Vesna Latinović : QUO VADIS MUNDI?

The tenth anniversary of the Danube Dialogues contemporary art festival  had the good fortune to coincide in 2022 with Novi Sad’s year as European Capital of Culture. This year, the city can be said to have conscientiously and very successfully carried off Europe’s largest cultural project. The Danube, which gives Novi Sad its important geographical, historical and cultural position was one of the pillars of the application which brought the city this prestigious title through one of the “arches” of the programme: Danube Sea. Altogether, it added extra energy and swing to the festival, putting wind in the sails of the entire team with their local and foreign guests. The atmosphere throughout the festival, which extended throughout the summer from July to October, was encouraging and motivating.  Artistic director Sava Stepanov’s assignment for guest curators and artists, Quo Vadis Mundi, floated like an open umbrella over all segments of the programme, in keeping with contemporary arts’s mission to ponder and explore mankind’s place and role in the modern world and point out the deficiencies of our age.

The atmosphere we live in is alarming: locally, globally, a rampant and greedy capitalism relentlessly takes and expends human strength without offering anything worthwhile in exchange.  Man is the universal victim. The individual’s working and living functions are separated from him because Big Capital has no need for autonomous personalities, aware of their own economic, political, social and cultural requirements. The danger to the individual in the course of global events had reached a crux. We clutch at straws in the face of growing alienation, loss of identity and the widespread deformation of the way we were accustomed to live. Covid 19, ecological catastrophe and the war in Ukraine have only added to the urgency of the situation and the helplessness of modern man.

In these circumstances art can and should have a special role: in the middle of this chaotic nemesis, today’s man has real need of art. As Dostoevsky once wrote, it is an old truth that ‘art cannot change the world, but it can make it better and more bearable’. Today, the famous conceptual artist Yoko Ono advises us: ‘Improve yourself carefully but think too about improving the world at the same time.’ That is why it is so important to establish art that is systematic and functioning, to enable it by its very character to be really contemporary, even modernist and avantgarde in order to be a fit model for society, an example to other knowledges and practices, to offer an alternative. Surrounded as we are by global insecurity, new concepts are needed, new systems.  In that sense we should consider the need for today’s artists to ‘come out’ into the arena of new media, if we are not to be swallowed up by globally developed, interconnected digital systems or led into even more drastic alienation, more complex dependence and hopelessness (Sava Stepanov). 

So far, each Danube Dialogues exhibition has had a theme focused on the current issues facing mankind (Art and Crisis, Art in the Age of (non-)Emotion, Art and Global Insecurity, The Use of Man, Quo Vadis Homo?)  This year’s ambitious title Quo Vadis Mundi? was an attempt to show the reaction of artists to the present state of the world after the Covid 19 pandemic with its on-going consequences and the many questions it has raised. 

This year’s festival opened with the exhibition Artistic Dialogue: Novi Sad – Timişoara 3E: Ecology, Ethics, Esthetics in the Rajko Mamuzić Gallery in Novi Sad. Many of the problems we encounter today were laid bare by the pandemic. Many of us experienced the crisis as a metaphoric and practical response by nature to mankind who, enveloped in the ideology and practice of runaway liberal capitalism and guided by the philosophy of profit, has artificially disturbed the course of the natural order. In these circumstances, contemporary art reacts with its own ethical and aesthetic criteria.  Its response is to try to find a basis for a “new normalisation” in the precarious society of today.

