Cetinje, Montenegro

Cétinié Biennale

Like certain small towns of the American West, beyond the storefronts of Cetinje’s main street lie prairies and mountains. Many of the buildings are empty, as in a ghost town, but the dignified architecture and pastel colors of the vacant palaces and decaying embassies recall the cosmopolitan past of this small city, once the capital of Montenegro. When Nicolas Petrovitch Njegosh, a Parisian architect and prince of this former kingdom by birth, decided to launch a biennial art exhibition here in 1991, he faced a challenge, given the situation in Yugoslavia and Cetinje. In fact, the second biennial was delayed until 1994 because of the war, and when it took place, it was dedicated to the victims of ethnic cleansing. Although the exhibition’s budget is not in the least comparable with those biennials in Venice, Sao Paulo, or Istanbul, the 1997 edition boasted a prestigious organizing committee that included Pontus Hulten and Jean-Hubert Martin. The unusual location and curatorial presence of this biennial made for the event's originality, and in general the quality of the work was high. And if there were few discoveries to be made among the Western artists represented, the show presented a unique opportunity to view art from Eastern Europe.

Titled “Back and Forth,” the show was broken up into three smaller exhibitions at different sites throughout the city: “Déplacement” (Displacement) and “Nouvelles icônes” (New icons), both curated by Andrei Errofeev, and “Landless,” curated by Claude Geiss. “Déplacement” presented the familiar theme of the nomadic artist, which is perhaps more relevant now than ever. The most interesting section of the show was undoubtedly “Nouvelles icônes,” which presented photographic and televisual images as the icons of the contemporary world. The title of course also refers to Eastern Orthodox icons, images with which many Eastern European artists maintain a complex relationship. Some of the pieces dealing with this theme seemed overly literal, albeit effective, such as the work of the Russian artist Avdei Ter-Oganian: an icon smeared with shit, some pierced by nails, and one in which an image of Christ is graffitied with an enormous penis and the head of a smoking devil. Church representatives present at the opening of the exhibition objected to this kind of direct, raw imagery; assuming that the show’s objective was to attack spiritual values, they demanded that it be shut down. All kinds of issues were raised in the ensuing debate around the show, which was hardly surprising since the exhibition took place during a presidential election.

Oleg Kulik, a Russian artist known his incisive performances and installations, presented a latticed cage, covered with feathers, that contained a hammock alongside photographs that seemed to document the artist engaging in bestiality. Kulik’s fantastic tableau was certainly one of the most astonishing works in a remarkable exhibition.

Jérôme Sans

Translated from the French by Rachel Knecht.

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