Space Shuttles, Art Colonies and Ever-Closed Museums of Belgrade

An Interview with Serbian Art Collective K42

Back in July 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting artists Tamara Miodragovic and Uros Stojiljkovic in Belgrade. The closure of many of Belgrade’s art museums was a subject we discussed in length (and had since been covered by the BBC). Below is the article that came out of our meeting.

In 1997, on her way back to Serbia from Italy, Tamara Miodragovic joked that K42, the art collective she founded with Uros Stomard Stojiljkovic, would one day be so successful it would fund the first Serbian space shuttle. Raise the profile of artists, raise some money, head off into space. Simple. Memorable.

However, with both the Belgrade Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum in Belgrade both closed with no signs of reopening, events have conspired to give K42 a more immediate practical purpose — raise awareness of the lack of art museums and exhibiting spaces in their home country.

“It’s true that K42 was started with the aim of raising the profile of local artists. We never thought we’d have to campaign for our own museums to be reopened,” says Miodragovic, “it’s a crazy situation. As a group of artists, we have more work on public display across Europe than in our own country.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art was closed in 2007, whilst the National Museum has been shut for over a decade. “My children are 14 and 9 years old. Neither of them have ever set foot in either of the museums,” notes a frustrated Stojiljkovic. Whole generations of Serbs are growing up without ever been exposed to art. And in a country that still bears the scars of war, they’re being denied access to a vital part of the recovery process.

As Miodragovic explains, “Art is about reconciliation. K42, all our initiatives, are about reconciliation, pulling people together, exchanging ideas, and showing the world we can work together. This is a critical moment for the Balkans, we must move on from the wars and bring people together”.

This strongly-held belief gave birth to their plans for an artists colony in the Adriatic sea just off the coast of Croatia. Pacing the room, Stojiljkovic punches his fist into his hand, “We are working here in Serbia, with ideas very similar to other artists in Kosovo, Croatia and Montenegro, but because of the politics, people are unwilling to understand that we share the same values. We can’t work together, which is stupid! So, send people there, work together and send a message of how they see the future. That’s the point of the colony. To show how it could be better.”

But first of all they must deal with the closures of the art museums in their native country, and here you see a more mischievous side. In their small shop space in Belgrade you will find hundreds of t-shirts for sale. T-shirts printed with their artwork. Tamara smiles, “if you cannot get in to see the art, we will help the art come to you. Everyone who buys a t-shirt becomes part of our museum — a walking, moving museum”

The collection in the National Museum currently held from public view contains pieces from Van Gogh and Picasso, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to think that putting this art on tour could well raise the money needed to complete the museum restorations. “It is not about the money, it is about the politics, it is about the will, or lack of it. It is frustrating,” says Stojiljkovic, adding with a laugh, “Corrupt politicians are being given medals of honour, but they don’t want to have art up in the city!”

Miodragovic warms to the theme, “Of course we are criticising some elements of society, as art has always done. But we do this with humour, not anger. We’re artists, we’re always putting our fingers in your eye — prodding, looking for a reaction. This is how art helps society to evolve, to change, to become better. This is what we’re trying to do. If you don’t improve society, then who cares how many bullshit medals you give out?”

K42 itself also feels like it is at a critical moment. More and more artists are joining the project, and it is becoming a fully-fledged artistic movement. It’s an open and accepting organisation. “Wherever you come from, you are welcome. Whatever background, beliefs, whatever. We all accept each others differences,” smiles Miodragovic, “Look. Perhaps we can raise the money to reopen the museums, perhaps we can raise awareness enough to force this issue. I hope so. But it is important we remember the people are more important than the buildings.”

So, what of the future? “We will continue to raise awareness of Serbian and Balkan artists, we will continue to raise awareness of the museums, and we will continue to push and prod. We’ll create our colony and show we can work together and, perhaps one day, we’ll even launch our own space shuttle. Although we’ll probably make it out of Lego.” She laughs at the very idea of it. Tamara Miodragovic flying off into space on a shuttle made of Lego bricks. Now that would be memorable.

“London Calling”, an exhibition of K42 artists, is showing at the Reading Room Gallery, 65-66 Frith Street in London, from 9th September to 4th October. For more information, please email gallery@readingroom.com