STATE OF EXCEPTION
CONTEMPORARY ART SCENE FROM PRISHTINA
The exhibition EXCEPTION: Contemporary art scene from Prishtina whose organizers are cultural-artistic NGOs from Belgrade and Novi Sad (Kontekst and Napon) was firstly exhibited in the Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina in Novi Sad (22 January–5 February, 2008). Although the exhibition received negative and mostly wrong interpretations by Serbian right-wing forces, it survived without incidents and violence. When the exhibition was scheduled to reopen at Kontekst gallery in Belgrade on 7 February 2008, it was forced to close in the evening of the opening. The exhibition presents artworks by Albanian artists of the younger generation from Kosovo: Artan Balaj, Jakup Ferri, Driton Hajredini, Flaka Haliti, Fitore Isufi Koja, Dren Maliqi, Alban Muja, Vigan Nimani, Nurhan Qehaja, Alketa Xhafa, and Lulzim Zeqiri. The curators of the exhibition are Vida Knežević, Kristian Lukić, Ivana Marjanović, and Gordana Nikolić.
Eduard Freudmann and Ivana Marjanović THE EXCEPTION PROVES THE RULE The exhibition Exception – Contemporary Arts Scene from Prishtinathat opened on 22 January 2008 in Novi Sad was inaugurated by the president of the Assembly of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina Bojan Kostreš (LSV – League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina). In his speech, he stated that Kosovarian artists were welcome in Novi Sad irrespective of Kosovo’s status, being it either independent or part of Serbia. Harsh attacks by representatives of reactionary parties followed that were not directly involved in the presidential elections’ second round (DSS – Democratic Party of Serbia and SPS – Socialist Party of Serbia). The attacks led Kostreš – in order to defend himself – to approach the Serbian nationalistic common standard by stating that “the fact that Kosovo-Albanian artists came to Novi Sad, shows that they feel like citizens of the Republic of Serbia.” Furthermore, the exhibition was abused by the Radical Party in their election campaign TV’s advertisement stating: “The exhibition glorifies atrocities committed by Albanian terrorists in Kosovo.” Additionally, the presidential candidate Nikolić referred to the exhibition attacking his opponent Tadić in the prime time head-to-head confrontation on Serbian state TV. On 3 February 2008 – in-between the openings in Novi Sad and Belgrade – the second ballot of the Serbian presidential elections was held. The “moderate” and “pro-western” candidate Boris Tadić (DS – Democratic Party) won it by a narrow margin of 2% against the ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolić (SRS – Serbian Radical Party). In February, the situation in Serbia was tense because of the expected declaration of independence by Kosovo on 17 February 2008. On 7 February four days after the elections, the exhibition was violently prevented from being opened in Belgrade. On 8 February, the City Council and the Serbian Ministry of Culture issued press releases, condemning the incidents by stating that “Belgrade has always been and will remain an open city” and referring to “the basic principles of tolerance, the respect of cultural variety, the freedom of speech and artistic expression.” Nevertheless, both institutions stated that they could not support the exhibition beyond such a declaration, as they were not in charge of it, thus shifting their responsibility to the Serbian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Overall, it is possible to say that the Serbian political landscape was opposing the exhibition; the protagonists were either attacking it (SRS, SPS, and DSS) or not commenting on it (DS). Supportive statements were rare and only given by small parties such as G17 Plus and LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) as well as by a large part of the NGO sector. The very first press reactions after the opening of the exhibition in Novi Sad were surprisingly positive – one of the yellow press papers even listed the event in their daily “top rankings.” Subsequently, the media coverage started with the attacks. Initially the attacks were against the involved politician (Kostreš) and the institution (Museum of Contemporary Art, Vojvodina), but as soon as the exhibition was about to open in Belgrade, the media started to attack the organizers (curators and NGOs). The media was not at all interested in the concept and content of the show, even less in the new contextual space of dialogue and reflection that would have been opened up with the exhibition. The media was rather attracted by the putative scandalous potential they scented. They drew the attention solely on Dren Maliqi’s artwork Face to Face.The work displayed face-to-face Andy Warhol’s double picture of Elvis Presley as a cowboy and the double image of Adem Jashari, a leader of the UÇK (Kosovo Liberation Army). Jashari is considered a freedom fighter by the Albanians and is stylized as a national icon in Kosovo, whereas Serbs consider him a war criminal and terrorist. Displaying Jashari’s picture and the scandalization it brought, lead to hysteric and hostile reactions throughout the Serbian public. With the constant use of nationalistic terminology, the exhibition was declared as an event that “glorifies Albanian separatists and terrorists.” Experts and non-experts spoke in the media about the violators of the Belgrade exhibition in superlatives, glorifying them, and accusing the curators and organizers of the exhibition as being Anti-Serbs guilty of treason.