The Artistic Dialogue: Novi-Sad – Timişoara has been part of the Danube Dialogues since 2016, when these two cities, geographically and culturally close, were declared European capitals of culture for 2021. Thanks to exceptional collaboration between Bel Art Gallery, Novi Sad, and the Jeca Gallery and Triade Foundation, Timişoara, this dialogue of artists and their work takes place every year in the spirit of the festival’s basic idea. The curators’ intention is to identify points of coincidence, convergence or opposition in the sensitivity and language of the individual artists. These “artistic dialogues” require expanded action, the discovery of new approaches and contexts for art works in everyday reality. Two curators: distinguished art historian and independent curator, Alina Şerbaia (Romania), and the festival’s artistic director, critic Sava Stepanov (Serbia), were joint selectors for this year. Works by Cristian Răduță, Nona Inescu, Lea Rasovszky, Happy Trash Production, Adrienn Ujhazi, Nemanja Milenković, Vesna Tokin and Radomir Knežević illustrated their views on the complex question of where the world is heading at the moment. The finishing touch to successful collaboration came in Paris in October when curators Ami Barak (Paris) and Sava Stepanov (Novi Sad) got together to exhibit Statements of Pure Consciousness at the Serbian Cultural Centre. Meanwhile, the Romanian Cultural Centre introduced the public to the Danube Dialogues Contemporary Art Festival, representing ten years of fruitful collaboration between Novi Sad and Timişoara.

Leading tenor of the Novi Sad Opera Saša Petrović sang at the traditional opening of the festival, accompanied by his sons, budding musicians Vuk and Luka Petrović.

This year, the central exhibition of the festival, Off-Centre: artistic dialogues and interlacing,moved out of the city to some of the smaller towns along the Danube (area code 021): Irig, Sremski Karlovci, Sremska Kamenica and Čerević, thus bringing reputable art to local communities and affirming their place in this same world.  Locations selected were buildings of cultural heritage: the Karacsonyi House in Sremska Kamenica, the Homeland Museum in Čerević, the Mihiz House in Irig and the secondary school (Gymnasium) in Sremski Karlovci. Distinguished personalities in contemporary art in the Danube region were represented: Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and Serbia.  Selectors for the four exhibitions were Serbian artists Dejan Kaludjerović, who lives in Vienna,  Bálint Szombathy from Budapest, Olja Triaška Stefanović from Bratislava and Milovan Destil Marković from Berlin. These were chosen by artists from the national minorities living there or the “guest worker” communities in the Danube countries, thus linking up the different cultures of the region. Off-Centre illustrates the wealth of diversity shared with Europe, the Danube region and Vojvodina, a universal value which needs to be nurtured at this time. The dialogues were held in places inhabited by members of various national minorities (in addition to Serbs). Artists taking part were Bálint Szombathy, Laszlo Kerekes, Rokko Juhasz (Hungary),  Dejan Kaludjerović, Thomas Geiger, Belinda Kazeem-Kamiński (Austria), Milovan Destil Marković, Claudia Chaseling, Inna Artemova (Germany), Olja Triaška Stefanović, Jana Hojstričová, Jan Triaška and Hoa Nguyen Thi (Slovakia).

This year’s special guest for the anniversary celebration was Japan with an intriguing exhibition at the Vojvodina Museum of Contemporary Art by the curator duo Tomohiro Okada (Japan) and Ksenija Marinković (Serbia): Small Reboots by Japanese Artists. Five distinguished artists of the middle generation: Hiroko Okada, Ai Hasegawa, Sachiko Kodama Takanori Ishizuka and Tomohiko Hayashi took part. Their practice focuses on interaction between people and hybrids, explored through various media.  Among the issues raised were human reproduction, regenerative medicine, experiences of expanded reality and the permanence or impermanence of the material world. The artists have appeared at New York’s MOMA, the Louis Vuitton Foundation, Paris, the Ars Electronica Festival, Linz, among others.  The exhibition took place in collaboration between Bel Art Gallery and the Belgrade X Vitamin Gallery, both of whom are strategically interested in working with Japanese artists and galleries and have already set up a number of notable projects. Small Reboots was included in the official programme marking 130 years of Serbian-Japanese friendship and had the honour of being opened by the Japanese ambassador to Serbia, H.E. Takahiko Katsumata.

