Don’t Mention the War – Article by Matthew Webber

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T
he Sniper, Adela Jušić, 2007, exhibition view “SPA PORT”
International Biennial of Contemporary Art, Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina

This article was originally published as “Art of War” in Zymbol, Issue 5 – http://www.zymbol.org/
Online LINK

You could not see a cloud, because
No cloud was in the sky:
No birds were flying overhead–
There were no birds to fly.

Lewis Carroll, The Walrus and the Carpenter

Imagine yourself as a 25-year old Bosnian artist. In a filthy bar somewhere deep in Kreuzberg, Le Marais or Brooklyn, you meet a local. You know the way the scene will unfold. You mention your homeland, and your new friend’s eyebrows are suddenly raised. They ask you the same question you have heard many times before – how is Bosnia now? An innocent enough question, of course, and motivated by genuine curiosity. But also a question which has a silent subtext – the war. They want to know if Bosnia is safe, if you’ve stopped killing each other, and to hear some heart-wrenching stories. But how to answer? Your memories are hazy. You were two years old when it began, five when it ended.

The Bosnian war made excellent television. It neatly filled a gap between the first gulf war and the Lewinski impeachment. It had a memorable cast of characters – pantomime-villain Milošević, medieval warlord Mladic, handsome crusader Clinton, and the capering Mitterand. It had lots of tanks and guns and explosions and, eventually, exciting footage of NATO planes taking off. It had, of course, ethnic cleansing. It produced some truly iconic images, from Ron Haviv’s photograph of a Serbian soldier kicking a bleeding woman in the head, to Mladic’s defiant performance in the Hague war crimes tribunal.

Journalists, it seems, were everywhere. Bosnians themselves were deeply ambivalent about this. They were at once desperate for their plight to be publicised, but also angry at being reduced to actors in the latest production of suffering and woe. Many remember some pretty questionable practices in the pursuit of a good shot – translators (young and female) being asked by their correspondents (old and male) to “find me a crying mother” and suchlike. 15 years later, the Oscar-winning Bosnian film about the war, No Man’s Land (2001), would paint a scathing picture of these hordes of circling journalists, descending on fresh corpses and ravenously clicking. But what were these images for? What was a British, American, or French viewer supposed to do with them? To put pressure their home government for intervention? To just feel-along, to bear witness to the suffering? Or was this merely pornography, genocide as snuff?

The exhibition Witnesses of Existence, staged in a destroyed building in a besieged Sarajevo in 1993, took on these questions. Eight Sarajevan artists, in direct contrast to the news reports, produced images of the Bosnia that was being destroyed in the endless aggression. Their aim was to re-phrase images of war and suffering, to make passive witnesses realise that the culture being destroyed was their own, not some Balkan Gomorrah. To prompt them to send help.

Eventually, of course, the West did intervene, with U2. The band, not the missile. Miss Sarajevo, their deeply underwhelming attempt to highlight the siege, also dwells on the Sarajevo that was lost, albeit in a somewhat less complex toneasking Is there a time for kohl and lipstick / A time for cutting hair / Is there a time for high street shopping / To find the right dress to wear. Indeed.

Later, things became even more surreal with the arrival of Susan Sontag. Her contribution, a candlelit staging of Waiting for Godot, was undoubtedly brave. However, it seems to have worked better as a symbol than a play, with Kevin Myers later stating that it was so ‘mesmerisingly precious and hideously self-indulgent’ that it seemed to last ‘as long as the siege itself’
(see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3613939/I-wish-I-had-kicked-Susan-Sontag.html). The dubious artistic qualities of these interventions notwithstanding, their intention was valorous, and Sarajevans took these international visitors into their hearts.

So much so, in fact, that on my street U2 pizza sits next to Sontag square. Coming from the UK, this seems strange to me. In my own country, historical perspective seems longer – squares are named for 18th Century aristocrats, Pizzerias hark back to some imaginary, rustic, Italian paradise. The idea of naming a square after bands and academics from the 1990s would seem absurd. In Sarajevo, however, such things are commonplace. Not only because the war years so violently punctuated the history of Bosnia, but also because they appear to mark an abrupt rupture with the past – history began in 1991. This, I admit, was what originally attracted me to Sarajevo, in that it appeared an art scene was being created from scratch. From the ashes of war.

And so finally, after many trips to the city, I moved here in September 2014 to pursue my PhD research. Now, after spending a relatively long time in the city, I realise that I too am guilty of reading the war into everything. The photographs I took upon first arriving are peppered with shell damage, my early notes are full of references to genocide. And yet, as I spend more time in the city, I find I understand the war less and less, and that it becomes both more and less present. Less, because often I forget that it happened, and feel myself to be in just another European city. More, more because each new friend I make eventually recounts stories of that period. Some horrific, of course, but some also of grim resistance, and attempts to live normally through the siege – to continue to throw parties, to go out clubbing, to attend the theatre, to put on art exhibitions.

