Gimme Shelter

Kaelen Wilson-Goldie at the 2nd Project Biennial of Contemporary Art in Konjic

Left: Soldiers guarding the entrance to the 2nd Project Biennial in Tito's Nuclear Bunker. Right: Project Biennial director Edo Hozić. (All photos: Kaelen Wilson-Goldie)

THE BALKAN WARS OF THE 1990S burned through the state once known as Yugoslavia as one terrible explosion after another rocked the hills and cities of Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. The conflagration left a devastating legacy of war crimes, corruption, and still-smoldering embers of fear, arrogance, and ultranationalist manipulation of supposedly ancient ethnic strife. A decade of violence crippled the region, brought a cosmopolitan society to its knees, and returned such terms as “mass slaughter” and “ethnic cleansing” to the vocabulary of Europe. As an unexpected consequence, those wars also broke open a slew of state secrets, perhaps none more outrageous than the existence of a $4.6 billion bunker, which was built to shelter the late communist leader Josip Broz Tito, alongside his wife and 350 of his closest (male) confidants, through the aftermath of a nuclear strike.

Nicknamed Tito’s Nuclear Bunker, the shelter is chipped into the side of a mountain and hidden behind the fake facade of a modest two-story ranch house, which overlooks a cliff dropping down to a rushing, otherworldly mint-green river. Officially known as D-0 ARK (for Atomska Ratna Komanda, or Atomic War Command), it is situated in the small but strategic town Konjic, just thirty miles southwest of Sarajevo. There, a garage door lifts up and opens onto a maze covering some 70,000 square feet of corridors, interconnected blocks, dormitories with plush blue velvet furniture, conference rooms, and a retro command and control center, replete with red panic phones—pure Cold War kitsch. One of three such projects fueled by extreme vanity and toxic paranoia (the others are a secret port in Croatia and an airport concealed inside another Bosnian hill), the bunker was under construction for twenty-six years, from 1953 through 1979.

Left: Project Biennial coordinator Sandra Miljević Hozić. Right: Sarajevo from the door of Ars Aevi in the Centar Skenderija.

According to Edo Hozić, a charismatic artist and unabashed painter of tourist trinkets who worked for Yugoslavia’s Ministry of Culture years ago, only six people—all high-ranking generals in the Yugoslav People’s Army, or JNA—were aware of the bunker before it was discovered in 1992. By then the JNA had fallen apart. According to local lore (i.e., rumor), a group of soldiers packed the place with dynamite, hoping to destroy it, while another group of soldiers sabotaged the detonation by cutting the fuses, intent on saving the thing for posterity. When Hozić heard all of this, he envisioned a different future. He imagined transforming the bunker into a hybrid museum of military history and contemporary art. Now he and his partner Sandra Miljević Hozić, a sculptor and singer who hoarded Maria Callas records in lieu of food during the siege of Sarajevo, are halfway toward realizing that goal. Their self-styled path is either plainly insane or deceptively brilliant. In a world well beyond its saturation point for perennial exhibitions of contemporary art, they have established, of all things, an international biennial in the bunker.

The first edition of the Project Biennial of Contemporary Art, realized with a budget of just $250,000, was something of a novelty when it opened two years ago, but it ended acrimoniously in bitter disagreements between the organizers and one of the two curators, which seemed deeply symptomatic of the site and its historical context. Because there is something awful about the bunker, not only in its projection of catastrophe but moreover in its staggering chauvinism, exclusionary self-interest, and unpalatable ethos suggesting that all of humanity would burn while Tito and his elite were saved.

How, then, did the second edition of the Project Biennial open last Friday with such an easygoing sense of camaraderie and goodwill? It may be that a joint work by the Istanbul-based artists Banu Cennetoğlu and Yasemin Özcan accomplished the task it set for itself, which was, with the help of a healer and habitat rebalancing coach named Zeynep Sevil Güven, to scan, diagnose, and solve the bunker’s problems, on an energetic level. As seen in the video What Is It That You Are Worried About?, 2013, Sevil Güven sets out to deep clean the bunker through its architectural plan, stopping on occasion to address her own energy, which is blocked by the anger she feels toward the people who designed it.

Left: Artists Banu Cennetoğlu and Yasemin Özcan. Right: 2nd Project Biennial cocurator Basak Senova.

But the object itself, now owned and managed by Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Ministry of Defense, was held in abeyance for three days prior to the opening due to the demands of public programming, otherwise known as multiple sessions for marathon artists’ talks. This gave the curators Basak Senova, from Istanbul, and Branco Franceschi, from Zagreb, a chance to gel their ideas and explain why their collaborative exhibition carried two titles, “Time Cube” and “The Castle,” after Kafka. (En bref, Franceschi was hired a year later than Senova, after an earlier curator left, so they effectively made two shows that worked well together.) It also forged a convivial atmosphere among the group, whose members had come from all over North America, Europe, the Middle East, and the Balkans to share their work.

