It’s a busy week next week in Edinburgh, as Friday night sees the opening of an exhibition that has been a long time in the making; the arrival of six contemporary artists from the Republic of Macedonia for the exhibition Captured State.
Macedonia is not a country with a high profile contemporary art “scene”, unlike neighbouring Serbia and Kosovo, or nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina.There are many complex and region-specific reasons for that, but this is the first major showing of contemporary art from the country in Scotland, since the 1970s.
Richard Demarco’s canonical 1975 show Aspect’ 75 in Edinburgh, and subsequently touring the UK, featured Macedonian artists as part of a broader Yugoslav context; there was a statement from the then Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje, Boris Petkovski, at the beginning of the catalogue. Works by artists Gligor čermerski, Tanas Lulovski, and Ordan Petlevski, were included in the show, alongside names that are now internationally famous- Marina Abramović, Sanja Iveković, Braco Dimitrijević, and Raša Todosijević, amongst others. Later on in the 1970s, Petkovski’s successor as director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sonja Abadžieva, organised several shows of Macedonian art in Bradford, south of the border. The West Yorkshire city is twinned with the Macedonian capital, Skopje.
The current borders of the political entity of the Republic of Macedonia may have been framed during the Second World War, but the Yugoslav past is a fading, sepia-tinted memory for most in 2017. Indeed, in the past decade, the symbols of the Yugoslav era have been overwritten explicitly, by the megalomaniac Skopje 2014 neo-Baroque re-build of the city centre, sponsored by the previous authoritarian, right-wing ethno-nationalist government.
This saw functional and brutalist Yugoslav era buildings clad, ludicrously, in fake stucco and styrofoam false columns; of the population of public space by sculptures taken from a highly controversial and contested reading of Macedonian history. The question of what to do with the neo-Baroque legacy of the previous government, is one of the key questions facing the new social democrat administration under the leadership of Zoran Zaev.
The artists chosen for this exhibition took a very specific critical line towards the Skopje 2014 project. In broad terms, Macedonian artists could take three broad positions towards the aesthetics of the former government; support it openly, remain silent, or adopt a broadly critical stance towards the public projects and the invasion of common public space by ideological objects. All of the artists chosen for the show, in their different ways, responded during the Skopje 2014 period in a critical manner; either as part of the radical artist’s grouping Kooperacija, through involvement in protest, or through advocacy of the issues online and in successive exhibitions. Yet, it was important that, given the very specific nature of Skopje 2014, that this was a show not about Skopje 2014; this is a very contemporary show which sees contemporary artists able to move beyond that debate onto other topics.
As a result, this is a show which will present a cross-section of artists working critically in the contemporary Macedonian space and one which will seek to draw out points of parallel and dissonance with contemporary Scotland. At opposite ends of Europe, both are spaces undergoing a moment of fundamental re-evaluation and socio-political re-calibration after major recent events in the political sphere. In Macedonia, after months of complicated and difficult manoevering following a very tightly contested election, a new government with new priorities and a clear Euro-Atlanticist integration path is in power. In cultural terms, some artists who had formerly been on the margins and key figures in the milieu of protest, or critical art, began to see new possibilities opening up for them. In Scotland, the failed independence referendum and subseuqent planned exit from the European Union, as part of a UK-wide vote, are having rapidly changing and unpredictable consequences that are yet to play out fully.
If the contours of the two territories can be difficult to transribe exactly onto one another, the questions that the Macedonian artists will ask in this exhibition will have a piquant local relevance. Igor Toshevski‘s work has consistently intervened in areas of the control and ownership of common space, who gets to set the rules within particular territories, and how people respond to them.
Obsessive Possessive Aggression (OPA) have consistently worked with cheap, throaway materials, wry humour, and readily comprehensible aesthetics, to make subtle yet revealing interventions on the operation of power within both culture and politics, and the status both of the artist and the object within contemporary society. Ephemerki intervene mainly through performative practices to question the role that philosophical language and discourse has in ascribing meaning to objects, and holding that whole process up to scrutiny through a critically humorous lens.
Finally the Zürich-based Verica Kovacevska contributes a piece which looks at the relationship between architecture and childhood memory, and the over-writing of those memories by time and by re-development. Her work focuses on the role played by temporary housing in the wake of the Skopje earthquake of July 1963 and the gradual phasing out of those houses towards the end of their lives in the present, in a lively interplay between architectural space, personal memory and the broader processes of urban regeneration and capitalisation.
In putting together this exhibition stress was laid that all the works to be shown were to be completely new or very recently made. All but one of the works are made in 2017; two of the exhibits are being shown publically for the very first time. However, it is the questions that these new works pose, and the discussions that will result amongst the local audience, that will be the most interesting for us to see unfold, in the lifetime of the exhibition, and beyond. What are the broader resonances of the notion of a “captured state” for practising artists in late capitalism and where might those speculations take us? The audience will find one or two provocative suggestions and interventions in this topic here. It will be good to pick up again, the threads of debate and cultural exchange started between a very different Scotland and Macedonia, back in the ‘seventies.
Captured State : New Art from Macedonia opens in the Sciennes Gallery, Summerhall, Edinburgh on Friday 6 October. Ephemerki’s performance begins at 1830 after which the exhibition will open formally at 1930. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, published by Summerhall, featuring essays by Jon Blackwood and Bojan Ivanov, and featuring illustrated information on each of the exhibiting artists. After the opening, the show will run until November 30- admission is free. Captured State is generously supported by Summerhall, and also by Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.