Art Biennale in Kosovo: With irony in ruins

The tiny Autostrada Art Biennale in Kosovo is as beautiful as it is political. And the bottom-up project enters a cultural vacuum.

The image of an equestrian statue in Pristina, Kosovo, however, the horseman is missing on the rearing horse

Skanderbeg Monument in Pristina without Skanderbeg by Luchezar Bouyadjiev (detail) Photo: Luchezar Bouyadjiev (“On vacation…”, 2004 to date), courtesy: the artist and Sarieva/Gallery, Plovdiv

Horses without riders, raised high on iron pedestals. Luchezar Bouyadjiev’s works have been exhibited many times. But never before have they been placed as well as at the 4th Autostrada Biennale in Prizren, Kosova. For twenty years, the Bulgarian artist has used his photographs to deconstruct the representation of the military, kings and national heroes in public places. To do this, he retouches the human figures from equestrian statues that he photographs from all over the world. Bouyadjiev’s series, ironically titled On vacation…, currently hangs in a disused military hangar in the former compound of the UN-KFOR troops tasked with overseeing the demilitarization of Kosovo after the 1998-99 wars.

In this well-guarded context, his deceptive images make a particularly strong contrast. When the KFOR troops left the field camp under the command of the Bundeswehr in 2018, which had already been used militarily in the Ottoman Empire, the tiny Autostrada Biennale in Kosovo’s second largest city took the opportunity. They quickly relocated their headquarters to the site where the city is currently building an innovation center.

Autostrada, the name of the art exhibition held for the first time in 2017, sounds like a cross between a Fellini film from the 1950s and the advertising of the Berlin CDU for their preferred means of transport. But the name works more as an ironic metaphor for the numerous investment ruins that have left their mark in many Balkan countries – from unfinished shopping malls to motorways. The sculptor Leutrim Fishekqui, the teacher Vatra Abrashi and the film director Baris Karamuço, all in their late twenties at the time, preferred to invest in something meaningful. That’s why they founded this art biennale.

In the group of around 250 biennials worldwide, Autostrada is something special. The Balkan art aficionados are not interested in spectacle culture or location marketing. They wanted to fill the cultural vacuum in a country where the visual arts hardly play a role. Between the exhibitions, which take place every two years, like the current one, it should also serve as a contact point for young people who want to train their artistic and creative powers but cannot find the opportunity to do so in Kosovo. Almost everyone who wants to make art in the country that was declared independent in 2008 wants to study in Germany. For a country with almost two million inhabitants, this brain drain is a problem. Around 60 young people have now gone through the curator labs and the educational programs of the Autostrada Biennial, more than half of them women.

“All Images Will Disappear, One Day“: 4th Autostrada Biennale, Kosovo, until September 9th

The two curators Joana Warsza and Övül Durmuşoğlu have filled this innovative format with the spirit of a resistant aesthetic for the second edition they are responsible for. The Berlin duo, known far beyond Berlin for their “Balcones” exhibition 2020 in Prenzlauer Berg during the pandemic, understands an exciting balance of politics and beauty.

De-ideologize monuments

If a man like Luchezar stands for politics, Neda Saeedi stands for beauty. The artist has gently de-ideologized the empty center of the old partisan monument on the Prizren river promenade with a yellow-blue glass work in which six stylized blackbirds circle each other. In doing so, she takes up the myth of the blackbird field, which means the word Kosovo.

Directly opposite, Kostas Bassanos has Walter Benjamin’s famous sentence “It is never a document of culture without being one of barbarism” in large wooden letters on the course of the Lumbardhi River, it leaps through Prizren like a mountain stream. A critical memento that might not turn the burgeoning tourism in the picturesque destination with many cultural monuments into reverse, but could certainly make it think for a few minutes.

In the capital Prishtina, an hour’s drive away, Hera Büyüktaşcıyan has lined the courtyard of a disused brick factory with panels of bright blue fabric to commemorate the forgotten or built-up watercourses of Kosovo. I

In contrast to Manifesta, which also made a guest appearance in Prishtina last year with works of this kind, the small Autostrada Biennial is a self-organized bottom-up initiative on site. The will to use art and culture to pull oneself out of the quagmire of the gradual loss of importance of their homeland is the energy of this admirable company that can be felt everywhere. Under their Biennale title “All images will disappear one day”, Warsza and Durmuşoğlu play with the idea of ​​the sustainability of art, which they set against the short-lived visual culture of the present. Of course, with each of their 30 selected works, they provide proof of the never-ending presence of all images.

At least something of her idea of ​​making the invisible, the hidden visible appears in the works of Xhevdet Xhafa, who was born in 1930. This grandiose representative of abstract expressionism is almost unknown in Western Europe. He has integrated everyday objects into large-format, monochrome images reminiscent of Pierre Soulages. What remains when the images disappear, as his series titled “Autobiography” could be interpreted, are vague, amorphous memories.

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