There is a unique region of Europe that has been carved out by the magnificent geography of a great river: ten countries, stretching from the highly developed cities of Central Europe to its less developed periphery on the Black Sea. The Danube countries (Germany, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine) are now in the throes of integrating into the unified European matrix, as becomes more visible with every passing day. Developments in the arts anticipated this as far back as the 1980s, when Italian author Claudio Magris in a book entitled simply The Danube (1986), set down his unique vision and understanding of culture in the Danube region, where so many outstanding artists, writers, philosophers and scientists have flourished: Nietszche, Heidegger, Witgenstein, Kafka, Miroslav Krleža, György Konrád, Vasko Popa, Count Dracula and Ovid, to mention but a few. The distinguished Hungarian writer Konrád, himself one of Magris’s “heroes”, spoke in Novi Sad of this specifically Danubian culture: “What else should we think about while strolling along Danube Street in Novi Sad in the company of good friends? There is such an abundance of various communities in Europe: nations, peoples, regions, cities, river valleys like the Danube basin! I would like to bring it to the attention of academicians hunting for identities that they should make an attempt at trying to find and put into verse the soul of the Danube country, while at the same time paying tribute from afar to Claudio Magris. Taking us all together, from the Black Forest to the Black Sea, we are perhaps a numerous and motley crew within Europe. But that is another story.” Following on that thought of Konrád’s, Novi Sad launched the Festival of Contemporary Art known as The Danube Dialogues under the magnificent fortress of Petrovaradin. The event took place in the calmer aftermath of stormy and sometimes revolutionary change in most of the Danube countries. Today, at the outset of the 21st century, the geopolitical picture of this entire region looks very different. It has seen the fall of Ceauceşcu and the Berlin wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the reunification of Germany, the separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the bloody and tragic break-up of Yugoslavia, the departure of Ukraine and Moldova from the USSR. Throughout all this time, the major project of European unification continued to forge ahead. Mindful of all this, the organisers of the Danube Dialogues put a logical question to selectors and artists: how were recent historical events reflected in present art? Had all these local, regional and national inducements given birth to any new meaning or universal messages? What transpired was that in the modern-day “iconosphere” of electronic networking with its aggressive imposition of global ideas of culture, art requires new standards. It should not be forgotten that European art in the postmodernism of the 1980s was already insisting on the importance of national identity. The discourse at the time centred on artistic directions such as Italian Transavantgarde, German New Expressionism and Neue Slovenische kunst among others. Today, the legitimisation, equalisation and affirmation of the right to universal messages and concepts have been renewed. These changes comprise a particular process. Until recently, minor countries and cultures at major international exhibitions seemed to have gained the right to modernity only after re-taking an inventory of their history and recycling it, only when they had shown and proved their own roots. Throughout the 1990s, in accepting Klotz’s opinion on the new, revived or otherwise modern in art – particularly that which we want to see as authentic – there was an insistence on establishing ontological meaning and values. It is precisely this sort of art that is effective, applicable, even individual. After all, it was Filiberto Menna who wrote that: “Art has the right to its own individuality – not in order to separate but to represent an example, to be a model to other knowledge and practice.” It is important to note that art in most of the Danube countries at the present time develops within democratic societies. The state of democracy in these countries today is better than before, regardless of the obstacles placed in its path by economic crisis and the painful process of transition in the former socialist countries. Earlier this century, Joost Smiers, in a book promoting cultural diversity in the age of globalisation, characteristically and appropriately called Arts Under Pressure (2003), points out that art participates in a real way in the democratic debate and that its role is of exceptional importance as a persuasive and valid answer to the most diverse questions of life. Here, present-day art offers a multitude of “messages”; with its varied modes of expression, its action and effect are more intense than in earlier times because it is distributed via the channels of communication of a global network. This is why art today, according to Smiers, is “a field in which emotional incompatibilities, social conflicts and questions of status