Creating Context: Zdenka Badovinac on Eastern Europe’s Missing Histories (Interview)

Zdenka Badovinac. Image courtesy of Zdenka Badovinac.Zdenka Badovinac has been the director of the Ljubljana Museum of Modern Art (Moderna galerija) since 1993. She has curated numerous exhibitions presenting both Slovenian and international artists. Badovinac initiated the first collection of Eastern European art, Moderna galerija’s 2000+ Arteast Collection. She has been systematically dealing with the processes of redefining history and with the questions of different avant-garde traditions of contemporary art, first with the exhibition Body and the East – From the 1960s to the Present, staged in 1998 at Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, and traveling to Exit Art, New York in 2001. She continued in 2000 with the first public displaying of the 2000+ Arteast Collection: 2000+ Arteast Collection: The Art of Eastern Europe in Dialogue with the West at Moderna galerija, (2000); and then with a series of Arteast Exhibitions, mostly at Moderna galerija.

ARTmargins: You are one of the most prominent museum directors in East-Central Europe today, and one of the longest serving. Could you tell us how your role as director of Ljubljana’s Museum of Modern Art has evolved over the years?

Zdenka Badovinac: I was appointed director soon after the collapse of Yugoslavia and the foundation of independent Slovenia, after the fall of Communism and at the outbreak of war in the Balkans. This new political situation was a kind of initiation to my directorship of Moderna galerija. We had to contend with thisnew situation quite soon, in 1993, when I was the commissioner for the Slovene Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Slovenia was one of the first new countries forced to find a pavilion outside the Giardini. We were very disappointed that the art world and its big events did not react to the completely new geo-political situation in Europe. The same disappointment was shared by some of the artists in Ljubljana, especially the group Irwin, with whom we decided to react against the war in Bosnia in 1994. Over the next two years we prepared an international symposium (“Living with Genocide”) and compiled part of a collection for the future museum of contemporary art in Sarajevo. Through projects of this type we learned a lot about the role of museums and art in adverse social and political circumstances. Throughout the 1990s our activities were affected by the new conditions, so we tried to determine more precisely what issues we shared with the Balkans and Eastern Europe.

Parallel to these concerns, also since the early the 1990s, our work has focused on the relationship between modern and contemporary art. Together with my colleagues we wanted to bring young-generation artists into our central art institution, which had been previously reserved for older or already dead artists. This new orientation provoked some serious criticism, chiefly from conservative modernist circles, forcing us to learn to articulate the difference between contemporary and modernist art. When we were allotted another building for our program (in Metelkova Street, Ljubljana) we decided to split our activities between modern and contemporary art. And not just that; the new building served as an opportunity to redefine the national institution in more international terms, too. In 2000 we built up the international Arteast 2000+ Collection and decided to house it in the Metelkova building once it was renovated. It has been a long journey since then, with a lot of antagonism to our idea from several sides, but now it seems we will soon be able to open our contemporary art museum. It is important to know that all the efforts of the last two decades will finally result in two big departments: a museum of modern art and a museum of contemporary art. We are opening the museum of modern art this year in the renovated Moderna galerija building, and, hopefully, in a year or two, also the museum of contemporary art in Metelkova Street.

A.M.: Under your leadership, the Ljubljana Museum of Modern Art started the first systematic collection of contemporary art from the countries of what used to be called the “Eastern Bloc” [“the Arteast 2000+ Collection”]. How was this focus created, and where do you see it headed in the future?

Z.B.: Among the processes I tried to briefly outline above, the construction of our local and international context was crucial. In the last two decades we have defined our international context in terms of priorities that our space has in common with other Eastern European countries. The common denominator is the lack of a modern art system that would also include a common historical narrative. That’s why I still use the term Eastern European art, which, by the way, was actually constructed largely only after the Communist regimes collapsed. It was only then that the international art world became interested in disseminating information about this region. Our Arteast 2000+ Collection and all the activities it entails express in the first place this common need for a history that has not been written yet. We trust that we have contributed our share to historicization and that once our new big department, the contemporary art museum, has been opened we will be even more productive and systematic in this respect. In the future we hope to go more in the direction of comparisons with other cultural contexts, to contribute to the idea of a plurality of narratives, and to confront different forms of local knowledge with the central art historical narrative. (We have already started working on a project called L’Internationale with our partners MACBA from Barcelona, Van Abbemuseum from Eindhoven, and the Július Koller Society from Bratislava.) Through the Arteast 2000+ Collection, Moderna galerija has shown a similar interest in local knowledge as our partners who work outside the hegemonic ambitions of the largest institutions. Our next step is to make our knowledge on Eastern Europe part of a trans-local exchange.

