What’s Not at the Museum of Broken Relationships: The Yugoslavian Six-way Marriage

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

From the Museum of Broken Relationships.

From the Museum of Broken Relationships.

You can find a Newsweek cover depicting President Barack Obama with the caption, “I really wanted it to work out.” There is also a portrait of Ivo Sanader, the former Croatian prime minister. The accompanying note from Kasum Cana, the president of the Croatian Roma Forum, explains that his “emotional relationship” with Sanader failed because of the latter’s broken promises.

The Museum of Broken Relationships, located in Zagreb’s Old Town, showcases the artifacts of failed romances, from discarded teddy bears to unsent love letters. Most of these items are personal, and the “relationship” refers to a tie between two people that has been sundered. Several, like the Obama and Sanader contributions, are overtly political.

But one obvious broken relationship is missing. Perhaps I somehow neglected to visit one of the rooms of the museum, or this item is traveling to some other museum in the world.

A picture of Obama, a portrait of Sanader: but no picture of Yugoslavia? This six-way marriage (of Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia) lasted for more than four decades before it fell apart in the least amicable way possible. But the Museum of Broken Relationships has no bumper stickers proclaiming “After Tito, Tito!,” no little model sculptures dedicated to brotherhood and unity, not even a missive from an abused spouse saying “I never loved you and good riddance!”

Maybe the end of Yugoslavia was just too obvious a broken relationship to memorialize. Maybe it was too controversial. Or maybe it would have generated enough items to necessitate another entire museum space. After all, “Yugonostalgia” has been all the rage among a certain class of cognoscenti over the last few years.

In Dubravka Ugresic’s novel The Ministry of Pain, the main character teaches Serbo-Croatian literature in Amsterdam to a group of mostly former Yugoslav students. At a loss for how to engage the class, she decides to ditch the curriculum and just reminisce with her students. This Yugonostalgia enables them to focus on the “good old days,” which weren’t necessarily all that good, but at least they can avoid talk of war and hatred. Instead, they go on about cartoons and favorite foods and how they reacted to the death of Tito in 1980. And they meditate on what they have lost.

“The list of things we had been deprived of was long and gruesome,” she writes. “We had been deprived of the country we had been born in and the right to a normal life; we had been deprived of our language; we had experienced humiliation, fear, and helplessness; we had learned what it means to be reduced to a number, a blood group, a pack.”

I haven’t encountered much Yugonostalgia during my travels across the northern tier of former Yugoslavia. Some people have spoken wistfully of the days when everyone seemed to have enough money for a trip to the coast during the summer, when Yugoslavia was the freest of a set of un-free Eastern European countries, when the music scene was the envy of even many Western Europeans. These virtues aside, the phenomenon of Yugonostalgia comes across as nothing more than Balkan kitsch.

“Slovenia, in fact, is the main producer and main consumer of Yugonostalgia, much more than in Croatia or in other parts,” anthropologist and writer Svetlana Slapsak told me in her apartment in Ljubljana. “Slovenians are the most prominent Yugonostalgia suckers. I really hate it. Because it’s commercialized, and it buries all the criticism in a deep concrete grave, never to be revealed again. All the former dissident culture is lost in nostalgia. Here in Slovenia it becomes a very simplified version of the reds against the blacks.”

She continued, “This Yugonostalgia serves as a placebo for desperate people. It destroys not only criticism but also freedom of mind, and it makes people non-active, just consumers of silly things. The Internet is full of Yugonostalgia objects. You can buy the old comic books, periodicals, pictures, paraphernalia, all kinds of rubbish: good for research, bad for the spirit. It’s also about being sentimental for no good reason. We could publish the memoirs of people, which would be as a rule different, diverse and rich in information. But no, we have this uniforming of the past. I’m terribly against this nostalgia, and also the Tito-nostalgia – except for satirical purposes.”

Even without an entry on former Yugoslavia – or perhaps because of it – the Museum of Broken Relationships is a very popular place.

Not so the other museums I visited in Zagreb, and that’s a shame. Because the city is a mecca for contemporary art and artists.

I had an in-depth conversation with the artist Andreja Kuluncic, who has done some wonderfully provocative work, including a set of “Bosnians Out!” posters that the Ljubljana City Council removed (and then restored after museum protests). I also talked with curator Branko Franceschi, who recently presented a show in New York on the psychedelic films, visual arts, and music of socialist Yugoslavia (a critical and zany antidote to Yugonostalgia) and currently has a show up on the surveillance-inflected work of Croatian artist Zeljko Kipke at the extraordinary fin-de-siècle Art Pavilion in Zagreb. Both interviews are forthcoming.

The enormous Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Zagreb opened just a couple years ago, and its permanent collection contains many essential works from around the region. But other than some skateboarders zooming around outside, the place was quite empty on a Sunday afternoon, and I was practically alone to wander through the first-class exhibits. Particularly powerful, Ivan Grubic’s East Side Story juxtaposes shocking footage from the anti-LGBT protests in Zagreb and Belgrade with two couples enacting their own tormented drama in public spaces before bewildered onlookers. Mladen Stilinovic’s pink banner proclaims “An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist.” And Selja Kameric’s Bosnian Girl – ugly graffiti from an unknown UN peacekeeper superimposed on the self-portrait of the artist — remains as shiver-producing as when I first saw it four years ago.

But perhaps the most remarkable piece I saw in my Zagreb museum-hopping, at the monumental circular pavilion designed by the famous sculptor Ivan Meštrović, was not from this region at all. The work by Dutch artist Jonas Staal began with a proposal in Rotterdam by a politician of ethnic Turkish heritage to erect a monument to the guest workers who devoted so much of their lives to building the city. This politician proposed the sculpture for Afrikaanderwijk, a section of the city where immigrants are now the majority and where there were terrible race riots in the 1970s.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about the idea, however. The far-right party ridiculed the proposal. There should be a monument to all the hard-working native Rotterdammers, the party representatives argued, particularly the ones “chased out” of Afrikaanderwijk.

Jonas Staal set to work. The result was a mock-up of a Monument for the Chased-off Citizen of Rotterdam, a 3-D computer animation that he showed to the right-wing politicians. One of them remarked, “Well, this isn’t what we expected. I don’t know if this was done on purpose, but it isn’t really out to provoke us. It’s simply being objective. I think it is beautiful!” Beautiful it may be, but the overall project definitely challenges the assumptions of the nativists.

The work is also an important reminder that racism and xenophobia is deeply entrenched throughout Europe, not just on the eastern periphery. And nostalgia for a “simpler” and “less contentious” time is not just sentimental, but potentially dangerous as well.