Postcard From…Banja Luka

Detail from “Re-production” by Mladen Miljanovic.
Photo by John Feffer.

Mladen Miljanovic, who won the prestigious Bell Award in 2007 as the best young visual artist in Bosnia Herzegovina, grew up during the wars that split apart Yugoslavia. He lived in the area of Bosnia that became Republika Srpska. His home was near one military base, his school near a second. More than once he got a lift home from school by military helicopter.

“Guns became normal thing for me,” he says about his adolescence. “Going to school, passing behind the big artillery guns, that was very normal for me. Sometimes me and my friends watched with binoculars how houses just disappeared. It was awful to look at that: fascinating, but awful.”

Later, after the war, Miljanovic served nine months in the army. He passed up the opportunity to rise in the ranks and instead opted for art school. By a trick of fate, the military barracks where he once served became the new art academy. For his senior project, he decided to spend nine months, as long as he spent in the military, doing an extended art performance that he called “I Serve Art.” Every day of this alternative service, on the same terrain as his military training, he produced new paintings, photos, and performance pieces. It was his rebirth as an artist.

Miljanovic’s art recently appeared in his first one-man show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Banja Luka. The art is shaped by his experience of war, of serving in the military, of living in a society still scarred by violence. The title of the show, “Occupational Therapy,” suggests a working out of trauma through concrete work. In the installation titled “Re-production,” a needle passes over a turntable made of spent cartridges. From a set of speakers, clustered around the turntable like soldiers taking orders, issues forth a horrible screech. Is this the music of war? Or the sound of a traumatized society struggling to reproduce something useful from the remains of conflict?

John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus.