Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 23, 2021
Marko Ilić A Slow Burning Fire: The Rise of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021. 384 pp.; 55 color ills.; 75 b/w ills. Cloth $39.95 (9780262044844)

“New Art Practice” is a name that draws together a group of artists, collectives, exhibitions, publications, and public and private projects appearing from the 1960s through the 1980s in cities across Yugoslavia. More a localized genre category (with a somewhat generic title) than a movement per se, the New Art Practice included artists who engaged random passersby as art, wrote short texts and slogans as art, and produced body art, video art, posters, installations, and manifestations. They forged a complicated relationship with the state-funded art world and socialist system of their country: critiquing, mocking, and appropriating as well as respecting and collaborating with state institutions when and where possible. The recent publication of Marko Ilić’s book A Slow Burning Fire: The Rise of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia represents a significant moment in New Art Practice’s historicization.

As Ilić himself points out, the New Art Practice has received increasing, and notably international, scholarly treatment in the past decade in the form of exhibitions and publications highlighting certain groups of affiliated artists, as well as more interdisciplinary studies analyzing certain facets of their work. This renewed attention on New Art Practice artists (including figures such as Mladen Stilinović, Sanja Iveković, and Marina Abramović) responds to the imperatives of the present—for example, the movement toward an art of explicit political engagement and the pursuit of alternatives in both art and politics—acknowledging how New Art Practice artists spoke to similar concerns and how their work continues to speak now.

Ilić’s book stands out in its specific centering on the New Art Practice as a genre, in contrast to studies written more broadly on alternative culture across Yugoslavia or more narrowly on New Art Practice artists’ engagements with performance, public space, and so on. A focus on an art historical or art critical term implies the definition of boundaries, inclusion and exclusion on the basis of practical, stylistic, chronological, and geographical criteria. Gaps and absences inhere within projects born of such focus, which in turn raise questions about selection. While A Slow Burning Fire is no exception (this reader wondered, for example, whether matters of gender, sex, and sexuality ought to have appeared more prominently in the book), Ilić nevertheless succeeds in both clarifying and expanding the meanings that the words “New Art Practice” encompass.

A Slow Burning Fire is foremost a work of social art history. Ilić volleys between events in the history of the New Art Practice and events in the history of Yugoslavia, often shifts in cultural and economic policy and moments of tension and conflict between citizens and state. The reforms of 1965 and 1974, which introduced market forces into Yugoslavia and weakened the worker autonomy that had been the central promise of the federation’s self-management system, are touchstones here as in other studies. In Ilić’s back-and-forth, the New Art Practice and its affiliated artists are cast into relationships of twins, proxies, and corrective prosthetics to Yugoslav socialism itself. This dynamic is where the author hones his definition and justifies his focus. Ilić presents New Art Practice artists as almost eerily in tune with the social, economic, and political realities of their country, well-informed and perspicacious at every turn.

The book is refreshingly Yugoslav in its scope, bringing together case studies from Zagreb, Croatia; Novi Sad, Vojvodina; Belgrade, Serbia; Ljubljana, Slovenia; and Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Many studies that claim in their titles to be about Yugoslavia (a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces) tend actually to concentrate on just one of its republics or a few of its larger cities. Ilić’s range of cities and artists has both historiographical and political import. In light of the Yugoslav Wars and the nationalist erasures of Yugoslav history in the region’s successor states, scholars writing across former Yugoslav republics—especially when including ones like Bosnia and Herzegovina that have typically been left out of discussions of cultural trends, including the New Art Practice—do well to present Yugoslavia more fully in its diversity and disparity.

Ilić’s chapters move chronologically from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, with each case study revolving around a city, a state-funded student cultural center, and the artists who gathered there for exhibitions and performances. Each chapter emphasizes the interaction and influences occurring between artists and curators in different cities (within Yugoslavia and without), as well as the distinct interests and conditions of these places. Differences between republics emerge that resist generalizations about the New Art Practice as a phenomenon. Although the New Art Practice is widely associated with public and participatory art, institutional critique, and experimental performance, as well as more philosophical engagements with form, language, time, and space, in Ilić’s telling of this history it becomes clear that certain interests tended to dominate more than others or take a particular shape based on the existing art infrastructure and the history of the avant-garde in each place.