collide in a more concentrated way than happens in everyday communications”. Art at the moment, therefore, changes and adapts thanks to increasingly powerful and more multiple international impulses, so we find it in a “gaseous state” (Yves Michaud), or we see it as a manifestation of “relational aesthetics” (Nicolas Bourriaud). Perhaps the most persuasive opinion is that of Francesco Bonami who concluded that art continues to be only what the world interprets it to be. As he said in one interview: “I prefer art that uses metaphors, even if they refer to ethics and politics, but on condition that they are sufficiently clearly formulated for the viewer to interpret them easily and so enter into the field of the meaning of art. Because the artists that interest me, while expressing a certain measure of individuality, know how to communicate with the world.” Against the background of these knowledgeable opinions as to concept, the first Danube Dialogues festival of contemporary art in Novi Sad showcased works by artists from Germany (Georg Gartz), Austria (Georgia Creimer, Silke Maier, Leopold Kessler and Christoph Swarz, selected by curator Pia Jardi), Slovakia (Viktor Hulik), Hungary (Apolka Erös, Zsili Babos, Juhász József and István Orosz, selected by gallery owner Márta Szilágyi), Croatia (Vladimir Frelih), Serbia (diSTRUKTURA, Stevan Kojić, Nenad Bogdanović) and Romania (Liliana Popa). An individual mythology certainly reigns throughout these exhibitions. Today’s artists respond to the challenges of the social, psychological, media and cultural environment and/or engage in personal introspection. Thus art at the beginning of the second decade of the 20th century best shows that it is capable of recognising, reflecting, interpreting and itself emitting impulses from the everyday. A more direct and engaged attitude towards manifestations of the outer world are usually expressed through conceptualising recycled reality, through creative technical ventures that renew and put into effect ideas of identifying art with life; from some of these achievements it may be seen that reality is not only the theme, but part and parcel of the structure of the work, present in all its authenticity by the will of the artist. Such art always states a clear, critical view of the world of our time, whether by direct engagement or artfully concealed comment, or by proposing principles for overcoming the arduousness of the quotidian (rationalism, geometry, construction). At the same time, in changing its own being, present-day art has become as it were the prime agent of much authentic information, encouraging and demanding dialogue and direct communication which can take us towards new discoveries and conclusions, to a new moral and a new ethic, since “the ethic necessarily appears as a moral requirement” (Edgar Morin). A distinctive feature of the exhibition is the pairing of works by an artist from Serbia and another from Austria “in dialogue”, thus supporting the underlying idea of the festival while paying tribute to Magris’s principle of the spiritual and spatial fusion of all intellectual, philosophical and practical potential engaged in action in the Danube countries: political, economic, cultural and other. In terms of the visual arts, this kind of comparative exhibition produces interesting results, as the artists are brought in by the selectors without prior knowledge of the work of the person who will be their exhibition partner. The curators’ idea was to bring together similar (or different) artistic concepts and sensibilities, to achieve synergy, and to show once more the universality of the artistic message. In addition, the organisers wanted Serbian artists to be able to compare their own viewpoints against others. The traumatic effects of the 1990s, when people here had to pursue their art in what was virtually a closed society, have not yet faded. The consequences are still visible today in the protracted transitional crisis of Serbian society, which has not yet attained the standards of European democracy. The choice of Austria as partner in this year’s Danube Dialogues is for many reasons logical and justified. Latent cooperation in the art of both countries goes back to the late 18th century when many distinguished figures of Serbian art history studied and began their careers at the Vienna Academy, a number forging personal links with Austrian artists. Thanks to his professor, Christian Grieppenkerl, the painter Uroš Predić, who worked as an assistant teacher in the antique painting class, went on to paint the frieze of Greco-Roman mythology in the Lower Chamber of the newly-built House of Parliament in Vienna. The relationship of a few Serbian artists with the great Austrian painter, Oskar Kokoschka, is also interesting: in the early twenties of the last century, the young Milan Konjović, enthralled by Kokoschka’s expressionism, wrote to hm to ask if he would admit him to his class at the Academy in Dresden; during World War II, Serbian painter Predrag (Peđa) Milosavljević worked with Kokoschka in London; in 1948, a year when Yugoslavia did not attend the Venice Biennale, Oskar Kokoschka’s