IN AN AGE OF FRANCHISE ENTERTAINMENT, the best sequels might be those not planned too far in advance. Or so it seemed at last Friday’s opening of “FADE IN 2: EXT. MODERNIST HOME – NIGHT,” an exhibition that seeks to blur the lines between art and cinema.
Organized by Swiss Institute director Simon Castets and curator Julie Boukobza and hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade’s Gallery-Legacy Čolaković, the show marks the inaugural outing of the freshly launched Balkan Projects, a Los Angeles–based cultural platform fronted by actress Marija Karan.
The exhibition’s first iteration—“FADE IN: INT. ART GALLERY – DAY”—opened at New York’s Swiss Institute in March 2016. As Castets explained, “I was thinking about what it means to have a successful exhibition these days. What, three hundred thousand people see it? Now how many people have seen the shootout at the fake Guggenheim in The International?” Having never heard of the movie, I didn’t question his math.
The resulting show explored art’s range of Hollywood cameos—whether decorating walls or driving plot lines—with new commissions from Dora Budor, Amie Siegel, Carissa Rodriguez, and the always crowd-pleasing Christian Marclay, whose Made to Be Destroyed offers a twenty-four-minute gag reel of art demolished onscreen. The idea to produce a follow-up came in January, when Karan and brand consultant Isaac Joseph were escorting Castets and Boukobza around studios in Belgrade. The team was instantly smitten with Gallery-Legacy Čolaković, the former residence of collector couple Milica Zorić and Rodoljub Čolaković—a prominent Bosnian politician—who bequeathed their collection to the Museum of Contemporary Art. “It looked like one of the fake modernist homes they use for shoots in Los Angeles,” Boukobza mused. “Perfect for FADE IN.” Karan was sold on the film tie-in—particularly in Belgrade, a city central to Yugoslavia’s storied cinematic past. As a nod to this history, the curators organized an accompanying program at the Yugoslav Film Archive, and Karan arranged to shoot a scene for her upcoming TV show, Five, on-site at the villa.
“The way I see it, we have the best directors,” Karan laughed, motioning to Castets and Boukobza. “And we have the best cast—both local and international. What we’ve made together is an amazing piece of science fiction.” Her choice of genre was astute. For the second edition, the roster swelled to include international “locals” Darja Bajagić, Aleksandra Domanović, and Bojan Šarčević. While the prominence of diaspora artists over locals could be a point of critique, Karan brushed it off with cool-handed aplomb: “For so long, when artists would leave the region, you would just lose track of them, as, with the museums under renovation, there was just nowhere to show their work.”
Siniša Ilić, one of the two artists actually based in the region (the other is Raša Todosijević), had a strong showing, with a ground-floor installation inspired by Rondo, Zvonimir Berković’s 1966 film about a love triangle that works out sexual frustrations through long debates about the nature of art. Exorcising tension in other ways was Brice Dellsperger’s film Body Double 35: After Xanadu (1980), which had been shot in front of the mural he created for the New York show—itself a remake of the opening scene of the titular Olivia Newton John vehicle. Also returning from New York were a series of prop landscapes by Mathis Gasser and a sofa set from William Leavitt that quietly overtook Alex Israel’s mantel-mounted crystal egg, Risky Business. “We had to include that piece,” Karan grinned. “It’s my husband’s”—CAA agent Joel Lubin, who happens to represent Tom Cruise—“favorite movie.”
Out in the courtyard, Danai Anesiadou’s Bonsoir Monsieur, Alas that is but one element won hearts (and other parts) by unleashing a flock of white T-shirted Adonises into the shallow swimming pool, where they painted Modigliani-esque portraits on one another’s backs, a reference to the 1968 Denys de La Patellière film Le Tatoué. Well, almost all of them. As my eyes swept the building’s black-ribbed facade, I caught sight of a rogue dancer tucked between the railings and the windows. “That one keeps going Anne Imhof on us,” Castets sighed. “But what can you do?” My answer was to keep sipping rosé and try not to ogle.
