Tito’s Bunker 09/2017, Camera Austria International

Hidden in the green mountains just outside of the Bosnian city of Konjic, frequented by tourists for hiking and rafting, a massive underground construction spreads over 6,500 square meters. Built in the years between 1953 and 1979 to house 350 military officials, the socialist leader of former Yugoslavia, and his wife in the then quite likely event of an atomic attack, the bunker (the official name was “D-0 ARK Underground”) is an unlikely place for housing what is today probably the most pivotal collection of contemporary art in Southeastern Europe. Over 120 artworks fill the corridors, accommodation facilities, communication and maintenance rooms, and the private rooms that were built here for Josip Broz Tito and Jovanka Broz. Little of the original furnishings are left, as the site was looted during the Yugoslav Wars in the early nineties. Still omnipresent on the walls, though, is Tito’s portrait. For “After Tito, Tito” (2011), Vlatka Horvat photographed the framed heads so that the fluorescent ceiling lights mirrored in the glass bisect and distort the facial features of the controversial communist leader.

The works on display here deal with the Cold War and its broader context. They have been produced in the framework of a UNESCO-supported series of biennials since 2011 and then donated by the artists to enter a permanent collection that is to result in a museum for contemporary art, an idea of the artists Sandra and Edo Hozic. For each edition, they invited partner countries to reactivate cultural bonds in the wider region and to help fund the growing collection—a challenging endeavour in a country shaped by an instable political landscape. Exhibited in the shelter—which has evolved into something between military (most visitors actually come to see the impressive site itself and are surprised to find it filled to the brim with artwork) and art museum—are both established and young, yet-to-be-discovered positions from former Yugoslavia and the “funding” countries.

Included is, for example, a site-specific work by Mladen Stilinović, who just recently passed away and has gained fame internationally with his conceptual pieces, such as “Artist at Work” (1978), a photographed performance showing Stilinović in bed that opens the main exhibition at the current Venice Biennale. Having experienced both communism and capitalism, he picked up the topic of work and laziness in relation to the production of art as a critique directed towards capitalism. In the shelter, he applied the sentence “Material Value of Laziness” (2004/2015) in red handwriting onto a large diesel tank that was to serve as a provision in case the actual energy system failed. Stilinović was invited to contribute to the third edition of the biennial in 2015, curated by Adela Demetja from Albania and Margarethe Makovec and Anton Lederer from Austria, who also had an eye on the evolving collection as a whole. Their edition focused on alternative social, political, and ecological movements that occurred in the wake of the Cold War, such as the anti-nuclear movement, anti-authoritarian student movements, or 1960s feminism. Also produced for this edition was, for example, Adela Jušić’s piece “Here are the Women” (2015), a research-based collage with photographs and texts exploring the history of the Antifascist Front of Women of Yugoslavia, as well as their role in World War II and in building the socialist state that eventually urged women back into the domestic sphere.

Walking through the dense parkour of (mainly) video works, photographs, and installations—only possible with a guide—and cut off from daylight and the sounds of the outside world, is a bit like strolling through a time capsule that contains all kinds of documents and investigations into the political past and present of the region, such as Annalisa Cannito’s “Silence is Violence” (2017), commissioned for the current edition. A handful of bullets pointing towards each other are hung on the ceiling so that they form a five-pointed star when looking at them from an indicated perspective. The five-pointed red star also featured on the Yugoslav flag as a symbol of the workers’ hand. The bullets were produced in the Igman ammunition factory situated right next to the bunker in Konjic. Military facilities like these were built during the Cold War with financial assistance from the United States because of the growing tensions with the Soviet Bloc, as Tito rejected communism driven by Stalinist ideology. The weapons and ammunition were distributed among the population and, after the collapse of Yugoslavia, were used among the different ethnic groups against each other. A thirty-year-old version of the bullet also made an appearance in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris.

Cannito’s piece points to a complex, historically grown geopolitical situation that is (still) marked by ethnical tensions, torn between a nostalgia for an idealized socialist past and the struggle of a young liberal democracy to find a place somewhere inbetween wooing the European Union, the rise of new, radical forms of nationalism, and disillusionment with capitalism in times of global crisis. How this affects the individual is analyzed in the video “Staging Actors / Staging Beliefs (Boško Buha)” (2011) by Renata Poljak installed in the heart of the shelter, Tito’s “suite.” The artist shows us an excerpt of the popular 1978 feature film “Boško Buha” that heroicizes a young partisan fighter. Poljak then tells us how she felt the urge to find the actor. It turns out that “Boško Buha” was his first and last film act, and that he later fought in the Serbian-Croatian War. In an interview, or better two, that the artist cross-cuts, he acts out two competitive opinions, firstly, how he supports the rise of nationalism and would always fight for Croatia, and secondly, how everything was better in former Yugoslavia, revealing a dodgy character.

