The Double Life of Art in Eastern Europe’, Art Margins Reviews, 2002, [accessed 3 March 2005]

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13. Slavoj Žižek, “The Spectre of Balkan’, The Journal of the International Institute, Vol. 6, No. 2 1999, [accessed 27 March 2005]
14. Iara Boubovna, ‘Polar Bears on the Balkans’, Art Margins Main View.
15. Bojana Pejić, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript on the exhibition What Comes After the Wall, 23 March 2003, [accessed 3 March 2005]



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