FOREIGN EXPERIENCE IN POST '89 ART, SEMINAR PAPER, 2009
by Nada Prlja
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In an interview by Michele Robecchi conceived in relation to my exhibition Globalwood, held in the National Gallery of Macedonia in Skopje in 2007, Robecchi asks: ‘Do you reckon GLOBALWOOD would have been different if you were witnessing the changes within the culture (both intellectual/aca- demic and popular youth culture) from the inside? Is your perception of Macedonia a perception from a distance, from afar?’ My response was as follows: ‘... the fact that I am never in one single environ- ment, sharpens my senses. However, the sharpness of the senses is two-sided and is relevant for both England and Macedonia / the Balkans. It is about a rather unusual form of existence. Every day I have a yearning ‘to go home’, but where is my ‘home’ now?’.

In my native country, I no longer have a voice - I am not asked for an opinion, as I do not ‘belong’ there anymore, whereas in my new ‘adopted’ country of residence - I do not have a voice, and my ac- tions are delivered through agents, the agents of assimilation, or the agents that help me ‘translate’ the meaning from one culture to other. The ‘agent’ is a helping hand, but the ‘agent’ is also a modifer of my own messages...

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I was born in Sarajevo, and consequently moved to Skopje as a 10-year old child, starting my artistic career during the time of the Soros Center for Contemporary Art that has supported the local art scene. It was a fruitful position to be in, for me and my generation, starting out at the end of the 90s. We were free of the market driven art scene of the West, being nationally promoted and sent to numerous fes- tivals and biennales. While being in this fattering and privileged position, the discovery was mutual – we were discovering the world outside the national borders of our enclosed country, while we were ‘being discovered by ‘them’’ too...

Moving to London in ’99, many of my prejudices about this relation between the local (my own) and international (my own to be), have been re-adjusted and are still in a process of modifcation. The pro- cedure of the ‘adjustment’ is a very fragile position to occupy, it is a lengthy process - it is a learning path on the personal and artistic level of self-criticisms. Criticism of the native as ‘localised’ or ‘per- iferic’ or the criticism of the new ‘international’ as shapeless, vague or undefned. It is a position of self criticism that must try to get a handle on something that was deliberately taken away and replaced with the notion of state-lessness, frustration, or perhaps even guilt.

I would therefore like to put the following questions under scrutiny:
Is there a national artistic identity in this world of post-national existence?
Am I an international artist – and what has contributed towards becoming or being ‘international’?
How do ‘international artists/cultural workers’ relate to their native country, toward their adopted coun- tries, or any other environment in which they are present as artists/cultural workers?

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In search for the answers to those questions I aim to enrich this essay with a concrete example that describes the Return of the international artist to his native country for an exhibition. The overriding idea of the exhibition Globalwood, held in the National Gallery of Macedonia in Skopje in 2007, was the intention to engage in a frontal ‘battle’ with all forms of kitsch which currently dominate the local

(Macedonia/Balkan) world of popular youth culture (of which Turbo Folk culture is an example). Referring to the pop-culture the intention of the exhibition was to address the initiators and forces behind this movement - the political, economic and sociological malformations resulting from the society’s transition from socialism to capitalism. Globalwood presents the nebulous conditions within the Balkans which instigate a blind faith in the western world and an accelerated acceptance of globalisation, while analysing the resulting reality defned by suffocation in the numerous varia- tions of deformed combinations of one’s own (the local, the national) and the foreign (the global, the international) – and the resulting loss of society’s identity beyond recognition. These issues have been voiced, interpreted through several art objects/projects that comprise this exhibition: the video of the blood stained incision of the € (euro) symbol onto the body; the installation of letters which spell out the compound GLOBALWOOD - freely interpreted as ‘global village’; the project BMW, which refects the situation of the recent creation of a new class of businessmen whose brand or means of identifcation is the possession of a good car or some other similar symbol of material wealth. This recent phenomenon has been visually translated by means of a straightfor- ward iconography: three old car tops on which are inscribed the letters BMW.

