NOTTINGHAM, UK — Between the early 1960s and mid-1980s, the country once known as Yugoslavia was an anomaly: a socialist state which allowed free travel to the West and promoted “self-management” rather than bureaucratic repression; a dictatorship which promoted decentralization and free expression. Josip Broz Tito, who was arguably the most popular of socialist leaders, fell out with Moscow in 1948 and until his death in 1980 presided over a consumer culture which tolerated internal criticisms.
Tito’s Yugoslavia illustrated the difference between bureaucratic socialism and a more colorful alternative, and looking back one can see how vibrant the country became. In 1961 he founded the Non-Aligned Movement, a coalition of 120 countries which looked to one another, rather than to the global superpowers, for socioeconomic support and trade. At a time when socialism is back in the news, to the horror of the mainstream media, the exhibit Monuments Should Not Be Trusted at Nottingham Contemporary is a reminder that a radical left-wing state need not be a monolith, and that social realism only tells half the story. Granted, there were still repressive measures — the student unrest which swept Europe in 1968 also came to the larger cities here and the Yugoslav government also met the striking youths with brutal force.
Two years later, the locals were celebrating their own summer of love and enjoying a banned film by Karpo Godina which incited viewers to take LSD. “The Gratinated Brain of Pupilija Ferkeverk” (1970) is shown here and, with an irresistibly pulsating soundtrack by Rory Gallagher and Taste, it remains a great advertisement for the drug. Filmed on a shallow inland waterway, Godina uses a static camera to capture the playful cavorts of six longhaired pranksters and a topless woman on a swing. When the members of the group toast one another with bottles of Coca-Cola, we know we are a very long way from Moscow and, in terms of irony, equally removed from hippiedom.
In its way, this sun-kissed, “happening”-like film is not too far removed from another piece of glammy performance by artist collective OHO. Their 1970 film, “White People,” finds another assembly of dissident Yugoslavs whose activities provoke equal unease. Their white robes prepare you for a spiritual performance, which finds them, by the end of the film, plunging naked into sunlit seawater. You might call this arte povera or land art. It is self-aware and comic. It is anything but parochial.
At this point, you might have forgotten that Yugoslavia was a socialist country. But the gallery has pulled together a group of exhibits loaned by the Museum of Yugoslav History which illustrate what life was like for most non-artists under the reign of Tito. We find a folksy array of batons carried by youth groups, table top sculptures representing heroic workers, gifted to the leader by factories, and patriotic illustrations by schoolchildren. This is the kitsch end of socialist art — the demagoguery that any sensible artist would want to reject.
Not that pageantry is without its potential for a well-observed artistic response. Dušan Makavejev makes a 1962 film about a Labor Day parade in Belgrade, or rather the diligent preparations which go into this annual celebration of workers’ rights. “Parada” has no narrative; it builds its effect with a culmination of glimpses of soldiers buffing up military vehicles, bandsmen practicing, and people hoisting banners of Marx and Lenin onto the side of apartment blocks. Makavejev was a fan of cinéma vérité and is content to leave these fragmented impressions for your consideration.
In Yugoslavia they called this cinematic style black wave and, on the evidence of the current show, the master of this convention was Želimir Žilnik. His 1971 work, “Black Film,” is an unflinching self-portrait in which the filmmaker invites half a dozen homeless people back to his apartment where they, inevitably, clash with the rhythms of family life. In part two of the film, he works hard and in vain to find them new homes, conducting a vox pop amongst a citizenry every bit as helpless as himself.
No survey of late 20th-century art in the former Yugoslavia would be complete without a piece or two by Marina Abramović, a reminder that the state nurtured one of the contemporary art world’s biggest stars. The new-age Abramović we have grown used to was once a fierce social critic and the 1974 performance “Rhythm 5,” shown here, is one of the grittiest works in the show. The artist laid out a flammable five-pointed star and, after lighting it, lay down in the center, where she passed out due to smoke inhalation.
The best-represented artist in the show is Sanja Iveković, whose photo essay “Tragedy of a Venus” (1975–76) will still resonate with audiences today. Over some dozen panels, the artist juxtaposes press shots of Marilyn Monroe with a set of amateurish self-portraits which, naturally, fail to attain the heights of glamor which the screen goddess came to epitomize. Iveković, who also engaged with found advertisements and television commercials, could be usefully compared with Warhol for her black-and-white, handmade, critical reappraisal of Monroe and the mass media.
As if to prove there were never any geographical borders where Yugoslav art was concerned, Monuments Should Not Be Trusted also features the witty series Sites of Modernity I by Goran Djordjević. These comprise of found color comic strips taken from newspapers, most of which contain some element of sexual farce. What they also include is a domestic setting with abstract art on the wall. And so Djordjević quotes each one and pairs it with his own drawn recreation of the artwork in question. This 1985 piece would not look dated if it came out in 2016.
If this goes to show anything, it is that life in the former Yugoslavia was by no means a political and cultural cul-de-sac. The monuments, of the show’s title, are surely still standing, and you might well recognize them by sight. In 2011, a Yugoslav meme swept the internet as a post-soviet generation discovered the charms of a number of brutalist follies built to celebrate the socialist regime. Beyond the idealistic architecture, however, one finds a rich vein of diverse cultural production. The show in Nottingham depicts a side of the former Yugoslavia that the casual or virtual tourist may never see.
Monuments Should Not Be Trusted continues at Nottingham Contemporary (Weekday Cross, Nottingham, Nottinghamshire County, UK) through March 4.