ART: Serbian perspectives

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“On Normality: Art in Serbia, 1989-2001” at American University’s Katzen Arts Center isn’t about normality as we know it. This mixed bag of paintings, photographs, videos and installations surveys artworks from the civil war years in the former Yugoslavia.

Far from being a downer, the exhibition is lively and playful in parts. It once again proves the daringness of museum director and curator Jack Rasmussen to mount offbeat, imported shows. This one was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade and represents only a portion of a larger exhibit held there in 2005.

Most of the 25 works are apolitical and remain distant from the 1990s conflict now known as the Bosnian war. Only a few of the Serbian artists reveal their true feelings about their leader, Slobodan Milosevic, and the horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The most obvious dig at this reign of terror occurs at the heart of the show where the ultimate totalitarian symbol, a swastika, forms the centerpiece of Belgrade artist Rasa Todosijevic’s installation. The Nazi emblem is flanked by metal buckets on chairs and a German poem “My Mother” to represent the banalities of daily existence that persist even under the most oppressive political regimes.

Artist Vesna Pavlovic capitalizes on this “normal” life in a series of photographs shot in Belgrade’s Hyatt Regency Hotel during air strikes by NATO forces. In one of her benign images, a robed man relaxes on a chaise next to a swimming pool, oblivious to the destruction. He and the other hotel guests in the photos represent the unseen life during the war, as wealthy Serbs and foreigners took refuge from the battles around them.

Painter Biljana Durdevic, one of several representational artists included in the exhibit, conveys a more personal perspective of the war in confronting the everyday fear of violence against women. In her disturbing group portrait “Dentists’ Society,” gloved and hooded thugs, perhaps stand-ins for Mr. Milosevic’s henchmen, threaten the viewer with their aggressive poses.

Nostalgia for better times before the war also surfaces in the show. Artist Goranka Matic pays tribute to former Yugoslavian premier Josip Broz Tito in a series of photos showing commemorative portraits of the leader displayed in shop windows. The 1980 death of Mr. Tito, a World War II hero, left a power vacuum eventually filled by Mr. Milosevic.

Hardships in Serbia during the 1990s appear to have toughened the contemporary art scene for the better, based on the few prewar works in the show. One wall is devoted to paintings and drawings by Adrian Kovacs, whose appropriation of Russian painter Kasimir Malevich’s persona and geometric shapes needles the reverence for originality and authorship in art. This approach, filched from 1970s postmodernist painting, appears dated and narcissistic compared to the more political works in the show.

Fresher and more pointed than the photographs and paintings are the video projections scattered through the exhibit. In her paired montages, artist Milica Tomic represents the 1989 murder of 33 Albanian protesters by Serbian police through the victims’ cast-off clothing and their fallen figures imprinted into the snow.

During the sequence, the artist appears with her “eyes wide shut” — drawings of eyes are pasted to her lids — to symbolize how the murders were hidden from the Serbian public.

Another split-screen video, titled “Good Evening,” captures how most people were introduced to the war in the former Yugoslavia. This montage of greetings from news anchors underscores the homogeneity and ritualization of television around the globe.

More lighthearted is “Rhythm” by Vladimir Nikolic who pokes fun at piety and conformity. In his repetitive film, four men and a woman cross themselves over and over again to a soundtrack of techno music. Occasionally, one of the five loses the beat to break the religious trance and gets noticed for the slip-up.

The most mesmerizing video, “Death in Dallas,” retraces an American cataclysm from a Serbian perspective. Splicing together newsreel footage and photos, artist Zoran Naskovski retells the events surrounding the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy in a compelling way.

His inspiration for the piece came from an audio recording found at a flea market that now forms the soundtrack to the video. This plaintive dirge, sung in the voice of a mourner, transforms snippets of the tragedy into an epic ballad.

WHAT: “On Normality: Art in Serbia, 1989-2001”

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