In April 1972, a crate containing several dozen works of mail art by international artists arrived at the Student Center Gallery in Zagreb. The works had originally been assembled by the French critic Jean-Marc Poinsot for a special section of the seventh Biennale de Paris the previous year; Poinsot’s “Section des envois” proved popular—and portable—enough to warrant a tour. But when visitors arrived at the Zagreb exhibition, titled “Postal Packages,” the gallery walls were bare. What viewers found instead was the unopened crate sitting on the floor. As the gallery’s director, Želimir Koščević, wrote in an accompanying statement, “Instead of contributing to the further commodification of conceptual art, and instead of helping in its ruin under the spotlights of galleries and museums, we have exhibited here the content of this exhibition in its genuine unadulterated state.” For Koščević, presenting an exhibition of mail art precisely as it had arrived by mail was less a gesture of conceptual one-upmanship than a barbed comment on the ease with which Conceptual art, despite its radical anti-institutional posturing, had been assimilated into the conventional structures of the art world, emblematized by enshrinement at the Paris biennale.
This critical outlook was characteristic of the loose movement of Yugoslav artists known as the New Art Practice, whose participants arrived at Conceptual art contemporaneously with their Western counterparts in the mid-1960s but quickly became disillusioned with its limited horizons: the dematerialization of the art object had expanded the range of activities recognized as art, but had not substantively shifted the underlying structures and values shaping their circulation and reception. Embracing the principles of Yugoslav self-management socialism—a system in which workers were given direct control over their workplaces, in contrast to the centralized authority of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union—the artists associated with the New Art Practice attempted to cast off what they saw as outmoded artistic and institutional conventions, reflective of a “middle class Weltanschauung,” in order to forge an authentically social role for art. If their hopes for self-management were ultimately dashed by the end of the 1970s, the social and intellectual climate of these years nevertheless produced an art scene of extraordinary vitality, nurturing the early careers of artists like Sanja Iveković, Marina Abramović, Braco Dimitrijević, and Mladen Stilinović, among many others.
The New Art Practice was crucially aided by a network of regionally anomalous institutions that sprang up throughout the federation’s major cities in the postwar years: Student Cultural Centers like the one that played host to “Postal Packages.” These state-funded spaces, attached to universities, were effectively handed over to young artists and critics. In A Slow Burning Fire: The Rise of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia, London-based art historian Marko Ilić focuses on the catalytic role these state youth institutions played, arguing that they served not only as venues for Yugoslavia’s experimental artists, but as a kind of testing ground where they could work out what self-management might mean when applied to the sphere of art. Organized roughly chronologically, the book’s chapters unfold as a series of regional case studies, examining activities that took place within the orbit of youth organizations in Zagreb, Belgrade, Novi Sad, Ljubljana, and Sarajevo, respectively, from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s.
The student centers attest to the comparatively permissive atmosphere of Yugoslavia, where artists did not face the kinds of strict state regulation of artistic production and circulation typical of the Soviet bloc. However, they have often been described in retrospect, both by art historians and by participating artists, as “marginal” spaces or “artistic ghettos,” circumscribed arenas where artists were allowed to operate with relative freedom because they had little chance of reaching a mass audience. (By contrast, Yugoslav writers and especially filmmakers faced much stricter censorship.) Ilić does not so much contest this view as attempt to nuance it, stressing how these spaces served as conduits for the circulation of artworks and ideas between the federation’s previously disconnected regional scenes, as well as internationally.
Though the first Student Cultural Centers opened in the late 1950s to accommodate Yugoslavia’s rapidly expanding student demographic, they were not associated with particularly adventurous programming until Koščević took over the Zagreb gallery in 1966. Over the next several years, he organized a series of unconventional exhibitions intended to challenge the notion that “a gallery should cater to the petty-bourgeois who will enter its halls on a Sunday afternoon, feeling the greatest respect and piety for every moldy piece of rag, for every polished plank, for every carefully cleaned pebble,” as he wrote in a 1964 essay. In addition to curatorial interventions like “Postal Packages” and “The Exhibition of Women and Men” (1969)—an empty gallery accompanied by an exhortation for viewers to “be the exhibition itself”—Koščević opened the space to young student artists who rejected the sedate “socialist modernism” dominating the city’s art academy. Dimitrijević’s installation Suma 180 (1969), for instance, selected through an open call, comprised several hundred painted tin cans strewn across the gallery floor, inevitably disturbed as viewers traversed the space. Increasingly, the gallery’s projects took place outside the space itself, in the form of actions and urban interventions like Boris Bućan and Davor Tomičić’s Total Action (1970), for which the artists pasted abstract posters over outdoor advertisements across the city. Declaring these zones as “action spaces,” they handed out leaflets printed with their “Draft Decree on the Democratization of Art,” which called for the abolition of painting, sculpture, and other conventional artistic disciplines and declared that “there should be no exhibitions in galleries, museums, and art pavilions.”