DANUBE+ Slovenia in focus was the brainchild of the distinguished Slovenian curator Peter Tomaž Dobrila, who introduced the Slovenian contemporary artistic scene under the umbrella title The Nature of Art,recalling 2012 when Maribor was European capital of culture. Four exhibitions took place at various locations in Novi Sad – the SULUV Gallery, the Small Art Salon, Bel Art Gallery and the gallery of the Art Academy. Artists selected were Petar Varl, Jože Šubic, One Dollar Bill (Marko Jakše, Bojan Šumonja, Pierre Tol), Rok Predin, Matej Čepin, Staš Kleindienst, Marko A. Kovačič, Bojana Križanec, Zoran Poznič, Tanja Vujinović, Metka Golec – Toni Soprano, Vlado Repnik and Bogdan Čobal.

Through the NOVI SAD+ programme, Bel ArtGallery introduces and promotes local art. This year’s chosen project was Impulses of the Danube by Tijana Jevrić. This young Novi Sad artist presented the results of many years of research in three segments: interactive digital work, workshops with pupils and users of the Dr. Milan Petrović School of Special Education and an exhibition under the same name. By including children from the School, the artist highlighted the importance of art in rehabilitation, education and training for people with special needs and the disabled.

Artistic flags exhibition Quo vadis mundi ? – Flags in the new art space Flagpole Square at Novi Sad’s Limanski Park, brought together artists from the Danube countries with whom the Bel Art Gallery and curator Sava Stepanov have successfully collaborated for years. Artists invited to exhibit were Nikolaie Velchov (RO), Istvan Balind (HU), Đanino Božić (HR), Nenad Šoškić (ME), Milan Jakšić (RS), Bosiljka Zirojević Lečić (RS) i Rastislav Škulec (RS), whose practice has always sought a rational harmony of esthetic and ethical principles, with a Mondrian-like view on the need for “order, accord and harmony” and a modernist argument for an “aesthetic society” with standards that are so necessary in today’s world ,which appears to have forgotten the basic moral principles , this world that lives in chaos and finds itself, as Edgar Morin observes, “in a permanent crisis of mankind which does not succeed in being human”.  

Expanded Cooperation

Years of rewarding collaboration with the Dortmund Group were in evidence during the festival in Alexandr Pohl’s solo exhibition “Signs – Symbols – Colours” at the Art Salon of the Novi Sad Cultural Centre. Parallel to this event, the Youth Forum Club opened an exhibition by 23 members of the Dortmund Group titled “Big Banner Festival”, conceived in 2021 as a reaction to the closing of museums and galleries due to the pandemic. The artists concerned sought out unusual open-air locations in Dortmund to make their presence felt by exhibiting at a time of isolation and social distancing.

Contact with the Ars Electronica festival continued in Linz with the presentation of young Novi Sad artist Miloš Fath in the “Garden Novi Sad” segment. His multimedia installation Mirror Terrain responded to the festival theme “WELCOME TO PLANET B – a different life is possible, but how?” Here Fath created a mnemonic interactive environment whose message is that if we want to build a different and better future, we must go forward through time, but also look backward to the past.

The Danube Dialogues’ tenth birthday was also celebrated in Budapest with BRIDGE SERBIA at Artmarket Budapest, a leading regional art fair. With eight galleries exhibiting, it provided a view of the vibrant Serbian scene, accompanied by a conference, seminar and performance. Other exhibitions were held at separate locations: The World of Mira Brtka at the Q Contemporary Museum, Art Without Borders featuring selected artists from Vojvodina living in Budapest was held at the Magyar Mühely Gallery, and Collecting Serbia – Collecting as a Public Hobby at the Miklos Szoke Studio.

Finally, we should point out that a programme of such variety could not have taken place at home and abroad without support. Our heartfelt thanks go to all our associates and friends, particularly the Serbian Ministry for Culture and Information, the City of Novi Sad, the Provincial Secretary for Culture, Information and Relations with Religious Communities, the Novi Sad Foundation – European Capital of Culture, the EU Delegation in Serbia, EU Japan Fest, the Austrian Cultural Forum, the Japanese Embassy in Serbia, and the Furuna Crafts company.