Mladen Miljanovic was born in Zenica in 1981 and lives and works in Bosnia-Herzegovina as artist and professor at the Fine Arts Accademy of Banja Luka.
In the first part of this interview he defines the concept of individual and collective trauma and introduces us to the project “Happening Balkana 2005” on ethnic re-socialisation in Bosnia, a country where racial conflicts are widespread. In the second part, he focuses on the social role of art and on how it can change our idea of reality, while trying to dispel the myth of Bosnian artists as “pathetic survivors.” (MA)
The Symphony of Absurdity
Conversation transcription below
A Skype conversation between Lyon and Banja Luka, Part 1
“DO YOU INTEND TO LIE TO ME?” Trailer.
A Skype conversation between Lyon and Banja Luka, Part 2
All images used to illustrate this post are courtesy of the artist.
Mladen Miljanovic: Hello, how are you?
MA: Very well, and you?
MM: Very well, thank you very much!
MA: So, let’s start with the first question: could you define the notion of individual and collective trauma and how this concept has inspired your art so far?
MM: Maybe I can try to explain these notions of individual and collective trauma on the base of the works that I’ve realized.
I was particularly attentive to those issues at the beginning of my work, in 2006 and 2007. In 2005, during my voluntary work, in an association for disabled people, those who had lost body parts during the war conflicts in Bosnia. After having spent some years teaching them how to paint and make sculptures, I’ve found out that these directly traumatised persons are not even aware of the trauma they experienced. The victim of a trauma is not always aware of what he/she is going through. Even later on, when these people need to face their trauma, it is not always very clear to them.
In Bosnia it was very important to break the wall between traumatised groups – the conflict was engaging 3 ethnic groups fighting each other. After the war, silly organizations were trying to bring peace with the traditional approach used in the international community: let’s gather in a symposium to understand how to overcome a conflict. The problem is that immediately, when you invite an “external” to overcome the conflict between several ethnics groups, in that precise moment you put a wall between them. My conclusion is that most of these symposiums, most of these meetings, peace camps and so on, were for money laundering. The international community had this responsibility and impotence in preventing a crime happening at the edge of Europe; afterwards they want to make it softer, to give us money to clear their conscience.
As an alternative to this mistaken approach for solving conflicts between traumatised societies and individuals, the association I was working in and me decided to organize a happening, involving disable people in a workshop. We didn’t tell them that the “other” ethnic groups were invited also.
They were so much focused on creating art (because it was the first time that somebody gave them the possibility to be an artist and to show their works in a gallery in an event covered by media) that our “unconscious” approach resulted to be the good one. The happening lasted four days. Unconsciously, during the process of creation, they started to talk to each other. It was important to create some good art, they were not caring about other things. We were refusing art and culture as forms of power but they wanted to be part of that power. And actually, we gave them the opportunity to be part of it. At the end of the workshop they realized that they were at the front line, at the same place but on the other side. So we didn’t try to push the trauma down but to share a moment. This is what happened between the individuals. But what was also very exciting was people’s reaction to the mediatisation of the event. When they saw on television or read on the newspapers that these persons who lost body parts fighting each other found themselves participating to this event without tensions, producing something great and interesting to see, they thought: “why can’t we too do this?”.
At the end this makes us understand a lot about the human approach of the artist but also, on the other side, about culture and organization. When I’ve made the project and I’ve proposed it to a couple of ministries, to the city and to some organizations, none of them wanted to participate. Everybody was scared. They kept on saying « there will be conflicts, you can’t gather traumatised people, they will kill each other » and rejected me. One year after the end of this project we were awarded from the United Nation as best project for the re-socialisation of people suffering from collective trauma. After that, everybody wanted to support the project! Everybody was calling us, willing to finance. For me it was very important to start this idea because I was able to find a matrix to solve this social problem. Then I left this project, “Happening Balkana” (2005), to the organization that supports disabled people and from 2006 they organize it every year, every time by inviting people with the same problem from different regions, such as Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, Serbia and so on.
MA: I think that it would be very much interesting to hear about what you think of art, what art is made of and even the social role of art, according to you. We were discussing before your upcoming participation to OFF-Biennial Budapest and we were saying that this is a very politically engaged biennial at its 1st edition and that you have imagined particular projects for it. So I would like to ask a general question: what is art for? What is its social role?
MM: First of all, I wouldn’t like to sanctify art. We all agree that art has a role and an important power… but my question is: show me this power! Where is this power? This is very nice to hear, but it’s not good to see, when you go out of the museums or the gallery or apartment in which you are talking about it. Maybe the question should be “how does art affect reality?” That’s what I’m always trying to do with my art. Artists need to find a way to change reality by using art. This is the power of the artist: he/she can change what is happening around him/her in an artefact: all political issues, social ones, religious ones, artistic problems, etc.