Iris Dressler and Hans D. Christ, the curators of the fourth edition and artistic directors of the Württembergischer Kunstverein, decided to extend their biennial concept to this Stuttgart institution, meshing artistic works with research material and popular cultural products, such as a 1950s information poster for American households on how to prepare for an atomic attack or the cult documentary “The Atomic Café” (1982), and publications like Bertolt Brecht’s Kriegsfibel (War Primer, 1955) or Alexander Kluge’s Die Wächter des Sarkophags: 10 Jahre Tschernobyl (The Guards of the Sarcophagus: Ten Years Chernobyl, 1996), thus opening up a broader field of reflection with a net of complex narratives. In “Reklamefahrten zur Hölle” (Promotion Tours to Hell, 1921), the Austrian satirist Karl Kraus mocks the commodification of war in a capitalist postwar society, by passionately reading out loud an ad from a Swiss newspaper promoting a tour around the battlefields of Verdun with comfortable car trips to “the epitome of modern warfare’s horrors”—a hint at the fact that also in war-stricken former Yugoslavia war sites have morphed into tourist attractions, of which the bunker is one. Modern architecture also becomes a subject in the Stuttgart exhibition. A quote from Le Corbusier’s treatise “Exact Air” from La Ville Radieuse (The Radiant City, 1933), which promotes the vision of an autarkic housing system, serves as a backdrop for a slide projection by Bernd Behr, with photographs taken in the Hong Kong middle-class housing estate “Amoy Gardens” (2003–07), which has become known as the herd of the outbreak of the SARS epidemic due to a malfunction of its ventilation and plumbing systems. Utopia meets dystopia, givens become destabilized.

Many of the works expose the Cold War as a template mediated in a simplified way to serve an ideology-based construction of history ignoring the counter-narratives. With “Baghdad” (2017), on display in Konjic and Stuttgart, where  the work is accompanied by a range of information material, Jan-Peter E. R. Sonntag references the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of states that were not formally aligned with the superpowers and sought to fight forms of political aggression associated with these, like imperialism, neo-colonialsim, or racism. From 1961 onwards, the members organized several conferences. One of them was to be held in Iraq but was cancelled due to the conflict between Iraq and Iran and was relocated to New Delhi. Sonntag shows the reproduction (printed on “Tyvek”, a material used to pack paintings and as protective clothing for workers in laboratories or on contaminated ground) of a stamp with Tito’s portrait that was part of a series produced to commemorate the never-held historical event, a harbinger of the fact that the movement representing the Global South would lose influence in a world or­der under Western rule after the end of the Cold War.

Some of the artists seek to deconstruct the institutional framing their work is embedded in. In an ongoing project, Jorge Ribalta, invited by Dressler and Christ, performs a photographic documentation of the transformation process of the historic nuclear bunker into a museum of contemporary art. He presents, among other thematic threads, images taken throughout the preparation of the biennial and the opening: curator Iris Dressler in a working situation in a local café, Annalisa Cannito installing her work in the bunker, artists and government officials attending the opening, or officials signing an agreement about the future support of the project in one of the screening rooms in the bunker, with small national flags in front of them and a portrait of Tito in the background. The duo Documentary Embroidery (Vahida Ramujkić and Dejan Dosljak), invited by Makovec and Lederer, led a series of conversations with representatives of local tourist agencies, NGOs, the antifascist union, workers, and others. The results are presented in the embroidered mind map “War of the Buttons” (2015) that questions the reanimation of the value of a military facility through contemporary art.

One last edition of the biennial is still to come, before the collection is “completed.” How the maintenance will be funded is not yet decided. That Dan Perjovschi’s wall scribblings, in which he comments on politics and society with a black marker and which are usually permanently installed in museums, for “Untitled” (2017) were carried out on transparent foil and taped to the bunker walls ironically exposes the fragile future of the project. He chose “future” as a keyword.

4th Project Biennial D-0 ARK Underground, Konjic, 21. 4. – 21. 10. 2017

Tito’s Bunker, Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, 27. 5. – 6. 8. 2017