BAL-KAN – The Irritation of Lingua: A Few Notes on the Exhibition “Blood and Honey – the Future’s in the Balkans”

“Blood and Honey – the Future’s in the Balkans” , Vienna, June 2003 

The Balkans.The conceptual focus of the exhibition from the well-known curator Harald Szeemann refers to the term Balkan. We can extend “Balkans” by looking at its etymology as well as morphology. Dividing the term itself, we see a discourse, a play of opposites. The Turkish syllables BAL (Honey) and KAN (Blood) open spaces of reflection. In the Golden Age honey was flowing like water out of oaks: the godfather Kronos drank this nectar and fell asleep when his son Zeus enchained him and banished him to the blessed island. Zeus took over power and expelled the God of Time (and with him the Golden Age) to the edge of the world. The Ius Sanguis – justice of Blood – is not an empty word of ancient times in our contemporary society but still brings about geopolitical conflicts, wars, and ghosts which were said to be death. But the dead is not death in history (Heiner Müller), such as the Golden Age of mythology is still inscribed in our memory.

The term Balkans with its heterogeneous, non-uniform definition crosses the border to impossibility and the Nietzschean “maybe.”

Another topology is needed and the Balkans’ place in the world, in this sense, is not where national boarders can be located.

Geographically and cartographically works of art from Albania, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia, Macedonia, Moldavia, Turkey, Serbia, Montenegro, and Slovenia are exhibited. Do all these countries constitute the Balkans?

The ghosts of the past “got a blood transfusion” through the ethnic, religious, and national motivated wars after the decay of former Yugoslavia.

It seems that the process of building a state is still not complete. In this context, we are less interested in the national and political aspects than in the retrospective analysis focused on “cultural memory” in contemporary visual art from the Balkans.

The collective and cultural memory appears as a discursive artistic practice at the beginning of the 21st century, after the dissolution of the European East-West-caesura.

The cultural memory – in its etymological sense of “collecting” – dethrones the since the 19th century, universalised, individualised, and in Postmodern theory, deconstructed human being.

The curator Harald Szeemann collected in his journey throughout numerous countries representing contemporary art – an external view on the Art of the Balkans.

His recommendation: “Do not miss out on these narrations with their heights and depths, tragedy, humour, satire, subversion, poetry, and deeper meaning. BLOOD & HONEY / Future’s in the Balkans.”

The future is not conceivable without the past. The exhibited artistic works wander through borders and fall out of their frames.

The familiar, surprisingly seldom reflected anthropocentrism, only functions in static spaces with a marked territory.

In the Balkans the borders of nations are glued very loosely (with honey of religious and political promises) and continuously redrawn with blood. Let’s re-view some of the artistic works under these aspects.

Maja Bajevic – Women at Work – Washing up (2001)

This performance was realized in a Haman in Istanbul where the Bosnian Artist Maja Bajevic and two refugee women from Srebenica washed fabrics embroidered with Tito Slogans such as “We live as if there will be peace for a hundred years but we prepare ourselves as if there will be war tomorrow”, “Long live the armed brotherhood and unity of our nation” and ” a country that has youth like ours, should not worry for its future” with their hands in wooden tubs.

In the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs committed the worst documented massacre since WWII in the year 1995.

In their revenge against the Turks (referring to Muslim Bosniaks) women and children were deported and 7000-8000 Muslim men were executed virtually under the eyes of the Dutch UN Forces stationed in the enclave.

The refugee women in the Haman continue their washing until the fabrics are disintegrated – but the letters remain readable: a metaphor for the decay of the former Yugoslavia.

Loss, deportation and displacement are engraved in people’s memories. The subversive energy of memory, which shocks the totalitarian tendencies of forgetting and repression, is readable in this artistic work full of poetic cruelty.

Vladimir Nikolic – Rhythm

The video of the Serbian artist Vladimir Nikolic shows five young people who repeat the Christian sign for crucifix to the rhythm of a Techno sound in a never ending loop.