A.M.: Already in 2002, the ZKM in Karlsruhe showed a large chunk of the Arteast 2000+ Collection. Has the situation for contemporary art from Eastern Europe changed since then?

Z.B.: In Karlsruhe we presented our collection in specially designed transport crates, as there was not enough space for a normal display. I had conceived the display in crates earlier, for the presentation in Innsbruck, where the organizers allotted the glass congress room to our exhibition at the last moment. Dealing with disadvantageous conditions has always been my curatorial approach. Initially, the works were displayed in their transport crates due to an actual need, but then the crates became a metaphor for the process of moving and for the East becoming an agent of its own moving. And that was and still is our most important message: that the East should become the subject of its own definition and not just an object of presentation and definition by those who have power and capital. I’m not denying the importance of the outside view, but it is not sufficient. Without self-interpretation initiated by the local infrastructures, the situation cannot essentially change. In my view, it hasn’t changed radically so far, but now there is at least big potential in the region. If we look for example at former Yugoslavia, all the major institutions, including ours, are currently closed due to renovation or construction. Moderna galerija is opening one of its two buildings this year and the other one, with any luck, next year. Zagreb is opening a new museum this autumn, and Belgrade in the near future. With all these renovated and reorganized institutions the Balkans will hopefully see a new situation in a few years. Also in other Eastern countries a new infrastructure is being built, Warsaw is getting a new museum, so are Vilnius and Tallinn. Besides this new museum infrastructure there are many other, non-governmental initiatives that are similarly involved in historicization and local knowledge production, sometimes even more importantly than their local museums. On the other hand, however, there is the deep financial crisis and the constantly endangered democracies of Eastern Europe. Some Eastern European countries are facing possible bankruptcy; in such situations culture is never a priority. From the West we are already getting some weak signals of the economy’s recovery. The East will follow with a delay, especially that part outside of the Schengen border that still divides Europe into an East and a West.

A.M.: You have turned the museum you direct into one of the central sites not only for the collection but also for the exhibition of contemporary art from the formerly Communist countries. Can you tell us about your curatorial philosophy, and how it has changed over time?

Z.B.: Since the time I stared working for Moderna galerija, my curatorial work has been oriented to the priorities of our concrete space, and in that respect it hasn’t changed much to this day. As most of my exhibitions have been realized for Moderna galerija, they focused on our specific tasks, the needs of our space and its international integration. They served as a tool of operation, with the priorities being our local space and a dialogue with the international sphere.

A series of shows called Arteast Exhibitions represents the core of my curatorial work in the last decade. The first exhibitionin this series was Form-Specific (2003), which placed seemingly universal forms, such as for example geometric abstraction, in specific contexts. It was followed by 7 Sins: Ljubljana–Moscow (2004), which I co-curated with Viktor Misiano and Igor Zabel, then Interrupted Histories (2006), Arteast Collection 2000+23, and Schengen Women (2008). These exhibitions directly related to our collection and to questions regarding the reinterpretation of existing history. The series actually started before it received its name, with The Body and the East exhibition as far back as 1998.

Before that I had been involved in some projects related to the war in Bosnia, such as the Sarajevo projects I have already mentioned, and the exhibition House in Time. I started curating international exhibitions in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the ambition to create a dialogue between the predominant concerns of Slovene artists and the current trends on the international scene. During the existence of Yugoslavia, most international exhibitions were traveling shows coming from somewhere and for the most part coordinated by federal institutions in Belgrade. It is therefore important to understand my curatorial work in terms of building a local art system. For me, what was at issue was rarely just an exhibition; there was always a complexity of different needs in the background.

A.M.: If we interpret your writings and shows correctly, you are mainly interested in art as a process of (social, political, philosophical) engagement that does not spend or exhaust itself in blind activism. Would this be a fair characterization?

Z.B.: Yes, as I have already said there have always been the specific priorities of our space that somehow got the support of the civil society as well. I had been involved in ecological activism before I became a curator in the mid-1980s, but since then I’ve worked within the institutional frame. I became a museum director very young, and I’ve believed ever since that being the director of a principal national art museum is also a political thing and a privilege. I’ve never been a member of any political party, as I have come to understand the director’s function as that of always being in some kind of opposition. Not in opposition to one or another political party, but in opposition to conformist ideas, social patterns, and ways of communication, violations of human rights and democratic principles, etc. In general, that has always been for me also the task of contemporary art, and I’ve tried to follow this line without making compromises. If you take this stance seriously, you can really lead your professional life as a constant game with precise rules, which is beautiful although at times also very painful.

