Bosnia's retro-neo-avant-garde: contemporary art against the present
Matthew Webber (University College London (UCL))
Paper short abstract:
This paper draws on fieldwork among artists in Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) in order to explore the international instrumentalization of contemporary art in the country. I argue this has led to the resurgence of utopian neo-avant-garde practices that oppose the objectives of the international community.
Paper long abstract:
Between 1995 and 2015, the international community funded contemporary art alongside a then-unprecedented level of intervention in BiH. Contemporary art was expected to promote post-conflict reconciliation, the public inclusion of minorities, and achieve 'democratization' through the stimulation of civil society. As others have found in relation to parallel initiatives, this 'use' of contemporary art has led to the entrenchment of difference rather than its erasure, and the 'warping' of public discourse toward particular buzzwords. It has also failed, in that BiH remains trapped in a paradoxical (and dystopian) state of 'permanent transition': what Jansen has called the 'meantime' (2015). In this context, young artists have come to rely on international funding for their work. They often justify this work in relation to international priorities, but are privately critical of them. Some of these artists have turned to the Yugoslav neo-avant-garde as a model for their work (and, indeed, lives). This practice values nonsense, irrationality, liminality, and bleak humour, and ultimately seeks to maintain art's mimetic qualities against its rationalization in transition and post-conflict societies. As such, the failure of the utopian vision of post-conflict BiH has led to some paradoxical outcomes. Artists have sought an alternative utopia, and some have found this in the earlier, socialist society that the country is supposed to transition from. Their work opposes the rubric under which it is funded, but also represents the very thing that this funding is designed to achieve: the (re)creation of a vibrant and critical public sphere.
Shadows of the present: generative ambivalences across art, heritage, and materiality