By analysing the elements of this religious act and its metronomic, mathematic effect, the daily repeated religious, disciple-like acts of human beings against the cost of humanity become perceivable.

The strategically planned nationalistic polarisation of ethnic-religious identities and values enflamed war-fires.

The Kosovo Myth has left its traces on the collective memory of the Serbs. The defeat against the Turks in the battle of Amselfeld (1389) which was the beginning of the Muslim Ottomans’ occupation for hundreds of years was reinterpreted as a victory, a voluntary sacrifice of the nebeski narod (heavenly people of Serbia) ordained by god.

The Serbs get their religious legitimacy to the nationalists claim for political supremacy. Nikolic shatters our perception with this formal reduction and religious gesture, which implicitly points out the danger of re-awaked myths in our contemporary society.

The Croatian artist Sanja Ivekovic uses in her work-in-progress “Nada Dimic File” visual images as a possibility to reflect and interrogate cultural artefacts and clichés.

The Croatian national heroine Nada Dimic is the visualised centre of the historical and contemporary co-presence of loss.

Dimic was a nineteen-year-old female partisan who was executed under the German occupation during WWII.

The socialistic Croatia venerated her as a hero and a state-owned clothing company was named after her. Historical photos, original sketches, catalogues of the clothing company and colourful Nada Dimic T-Shirts are exhibited in a mosaic-style.

A short note refers to the fact that the factory has been closed down and the workers have lost their jobs. The fate of an individual is finding its repetition in the collective – the aura and myth as “a frozen collective experience” disguises the mirror ofideologies and the capitalistic reality.

Sokol Bequiri – When the angels are late (2001)

In the Old Testament, God tests Abraham’s belief in him and asks him to sacrifice his son Isaac. At the last moment, God replaces the boy with a ram – a station on the way to abolish the cult of sacrifice and the introduction of law in the bible.

Sokol Bequiri from the Kosovo region lets the viewer look through a spy-hole integrated in a painting.

On the painting we see an angel holding back Abraham who is on the train to kill his son for God’s sake, the spy-hole shows us a documentary in which a Serb is cutting the throat of a Muslim. The eyes of both men are wide open, the cut precisely set. Angels become ghosts – coming later and sucking the blood of the victims.

Adrian Paci – Vajtojca


What is this lament, this mourning
Of a mother weeping her only son
Poor woman. What happened to you.
How can I cry for so young man
Who died in a foreign land.
O Adrian Paci, young man.

Dirge of a mourner
Text courtesy of Adrian Paci’

In the video “Vajtojca,” the Albanian artist Adrian Paci performs his own death ritual. The Kanun says, “When someone dies, messengers are sent out to invite people to obsequies.”.

While the men groan, they scratch themselves and sway back and forth (from the waist up). The women lament but do not scratch themselves.

A footnote gives more details: “Since the scratching got out of hand and the participants at the obsequies were streaming with blood, the Catholic Church banned this custom about 60 years ago under the threat of severe punishment, maintaining that such despair ran counter to the belief of resurrection.”

Paci puts on his shroud, which every Albanian has in a cupboard at home. He lies on his bed and listens to a professional mourner lamenting him.

After this performance he stands up, pays the women and leaves. This radical breaking of taboos reflects the contemporary society in which fundamental traditionalism and capitalism are united in a double-headed monster of damnation and salvation.

Nedko Solakov – A Life (Black and White)

Black and white paint; two workers/painters constantly repainting the wall of the exhibition space in black and white for the entire duration of the exhibition, day after day (following each other); dimensions variable.

In this performance installation from the Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov two painters paint the walls black and white – in a clockwise direction: a continuous changing of colours and re-painting.

The workers/painters continue their work without being irritated from the visitors. Black – white – black – white. No hierarchy, no victory or defeat. Is this a depiction of utopia?

The presented art from the Balkans tries to “re-bleed” the ghosts of the past and present in order to bury them in the future.

The sweet bitterness of their presence irritates our lingua [in most of the Slavic languages – like in ancient Greek, Latin or French – there is only one term for “tongue” and “language”].

“Balkans” is not just an/other wor(l)d.