The first indication of a violent act was the public request by the “Association of displaced persons from Kosovo and Metohija” to close down the exhibition in Novi Sad. It included the threat to send their members to accomplish the closing in case the organizers would not comply. Meanwhile, in far-right internet forums it was announced that the exhibition will travel to Belgrade and plans were made how to disrupt it. On the day before the Belgrade opening, the clerical-fascistic movement “Otačastveni pokret Obraz” (Fatherland Movement Dignity) invited “all Serbian patriots to attend the opening […] and to show to the Albanian separatists and their Belgrade accomplices what [the patriots] think about the artistic and political goals of such a manifestation.” On 7 February 2008, half an hour before the exhibition was about to be opened a mob of 300 fanatic Obraz members, football hooligans and other nationalistic forces gathered in the streets around the gallery. Police had to prevent them from attacking the gallery (at the same time they also prevented visitors from reaching the gallery and attending the opening). Nonetheless, violators succeeded to enter the exhibition space and tore down Maliqi’s artwork. One of them was interrupting the opening speech by capturing the stage and holding a hate-speech in which he discredited the participating artists and accused the organizers of betraying fatherland and humanity. By showing a stone, he intended to reproduce the countrywide spread cliché of stone throwing and therefore of uncivilized Albanians. Although he was marched off by the police, his intervention made the police instruct the organizers of the exhibition to shut it down before it had even been opened. On the day after, the glass door of the gallery was broken. As the building was under police surveillance, the perpetrators were arrested and examined by the police who subsequently proposed to stage a public performance including the institution’s director and the perpetrators within which the latter would apologize for their act.
In providing a possible overview of the events, it could be said that police has to be considered an active protagonist in the events. However, their special units prevented the mob from accessing and attacking the gallery space, at the same time the police let the opening being disrupted in order to insist on the claim that the organizers have to close the exhibition. The police not only let vandals pass through the controlled gate and destroy the artwork; they did not intervene during the violation of the opening speech either, though considerable police forces were present in the gallery. In spite of repeated requests, the police refused to do so referring to freedom of speech. At this point, the director of the space in which the gallery is located agreed to close down the exhibition taking into consideration the police’s evaluation that the “safety of visitors and organizers can no longer be guaranteed.” Subsequently the police evicted the visitors and pressed the director to sign an agreement to renounce the opening of the exhibition. On the next day, the police demanded that those art works, which were visible from outside the gallery, be removed. Afterwards, they demanded the works to be removed from the space altogether – according to their conception the transport should have been organized with massive police protection, which obviously was an attempt to frighten the organizers in order to make them not even think of reconstructing and opening the exhibition in the future.
In conclusion, four points have to be stressed further: Firstly, what was triggered off by the exhibition was the reproduction of a repressive policy Serbia has imposed on Kosovo for decades.
Secondly, the part of Serbian society that designates itself “democratic” turned out to be hostage of the nationalistic consensus and therefore found itself paralyzed when it was time to act and take a position.
Thirdly, Serbia’s cultural policy is conceived by ultra-nationalistic forces, and executed by violent mob forces while official institutions of the Republic of Serbia compliably assist.
Fourthly, the cause of disagreement in the hysteric scandalization campaign (Jashari’s image), is interchangeable. The reason for hatred reactions and blind destruction was that the reactionary forces saw their cultural-racist stereotype about “uncivilized Albanians” being strongly contrasted and therefore nullified by perfectly articulated artistic positions of Prishtina’s contemporary art scene.
For more details about event and media reactions please see: www.kontekstgalerija.org.
Eduard Freudmann, artist, lives in Vienna and Belgrade and teaches at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Together with Jelena Radić he is currently working on a film about the incidents triggered by the exhibition Exception – Contemporary Art Scene from Prishtina.Ivana Marjanović is co-founder and co-curator of the Kontekst Gallery in Belgrade. At the moment she is a PhD candidate at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. Lives and works in Belgrade and Vienna.
Ana Vujanović in collaboration with the actors of the Other Scene NO EXCEPTION! By the words of the curators (Vida Knežević, Kristian Lukić, Ivana Marjanović, and Gordana Nikolić): “The exhibition is about questioning dominant cultural hegemonies, national and gender identities in the field of visual art which are defined by Balkan particularities, doctrines of limited sovereignty, conflicts of global security alliances, nationalisms, conditions and consequences of Euro-Atlantic integrations and strengthening of capitalism.” According to this statement, there is nothing too provocative and subversive here and it might be seen as a regular, politically correct contemporary exhibition that supports local specificities and differences in a multi-cultural world. However, this is not the case.
Unfortunately, the very fact that Albanian artists exhibit their artworks in Serbia is controversial information in the local social and cultural context. We must depart from this assumption already if we take into consideration the fact that the exhibition was closed before it was open. Also we think that there are two points of the actual political situation in Serbia that are crucial for considering the nature of the incident that happened in the Kontekst gallery. First, the exhibition was meant to open just after the Serbian president elections where the democratic option won with only 2% more votes than the right wing option, and second, the proclamation of Kosovo independence by the Kosovo parliament was scheduled for the 17 February. On the 11 February Serbian President Tadić, Prime Minister Koštunica and the President of Serbian Parliament Dulić declared that Serbia would not accept a one-sided independency. In such critical macro-political conditions, mass media in Serbia reporting about the exhibition mostly failed, as they did many times before. With a precise political plan or just without responsibility for the public discourse, they played a remarkable role in empowering tensions and divisions of the public. They forced the public to decide: PRO (for Europe, for democracy, for tolerance, for internationalism) or CONTRA (which means for Serbia, for nationalism, for preserving history, for the national dignity, and anti Euro-Atlantic integrations, anti tolerance) the exhibition. This reductive and stultifying division produced by the lack of adequate explanation or at least a complete information resulted in violence at the evening of the exhibition opening.
