IHT/New York Times: A Sarajevo Bunker Takes on New Life as Art Museum


(Originally published in IHT/New York Times on 5 August 2011)

The Yugoslav Army would have been hard pressed to find a more scenic spot to build a nuclear bunker.

Originally begun in the 1950s and completed in the late 1970s, the bunker — which cost over $4.6 billion — was intended to be used as a shelter for the Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito and 350 elites of the Yugoslav Army in case of a nuclear attack. Located an hour from Sarajevo, near the central Herzegovinian town of Konjic, the bunker is built into the green and lush hillside overlooking the tumbling Nevetra River and is surrounded by conifer peaks and valleys.

The locale and existence of the bunker remained top secret during and even after the wars that broke up Yugoslavia and very few people outside of the military were allowed into the Cold War relic — until now.

Thanks to the efforts of several artists, curators and art enthusiasts, the bunker is getting a new lease on life. Since May the bunker has been open to the public for the contemporary art exhibition “No Network: 1st Time Machine Biennial,” a mainly site-specific project exhibiting 44 artists from 17 countries that runs until Sept. 27. Edo Hozic, the director of the show, hopes that D-0 ARK (Atomic War Command) Underground, the overall name of the bunker complex, will become a permanent museum for contemporary art.

“I think this is the most expensive museum ever built in human history,” he joked. “The options were that we could close the bunker or we could do like the Egyptians did with the Pyramids or the Chinese with the Great Wall, to somehow preserve the bunker and by putting art works inside, we can create an even more interesting space.”

The idea for the show grew out of a visit that Mr. Hozic and Jusuf Hadzifejzovic, a Sarajevo-based artist, made to Konjic three years ago.

“We went to Konjic to work on a small art exhibition and were told about the bunker,” Mr. Hozic said. “Then the idea came to make a little bit more of connections between these countries of the ex-Yugoslavia and also in the region.”

Mr. Hozic said that to organize the show more than 500 meetings took place with the local government, the Ministry of Defense (which is still in charge of the bunker but has plans to decommission the site in the future), governments from across the ex-Yugoslav region and several European and international governmental bodies.

It was also felt that it was important to choose curators from Serbia and Montenegro to give the biennial a more regional feel, so once Petar Cukovic from Montenegro and Branislav Dimitrijevic from Serbia were on board, the creative component of the exhibition began to take shape.

That atmosphere was focused not only on the physical space of the bunker but also what the bunker had meant historically as well as symbolically to Yugoslavia and within the wider constructs of the Cold War.

“The real perversion is that they built something over the decades that was expensive, that was sheltering, that was stable enough to survive an atomic war,” said Marko Lucic, a Vienna-based artist of Serbian and Croatian descent. “But then a civil war happened from within, which was something an expensive shelter could not help them escape from.”

Mr. Lucic said his work “Istambul/Istanbul,” which is located on the outside of the bunker and maps out several hidden structures that were scattered across Yugoslavia during the Cold War, is an attempt to figuratively excavate these modernist structures. Meanwhile the Estonian artist Villu Jaanisoo’s installation piece “Fog is a Cloud that is Related to Land,” made up of hundreds of long utility lights that hang from the ceiling, takes advantage not only of the physical but also the olfactory aspects of the room, which is filled with industrial tanks reeking of fuel oil.

“This space already has these sensations,” said Mr. Dimitrijevic. “My first reaction was that it was stupid to make an art show here because it is such an amazing place, how could you add to it? But after a few visits I saw how all these smells and sounds can help create the exhibition.”

The show, of course, also tackles the region’s more recent past. Mladen Miljanovic, who lives in Banja Luka, details in his video and installation piece the day he took his military oath. In a corner of the room are a table, a chair, a helmet and a giant poster of the artist — whose body is partially erased — in his military uniform and his parents. A video loop shows the send-off party for Mr. Miljanovic as he was heading off for national service.

Another powerful installation is by another Bosnian artist, Radenko Milak, who has painted a series of exact replicas of the American photojournalist Ron Haviv’s famous photograph of a soldier kicking a woman at the beginning of the war in Bijeljina. Mr. Milak’s piece calls into question the power of the media and what responsibility a journalist has when bearing witness to the horrors of war.

There have been logistical problems. Bosnian army solders based at the bunker have been charged with taking visitors around, meaning that anyone who wants to stop and reflect a bit longer over a piece can get left behind in the echoing corridors. It is also difficult to find information because the local tourist authority in Konjic sets the tour times and organizes transport to the bunker, and it does not have a Web site.

Mr. Lucic, however, said it was amazing that the project happened at all.

“I think one should not forget it is still a military complex,” he said. “That is the advantage and disadvantage of a country in transition. It’s chaotic but then maybe it’s easier to do a show like this than in a more regulated country. You could never do a biennial in Fort Knox.”

Mr. Hozic said the plans to create a permanent contemporary art museum inside the bunker would allow many of the pieces in the current show to make up part of the collection. If it does happen, it will be a good addition to the contemporary art scene in nearby Sarajevo, which is struggling to survive.

Currently in the Bosnian capital there are no commercial galleries that promote high-end contemporary art and there is no art market per se. There is great hope that things could change when the Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art (the name is a partial anagram for Sarajevo) opens in 2014.

The original idea for the museum dates back to 1992 when the city was under siege and the plan was to build a collection of contemporary art from across the globe. Since that time, the founders have forged strong relations with several museums across Europe and have received donations of pieces from artists like Marina Abramovich, Anish Kapoor and Joseph Beuys.

At the moment the collection is housed in a temporary space and is opened up only by appointment but it is hoped that construction on a building designed by Renzo Piano will begin in earnest next year.