Monuments Should Not Be Trusted

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This exhibition of work by artists in former Yugoslavia has been curated by Lina Džuverović.

It brings together over 30 leading artists and groups from the “golden years” of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia — the period between the early 1960s and the mid-1980s.

There is a striking collage by Avgust Černigoj from 1972 of anti Vietnam War protesters and a cartoonish, ghoulish face wearing a Stars and Stripes bandana with the name “Nixon”.

A piece by Sanja Iveković entitled Double Life from 1975 is about “the politics of imagery”, and the “politics of bodies”, specifically women’s bodies. Images include a woman advertising deodorant, looking up at some leaves on a tree. Beside this is an image of a woman, also looking up. However, we do not see what she is looking at, as if her thoughts are too big to be captured.

Another shows two women, sitting stiffly, almost comically, poised and preened. They are facing the viewer, almost expressionless, with sunglasses hiding any trace of personality. This is contrasted by another piece by Iveković in which she uses a large range of photographs that highlight the objectification of women.

There are pieces in the exhibition reflecting on what life was like under Marshal Josef Tito, the authoritarian ruler of former Yugoslavia. In 1963 he was made “president for life” which meant he was no longer subject to elections.

The work by Tomislav Gotovac, entitled Homage to Josip Broz Tito (1980), is clearly meant to satirise. One of a range of photographs shows a man, sitting in a garden, with his back turned away from the viewer. He is watching TV, but on closer inspection the TV is not switched on. It is also well worth looking at the video made by this artist.

There is a video of an interview with the band Laibach. The group formed part of a political art collective named Neue Slowenische Kunst. The monochrome video, shot in the early 1980s, shows four sallow young men being interviewed by a person we never see. The group are wearing Nazi-style uniforms. They use Stalinist-era phrases such as the “contemporary and mature worker has grown with a developed feeling of class affiliation”.

The exhibition shows that there was a relatively thriving presence of “counter-cultural” artists in former Yugoslavia even during the height of the Tito era. There is criticism of Western imperialism, consumerism and sexism and to a certain extent criticism of Tito. When doing the latter, artists had to be more careful. One video piece shows Yugoslav police repressing a student protest.

It is possible that there is an element of nostalgia for this period, not necessarily for state capitalism, but our experience of the exhibition is inevitably shaped by the knowledge that the violent breakup of the Yugoslav state would happen only a few years later.