Memories are Always Falsifications colored by what came later

Johanna Kandl in Conversation with Andreas Stadler

AS: In your opinion, did the Yugoslav Wars have more to do with cultural/religious or political/economic conflicts and causes? Why?

JK: Like many other troubled areas, one could interpret Yugoslavia’s problems as a conflict between rural and urban interests, but one based on the economy, of course. The contrast between city and country remains strong. In rural areas, people tended to be identified with a specific nationality, even though in rural areas there was a relatively high percentage of “interethnic” marriages as well. People often say there are no “Yugoslavs,” but that’s not true. Among young members of the urban population, many have parents who came from different parts of the country and definitely considered themselves to be “Yugoslavs.” Students at the Academy in Belgrade were from all parts of the country.
Religious or ethnic affiliation did not play a big role. I think many educated urban people were not aware of the thinking patterns of social classes or people in rural areas. Unfortunately, we often see a collision between the human rights of freedom of expression and freedom of religion with other rights such as minority rights. Both writers and religious groups are partly responsible for the events in Yugoslavia.

AS: Has all the time you have spent in Serbia influenced your art? Were there any aspects which inspired you
in particular?

JK: As a non-aligned country, Yugoslavia was very well connected with the “Western” art world. Socialist Realism hardly played a role in Yugoslavia. The urban/rural contrast was, of course, fascinating. Belgrade had
been largely destroyed in the war, and a lot of highly interesting, high-quality architecture was created after
the war. In rural areas, I was fascinated by the use of color; for instance, the blue and green houses. In addition to the exciting Belgrade art scene of those years I was also interested in the art many people created
in their free time as a hobby. You could call it “Naïve Art”, but I’m not referring to “famous” people like Generalic´, just totally unknown people. Their work tells stories – stories about the flight to the moon, about
Tito, about work. It’s this narrative element that interested me.

AS: How did you personally experience Yugoslavia in the eighties? Were people friendlier, greedier, less greedy, more distrustful than in Austria?

JK: Memories are always falsifications colored by what came later. I felt very comfortable in Yugoslavia.
People were very friendly and communicative, especially young people, and it was quite common to talk to strangers and even have conversations with them. A lot of things were happening in Belgrade, too. You had a sense that our generation had peeled off its history like a disgusting, dirty rag, and was just trying to look into the future. You had a feeling that our generation didn’t want to deal with historic issues, that they just wanted to face forward. Despite the television series that depicted the “ethnic Germans” as the bad guys, I never felt unwelcome as a “Švabica,” even though the expression “Švabica” bothered me a lot. Unfortunately, the word survived. People were extremely open to strangers. I lived in Surčin, a village outside of Belgrade, and lots of people used to invite me for coffee, for no particular reason. The relatively minor differences in income definitely contributed to this friendly atmosphere. Somehow, greed was unnecessary. There were always bottlenecks in supply, but basically everything was available and the quality was very good. The music scene was particularly interesting. We had both pop and what we called narodna muzika – folk music. There were a lot of celebrations, and of course there would be live music. The musicians often played long sets, but they also
made good money.

AS: When did you return to the former Yugoslavia for the first time after the war? Where did you go and how
did your perception of people change?

JK: I went to Yugoslavia during the war, in 1993, and I did a project with some Belgrade artists which, at the time, was very important emotionally because contact with Yugoslavia hardly existed anymore and in that situation it was crucial to maintain contact. Since it was before the days of e-mail, personal contact
still had a different meaning at that time.

AS: Did the Yugoslav system of self-management fascinate you?

JK: I was barely interested in self-management. I viewed Yugoslavia as a success story of sorts; there was probably hardly a time before or after the 1980s when so many people in this region were doing so well. At least visible progress had been made in the areas of workers’ rights, women’s rights, and education. In the eighties, Yugoslavia still had a relatively high level of freedom. Freedom of travel, for instance. And you could also see Western movies. I believe that most people did not perceive the regime as repressive, even
though, of course, repression did exist.

AS: Is the East the transfigured desire of the West?

JK: Of course it is fascinating when countries attempt to develop a “new society.” In the case of Yugoslavia, of course, even the contrasts I referred to earlier were exciting. On the one hand, you had modern urban centers and, on the other, there was the very basic life in the country, which was pretty much exactly what may have driven the country into ruin.

 

JOHANNA KANDL  Visual artist; professor at the University of Applied Arts Vienna; has completed various artistic and curatorial projects in Eastern Europe and in the former Soviet Union; has been featured in renowned galleries in London, Frankfurt, Vienna, and Budapest; studied painting and restoration at the Academies of Fine Art in Vienna and Belgrade.