Skopje, the Macedonian capital, has drawn global attention twice over the last 50 years—the first on account of the devastating earthquake in 1963 in early days of television, and again recently with the controversial project Skopje 2014. These two events have been crucial for both the development of arts and the quality of urban life.
Unlike some of the other countries in Eastern Europe, during the Cold War era, Macedonia was a part of Yugoslavia, which enjoyed relatively more freedom of creative expression than the territories behind the Iron Curtain, which resulted in radical changes in artistic expressions in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. Pop Art, Conceptualism, and Performance Art were the main concepts of the generations of that time. The Skopje earthquake of 1963, one of the first genuine television “spectacles,” mobilized a huge international donor action which resulted in the building of MoCA Skopje, one of the oldest museums of contemporary art in the region. This institution gathered the first generations of contemporary art production and critique of the ’70s and ’80s.
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the war in the former Yugoslavia marked the beginning of an extremely difficult transition in Macedonian society, which is still ongoing and reflected in both the arts and art criticism. The ’90s were marked by a strong influence of the Soros Foundation and what is known today as “Soros Realism,” whereby the focus of visual art until the early 21st century was predominantly the realities of war in the region. Today, the countries of the Balkans have once again earned the title of imperial borderlands; fragmented, yet still dominated by the policies and attitudes of the provincial petite bourgeois.
Today, artists and art critics are confronted with the ambience of a government imposed aesthetic, like the urban renewal project Skopje 2014, a provocation still without a proper response. However there are rare projects that have no direct reference to the radically modified urban environment.
Public exhibition spaces are located in facilities that illustrate a complex city history and include: two Ottoman hamams dating back to the 15th century, a demolished railway station in the city center which used to be a stop along the Orient Express line, as well as MoMA Skopje, which is an exceptional example of late Modernist architecture and a symbol of the post-earthquake rebuilding effort. However these spaces do not provide a forum for re-assessing the present day ethical and aesthetic dilemmas.
The independent cultural scene exhibits in non-conventional spaces in an attempt to motivate a larger debate about the real needs of the public and the position of artists. The Contemporary Art Center (non-profit cultural center) and the Initiative Kooperacija (an informal artistic collective) are the most visible activists, and in response to the exclusivity of the official scene, they erected a mobile installation gallery that is intended to trigger a wide debate about the position of artists and their needs.
Despite the isolation and limited exhibition space, as well as the undefined role of artists in our society over the last decade, a new generation of artists have managed to impose themselves, and although they still feel the need for social engagement, they have introduced new and original modes of expression.
Press to Exit Project Space is one of the rare platforms that continue to explore artistic and curatorial practice. In 2004, Yane Calovski co-founded this research platform in Skopje with Hristina Ivanoska, with whom he often collaborates on projects. Calovski (born in Skopje in 1973) is concerned with the phenomena of time and movement. His explorations are focused on fragmentation/defragmentation of the process of creation of a particular work and its archiving. Drawings, videos, and ready-made objects are placed in sites open to re-interpretation, and in direct contact with the audience, mobilizing the co-participation of Ivanoska. Actively involved in exploring the New Institutionalism, he simultaneously uses artistic and curatorial techniques to look for a new functionality of institutional structures. His studies include analysis of architectural projects, urban solutions, and their impact on social life in complex political discourses.
Although part of the younger generation, Velimir Zernovski (born in Skopje in 1981) has influenced the Macedonian artistic scene through his individual projects and collaborations. Zernovski’s preoccupations include the multiplication of identity, decentralization of the social subject, re-configuration of the dichotomy between I and the other in the context of the global vs. local. He explores the process of ghettoization, his own utopian systems and social identifications, particularly in relation to the local, political, cultural and psycho-social contexts.
Artistic critique has been marginalized due to the reduced space for expression and the impossibility of determining how best to stimulate artistic creation. Its relegation to a passive role in society has been completed through the abandonment of any journals of art criticism, and the imposition of a monolithic aesthetic model with the mega project Skopje 2014. Social networks are insufficient compensation for the lack of public debate. A special problem, most likely common to all small European states, is the saturation of the public sphere with local topics and self-referential concepts. Intensification of professional communication on a regional and European level, the networking of experts, and the increasingly active role of the donors, have all injected some fresh air. In that context, an encouraging sign has been the fact that the Igor Zabel Award was given to independent theoretician and critic Suzana Milevska.
What still causes great concern is professional migration dynamics. In this regard, Macedonia is almost the most severely affected country in Eastern Europe. Macedonia, as in other Balkan countries, must overcome its isolation and ensure a more solid link to the Center.