During the opening, the group of members of the fatherland movement “Obraz” (Dignity) and other right wing actors stopped the opening by violent means. They literally attacked the gallery space. One person entered the gallery with a stone in his hand and threatened the curators, while few of them destroyed the artwork Face to Face by Dren Maliqi. The painter Čalija aggressively stopped the opening speech reminding about the Serbian victims and refugees from Kosovo, and asking the organizers not to open the exhibition. The police had to intervene; it closed the street where the gallery is located, prevented audience from visiting the exhibition and just before the opening, it estimated that it could not guarantee safety to the artists, curators, and the public, and according to this the director of the venue where the gallery works decided to close the exhibition. It is important to mention that “Obraz” is an extreme nationalist and right wing movement, which, according to the Ministry of Interior Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, was classified as a “fascistic organization” in 2005, and thus illegal.
As the local media failed to explain adequately the artwork that is at stake here, it is important for us to do it. Face to Face is a visual installation that is based on the procedure of re-appropriating the famous work by Andy Warhol that in the manner of mass media billboards represents Elvis Presley, American pop icon. The procedure is characteristic for the contemporary artworks labelled under “post-production” by the art historian and former co-director of the Palais de Tokyo Nicolas Bourriaud. Maliqi appropriates Warhol’s manner, makes a copy of his Presley and confronts it with the image of the actual icon of the Albanians from Kosovo: Adem Jashari. The work deals with media representations, questions of nationalism at the Balkans, myth of American-Albanian friendship, and spectacularization of every segment of contemporary social life in the “society of the spectacle”. According to the words of the author, it depicts his social reality, where Jashari is a pop icon indeed. Thus, and even without any specialist knowledge in contemporary art theory, this artwork is not and cannot be understood as “exhibiting the promotional poster of Adem Jashari,” and compared with a hypothetical “exhibiting the poster of Arkan in Prishtina.” We strongly believe, and some a posteriori comments on the Internet forums and blogs encourage our belief, that this kind of responsible and adequate explanations would prevent the violence and give the audience possibility to think and judge about the work. Unfortunately, instead of it, the mass media arbitrarily manipulated de-contextualized information, and in that way brought the exhibition at the level of shameful political scandal.
The days after the incident, many actors of our public scene, authorities, and NGO activists reacted. The curators of the exhibition asked publicly the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia and the Secretariat for Culture of the City of Belgrade to react and condemn this violent act and allow the exhibition Exception to be held. NGO activists for human rights mostly asked for the punishment and public condemnation of the vandals, recalling “European values” such as tolerance and democracy. Other Scene (http://drugascena.org), an initiative of the independent cultural-artistic scene in Belgrade, in which Kontekst gallery also participates, criticizes limp reactions by the state and city authorities, and especially the behaviour of the police at the locus, asking whom the police protects – visitors and artists from criminals, or criminals from the law. Other Scene also opened a debate about the role of the mass media, and strongly condemned them for their irresponsible and unreliable informing about the exhibition and the works included. Interested citizens, cultural workers and artists from Serbia, who argued that state institutions must not allow Nazi-clerical organizations to head the cultural policy of a state, initiated the online petition for opening of the exhibition Exception. The petition is directed to the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Serbia, the Secretariat for Culture of the City of Belgrade, as a demand for immediate and direct support to the organizers to open this exhibition (www.petitiononline.com/odstupi/petition.html). Many actors of the regional and international cultural scene also gave their support, signed the petitions, and helped spreading the information worldwide. Many of us might think that art has no impact on producing critical questions in the public sphere, or that it is a very rare case in the current global context that artworks provoke such a broad public debate, yet this example shows us that problematizations of the core issues of a society through art is possible. However, maybe not in the way we expect. What is most important to understand here is that the exhibition was not closed because of its content, since the public in Belgrade did not have a chance to see it and make a proper judgement. The crucial role here was played by mass media, and their system of representation – forgetting the responsibility and instead aiming at producing a spectacle. Second, it is crucial to think, and with this we will finish our critical review, that the violent closing the exhibition is not an incident, an excess, an exceptional case that breaks our normal social life here. No! It is a SYMPTOM. And as such it indicates the lack of freedom of public speech, everyday life violence, deep divisions within society (on liberals and nationalists, and without a critically left position), and it demonstrates the aggressive and stultifying official public discourse that cancels any negotiation about social subjects that touch many of us. No exception is possible. That is what we must face here.