Simona Dumitriu, from Bucharest, gave a fascinating talk on the story behind The Surveillance Handbook, 2012, her contribution to the biennial, which was drawn, in part, from the declassified archives of Romania’s secret police. Dalibor Martinis, the pioneering video artist, let his work speak (strongly) for itself, particularly Dalibor Martinis 1978 Talks to Dalibor Martinis 2010, which includes video footage of the artist, at thirty-one, asking the artist, at sixty-two, “Is Dalibor Martinis still alive? What do you think of me? Are we in fact the same person? Who is the author here?”

Barcelona’s Daniel García Andújar, who gave the bunker its new neon signage, paraphrased Brecht—“Art is not a mirror to reflect reality but a tool to make it”—and then offered a sharp critique: “I’m against the idea of calling it a museum. It’s just a stupid object. What we are doing there is even more problematic.”

Left: Artist Dalibor Martinis with curator and SCCA director Dunja Blažević. Right: 2nd Project Biennial cocurator Branco Franceschi.

“It’s really very complicated,” Danica Dakić said of the museum plan. “I was resistant to the idea because somehow the bunker is stronger than an exhibition space, this negative utopia. It’s a very physical experience to be there. I think it could be used [as such] but it needs more radical thinking.” At the end of the day, Miljević Hozić, hands shaking, relayed a letter from Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, who had just thrown her support behind the project.

And so, on Friday morning, we bused our way to the bunker, where a UN flag had been hastily draped over high hedges alongside a handful of others (Turkey, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina). Dakić was right. It was exhausting to be there. The bunker inspired wonder and dread, terror and delight, good work and plenty of dreck. A detail unlike other biennials? All of the works remain. In the pileup of two editions, the curators deserve credit for making a clear sequence of distinct and nimble exhibitions in such a heavy setting. After four hours in those faintly dank corridors, you do begin to despair and fear and question the fate of humanity. I crunched across Alfredo Pirri’s splendid floor of broken glass and escaped. The outside world revived us—the river, a splash of resplendent sunshine, and a welcome return to a pastel-colored city of farmers’ markets, flower shops, stray dogs, teenagers on trams jostling musical instruments, and a chilling number of roadside cemeteries crammed with white marble gravestones.

Maybe it really will became a museum one day, but for now the bunker is a sensational pretext and an elaborate excuse to mend the damage that’s been done to Sarajevo’s cultural life—not only by the war itself but also by the postwar period of apathy, provincialism, and blinding bureaucracy. “We had a chance to be like Zagreb or Belgrade,” Edo Hozić told me over coffee. “We had critics who were literate, but they fled. The new guys, not only in newspapers but everywhere, they don’t go anywhere. They don’t see enough to know anything.” The biennial is an attempt to transform not only the bunker but also the priorities of society. It is an attempt to bring artists from the Balkans back together and to reconnect Sarajevo with the world.

Left: Artist Renata Poljak. Right: Artists Nemanja Cvijanovic and Alban Muja.

“In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.” That was Susan Sontag in the summer of 1993, when she spent a month in the city staging Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. “Indeed, the question is not why there is any cultural activity in Sarajevo now after seventeen months of siege, but why there isn’t more.” And indeed, as the siege went on, there was more and more. Two decades later, however, the uncomfortable question is why there is now so much less.

The National Museum is closed due to political bickering, and the Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art, scheduled to open next year, has been indefinitely postponed. The ground for the new Renzo Piano–designed building hasn’t even been broken. While we were celebrating the biennial at the Art Kino Kriterion on Friday night, one of Bosnia’s presidents (they rotate) was arrested in a crackdown on organized crime (thanks to the complexities of the Dayton Accords, Bosnia is considered among the most corruption-prone countries on earth). No one seemed bothered except the executive director of Ars Aevi, Amila Ramović, who knew it would mean negotiating with a new government from scratch.

Left: Artist and composer Cynthia Zaven. Right: The National Museum of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

On Saturday, I went to see Dunja Blažević, director of the Sarajevo Contemporary Art Center, who had compelled virtually ever other curator I met in Sarajevo to enter the field. “During and after the war, Sarajevo was more connected to the outside world than it is now,” Blažević told me while pulling catalogues from her archives in a beautiful game of show and tell. “Now the city lives a provincial life. Only a bit of the international flavor is left. But young artists still exist and we are doing something here. If you have force and intelligence, you can stand outside this provincialism. I am a bit bitter but I like this place. You have to live an intellectual life. It is necessary to have this energy.”

On Sunday morning, I returned to the same building, a few floors down, to see Pierre Courtin, who came to Sarajevo ten years ago from Paris and stayed. He now runs the gallery Duplex/100m2, which was hosting a solo show, called “Spectre,” for one of the biennial’s more interesting artists, Ibro Hasanović. Courtin struggles on the business side—“every once in a while some stranger or diplomat comes in and buys something, otherwise it’s almost nothing”—but he has no doubt about the vitality of contemporary art as an emblem for Sarajevo’s survival as a multiethnic, religiously mixed-up city, known on old maps as the Jerusalem of Europe, or, more wincingly now, the Balkan Damascus. “If it doesn’t work here,” says Courtin in all seriousness, “then all of Europe will collapse.”

Left: Ars Aevi Executive Director Amila Ramović. Right: Dealer Pierre Courtin of Duplex/100m2.