Polar Bears on the Balkans

Daniela Sergieva, 'Between', 1999 (photo installation). Installation view.Daniela Sergieva, 'Between', 1999 (photo installation). Installation view.

Let me begin my essay by telling a short anecdote: “Once upon a time, somewhere close to the North Pole, one baby polar bear asked his mother:
-Mommy, are you sure that I am a real polar bear?
-Yes, she answered.
-And all our family members are real polar bears as well?
-Absolutely, said she. Your father, me, your grandmothers and grandfathers, and all our relatives are real polar bears. But why do you ask?
-You know, he said, I trust you, of course. But why then do I feel so terribly cold?”

I would like to use this simple story to illustrate one of the most urgent questions for all the people living on the Balkans, namely the question of our European identity. During the last ten years we have come to understand that it is not so much a problem of cultural, but rather of political identity. Whether we are Europeans or not depends very much on our self-perception, but even more so on the point of view that the powerful political and cultural centers entertain. From the viewpoint of modern globalization, there are cultures (among them the Balkans) which are not central enough, nor timely, nor big enough in comparison to the “Great Nations”. At the same time, they are insufficiently alien, insufficiently distant, and insufficiently backward to be classified together with e.g. the exotic African tribes.

The globalization of international economies turns the various corners of the world into interdependent elements, with new communication technologies reconfirming the feeling of mutual interrelation. However, in spite of what the politicians say, the disintegration of some countries is becoming more and more pronounced, especially on the Balkans and in the entire post-totalitarian region. It is significant that parts of Europe have eliminated all borders, while other parts are ever more surrounded by borders. The number of European countries has increased by thirty percent over the last decade, with Bulgaria, for example, moving up from the category of “small” countries into that one of medium-sized countries. The new principles of freedom and equality changed everything, from the draws for the soccer World Cup to the biennales of contemporary art. However, the former totalitarian states, or “new democracies,” had to discover that a change of ideology is not the only prerequisite for world equality, and they are still practicing in other areas.

Thus, although the arts in the Balkans seem to be free at first sight, they are in fact enslaved by the constant pressure to prove their adequacy within a global context, to show that they are more than a product of national or regional exotics. This process of globalization is further complicated by the ‚ “alien,” languages through which they think, describe, and characterize themselves. Against the slogan of ‚ “political correctness,” Eastern Europe (and the Balkans in particular) acquired a reputation of exoticism in the international art world, together with other ‚ “exotic‚” cultures such as Latin America and China. It seems that the label attribution of “exoticism”‚ depends as much on the size of a country as on its political “success,” while the attention given to it in the international media is inversely proportional to the latter.

In a historical/political context, the situation of the Balkans is: a) A result of their geographical location ( the lower East side of Europe to e.g. the East Side of New York City, and you will find many similarities); b) The effect of a tragic history (Orthodox Christianity mingling with Ottoman domination, a totalitarian regime and war, almost all of which was present during the last decade); c) A trustworthy, slow and leisurely “conjugation” in the European community (Bulgaria lives with a Currency Board, enforced by the International Monetary Fund, and we travel according to the terms of the Schengen Agreement.)

The Balkan Peninsula is situated in the southeastern part of Europe. The Balkans consist of nine countries now, while ten years ago there were only six. Yet this increase did not result in a real differentiation between the wealthy and the so-called ‚”reliable‚” countries. Perhaps with the exception of Slovenia, which, in spite of its own denial of ever having been a part of Eastern Europe, counts as the safest in this region.

When the Balkans, with Bismarck, are described as the “powder keg” of Europe, they are seen as an alien space that is full of conflict and not to be understood. According to Luchezar Boyadjiev, an artist and friend from Sofia, this perception can be described through the metaphor of “overlapping identities”. An “identity overlap” occurs whenever and wherever two or more communities lay claim on the same “territory” of history, culture, politics, religion, language, etc., each of them considering it to be exclusively their own. The legitimacy of the claim is usually not based on rational, but on emotional grounds. Likewise, it is often accompanied by a lack of unbiased information and respect for the claim of the Other. In this context, “experience‚” is understood in the broadest possible sense as a collective horizon of remembrance.

Currently, the close relation of art to history and geography is never being questioned. Both history and geography are often used as a background material for the artist’s ideas. Traveling through history can be either an individual or a group undertaking, but it always reflects different angles of knowledge (cf. Lyotard). Contemporary art often proves to be more of a retelling or remembering of things past than a new narrative of current happenings. Knowing and “utilizing‚” geography may reflect the personal interests of an artist, too, but overall, contemporary art reflects the political situation quite directly.

In the last years, the international artistic community has migrated away from its traditional centers towards more or less exotic places that have just entered the coordinate system of civilization. The temporary migrations triggered by the international biennales for instance, look a little like exploratory expeditions that have a touch of safari and wilderness camping to them. The instruments for the investigation and classification of the unknown are being brought from such centers of civilization as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, or Vienna. On the return trip, souvenirs (“trophies,” in a sense) from foreign cultures are taken back, reflecting their languages, attitudes and concepts. Artists and other members of the art world travel so much that one should almost create a special “art-travel-class,” similar to, but not quite as fancy as, the business class on airplanes. Freedom of movement is an important freedom, and one that is recognized by our times as a value that needs proper practical provisions.

A truly international context can be created by interpretive means that help to be aware of cultural differences and the profusion of cultural meanings. Art from the Balkans speaks a similar language as art from anywhere else, but the often different and diverse meanings that it communicates are dictated by an active context.

Artists generally yearn for entering into the large community of the international art world. Yet this is only a reflection of the common dream of whole societies and countries to enter the huge, pre-ordered international community at any cost. It appears that the belief in integration, in common interests, and in a common language has become a substitute for all the Great Utopias of the past that did not come true. The issue of utopia and freedom is still relevant today, especially when we look at the question of what “artistic freedom” means in the light of its transition from the utopia of the past (i.e., socialism) to the outside (international) model, which is now also perceived as a utopia.

Of course, the Balkan artist of today wants to represent neither the socialist identity of the past nor any “post” identity, since he/she is convinced that the space of art is outside of all familiar social realities.

Nonetheless, what statements can art make about the reality of capitalism? At the end of the 20th century, it has become impossible for the arts to embrace capitalism wholeheartedly. Still, there is the possibility of looking closely at specific details and thus trying to deduct inferences about the whole. Such a fragmentary approach, however, requires a masterful execution, and a precise, aesthetically pleasing form. But a “masterful form‚” is by definition outside the capabilities and aspirations of the young arts. Thus, a serious contradiction arises between the already appropriated language of art, and that which it signifies. Art that has been appropriated to one’s own identity does no longer want to represent an unknown social reality and its manifestations. It represents the ambitions of its authors in terms of what they would like to be, not of what they actually are.

The development of art has become the public center of interest, because from the artist’s marginal point of view, art is seen as a self-sufficient system that operates within a closed-off cycle “something similar to a new utopia. Artists do not feel as citizens of their own countries, but, as a young colleague of mine once admitted, as citizens of the art world. In a paradoxical way, the young artists of today exist in Baudrillard’s “hyperreality” rather than in the chaotic and traumatic reality that surrounds them. A hyperreality is generated with the help of a medium and exists as a projection on a screen or a sheet of paper, while its perception depends on the interpretation of the medium as well as on the prestige of the medium itself. The transition from one type of citizenship to another is performed in the following stages, all of which are manifest in many Balkan artworks: the re-evaluation of reality, self-obsession, a feeling like a visitor in your own country, the production of new contexts, the publicizing of art.

These stages mark the passage from the discovery and invention of a self-identity to its actual formulation via the referential concentric circles of self-reflection. From being the subject of a post-totalitarian and post-war reality that constructed the Balkans as the historical, political and social definition of the Other, the emphasis of the isolationist subjectivity should move to the realization that “Balkan-citizenship” is no more and no less than a geographical affiliation. Then, and only then, globalization, which has in many ways become a new ideology, will not ignore and erase differences between the European countries, but will be constructed by them.

Iara Boubnova, curator and art critic, lives and works in Sofia. She has curated over 25 individual and group shows in Bulgaria. Her projects include: ‘Locally Interested’, Sofia, ‘Station Sofia’ (together with Luchezar Boyadjiev) in ‘Translocation’, Vienna (both 1999); ‘Bulgaria avantgarde. Contending Forces II’, Munich (1998); ‘The Prying Game’ (together with the first-year students of the Centre for Curatorial Studies, Bard College), USA; ‘Menschenbilder. Foto- and Videokunst aus Bulgarien’, Berlin; ‘ARS EX NATIO. Made in BG’, Plovdiv, Bulgaria and ‘Erato’s Version’ (both together with Maria Vassileva) – all in 1997; ‘Bulgarian Glimpse Show’, Moscow (1996); ‘In Search of Self-Reflection’, Plovdiv (1994); ‘Object Bulgarian Style’, Sofia (1993). Boubnova is the founding Director of the Institute of Contemporary Art, Sofia. Since 1997, she has been a lecturer at the New Bulgarian University, Visual Arts and Communication Department.

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