Looking back at images of that time, of packed exhibitions and sold-out theatres, the war years seem to have had a thriving cultural scene. Indeed, in Sarajevo there is a surreal longing for the cultural vibrancy of the war years. Not, of course, that people want them to return, but many talk of the importance that art assumed in the besieged city, where it became an important way to resist annihilation. There was a widespread perception that what was at stake was not merely physical survival, but cultural survival, and this made the experience of walking through sniper fire to see an exhibition a act of defiance. Typical of this was the response to the destruction of the National and University Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was hit with an incendiary shell on 25 August 1992. 1.5 million books were destroyed. Yet that same year, Vedran Smailović gave a cello concert in the now empty shell, daring the Bosnian Serb artillery to repeat their crime

Looking back at the other images of that time – the news reels – is similarly surreal. Video technology has moved on so much in the past 20 years that the footage, analogue and grainy, makes the war seem more distant than it actually is. It seems like some 90s sitcom of a war, all shell suits and ripped jeans. Of course, if ‘the gulf war did not happen’, in Baudrilliard’s famous estimation, neither did the Bosnian war. Perhaps he is right – perhaps the incessantly repeated images of the war have overpowered its physical existence. As they are copied over and over in documentaries, books, art, and magazine articles, they progressively lose their reference to reality, and eventually replace it. This, too, has been the subject of art, as in the work of Radenko Milak, who reproduces iconic images of the war in oil and watercolour. His work seems to mark the final resting place of these images, as they are elevated from their lowly origins as news-reel or photojournalism onto a different plane, becoming pure art.

It is against this background that young artists in Bosnia currently work. The international view of Bosnia, and the recent art history of the country, are dominated by the war. And so our 25 year-old artist is faced with a stark choice. Should their art deal with the war? Should they aestheticise distant memories of TV news, of sparse meals, of bereavement? This seems to be what the international art audience expects. But can their experience contribute to what is now a well-worn genre? Does revisiting those years lock Bosnia in the past, condemn the country to a continual and painful return to the same traumatic memories? And, after all, should they not be making art about something more pressing, something more fashionable – Derrida, consumerism, love?

Deciding to address the war brings problems. Artists from the younger generation who do so occasionally attract criticism from their older colleagues, who often have direct experience of the war as adults. The young are accused of capitalising on the suffering of Bosnia, pandering to an international audience using distant, hazy, sometimes faked memories of suffering. Indeed, there sometimes appears to be a strange one-upmanship even within this older generation, with those who stayed in Sarajevo accusing those who left of a similar crime. Ultimately, these discussions centre around who has the right to represent the war, which is a legitimate question. But the logic applied leads to a dead end – one can always find someone who has suffered more, who was closer to the action.

Such criticisms are also a little unfair. The personal and political fall-out from the war continues to irradiate Bosnian society, and therefore continues to inform art. The post-war discovery of stunningly disrespectful graffitti left by UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica – No teeth? A Mustache? Smel like shit? Bosnian Girl! – prompted Šelja Kamerić’s Bosnian Girl (2003). In the piece, the artist herself stares out from behind these words, explicitly identifying herself as the injured party, and defying the viewer to take responsibility for the insult. Art students today, who have no direct memories of the war, are still acutely aware of it, for they are surrounded by stories, images, and memories of those times. Adela Jušić, perhaps the most successful artist of the new generation, made her name with an intensely personal video work entitled The Sniper(2007). The piece directly addresses the death of her father, who was a sniper himself until killed in December 1992. Are these young women legitimately reacting to personal loss and political provocation, or capitalising on Bosnia’s trauma? Does such work lock Bosnia in past, continually revisiting the same painful memories? Shouldn’t they ‘move on’, already?

Perhaps. The problem is that, as a Bosnian artist, this is impossible. Imagine the scene – our young artist produces a series of paintings inspired by Malevich, all geometric abstraction and minimalistic silence. They are exhibited in Berlin. What is the lazy art critic supposed to make of them? Inevitably, images of the war come to his mind. It is, perhaps, the only thing he knows about Bosnia. But the paintings do not reference the war, and the question inevitably arises – why this is the case? Of course! The artist thinks the war too traumatic to deal with, that it is impossible to ‘write poetry after the holocaust’, in Adorno’s phrase. Or perhaps the artist thinks that Bosnia should move on from the war, stop dwelling on the past. Or maybe abstraction is a reference to war-time propaganda, an attempt to subvert the pernicious nationalism the artist was exposed to as a child.

Or, of course, the paintings could just be … paintings. They could be ‘about’ religion, or the artists’ grandmothers’ house, or their pet tortoise. If our hypothetical artist was from the UK, the USA or France, all these interpretations would be possible. But not for Bosnians – such is the strength of expectation that nottalking about the war will be viewed as a positive decision.

Bosnian artists are aware of this. Adela Jušić and Lana Čmajčanin’s I WILL NEVER TALK ABOUT THE WAR AGAIN (2011) starkly addresses this problem. The work is a video piece in which the two artists continually repeat the phrase ‘I will never talk about the war again’, growing gradually more irritated at their inability to avoid the subject. The point is that in reality Bosnian artists have no choice. Not only does everyday conversation in Bosnia continually return to the war, but even attempts to escape this are doomed to failure. Such is the ubiquity of images of the war, in documentaries, magazines, and art, that they are caught in a double bind. Mention the war, and they are accused of playing the victim; make art about something else, and this is a positive decision to ignore the carnage. There is no escape – not talking about the war is, by omission, talking about the war.