Interview with Janka Vukmir, curator of the 90s: Scars exhibition
27 June – 27 September 20211
János Áfra: What injuries do the “scars” in the title of the exhibition refer to? What were the major historical-social movements that left their mark on the works of the artists in the exhibition2 from the 1990s to the present day?
Janka Vukmir: The exhibition speaks of the traces of time of colossal changes in political, economic, cultural, social, technology and information changes we lived through. We called them transition and thought that the process that once has started would have an end. I do not mean changes would stop, as nothing ever really have an end in stopping changes. Still, the intensity of the changes should have slowed down with some visible or palpable conclusions, and societies finding new modes of digesting transformation and developing forward in a way we thought would have been positive. We did not yet live to see this, although many things changed for better.
The post-soviet societies have gone firmly, directly, at a very fast pace in direction of corruption, renewed nationalisms, greed, devolution of values and knowledge, education, cultural systems, changes in the position of artists, women, strengthening poverty, social violence, and insecurity. The western world lived the same pattern, just with a less brutal pace of changes, and prepared better, having different starting position and being here to put criteri and expectations to the eastern countries, talking about Europe. Even the most positive element, the ease of getting information at your palm, produced terrible media behaviour. When you put this on top of already existing scars of communist injustices, what we see today are not very functional societies, not really being in good servis to thier citizens. Those are societies lacking communication skills, they are full of divisions and they are transferring those scars to the upcoming generation. Contemporary artists had little choice then firstly to comment on those symptoms, and soon to actively take a role in those processes, as they learned democracy.
Alban Hajdinaj, Gentian Shkurti (AL); Luchezar Boyadiev, Kiril Prashkov, (BG); Maja Bajević, Nebojša Šerić Šoba (BiH); Jiří Černický, Lukáš Jasanský and Martin Polák (CZ); Kai Kaljo (EST); Boris Cvjetanović, Vlasta Delimar, Ivan Faktor, Antun Maračić, Slaven Tolj (HR); Emese Benczúr, Gyula Várnai (HU); Yerbossyn Meldibekov (Kazahstan); Albert Heta (Kosovo); Catalina Bucos (MLD); Dan Perjovschi (RO); LED Art, ŠKART (RS); Oleg Kulik, Vadim Zakharov (RU); Tadej Pogačar, RIGUSRS / Alenka Pirman, Vuk Ćosić, Irena Woelle (SI); Ilona Németh (SK); Igor Toševski (SMK); Alexandr Roitburd, Arsen Savadov (UA)
JÁ: With the opening of borders, the international movement of artists has also revived, mainly from east to west, of course. How did this determine the development of artistic processes in the region?
JV: This is a good and very complex question to answer. Of course, opening the borders and possibility of mobility was a huge change for majority of post-communist states’ citizens. The focus that was put on the former East was really big during 90ies, culturally and financially. But, for example, the industry of residency programs as we know it today was growing simultaneously. It brought quite a change by the end of the 90ies to all artists.
The mobility multiplied exponentially, and yes, it was all heading West for a simple reason of developed infrastructure, finances available, and most importantly, the curiosity and capability of the West to learn, and re-use. It made a difference in the western cultural systems, as the West was ready to learn much faster than the east who was lacking the processes of knowledge transfer, and mostly it still does. In the same time, not all mobility was wished for.
The ex-Yugoslav states inflicted by the war had huge population moved involuntarily but for the basic survival, as refugees. That lasted for the whole decade and moved people all over the world. Those people did not meet many opportunities to keep their professions, they were simply part of another political decisions. This is why art seemed to matter, as it allowed artists to remain what they are, keep their profession and even achieve some success on the western art scenes. It was a slow process, but it was there, and it gave hope to many.
Unification of EU educational systems that came a bit later made it even more possible for younger generations to achieve mobility and exchange programs on various levels, that in the 90ies were unimaginable. One of the most neglected part of the story is previously lacking east-east relations that expanded through the 90s enormously. This is one of the few extremely important positive symptoms of opening the borders, on some levels maybe more important than so much wished for newly established east-west relations. For many former eastern European citizens, opening of the multiplying borders was a huge difference which brought the possibility to travel abroad, for many, for the first time ever. Today, this is almost unimaginable. Compare the optimistic travelogue of mobility by Dan Perjovschi from Romania with experience recapped in the work by Albert Heta from Kosovo.
JÁ: In the 1990s, attention in the West was also focused on the art of post-socialist countries, but after a decade, attention declined. Which artists have managed to make a breakthrough, gain took root in Western art life, perhaps in the art market, and wonder why?
JV: I could write an essay on this, but to make a long story short, all of this depended on plurality of factors. Some artists maybe did not make a breakthrough to the market immediately, but only ten or twenty years later; some were very successful on the market of grants, or on the market of residency programs, making living out of both of these opportunities; some made successes on the exhibition market, not always necessarily on the primary market. It depended on personalities, attractiveness to the western expectations, topics they were interested in and relation to the socialist past. There were very strong expectations from the west on what eastern art should look like, or what should it talk about. The trend was such, and you couldn’t make an influence on this. It may be exaggerated to say that the artistic poetics wasn’t the most important factor, but I believe the market started preparing the terrain based on those prejudices. It all changed a lot during past 30 years, firstly – the market changed a lot. Once upon the time commercial galleries were happy to show museum represented artists, and today, museums are proud of showing gallery represented artists. Also, it shows where the production money is and how trends turn.
