Damir Niksic, Maxumim

There was, in peaceful times in the former Yugoslavia, an expression, often brought up in conversations about Bosnia by our neighbors. "Do not sing through Bosnia." At first, an uninformed person might think of Bosnia as some kind of obscure country, where no one likes to hear other people singing. The adventurist traveling through the exotic Balkans imagines himself as bringing enlightenment under the flag of "civilization." But not everything conforms to the foreign intellectual's stereotype. Sometimes, culture is not found in grandiose imperial buildings made from the spoils of conquests or slavery. In some places, culture is left simply to be a construction of the human spirit.

It is very difficult for contemporary "Western" thought to recognize and classify these constructions. Whether or not they want to admit it, Western intellectuals adhere to strict cannons of logic and, most importantly, to standards of "politically correct" reasoning, (which reminds me of the "politically correct reasoning" imposed by the system I grew up in). Many Western intellectuals today are far from developing genuine thought--the thought of the individual. They mostly conform to the Rococo of contemporary theories of philosophy, morals, ethics, as if to certain stereotypes of thought. What they call "individual"--or, to be more correct, "the subject"--is really only understandable in the context of dogmatic ideas and rigid theoretical categories.

"Do not sing through Bosnia" means do not sing while you are in Bosnia because you could soon be embarrassed by the talent of Bosnian people to sing. In other words - everybody there sings better than you do.

Each city has its story, its history, its soul. We cannot compare cities. That is the first lesson of geography. Every city is different. Sarajevo. A province, in the center of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in the center of the former Yugoslavia. Although it was the real geographic center, Sarajevo was always denied a cosmopolitan identity by the other former-Yugoslavian centers. Perhaps because of its intellectual undervaluing, Sarajevo kept surprising everyone with new and original art. Everyone but itself.

In the period of 1990 - 1992, Sarajevo again experienced its cosmopolitan spirit, as an international cooperation between local artists and those expelled from Zagreb and Belgrade began to bear fruit. During that period, we were in our 20's and involved in Sarajevo's local scene with the conceptual performances of our Rhythm and Blues band "Sing Sing". The members of this band were Soba, Anur, Kurt, Plasto, others, and myself--who all later became founders of Maxumim. Soba, Kurt and myself were also preparing a TV project for the first private TV station in Sarajevo, called "Good Vibrations," directed by Slobodan Svrzo. Then, in the peak of our "local careers" the war broke out. In April of 1992, when Bosnia had become known as the neutral "Switzerland" of the Balkans, Sarajevo was attacked. Many artists escaped from the war and continued their work elsewhere, in other countries, in other centers of former Yugoslavia. But what about the artists whose choice was not only art, but art in Sarajevo?

A paradoxical situation happened after the war in Sarajevo. Artists, even those artists who were locally oriented during the war, began to direct and market their work to Western centers. They thought of it as a natural step, and were encouraged by the great interest of Western critics towards people who were both making art and coming from Sarajevo. And artists who had fled during the war returned home from abroad. The government, under pressure from the countries who hosted refugees, had to pardon all returning deserters. This created a difficult situation in the city. Many artists who stayed felt they deserved to have a monopoly over art--a ridiculous concept that betrays the essence of art. Others who stayed felt like they were "better citizens"--a ridiculous concept that betrays the goals of our fight against the fascism that threatened Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Within the so-called "global" context, the European art world developed an interest in art works and artists that bore evidence of the influence of upon the human mind. Europe became curious to taste the intellectual and artistic food from the war kitchen. I found this situation perverted, and even more so the acceptance of this situation and the intellectual adoration of war by Sarajevo's artists.

As many artists from Sarajevo were working on developing contacts and dialogues in the circles of the international art scene, our point of view in Maxumim was to direct our work towards rebuilding the local spirit of Sarajevo after the war. I feel somehow that we were isolated in our desire. But we also felt it as a kind of duty. We were seriously concerned about the possibility that Sarajevo could become a real province--in other words, a place where everything is a pretentious copy of the world's art centers.

It is typical for our local intellectuals to undervalue local art and overvalue whatever is coming from abroad. But genuine art cannot be born from tendencies to blindly follow the world's fashions and current trends. We were trying to fight against this primitive mentality and struggling for a kind of honesty in our work. We did not want to conform to the imaginary horizon of expectations that we could suppose a Western critic to have, but to work within our own context and pursue the values and characteristics of something that one day might be remembered as the "Sarajevo School of Art." Some dilettantes of art have often misinterpreted this attitude as "Sarajevo's Nihilism" towards the world's mainstream tendencies.

Art in Sarajevo was never made for critics, but for people. Our own goal was to create an independent dialogue with our fellow citizens, which is perhaps every artist's aspiration. United in a group, we wanted to become strong enough to bypass local critics and curators, who often place themselves as intermediaries between artists and the public, justifying their position of power with their concern for the public's "mental health." As we know from experience, however, contemporary critics and curators tend to be concerned with nothing but their egos and personal tastes.

We considered our concept of art a mission and a model of inspiration for others. So we decided to make a touring exhibition through Bosnia and Herzegovina (Bihac, Tuzla, Zenica, Mostar and Sarajevo). We thought it was important to make an exhibition of conceptual art for young people, students who grew up during the war in a complete absence of information. We could empathize with them, and we wanted to shake them up with a fresh approach to their own problems. If we can inspire young people to think about their own lives, even to pursue art, this is the best kind of influence we can hope to have as artists.