It’s a curious cultural calculus wherein the sexual objectification of women can launch a thousand think pieces, while a similar reduction of the male body just makes for a good party. I was trying to articulate this to the Italian Vanity Fair correspondent when Ivan Papić, the face (“face”) of the Serbian underwear brand Bonatti, glided toward us. He began to tease the very tiny strings of his very tiny swimsuit. “Have you seen anything like this?” a local artist marveled. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about Fire Island.
That evening, guests adjourned to the rooftop of the chic Square Nine hotel, where chefs grilled octopus and sea bass over open flames for a hungry contingent of artists, admirers, and dealers, including Vanessa Carlos, Karolina Dankow, Jan Kaps, and Christian Wirtz, many of whom had only dashed in for the evening. The next morning, I lapped the few venues still open for the season, catching an appealing group show at Podroom Gallery before hitting scene staples Remont and U10. Sparing me the adventure of public transit, curator Maja Ćirić picked me up in her convertible roadster for a real tour of the town, ending at the Museum of African Art, a private institution founded in 1977 by the former ambassadorial duo Veda and Zdravko Pečar. Primarily showcasing gifts from their host countries, the collection frames itself as explicitly “noncolonial.” After pointing out a photo of Zdravko with Frantz Fanon, Ćirić kindly looked the other way as I snuck a peek at the gorgeous temporary exhibition space upstairs, which arched gracefully into an off-center skylight. “It’s important to me that visitors to the city know this place exists,” Ćirić explained.
With both the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Gallery temporarily shuttered, it is all too easy to mischaracterize Belgrade’s rich cultural history as somehow lacking. Yes, the Museum of Contemporary Art has been under reconstruction for ten years now, following damage inflicted during the 1999 NATO bombings, but it’s also Europe’s oldest national museum of contemporary art, and its Ivan Antić–designed building is a true architectural landmark. (The museum should, at last, reopen this fall.) Likewise, the October Salon—another of the city’s banner initiatives, curated this year by Danielle and Gunnar B. Kvaran—is in its fifty-seventh edition. If anything, Balkan Projects is a powerful reminder that we really shouldn’t need reminders.
A few hours later, I ran into the Kvarans at a reception at the Swiss Ambassador’s residence, just down the tree-lined street from the Museum of African Art. The house was impeccably appointed, with a luxuriant poolside garden, perfect for taking in the decadent sunset. “The story goes that while they were bombing the city, the ambassador was out here gardening,” cultural liaison Mirjana Lafata told us. I eyed the waiters passing around trays of white-fish toast, ceviche, and pâté, and wondered what they made of that story. “I keep hoping they will bring out burek,” I heard Budor confess to Bajagić. Trying to explain the regional stuffed pastry to writer Eli Diner, we settled on “the only food you’ll ever need when drunk.”
Burek would have come in handy later that night as our entourage loaded onto a boat for a lively evening cruise down the Danube. (Flash to an image of Boukobza sashaying down the tabletop to Pharrell’s “Happy.”) Belgrade’s galleries may have packed up for the summer, but the city’s nightlife remains, as ever, in full swing.
With the rowdy only getting rowdier, I ducked back to the Square Nine in the comely company of Ilić, Joseph, theater director Bojan Djordjev, and playwright Goran Ferčec, only to find we were beaten there by a group including Lubin, adviser Patricia Marshall, and a dashing gentleman I at first mistook for the concierge. The kitchen had closed, but Karan had thoughtfully arranged a spread to greet guests as they returned to the hotel. Nestling into a seat between Joseph and film director Linda Shayne, I readily helped myself to the feast. It was only midway through a mouthful of fried calamari that I realized the handsome gentleman in front of me was not the concierge but Ralph Fiennes. And didn’t the weekend deserve a Hollywood ending?