by Andreas Stadler
It is not only in the United States that the term "Balkans" is associated with a backward region in Europe in which more or less nationalistic peoples fight for influence and supremacy. Yugoslavia enjoyed much respect as a Socialist experiment and as a leading nation in the alliance of neutral and non-allied states in the times of the east-west conflict until 1989; however, during the war in the 90s, what are now the seven successor states of Yugoslavia came to be seen more as a problem in international relations than as an asset.
Primarily Serbia has a bad reputation. The former president Slobodan Milošević, likely to go down in history as one of the main perpetrators of the destruction of Yugoslavia, serves as a metaphor for Serbia's image. The siege of Sarajevo, the Srebrenica massacre, the so-called "Western" military operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995 as well as in the Kosovo and in Serbia in 1999, have all left their mark on global memory.
The more negatively and persistently such stereotypes develop and manifest, the more interesting their deconstruction and analysis becomes. Artists can only marginally influence a country's image - let alone its realities. But even a small artistic influence is an interesting and necessary, albeit insufficient condition for a democratic and pluralistic society like the one the European Union is trying to achieve in light of the horrrific events of the 20th century and, not least, the war in Yugoslavia.
The production of this exhibition presented a challenge to the Austrian Cultural Forum New York and the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art in many ways. For one, with this exhibition the Cultural Forum bids farewell to the hitherto prevailing doctrine of national representation, which dictated that an Austrian institution can only show works by Austrian artists. Also, the Belgrade Museum, which is responsible for presenting Serbian art in an international context, ventures into the same unmarked territory.
Furthermore, an exhibition about a country whose recent history is still controversial and is still being discussed nationally and internationally, is challenging in multiple ways; and potential obstacles can only be surmounted through close curatorial cooperation. For this reason, my co-curator, Branislav Dimitrijević, and I composed a mission statement which we used to invite artists from all over the world who have worked on the subjects of Serbia and the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, respectively. This programmatic text reveals both our motivations and interests, and guarantees the identification of the participating artists with the subject matter. This, in turn, fosters the cohesion of the works on display. The text became the basis for a mobilizing discussion among a group of European cultural centers in New York as well as a number of American institutions which supported the exhibition symbolically, financially, and by hosting various thematically linked events. The text of the mission statement is printed here.
Andreas Stadler, November 2010
ANDREAS STADLER Political scientist, director of the Austrian Cultural Forum New York since 2007; prior to that he was the science and culture advisor to the Austrian President and served as a diplomat in Poland and Croatia