A group of Balkan artists aim to turn one of the world’s most expensive military facilities – the former Yugoslav leader’s hidden bunker – into one of Europe’s most thought-provoking art venues.
Artists from the Balkans may be short of money. But they are not lacking in imagination if their plans to turn a Cold War bunker – hidden under a remote, forested hill in southern Bosnia – into an art gallery, are anything to go by. The massive bunker, buried deep underneath a hill some 40 kilometres south of Sarajevo, was completed in 1979 to shelter the Yugoslav leader, Josip Broz Tito, and 350 of his closest associates in case of nuclear war.
Had that cataclysm happened, the chosen few would have had the chance to live comfortably in the bunker for six months without ever leaving.
The building of the 280-metre-deep complex, complete with a fresh water tank, powerful generators, air-conditioning system, conference rooms and living quarters, took 26 years and cost the equivalent of 4.6 billion US dollars.
Before Yugoslavia disintegrated bloodily in the 1990s, only four of the country’s top generals and a handful of soldiers tasked with maintaining the bunker knew of its existence. Now it is guarded and maintained by the Bosnian army although it has no military purpose.
A group of artists discovered the bunker three years ago. At the time they were busy developing plans to launch a biennial modern art exhibition in Bosnia. When they saw the bunker, they immediately thought it would be a perfect venue to showcase modern art from 11 Balkan countries, six of them former Yugoslav republics whose citizens once unknowingly funded the secret facility.
The Bosnian army and local authorities in the nearby town of Konjic, who are soon expected to assume ownership of the site from the military, have agreed to allow artists to use it.
Lately, the soldiers have been giving artists guided tours of the bunker, leading them through the long corridors, explaining the purpose of the different rooms and briefly switching on the generators.
“It was built in preparation for a catastrophe that never happened,” says Branislav Dimitrijevic, an artist from Serbia, chosen to be one of three selectors for the first biennial exhibition, planned for May 2011.
“Instead, we survived a conventional war fought with primitive guns and knives, for which we were unprepared,” Dimitrijevic adds, referring to the wars of the 1990s.
Dimitrijevic and the two other selectors, Jusuf Hadzifejzovic from Bosnia and Petar Cukovic from Montenegro, have already drawn up a preliminary list of some 40 artists they plan to invite to “artistically intervene” in the bunker.
Dimitrijevic describes the bunker as in itself an “installation”, something given that cannot be changed but can be played with.
For now, the concept for the exhibition is dubbed “the time machine”, as the bunker “takes you back in time to the Cold War era but also somehow speaks about the future because today’s dominant culture is also full of apocalyptic scenarios and they just keep multiplying,” Dimitrijevic says.
“The location in which an exhibition is held sets you up in a certain context… and this is one of those situations,” says Petar Cukovic. “This location has an immense power of its own and it was not easy coming up with names of artists whose work it will not overpower… because visitors will link their creations to the bunker,” he adds.
The artists believe that by giving Tito’s bunker a new life as an art gallery, they will expose to scrutiny the often absurd political and cultural heritage of the 20th century.
“They were planning to hide here for six months, but then what? What did they think they would find once they got out?” jests Borka Pavicevic, from Belgrade, whose Center for Cultural Decontamination is one of partner organizations of the Biennale.
“This facility came into existence as result of an absurdity… but now this useless thing can become very useful as a showcase for the human ability to dream,” Pavicevic adds.
The Biennale director, Edin Hozic, believes that the event and the venue where it will take place provide an opportunity to “better understand the past and look more rationally to the future”.
Each year, two countries from the group of 11 – the six former Yugoslav republics plus Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Greece – will be selected to be partners of the biennial. In total, six biennial exhibitions will be organized of works developed inside and specifically for the bunker, Hozic said.
As most of the art works will remain in the bunker, it will be transformed from one of the world’s most expensive military facilities into one of the most valuable art galleries, a gallery that artists hope will earn a place on the European cultural map.
While it is impossible to change the past, it is possible to observe it in a different context, Cukovic believes.
“If you translate the amount of money used to build this bunker into other projects that it could have been used for, like building schools or roads, it makes you think the war in former Yugoslavia might have never happened had the investment priorities been different,” he says.
Article was first published by Balkan Insight.