exhibition was shown at the unused Yugoslav pavilion in the Giardini. Two great performance artists, Austria’s Valie Export and Serbia’s Marina Abramović have also worked together. Abramović’s grand retrospective of performance art at the New York Guggenheim Museum in 2006 quotes from Valie Export’s Genital Panic (1969). In addition to these anecdotal exchanges, Austrian and Serbian art meet, intertwine and reflect each other at many points of contact, exhibitions, joint programmes and other ventures. The series of Novi Sad festivals featuring joint exhibitions seems to show discreetly, quietly and without any excessive gestures, the degree to which the works of the selected Austrian and Serbian artists coincide, and their proximity to one another. Their work is founded on modernist principles; they are concerned with the authenticities of their chosen media; their realist impulses are recycled and philosophised through the plasticity of the finished work. Figurative painters such as Robert Hammerstiel and Petar Ćurčić adopt the strategy of the micro-narrative, stories from their personal life. With Hammerstiel, these are reduced, silhouetted figures in a setting of their own memories, while Ćurčić’s consummate draughtsmanship produces expressive paintings that are persuasive psychological studies of people and events from his surroundings. Their attitude is essentially postmodern: a respect for art history (with frequent quotation) and a subjectivist point of view all point to this. At the present moment, this type of painting is valid and effectual in the universal meanings it extracts from real situations. The interest of this exhibition-in-parallel is effective in another detail: Hammerstiel’s silhouettes evoke the influence of Byzantine schema on the iconography of Serbian art, while some of Ćurčić’s passages recall a Schielean structure. The geometries of Josef Linschinger and Ljubomir Vučinić are rooted in the neoplastic injunctions of order, accord and harmony, but also in individual personal processes. Linschinger’s art is strikingly rational and based on epistemological logic. His current work respects the mathematical propositions of the enigmatic game of Sudoku in order to arrive at ideal proportions of form and colour. Insisting on simplicity, purity and precision of geometric artistic thought, he thus achieves a plastic creation of exceptional aesthetic range. Ljubomir Vučinić is an artist of a different mettle: his geometrism is of the engaged sort because it addresses the ideas of rationalism, construction, artistic simplicity and purity as a recipe for overcoming crisis. By multiplying one geometric motif, printing it on both sides of a graphic sheet and installing it in a room, Vučinić makes his idea concrete, real, and effective. Fritz Ruprechter and Mira Brtka are in constant pursuit of the ontological. They explore the pictorial surface which Grindberg considers the exclusive province of painting, something it does not share with any other system. Ruprechter endeavours to enrich the precise organisation of the picture with visible traces of his own sensibility, which he manages to do with discreet vibrations of the monochrome surface, simple ruled lines, gentle coloration. This quiet, formal aestheticism radiates the persuasiveness of a kind of elementary visual art. Mira Brtka’s “White Pictures” are inhabited by discreetly drawn parallel lines, multiplied and appearing out of the monochrome white. Minimalism, simplicity, and the consummately organised plasticity of these straight lines exemplify her work as Konkrete Kunst. There is nonetheless a force which emerges from Ruprechter and Brtka’s purified, pared-down pictures that exemplifies an individuality badly needed in our world and times. Eva Petrič and Nataša Teofilović are masters of the technical media while expressing two completely different personalised views of the world. What they have in common is the ability to minimise the importance of their own exceptional technical agility and skill, making good use of the media to clearly define their aesthetic and ethical principles. Against the background of the global iconosphere, Eva Petrič prints black and white pictures on transparent plexiglass panels. By photographing herself so that her own body becomes a poetically suffused chronicle of places where she has been, she presents a philosophised reflection of her own world and ours. Thanks to the transparency of her photographs, scenes from surrounding reality are apparent in the work. Petrič’s art, therefore, does not create an illusion of reality but becomes part of it. Nataša Teofilović deals in virtual reality, or rather the virtual representation of man. Without insisting on photographically real similarity or cloned characters, the artist retains the computer origin of her heroes. However, all these virtual people want to communicate with the viewer. Teofilović manages to make her art aesthetic, to stamp it with her own sensitivities, to breathe a soul into the virtual people, endearing them to us and bringing them closer, while at the same time being quite capable of returning us to ourselves.
// Sava Stepanov