Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008 sparked nationalist protests in Belgrade, with riots culminating in attacks on embassies and foreign businesses. In this political climate it was unclear whether the Siemens Arts Program exhibition ‘Walls in the Street’ would be able to go ahead. But together with Branislava Andjelkovic, director of the Museum for Contemporary Art (MSUB), curators Thomas Trummer and Marko Lulic worked hard to put on this show, which they saw as way of strengthening Serbia’s isolated art scene and as a signal of openness to the West.
As an embodiment of repression, the exhibition’s theme of ‘walls’ could easily have resulted in a collection of superficially political works, had the curators not concentrated more on its rich metaphorical and philosophical potential. For them the wall is not always an obstacle or a border but is often viewed instead in terms of its permeability and its power to constitute spaces. Neša Paripović’s video action N.P. 1977 (1977), screened in a shop window in the pedestrian zone, bears witness to attempts to overcome of imposed structures. In a series of short scenes it shows Paripovic’ moving through Belgrade, following an invisible route that leads him to leap over embankments, fences, park benches and a succession of walls. In the 25-minute film, which enjoys cult status within the Serbian art scene, Paripovi combines flâneur culture with a highly individual form of civil disobedience.
Similarly casual in its poetry is the eponymously-named piece created by Lawrence Weiner for the roof of a Belgrade tower block, where he has replaced the name of the bankrupt Beobanka bank on a scaffold with the words ‘PLACED ON EITHER SIDE OF THE LIGHT’. The sculpture garden of the Museum for Contemporary Art, currently closed for renovation, also presents a desolate image. Using orange plastic fencing, Heimo Zobernig formed the word ograda (meaning ‘fence’). This apparently tautological intervention, legible only from above, also refers to the name ‘Beograda’, whose old town stands protected by thick ramparts on the hill across from the museum.
For her installation Untitled (Sfera) (2006) in the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Josephine Meckseper used display materials from department stores: a series of chrome stands are used to display photographs of anti-Bush demonstrations; a peace symbol in a collage of textiles is mounted behind a mannequin wearing a golden dollar sign as a fashion accessory; broken mirrors on the wall appear to symbolize the fragmentation of American society. References to counterculture (graffiti, stencils) also feature in the work of Robin Rhode, whose video performances are always combined with murals. For Empty Pockets (2008), a video subsequently turned into an animation, the artist painted a wall mural of a billiard table on which he then ‘played’. Besides the absurd interaction between painted billiard balls and the real queue, the inversion of the picture made for an unexpected, confusing effect.
Although spreading the show across three locations involved more of the city’s municipal art institutions, it also weakened its focus. The National Gallery featured local artists Milica Tomic and Uros Duri, whose contributions were not wholly convincing. In Tomic’s video series ‘Reading the Capital’ (2004) super-rich Americans read passages from Karl Marx’s Capital (1867), the potential meaning of which is highly speculative. Under the title Appropriations 1 (2008), Duri presented a design for a monument by her father, a famous sculptor of the Tito era. But no further information was given about this propaganda art.
By contrast, Dan Perjovschi’s drawings on a wall at the Center for Cultural Decontamination, an independent interdisciplinary space that has worked against the current nationalism since 1994, made a direct impact. The Romanian artist’s succinct formulations of East–West conflicts are unsurpassed. There was also an interesting juxtaposition of Sarah Morris’ grid picture State Department [Capital] (2002) with Dušan Otaševi’s painted object Sentry Box (1969). One of the subtlest works in the show was Michael Sailstorfer’s Studie U (Wand) (Study U (Wall), 2008): a twin set of expanded polystyrene walls, each attached to a concrete pole – one on the floor of the exhibition space, the other sunk in the River Save – buoyed up in a vertical position. The only reference to the underwater sculpture was in a label in the gallery. This witty echo of submerged sculptures from antiquity will pose an obstacle to fish for a while, until it falls apart.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
First published in Issue 117