A major role in the exhibition is given to the project entitled Turbo Star. This piece includes a pur- pose built scenographic backdrop, in front of which new stars of Turbo Folk culture are competing in a live show competition. In the context of this competition, they are faced with members of the cultural elite (and vice versa): fne art historians, artists and theoreticians, who represent the jury for this ‘Turbo Star’ competition. The conficting and culminating moment of this encounter lies herein. Albeit ironical, what kind of relation, if any, has been established between these contrasting entities within the society? As Ana Frangovska, the curator of the show will comment:

‘Globalwood by Nada Prlja represents one of the more complex and provocative projects which has been hosted by us in recent times. It confronts a real and timely issue, which unfortunately has become a part of everyday life in Macedonia: a phenomenon in which the battle has already been fought and won (by the ‘new criteria’ of lost values). Perhaps with this exhibition, Prlja will suc- ceed to initiate us towards commencing a new, revived campaign against questionable aesthetic and moral values, or, perhaps, to discover modes with which to eradicate, or at the very least, diminish the currently dominant role of popular culture in society. The main responsibility for this task lies with the representatives of culture, but at the same time also with the media, as the cre- ators of public opinion.’

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To contrast Frangovska’s words ... Since that exhibition, I have been accused of being a ‘cultural tourist’ by the local art/cultural world, but not only by them....I am now seen as a foreigner – as the colonialist that brings ‘westernized ideas’, a social and political provocateur of my ‘own nation’. This situation of confusion, where the boundaries of ‘who is helping whom?’ has fortifed my posi- tion as an outsider/non-national artist - and non belonger.

I return now to my current position - being an artist working in UK, I am clearly seen as a repre- sentative of Macedonia. Central Europe takes the most democratic position about my ‘belonging’, as both nationalities (UK/Macedonia) are always added to my personal name whenever I have en- gaged with an exhibition/event. Although seemingly unimportant, those words within the brackets of the personal description - (UK/Macedonia) - represents a duality or multiplicity that has become a driving force for my own practice.

I have become increasingly interested in how a specifc artistic practice from a place of parallel

or interrupted history, like Macedonia, fnds itself within the framework of the UK (or any other nation), or more accurately - within the international framework. How can this parallel experience become valid, valuable, important and therefore applicable within the international context? And vice versa: how could the artistic practices that inhabit this unstable ‘internationalised’ position be recognised by the local, or ‘native’ / ‘peripheral’ art systems? In this essay I will illustrate one example deriving from my artistic practice that neglects the coeffcient of artistic visibility and is directed not towards the art world, but towards the world of reality.

The project entitled Give to Take, Estate Agency deals with the position of Eastern Europe within the framework of Europe. The project attempts to give a parallel interpretation and a functional model /alternative to the ‘services’ that exist within the economic systems of Europe (and the World, in general). I believe that those systems could be modifed (I will use the word ‘modifed’ rather than ‘changed’ or ‘altered’). There are ‘gaps’ within society that could make such actions possible. I am therefore seeking ‘power models’ with which to fortify the attempts to infuence real- ity, by making those parallel models truly functional or possible.

In the project Give to Take, Estate Agency, I was ‘selling properties’ from various Balkan areas in the context of a London gallery (the gallery of the Austrian Cultural Forum, a project commis- sioned by the curator Sophie Hope of Reunion projects). I would come every day dressed and acting like an estate agent during the exhibition opening hours; the gallery space was thereby transformed into a ‘functioning’ estate agency, with numerous framed images and descriptions of the selected properties for sale (there was, however, a certain narrative looseness and essay-like deviation within these descriptive texts, which made this agency different from other, ‘proper’ estate agencies). By conceiving a project such as this, I was primarily interested in the use (misuse) of the art system, as the gallery served as a free venue for the agency and I was being paid an artist’s fee, which allowed me to act as an estate agent ‘for free’. Secondly, through this project, I was interested in the mis- interpretation (or redefnition) of the established economic systems, by changing the stereotypical positions of the countries within fnancial exchanges. The catching point of this project, which, at the same time is also the project’s critical aspect, is the fact that this ‘Estate Agency’ offers proper- ties without taking a provision of any potential sales and transactions, resulting in the possibility of avoiding the proft being made by the third party involved in the transaction between the owner and the purchaser of any given property.

This project goes along with the principles of the established market economy, searching instead for small modifcations within it - which, in this case, is the erasure of the third party person, the proft-making ‘in between’ person. The Give to Take, Estate Agency project could therefore repre- sent a threat for professional estate agents, through which my goal would be fulflled and the project ‘enables new relationships’ (as required by Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics).

This project offers one of the artistic strategies whose visual potential is intended to be used as a critique, a position of resistance, disagreement, but at the same time looking for solutions in rela- tion to the new forms of interdependence between ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ initiated through the art practices.

Inhabiting the’ international zone’ is an unstable position/place to be in, but it is a position that seeks to fnd a different access to the world, a position removed from the comfort zone - the most appropriate position from which to look for new relationships that could be formed today between art; presence, history; society and politics?