Economic and ideological distinctions between republics also determined the slightly divergent paths that New Art Practice artists followed in each city of Ilić’s study. It is commonly asserted by scholars that in Yugoslavia, artists working in conceptual and performance idioms were not forced underground as in other Eastern European state socialist countries because of Yugoslavia’s culturally liberal policies. This is mostly accurate; however, in Ilić’s second chapter he chronicles the artists and cultural workers who participated in the activities of Novi Sad’s Youth Tribune (such as the six artists of Grupa KÔD, founded in 1970) who were publicly criticized and censured for their experimentalism, and indeed eventually forced into an underground, and embattled, position. Although artists in Zagreb and Belgrade found a venue for sharing their work at the Students’ Center Gallery and Students’ Cultural Center, respectively, with budgets for some larger-scale events and collaborations, in Sarajevo there was initially little support for alternative artists, who instead gathered at a bar near the Academy of Fine Arts called Zvono and used the street as a zone of contact with audiences as a matter of necessity.

If A Slow Burning Fire essays to lay down a new definition of the New Art Practice, what work will be built on its establishing ground? The study raised for me one key matter for scholars to wrestle with moving forward—not only those interested in writing on New Art Practice artists, but also those covering other topics in the recent history of Eastern Europe and the Balkans. There has been what I will call a strong antitropic tendency in this literature. Something “antitropic” has a relationship of symmetrical repetition (with reversal) to another, as in a human’s left and right thumbs. The antitropy of recent Eastern European cultural and art histories pivots on the idea of dominant binary logics that an author aims to displace, dispel, or blur. The metaphor of symmetrical repetition with reversal is useful here to describe how, despite an author’s explicit intent to move contrary to binaries, such binaries tend to remain powerful and primary in these studies, a repetition despite “reversal”—a thumb is still a thumb. 

Somewhat inevitably, it has often been the East-West binary of the Cold War that is taken on by scholars of the region, and Yugoslavia’s political nonalignment has given it prominence in such reckonings. In the case of Ilić’s book, he writes on a related dynamic between two internal genres: New Art Practice and socialist modernism. He writes in his introduction that although Yugoslavia’s stylistically permissive and internationally open art world meant that New Art Practice artists were not “unofficial,” a version of an “official” (state-sanctioned) versus “unofficial” (dissident, underground) dynamic reappears in histories that cast New Art Practice artists as opponents of socialist modernism qua crypto-official style. In this version of history, the New Art Practice was marginalized in the Yugoslav art world instead of being given adequate opportunities for state purchases, exhibitions, and exchanges that certain abstract and neo-figurative painters, sculptors, and printmakers enjoyed in the same period. Ilić counters by emphasizing the ambitious and critical New Art Practice events that were able to occur through state-funded student cultural centers, even if imperfect and transient.

While Ilić declares an intent to avoid this polarity, the book focuses almost entirely on alternative practice with little explicit engagement with other forms of Yugoslav art. Ilić points out how other authors have relied on a simple definition of socialist modernism to present the New Art Practice as its opponent, and while in his study he significantly nuances the definition of the latter genre, he himself spends almost no time defining the former. Further, he repeatedly writes about New Art Practice artists as having been frustrated and disappointed by the existing art world of Yugoslavia, thus situating them as oppositional. Ilić’s study responds to particular questions, and quite well in all the ways outlined above; ultimately, this polarity was not actually so fundamental to the book, and perhaps need not have been posited as one of its preoccupations. A Slow Burning Fire, in its definitional specialization, might itself represent a kind of pivot, opening onto different questions: Can scholars of Eastern European art and cultural history finally write past our antitropic tendencies? How to do so both in our methods and our choice of topics? How to do so without simply saying we are?

Deirdre M. Smith
Lecturer, Department of Art and Art History, The University of Texas at Austin