An exhibition put on by the Balkan art organisation Terminal/oo/ in London this month brought together the work of five artists on the theme ‘Obsession’. Looking at three artists in particular – Radenko Milak (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Jelena Telecki (Serbia and Australia), and Verica Kovačevska (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, currently based in Switzerland) – provides an interesting opportunity to consider the notion of obsession as it cuts through layers of human experience, from the personal to the historical.
For Jelena Telecki, painting has become a means of processing her childhood memories of life in Yugoslavia (she was born in Split, Croatia, and moved to Belgrade in 1991 due to the war). “When you’re a refugee and you have nothing, that need to remember every little thing, every object, becomes an obsession,” she explains. “Every time you recover a memory it’s incredibly exciting.”
Through Telecki’s richly worked canvases we catch glimpses of her internal psychological landscape. Carefully rendered objects and gestures from her past are often surrounded by empty, opaque space that suggests the thick veil that time has drawn over the meaning and context of her memories. While the significance of the individual figures and objects is obscure (perhaps even to the artist herself), there is a recognisably dream-like quality which powerfully conveys the experiential qualities of memory itself.
Verica Kovačevska’s video series ‘I Must Be’ is also deeply personal, in that it was inspired by her own experiences of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The artist performs repetitive actions in front of the camera, while repeating the mantras, “I must be clean”, “I must be beautiful”, “I must be tidy”, and “I must be happy”. Through her increasingly frantic and self-destructive movements, Kovačevska expresses the potentially damaging internalisation of society’s demands on the individual.
In Radenko Milak’s series of paintings entitled ‘Intimacy of Planetary Event’, the theme of obsession is taken into the realm of geo-political events. He has reproduced in bold brush strokes photographs and film stills relating to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. By reproducing these famous images he asks us to look afresh at the event’s controversial status as a decisive moment in Balkan, European and even global history. His painterly simplification of forms recalls the degradation of poorly reproduced film, but the impressionistic style also hints at the relationship between European political and cultural history.
Like Telecki, Milak’s work takes as its starting point the difficulties of understanding and giving meaning to past events. He sums this up with the phrase, “Our future is not uncertain, but the past unknown,” and states that, “not in any country in Europe is the question of history more important than in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
The recurring theme of memory and identity – whether individual or collective – seems particularly relevant not only to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but to all the southeast European states. Kovačevska is currently working on film project which explores the life of her grandmother, who Kovačevska never met, but grew up hearing stories about, as a heroic partisan fighter in Fascist-occupied Yugoslavia during the Second World War. Again, the unreliability of mythologized history is an issue, as she admits, “At one point I was worried that if I started to dig up all these things she would not turn out to be the person I think she is, because you never know with these things.”
Despite their creative enquiries into Balkan history and its personal and cultural ramifications, all three artists are wary of being defined by their nationality. Telecki explains that, “there is a feeling of fatigue amongst Balkan or Eastern European artists with being labelled or classified with a certain region,” while Kovacevska warns that, “there is a danger that you start to be invited only to certain shows and exhibitions.”
For the curators of the show (who work anonymously under the international umbrella of Noun Collective) this attitude is easy to understand, “After the conflict there was a lot of interest in contemporary Balkan art, stemming from the concept that those who suffer create great art. A few years ago there were a lot of exhibitions in that made generalisations about Balkan art on this basis. But now it’s different. Today there is far more integration and Balkan artists can be taken seriously on their own terms.”
Notions of Balkan identity will inevitably provide an important point of reference for the exhibition’s London audience. Some of the works included draw on histories and experiences that are specifically Balkan, while others do not. But in each case the concepts they deal with transcend localised issues and have relevance for an international audience.
Which is why, as Radenko Milak explains, Terminal/oo/’s exhibition is so important, “I think that we get closed up in a stereotypical matrix, which proclaims that art that comes from the Balkans should have characteristics of Balkan identity, whatever that could mean. It is very important for artists from Southeast Europe to be visible in a wider international context. As I see it, this is the main importance of projects of this kind.”