Artefacts are something in which we are use to believe, culturally and socially speaking. People trust what they see in a museum. In one of my works “Do you intend to lie to me” (2011) I’ve tried to change reality: I decided to arrest my professor Veso Sovjli and was able to convince Police to do so. I’ve told them that I was turning a film about my professor in occasion of 30 years of his career. As they saw that this was about art, they decided to give me a special unit force, to arrest him, to block the streets, to realize a nice video eventually. All because of art. Actually, this can be considered as an evidence of our faith towards art. They could have discovered that the guy they were arresting was not my professor, not an artist, that I was cheating on them.. but they did it, no matter what, just because of art.
Art should not be romanticized. The idea of a painter living alone in a basement, discovered and proclaimed genius is no more valid. Still, I need to admit that it works like that in many institutions here. We have another line of artistic production in Bosnia though: more critical, that doesn’t want to represent the reality but rather to change it.
MA: The last time we talked, it was right before your Bosnia Herzegovina Pavilion at Venice Biennial 2013. What would you change, retrospectively, of it? Did you succeed in making a portrait of your country, as you used to do as tombstones engraver? You can probably explain a bit how this story is related to the concept of the pavilion…
MM: I don’t think that I would change anything. Circumstances changed though. If I go back to 2012 (during the production phase), the Pavilion was important for political reasons first of all, because of the agreement between the Ministry of Culture and the Venice Biennale. The structure of the Biennale is very problematic because it represents culture through nations, and therefore nationalistic cultures. The second reason why the pavilion was important is that it had to be a start-up: the country would have been represented for the first time, 10 years after the last time.
Now I see that there won’t be a Bosnia-Herzegovina Pavilion at next Venice Biennial. We had somehow predicted that to have a continuum would have been more important than to have the pavilion in 2013. Goran Trbuljak, a Croatian artist of the older generation, said that the fact that somebody is giving you the opportunity to have an exhibition is more important than the exhibition and what you decide to show. This is exactly what we thought in this occasion also, when we had the opportunity to represent Bosnia-Herzegovina in Venice.
As for the content, it was related to my experience as engraver, when I used to do hyper realistic portraits on tombstones. I wanted to break this prejudice and pathetic approach towards Bosnian identity. It’s like if now you call me from Europe, from Rome or Paris to here, the poor pitiful Banja Luka, and I tell you about the miserable situation and how the war destroyed us all, etc. After the war, this approach led to a pathetic image of our identity. When I started traveling around the world and I met other artists and curators, I noticed that they had pity on me because I was Bosnian. I wanted them to appreciate my knowledge and my work as professor and artist, not to acknowledge that I had a poor unfortunate childhood and I survived to war. This fake image of Bosnia was very rooted and hard to break. Bosnian artists were very smart to use this cliché in their work. There was this formula: you choose very sensitive social problems, very pathetic issues, and on the other side you work with contemporary media, such as video, performance, installation or digital photography. You mix everything together, you add your biography by saying that you are from Bosnia, and you will have a successful artwork – they will like it and say “someone is suffering, but far away from us”. “The garden of delights” (2013) was the title of the Pavilion, with regards to what I just said, and also to the beauty of the differences coexisting in my country. The experience of making the portrait was a curse – as long as I was engraving the portraits on the tombstones, in the village there was this curse “I hope that Mladen will make your portrait!”… this meant that you were dead.
MA: When you were talking, it came to my mind that you are now professor at Banja Luka Fine Arts Academy… I would like to ask you if you can say something about the current art scene in Banja Luka, how you perceive the emerging artists there, your students, and if there are some tendencies in particular.
MM: After the fall of socialism, in many post socialist countries, now we are aware of the fall of the socialist cultural system also. In Bosnia there is a new generation of artists and we were waiting for them. Before, the system was not fitting academies’ classical approach and inversely. The switch in the education process was necessary. During the socialism, the main value was the act of sharing, even for the culture; now we are living in a post-transitional period towards neoliberalism and capitalism, so we are in between these two systems. The values have changed. The main value now is money, people still don’t understand this. Academies and galleries will not be financed by the government as they were before the war. Even though artists have now a better position because they are independent and they observe the privatization of the culture…it is up to them now, how to deal with it! Here in Banja Luka, at the Academy of Fine Arts, we have a very interesting generation of artists, who finished last year and are now working originally and very often abroad. I expect to have a new wave of artists in the next years, and also a new way of thinking culture – not only producing nice beautiful art.
MA: That’s great! Thank you very much Mladen.
MM: Thank you to you Michela!