We looked upon our devastated country like our child who needed to be protected and re-animated. This required a lot of energy, both physically and mentally, because at some point it seems absolutely absurd to show up with an exhibition of conceptual art in front of desperate, unemployed people. What we had in mind is perhaps best explained by invoking the scene in Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law" of a prison riot in which everyone yells through a kind of contagion: "I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream." As artists, we felt in the same way as other people--abandoned and left to fend for ourselves by those who were supposed to represent us.

One of our reactions to the social and political situation in our own country was "Painting the Gallery"--an action in which we used the gallery for a dialogue with people. As it is well known, the discourse of Socialism in the former Yugoslavia proclaimed that everything that was built didn't belong to any particular person, but to everyone. According to this rhetoric, after the war, galleries should have become the property of the citizens of the city and state. In other words, they should have become the property of the people who defended them from destruction, like Soba, Kurt and Plasto. I don't see anything strange about the demands of our group to be given what these institutions have to offer. The gallery, much more than the studio, is indispensable; it is the position from which the artist can act.

After the war, the city and state galleries started to ask for money from artists wishing to exhibit, as is the norm in the rest of the world, in optimal conditions. They acted as if they were teaching us the ways of the "real world." We knew about the real world, but the real world couldn't know about us if we were not allowed to present our work. The galleries asked for money from the same people who sacrificed their youth to defend them. We thought that the patriotic duty of officials who ran galleries was to give us a chance to continue our lives as before. We didn't expect that they would try to put themselves in the position of running our lives and careers and of judging us as a generation--the generation who paid for their experiments.

So they permitted us to have one exhibition per year. That wasn't enough for people who were waiting for years to express their ideas. But they were incapable of understanding our moment and our desires. Guided by our stubbornness, we stopped defending our demand and our terms. Curious to find out what their terms and distorted concepts were, we accepted all the conditions they imposed. The result was the most absurd and perhaps the most truthful collaboration between artists and people around them: Maxumim's performance of painting a gallery.

Collegium Artisticum - a city gallery - was planning to take a break from all activities for renovations (which in the "real world" may be routine, but in Sarajevo are mission impossible). Hamdija Pasic came up with the idea of painting the gallery, in white. These two circumstances resulted in a conceptual exhibition. The absurdity of this situation is analogous not to somebody who washes dishes in a restaurant to earn a decent meal, but to a chef who washes dishes to earn the possibility of making a French specialty. As we discussed this, the group members of Maxumim answered "yes, we know, but we want to go through with it anyway. That's the whole point."

The conceptual features of this symbolic action were more significant than the seemingly trivial act of painting the gallery. White: we wanted to start a new chapter in Bosnian art. We were giving our artistic contribution to the reconstruction of our devastated country, acting in our domain, which is art and the gallery. But, of course, we were also simply working to pay off the rent of the gallery.

The performance represented everything that we were doing in BiH as artists. It represented also the art itself, the reasons for art, and for its existence in such a devastated place. We wanted to stay in our world and act in real time, in real life, in a true constructive spirit. We viewed our experiment as sharing the spirit of the Russian experiment at the beginning of the century. Our aspirations were to try not to educate, but to follow and help direct the wisdom of people through the medium of art. We used conceptual visual art to present the concepts of the life we all wanted to live. We wanted to build a visual language that was capable of expressing the reasoning of the so-called "common people," who we are a part of.

The experts and specialists of art did not understand our strategy. This surprised me and made me realize that critics were not synchronized to artists and the historical moment even if they seemed to be. They didn't understand our perspective and our message, and thought our work lacked a theoretical and historical dimension. They thought that we just wanted to be seen. This type of misunderstanding is always happening in the historical crossroads when one approach is declining and another is ascending.

In Tuzla, at a presentation for the opening of Maxumim III, I told the old Bosnian story about the painting of the medieval tombstones. There was a custom in Bosnian villages that a poor young woman, who had neither relatives nor goods, was given the task of painting the old medieval tombstones with lime wash. As compensation, the village gave her food and clothing. This practice seemed to preserve the woman's dignity as an equal citizen who earns her bread with honest and "important" work, so that it would not appear as a gesture of charity. Analyzing the roots of this concept of work, I am asking myself if it functions the same way today. Perhaps the only significant difference is the scale of the system, the goods that are in question, and the illusion of importance. Sometimes I have a vision that we are in the same line of work as the poor young woman in the story--we are completely dedicated to our work, while those in the village who produce and develop industry are giving us their leftover crumbs and telling us what to do, and how, and why.

The question is: what can an artist do to contribute to establishing a system that is not dictated by others? What kind of values and examples should we follow? What standards should we respect?

After the war, for a moment it seemed possible that something new could be born in Sarajevo, something genuine, something that was ours and not just a pale copy of a world beyond our reach. Unfortunately the promise never found its fulfillment. And I still think that the main force responsible for the current situation is the provincial mentality of our intellectuals, who were in a position to decide otherwise. In this context, it is impossible not to feel the daily frustration of spending useless energy in convincing people of something obvious.

The question for Maxumim was: what can we actually do with our art in a moment like this, in a place like this, possessing nothing except our good will and faith in our capabilities except to pack our bags and go somewhere else? Most of us decided to leave.

I am just afraid of one thing, and that is: what if it is the same everywhere?

about Damir Niksic & Maxumim >>