A.M.: What are your acquisition policies at this point in time, and how do you position your museum vis-à-vis similar institutions in neighboring countries?

Z.B.: Moderna galerija is simultaneously a museum of 20th century art and a museum of contemporary art. While the 20th century museum is more nationally oriented, the 21st century collection is international and includes the Arteast 2000+ Collection. There are two acquisition policies and different priorities. Within the frame of the national collection, which covers the period from Impressionism to the present, we are trying to fill the gaps so that we have the most important periods and artists included, while the international collection goes from the 1960s to the present and is based on postwar avant-garde tendencies. Among our current priorities there are some very important former Yugoslav artists who we already have a work or two of, but would like to have more and from different periods. At the moment we are working on an exhibition of Yugoslav experimental film since the 1950s, which can also serve as research for new acquisitions. There are some collections in Austria that have a similar orientation in their acquisition policy as our Arteast 2000+ Collection, but their contextual frame is very different. For us a collection is not just a presentation of art from a specific region but also a tool that co-produces a context. Museums and their collections are systems of knowledge through which a person understands him- or herself and his or her existential frame of reference. For us, the Arteast 2000+ Collection did not mean discovering unknown territory, it was just a tool to think through Slovene art and its broader international context after the collapse of socialism, after the foundation of the new national state. We are about to develop a more intensive dialogue with institutions in the Balkans, as we share a common history and similar current problems. We are now working on a display of a part of the national collection of 20th-century art and contemplating ways of highlighting this dialogue between the international and the national in the display.

As for Slovene art, we can talk about the different international contexts that have changed through history. In certain historical moments the Central European context was more important than the Balkan or Eastern European ones. Besides, we shouldn’t forget that the questions of the local and the global contexts or their relationship are just two of many possible narratives when it comes to approaching history and art.

A.M.: You are well known for some visionary exhibitions that involved the participation of “global” curators such as Harald Szeemann, Nicolas Bourriaud, Carlos Basualdo, and others. Where do you see the significance of bringing them to Ljubljana?

Z.B.: In the 1990s, when we introduced all these changes in Moderna galerija, there were a lot of local pressures from different sides, which sometimes made our work nearly impossible. That’s why personalities such as Szeemann, and I would add Peter Weibel, were helpful as international referential figures. Although sometimes they made our situation worse, as Peter Weibel did when through his selection of artists for our U3/The Triennial of Contemporary Slovene Art he made a statement about what contemporary meant for him at that moment. And Szeemann was important for us as a kind of father figure more than anything else. Carlos Basulado did one of his first international exhibitions in Ljubljana; that was in 2000 when he was just entering the global curatorial arena. When I invited him, he was not yet in the documenta curatorial group. At that time he was for me “just” one of the most interesting curators from Latin America. Bourriaud never actually realized his exhibition in Moderna galerija for practical reasons. But there were also other important guest curators from the East and from the West, working on projects of different scale and approach. They were invited for their different curatorial approaches and, first and foremost, according to the needs of our space.

A.M.: Can you tell us about your working relationship with the curator, art theorist and philosopher Igor Zabel, who died in 2005?

Z.B.: We met at the university where we studied together, and later we were very close co-workers in Moderna galerija until his tragic death. Together we fought the same battles and learned the same lessons. Although as curators we mostly worked on our own, different projects, we always kept one another informed of what we were doing. We discussed our projects, which followed the priorities of the Moderna galerija exhibition policy. I often asked Igor to write the text for the catalogue of some exhibition I was curating, and when I worked with a group of advisors on big projects Igor was always one of them. We also co-curated some projects. The last and largest one was 7 Sins: Ljubljana–Moscow, which we prepared together with Viktor Misiano. We would discuss the reasons for this or that exhibition or text, and analyze the background. Igor was one of the most insightful writers and scholars of the last two decades. And it was not just his profound knowledge that contributed so much to our work, but also his generosity and humor. It was never just work that united us, but genuine friendship.

Neither Igor’s work nor mine can be understood outside our local context and that of Moderna galerija, which doesn’t mean that it was just local, but it was caught in a constant dialectic between the local and the global.