As Ilić outlines, the New Art Practice emerged against the backdrop of sweeping economic reforms that reintroduced market measures and loosened restrictions on foreign trade and investment, resulting in class stratification that chipped away at the egalitarian promise of self-management and fanned the flames of nationalist movements. Amid an atmosphere of rising youth unemployment and social inequality, a wave of student occupations erupted in June 1968, beginning at Belgrade University before spreading to cities across the federation, with protesters denouncing the “red bourgeoisie” of party and managerial elites and demanding a fuller implementation of self-management principles. The occupations had a galvanizing effect on the New Art Practice artists, particularly in Belgrade, where an informal group of art students—Abramović, Era Milivojević, Neša Paripović, Zoran Popović, Raša Todosijević, and Gergelj Urkom—began gathering at the new Student Cultural Center, established as a concession to the protesters. The Belgrade student center, whose director, Dunja Blažević, was from Zagreb, fostered contacts with like-minded artists in other Yugoslav cities and abroad, particularly the New York branch of Art & Language, through a series of annual events, the April Meetings and “October” exhibitions, the latter staged in response to the conservatism of the city’s official October Salons.
For the most notorious of these alternative salons, held in 1975, the gallery remained closed: in lieu of an exhibition of artworks, artists and critics were invited to contribute polemical texts to a publication reflecting on the role of art and institutions and art’s place within self-management. Oktobar 75 caused a rift in the gallery’s circle, between those who believed that art had to be relentlessly “negative, critical, both towards the external world and in relation to its own language” if it was to be more than “an apology [for] the status quo,” as Popović wrote in his manifesto-like contribution, “For a Self-Managing Art,” and the analytical conceptualists of the newly formed Grupa 143, who chafed at the idea that art’s purpose was ultimately political.
Similar tensions played out elsewhere in Yugoslavia as it became increasingly difficult for artists to remain optimistic about self-management. By the mid-1970s, Ilić writes, a system designed to eradicate alienation and exploitation had been “distorted into a hybrid combination of regressive socialism and market deregulation.” In 1974 Yugoslavia introduced a sprawling new constitution that simultaneously decentralized the federation, granting greater autonomy to the individual republics, while shoring up the power of the party itself through an expansion of the state bureaucracy. It was followed by the Associated Labor Law of 1976, which reorganized factories and other enterprises into “working communities” that would, in theory, coordinate planning and production, but in practice tended to encourage internal competition and gridlock. Some artists, like Zagreb’s Group of Six Authors (Mladen Stilinović, Sven Stilinović, Zeljko Jerman, Boris Demur, Vlado Martek, and Fedor Vučemilović), whose members had previously been affiliated with the Zagreb student center, relocated their activities outside formal institutions. Conceived as a framework for cooperation among individuals rather than a collective with a shared program, the group staged numerous self-organized “Exhibition-Actions” in public spaces throughout the city between 1975 and 1980, with each participant solely responsible for his own contribution. Others withdrew from art altogether, among them the Belgrade-based Goran Đorđević, who, in 1979, wrote to a range of notable artists and culture workers, such as Hans Haacke and Lucy Lippard, unsuccessfully soliciting their participation in an international artists’ strike.
While Ilić is hardly the first to emphasize the formative significance of the Student Cultural Centers, his book’s main achievement is its extensive contextualization of these activities within the era’s tumultuous political and economic climate. His comparative approach situates the New Art Practice as a pan-Yugoslav phenomenon with different local manifestations, accounting for the distinctive character of each particular scene and the varying circumstances they worked within. The interests of Novi Sad’s Grupa KôD, for instance, whose members were primarily literature students, skewed toward structural linguistics and experimental publishing, while Ljubljana’s student center, which opened belatedly in 1978, was closely associated with the city’s burgeoning punk subculture. Particularly valuable is the chapter devoted to understudied developments in Sarajevo: in the 1980s, a makeshift “student center” appeared at Zvono, a bar near the city’s art academy, whose elderly owner invited students to present their work in the absence of any other venue for emerging artists. Based in the federation’s poorest and most underdeveloped republic, the artists who gathered at Zvono lacked access to the sort of cultural infrastructure available to their counterparts in other cities—the art academy itself wasn’t founded until 1972—but nevertheless managed to organize the largest exhibition of contemporary art ever held in Yugoslavia, at Sarajevo’s Collegium Artisticum in 1987. Given the punning title “Jugoslovensko Dokumenta,” the show featured more than 140 artists from across the country, representing, Ilić argues, a “clear counterpoint to nationalist and xenophobic currents” that would, within a few years, lead to Yugoslavia’s brutal dissolution.
However, individual artworks and artists’ projects tend to get lost in these chapters, more often than not invoked to illustrate a point about political developments rather than taken as objects of study in their own right. His readings afford artists a striking lack of agency, giving the impression that for every exhibition, performance, and project, there is a corresponding speech, party purge, or economic shudder, as if artists were continually doomed to reproduce some microcosmic version of the political dramas playing out on the national stage on the level of form and social organization alike.
In the end, A Slow Burning Fire is less concerned with the work of the New Art Practice artists than with exploring how Yugoslavia’s long decline reverberated culturally. In the conclusion, Ilić suggests that Yugoslavia’s fate might serve as both a lesson and a warning, at a moment when ethno-nationalism is once again ascendant, capitalizing on the resentments of those left behind by neoliberal deregulation and austerity measures. It is unsurprising, he writes, that “in the background of receding welfare states—when cutbacks almost seem inevitable and a kind of permanent economic state of emergency has become normalized—the Yugoslav project and its powerful symbolism of anti-imperial struggle, its experimental culture, and its independent path to socialism has once again captured the imagination of international audiences.” Cautioning against both romanticization and defeatism, Ilić suggests we might learn as much from the New Art Practice’s contradictions and failures as from its emancipatory aspirations.
This article appears in the March/April 2021 issue, pp. 24–26.