The death of a nation | The Serbian pavilion in Venice

Since its inception in 1895, and especially in the last decades, the Venice Biennale has received criticism for its stiff nation-based system. Most recently, a panel organized during the 2017 edition of Miart, titled “Thinking beyond the Nation in the National Pavilion Model” saw curators Sebastian Cichocki and Bartolomeo Pietromarchi discuss the relevance of national representation in Venice, a debate which raised questions as to the legitimacy of this system and the type of the relationship it presupposes between a nation and its pavilion.

The pavilion of Serbia makes for a significant example within the debate surrounding Venice’s nation-based system. Housed in what once was the Yugoslavian pavilion, the exhibition space is, in the words of artist Ivan Grubanov, still inhabited “by the ghost of [the] nation,” whose name remains engraved on the building’s façade. Grubanov represented Serbia at the 56th Venice Biennale, where he participated with an installation ominously titled United Dead Nations, featuring the flags of republics and countries that had ceased to exist during the biennial’s run in what was “a mirror held at the very concept of the Venice Biennale.”


Installation view of Ivan Grubanov's United Dead Nations at the 2015 Venice Biennale. Image courtesy Galerie Loock. 


The particularity of the Serbian pavilion stems from the fact that the artists representing the newborn republic — the current Republic of Serbia just turned 11 — have assumed a new nationality after the breakup of Yugoslavia. Well beyond the Giardini of Venice, this discrepancy affects the way they produce art, inasmuch as artists from Serbia are still negotiating the terms by which they define their identity and work.

“For me as an immigrant, an artist and a twin there is an urgency to locate a space of multiplicity and a space where art can happen. I look for a … somewhere.” says Milena Dragicevic, who is representing Serbia at the 57th Biennale. For artists from Serbia and its diaspora, places of self-expression are often defined by their mutability or their transitory nature; “I look for a space without borders, a space with blurred edges, a space of inside out, a space that is wet and dry, a space where I can leak colour and where I can leak form.”


Installation view of Milena Dragicevic's works in Venice.


The indefinite nature of what Dragicevic defines a “somewhere” calls attention to the very structure of the pavilion, clarifying that a building — or any structure, either physical or abstract — aiming to represent a fixed national identity is becoming a less and less suitable model. For Grubanov, his artistic production emphasizes “the shifting framework of the notion of nation. Nation does not have a fixed definition nor a fixed form, it is constantly morphing and it seems we are living in the age when these shifts are taking meaningful and dramatic changes. The globalized age [...] either calls for transnational models that enable faster flow of capital and people, or causes fissures in the identities of peoples on the margins of these processes.”

“Enclavia,” the name aptly chosen by curator Nikola Šuica for the group exhibition (Vladislav Šćepanović  and Dragan Zdravković are showing alongside Dragicevic) on show at Venice’s Serbian pavilion this year, speaks about the exhibition space’s status as  one of the meeting points between Western and Eastern worlds, two poles between which artists from Serbia — and the country’s artistic scenes — seem to be caught. Dragicevic’s case as a Canadian Serb living in the UK is exemplary in this sense; her paintings from the series Erections for Transatlantica exemplify that the divide between two worlds separated from the Atlantic Ocean can be, at the same time, a “space of becoming, transformation and exposure, [...] and a space of envelopment and of erasure.”


Installation view of the 2017 Serbian pavilion in Venice.


For Ivan Grubanov the notion of national identity is tied to economic and political forces; and it can be simplified “into two categories: the nations of subjects of these processes and the nations of objects, the ones who inflict the dominant currents and the ones the dominant currents are inflicted upon.” says Grubanov. If the artist can identify with what he calls the “objects” of history, “with the ones the dominant currents are inflicted upon, the periphery, the antagonized, the abstract” as opposed to history’s subjects, the country and the creative production of artist from Serbia continues to be largely informed by this dialectic.

Vladislav Šćepanović’s paintings, presented in Venice this year, look at these two poles, intertwining war imagery with the symbols of Western Life — namely the logos of the World Bank, YouTube, Google or Apple — raising uneasy question as to the place Serbia, a country that has aspired to an ideal of development but also suffered the consequences of its brutal logics, has on the world map.

“In a country recovered from war and conflicts and in economic, political and social transition on its way to become a member of the EU, the crisis of today’s world comes to the fore in a more direct manner” according to Maja Kolarić, curator of the 2017 Pančevo biennial. For artists from Serbia and its diaspora, the notion of “transition” seems to be inextricable from their production and the Serbian pavilion remains informed by this aspect. Beyond the difficult development of the country’s art scene, the ghost of a dead nation and its history of civil war, artists from Serbia are reclaiming their right to be more than merely the representatives of a nation, both in Venice and elsewhere.