A.M.: One of the focal points of your exhibition work over the last few years has been the question of the archive, particularly in connection with Eastern Europe. Where do you see the reason that the archive enjoys so much attention from artists from Eastern Europe?

Z.B.: My exhibition Interrupted Histories (2006, Moderna galerija) presented some very important artists’ archives, for example Zofia Kulik’s, Vadim Zaharov’s, Lia Perjovschi’s, Artpool, etc. They relate directly to this absence of historicization in Eastern European art. Some of these artists have been compiling their archives since the early 1970s. Documenting the unofficial neo-avant-garde and its context, their archives performed some of the tasks otherwise carried out by official institutions. If we want to learn about the unofficial art we need those archives as crucial sources for research. For the artists-archivists the most important thing was to keep their own work and the work of their colleagues documented and to preserve the evidence of the specific conditions of art production. Then there are artists who today try to map their local histories because their own artistic practices make that necessary. One of the main projects in this respect is the East Art Map produced by the group Irwin. It maps fifty years of Eastern European art history and includes also an interactive online project in which anyone is able to provide new information for the archive. Parallel to this kind of mapping there are also important reenactments that try to restage histories that are not well-documented . One of the most interesting projects of this kind was carried out by three artists who changed their names to that of the Slovene prime minister at the time, Janez Janša. Their project Triglav (2007) examined the local tradition of collective work by reenacting the performance of the Slovene group OHO from the 1960s and its reenactment by the group Irwin in 2004. Irwin documented their action by means of a superior-quality museum photographs, while the Janšas exhibited enlargements of the photographs of their performance that appeared in the three Slovene daily newspapers with the largest circulation. By putting the emphasis on the documentary aspect and not merely on the reenactment of the original performance, both Irwin and the three Janez Janšas brought to the fore the need for a greater awareness and better knowledge of the history of neo-avant-garde art. I call their approach self-historicization.

I would say that today the more progressive institutions and engaged artists share the same priorities and work on historicizing their own traditions, as they see this as the number one condition for engaging in a more equal global dialogue.

A.M.: One of the major themes of the exhibition Body and the East (1998) at your museum was the relationship between the historical avant-garde and the Eastern European neo-avant-gardes. What is your take on that relationship?

Z.B.: The Body and the East served as a first opportunity to show how the understanding of the individual and his or her position in society changed during thepostwar decades. In the 1960s and 1970s this relationship acquired a utopian dimension that resulted in a special type of bohemian artist marked by heroism. After the belief in great ideologies started to crumble in the 1980s we witnessed a decline of the construct of the autonomous individual, and the myth of the artist-hero. At that time artists stopped searching for their authentic identities by torturing their bodies, which were no longer the bearers of individuality. Instead they emphasized the body’s ability to assume different roles. In the 1990s, after the fall of the Communist regimes and the disintegration of multinational countries as a result of nationalist wars, artists experienced a loss of identity. Then, besides all these local causes, there was also the growing globalization, the power of new technology, virtual worlds, bio engineering, new diseases such as AIDS, etc. All of this resulted in the artists’ return to their physical body. Especially in body art we can follow a dialectical line from the collective drive shown by the historical avant-gardes to the idea of the autonomous individual, and then to a more socially constructed form of persona. Prekybines ir turistines palapines –

Direct interest in the experience of the historical avant-gardes became very important in the Russian and Yugoslav neo-avantgardes during the 1970s and 1980s, when some artists repeated the motives and tactics of the avant-garde, especially the Russian one. These issues were thoroughly analyzed by Inke Arns in her writings.

As I mentioned, this relation to local avant-garde traditions is today entering a new phase in which the performer’s body emphasizes the necessity for the “museification” and “archivization” of the of local tradition. We are fighting against the amnesia of the great historical social and art utopias.

A.M.: Thank you very much!

August 2009


Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez. Image courtesy of the author.Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez is an independent curator and critic who is based in Paris and Ljubljana. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the EHESS in Paris where she also runs a seminar on contemporary artistic practices with Patricia Falguieres, Elisabeth Lebovici, and Hans Ulrich Obrist. She is currently working as an associate curator at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. She is a member of the editorial board of ARTMargins and Maska.

Sven Spieker. Image courtesy of the author.Sven Spieker lives in Los Angeles and Berlin. His most recent book publication is The Big Archive. Art from Bureaucracy (MIT Press, 2008). He is the editor of ARTMargins.