Introspection, identity and rebirth of Eastern artists in defiance of the West

A new exhibition is attempting to tackle the political complexities of Central and Eastern Europe through the genre of art.

A new exhibition is attempting to tackle the complexities of Central and Eastern Europe through the genre of art.

The group exhibition, “Symptoms of Society,” which opened on November 10 and is on display until December 3, is a collaborative project between Zhejiang Art Museum and Museum and Galleries of Liubjana in Slovenia, as a part of the 2017 China-Central and Eastern European Countries (CEEC) Cultural Season.

It includes 33 artworks from former Yugoslavian countries, as well as pieces from Romania, Bulgaria and Albania. Video works, installations and performance art, or “conceptual art,” see concepts and ideas take precedence over the traditional aesthetic, technical and material concerns.

The former Yugoslavia, and the Balkan Peninsular, is an area, which has been historically plagued by war and has gone through seismic changes towards the end of the 20th century. The contemporary artists from the region try to question the definition of the art itself and art history that has been written by the power holders.

Curator Alenka Gregorič said: “Only when you understand where you come from, you understand world around.”

Identity is indeed an issue that many artists in the exhibition question and draw upon in their work. Maja Bajević, 
another Bosnian artist, for example discusses the “political correctness” of not talking about national representation in art. In her video work, produced in 2012, the artist combed her hair while repeating the sentence “art has to be national,” which is an irony, because in reality artists outside of the main art circle are treated mostly as representatives of their places of birth.

The work is inspired by Marina Abramović’s 1975 video work. She did the same thing while saying “art has to be beautiful.” Then there was the performance of Raša Todosijević 
in 1976, in which a woman sitting still in front of a camera was smeared with black paint on her face, while the artist kept asking “Was is Kunst? (What is art?)” Both artists were born and lived in former Yugoslavia and their works are featured in the exhibition.

“I would like to show Chinese audience the different generations of artists in the region, to present a coherent picture. And it’s interesting to see how younger generations are following the paths of their older colleagues,” said Gregorič.

The similar tribute and acknowledgement is also found in Irwin’s work “Retroavantgarde 1994-2016,” which is a Slovenian artistic group, founded in 1983 by artists coming from the punk and graffiti scene in Ljubljana.

In their wall painting installation, they remap art history from the ex-Yugoslavia area from 1920s to 2000s, with the names of important artists native to the region and their works marked on the map.

“Coming from a small country, from a region that was never part of the ‘art,’ which was never acknowledged by the Western system, artists were constantly asking themselves, who is the system? For whom this system is made? And who is in power to declare what is art and what is not?” said Gregorič. “These are questions that are essential even today. Of course today money is talking, but it’s always important for artists to understand how the system works, how to fight the power or maybe not to fight the power.”

Date: Through December 3 (closed on Mondays)

Address: Zhejiang Art Museum, 
138 Nanshan Rd

Admission: Free

People stand in front of a video work from Serbian artist Katarina Zdjelar, where the artist invites a professional singer to perform four compositions that she’s listening to at the same time. 

Shanghai Daily is happy to produce a question and answer session with Andrej Savski, one of the Irwin Group, who was also at the opening of the exhibition. As an artist who has witnessed the dramatic change in the local art scene, Savski shares his opinions on major issues of identity, power relations and the essence of contemporary art.

Q: We know that a lot of the works in this exhibition are questioning the art system and the discourse, which most of the time is monopolized by the West. As an artist from Eastern Europe, do you think it’s important to join that art system?

A: I am afraid that there is no simple answer to this question. It implies that there is a possibility of another art system, one that will or would not be dominated by the West.

We have been active in the art field for 34 years and our first experiences were with the art system of former Yugoslavia in the early 1980s, which was conservative and rigid, with fixed and static hierarchies and closed within itself and its national borders.

There was a certain referential system, which was non-transparent, with argumentation that served local and hierarchical needs. There was very limited communication with other art systems; mainly it was oriented towards older Western centers like Paris and no real knowledge of the relevant theoretical and art discourses.

We later found out that this was more or less the case in all Eastern European countries. In former Yugoslavia the understanding and support to the kind of art that we were developing was at that time very limited so we were forced to turn to the art circles abroad, notably to the West. However we understood early on that as artists from the East we have a specific position and we became interested in specific conditions that this implied.

So, to answer your question directly: Yes, it is important to enter dialogue with the global art system. But at the same time artists should have their own agenda, which will add to the system and not just blindly serve the established power circles.

Q: Does art have to be avant-garde? Or is it important for contemporary artists to be critical?

A: Yes and no. Yes, I sincerely believe that it is important that art should have a critical note. But the artist should be critical mostly to his own work. When criticism becomes simplified and becomes only an established form and dogma, he should probably look for a discourse that is grounded differently.

Q: Do you think your identity, as a Slovenian or East European artist is important for you when you go global?

A: When we first started to exhibit internationally, I did not consider that to be a factor of major importance, although our works did present motifs that were distinctly local mixed with others which were distinctly international. However to everybody else it was.

We then became interested in the conditions that define our position as Eastern European artists and I would say that this is an ongoing thing. The project Retroavantgarde that we are presenting in Hangzhou is linked to it. It is our construction of an art movement, where we are positioning our art in a relationship or a time line with several selected artists from the history of Yugoslav art.

Shi Jianxue

People look at Irwin's installation work "Retroavantgarde 1994-2016."

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