Look at collections emerged based on eastern European art, in the east or in the west… look at the names at 90s:Scars exhibition, how many of them represented their countries at biennials like Venice, or other shows, look at their CVs, the list of successes are enormous, and there is a whole huge list of artists who are not at this exhibition but became famous in the art market.
JÁ: Shapes of liquidation, shortage, revaluation, identity politics dominate the exhibition social raw material. What are the main new horizons? Which work do you find most emblematic in this regard?
JV: I am actively avoiding pointing out one artist or work from the exhibition. For me as the curator, the works selected, and this is a reduced selection due to COVID related changes and budget cuts, they form a unity. Those works speak for me together in the constellation presented, this is what makes a show amalgamated together. In different context, and someone else’s choices, I might as a viewer or as a critic speak of particular work, but in this case, for me, the exhibition is a unity on its own. The only specificities I may name is, that some works at the exhibition are relatively new and recent, and still, they speak of the consequences of 90ies, which makes me think that the new horizon is repeating old patterns and problems, and this is so frustrating, and this is one of our scars. In Croatia, no one speaks of future as if it does not exist in collective mind. And probably it is the truth. Still, if I have to, for me the work 0, the starting point of all are the works by Croatian artist Slaven Tolj, but this is very personal, as they speak of my own 90s, and what those works say is: this is the future, it is now.
JÁ: Partly as a consequence of the rise of conceptualism, entirely new forms of fine art text use have emerged since the 1960s. Igor Toševski’s Dossier 96 (1996–2020) adapted Joseph Kosuth’s masterpiece, the One and Three Chairs (1965). Many of the exhibitors work with texts – either by placing it in a central role or in order to facilitate, and complicate interpretation. For instance, twelve elements of Antun Maračić Golden Words (1991) appear on black paper with Cyrillic; Gyula Várnai’s Aura (1994) with the clothes draw the word’s outlines on the white wall, thus making the deficit readable; Dan Perjovschi’s works, Rebuilding the Berlin Wall (1999) and Revolution (2011), are provocative, handwritten wall inscriptions. Do you feel a more comprehensive renewal in the last decades in text usage? Do you feel possibly regional specificities in this area?
JV: No, I don’t. Form the personal point of view, of someone who grew up in Yugoslavian art context where visual art was sometimes text based, this was not a novelty and conceptualism was present and accepted here in Yugoslav times. When I worked at the SCCA-Zagreb, our first director, curator Branka Stipančić prepared a show titled Words and Images in 1994, which already then was summing up historical and contemporary works of artists using text-based works. I am aware that the breach of the conceptualism had different dynamics in each art centre or state, deepening on freedom and information available, but do not think it is a regional specificity.
JÁ: The members of the generation that started their careers in the 1990s were the last to grow up in the system of socialism, and they start into active contact with art in this system. At the same time, they are the first not to be threatened by power after a long time – of course, unfortunately, this is not true for everyone either. To what extent is this freedom, the lack of fear, felt in the activities of the exhibitors?
JV: Luckily, the lack of fear is not the biggest trauma of all, however it takes time to learn how to live without fear and how not to recognise threat in many things, as habit. It is a learned impulse that took time to get rid of. I cannot speak for myself as coming from Yugoslavia hasn’t been behind the Iron curtain and many things were incomparably lighter than elsewhere, but I still now occasionally find myself in explaining some uncomfortable limitations we lived with to young people I teach. Look at Vadim Zakharov’s lightness of being in his work Kalinka, and barbed wire that speaks of lack of freedom, combined together, as lively as it looks, it gives me a nausea of memories.
JÁ: Do common cultural traumas mean anything to newer generations of artists?
JV: I don’t know. I imagine, or I like to imagine that through the formal and informal education they learned something about those traumas, but I am almost certain they did not learn too much, and far from enough. If they did, their standpoints would have been different. But this exactly built up my motivation to make this show, at least in its original version which never came to life. Still, I think that revisiting 90s has just begun, and that we need to put much more effort into keeping revisiting this period, as it hasn’t been researched. It still lays on the memories of the protagonists, which are very important, as they bring to life the memories of the witnesses and the protagonists of the period, but we, the generation who lived through 90s also need a chance to revisit and make some conclusions.
Without our conclusions, and this takes time too, younger generations will not have chance to learn, it is our responsibility to transfer the knowledge, memories, descriptions, and traumas. This is why I hope there will be many more exhibitions about 90s, and with many more positive impulses than traumatic ones, and that this unfortunate exhibition which ended as the leftover of the Rijeka 2020 program3 is just one in the row of this next wave. I really hope to see more of them, and I am super interested in contributing with much more material we have collected at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Zagreb,4 in future attempts of clarifying that extremely important period.