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Between (Yugo)Nostalgia and Utopia

Nostalgia for the past often mixed with the utopian memory of a socialist society constitutes a modern cultural current. It is now Serbia’s turn to remember the cult items which have coloured its recent past.

July 18, 2013 - Biljana Purić - Articles and Commentary

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Serbian scholar Biljana Purić reviews Živeo Život – Međunarodna izložba lepog života od ’50 do ’90 godine (Long Live Life – International Exhibition of Good Life from the 1950s till 90’s in Yugoslavia), an exhibition in Belgrade representing everyday life in the former Yugoslavia, open to visitors until July 31st 2013.

Staged amidst Belgrade’s central shopping street, Knez Mihajlova, in the vacant department store of the RK “Beograd” trading company, the exhibition Živeo Život (which translates as Long Live Life in English) opens a view on the past that is today somewhat nostalgically recalled in the former Yugoslav republics. Calling its visitors to “Experience the spirit of the old good times!” the exhibition stretches over three floors of the former shopping centre, featuring a variety of subjects that engage the viewer’s senses: from video projections of the famous events and protagonists who made Yugoslav history, through the plethora of commercial and industrial designs with which the viewers can interact, such as timeworn toys, furniture and uniforms, to auditory and aromatic reminiscences of famous radio and TV jingles, and the favourite scents and perfumes of Yugoslavians.

Instead of showcasing the art from the period that it roughly covers, 1950-1990, the interactive and multimedia exhibition is organised around the everyday, i.e. objects, sounds and aromas that comprised the life of an average Yugoslavian. Therefore, on the ground floor the viewers can flip through the newspapers and magazines that were published during the Yugoslav period in a special newspaper booth created for this purpose, or observe the changes in fashion trends as different signature garments from each decade – such as Startas sneakers – are neatly displayed on the walls around the gallery space. A small cinema showing several videos divided into topics such as sport, music, work, film and education in the former Yugoslavia together with the Yugoslavians’ most popular and widely-used cars and motorbikes are also part of this arrangement, offering the viewers a better understanding of how everyday life was lived in Yugoslavia, or how Belgrade looked a couple of decades ago (a video ride through the city is screened on the windshield of one of the cars on display).

Authentic school and gym equipment, popular food (Plazma biscuits, Cockta, Euroblock chocolate), furniture brands, and descriptions of industrial advances find their place as part of this exhibition as well, in the upper floors of the gallery space. Visitors can read about famous sport personalities from the text panels on the walls, trace the development of Yugoslav music scene or learn about transportation companies that operated and still operate in this region, such as JAT airways. Popular beers with a peculiar print of an icon of Christ on one of the labels (Christmas Beer), as well as containers of favourite ice-creams of the previous generations are neatly displayed within the glass exhibition stands. It is also possible to have an “aromatic time travel”, as a special container filled with different familiar scents such as bread from bakery, various trendy perfumes and popular aftershave “Brion”, are also available for the visitors’ curiosity.

Starting from the premise that the times gone by were inherently good, the exhibition opens up not just a simple view into the past of the Yugoslav era, but also provokes significant questions of how this past is used and appropriated in contemporary discourses. Decidedly focused on commercial and popular aspects of the country’s burgeoning industrialism, and situated within the former shopping centre, the exhibition doesn’t present an intricate social commentary on the past but instead inadvertently accentuates its congruence with the new neoliberal agenda, currently implemented in the region with varying success.

By showcasing that everyday life in the former Yugoslavia didn’t lack the consumerist aspect, and that socialist past can equally compete with the present consumerist systems and ideologies, Long Live Life establishes not just a nostalgic view into what existed before, but also (re)constructs a utopian world of a good life that could possibly work even within these changed conditions.

In the exhibition brochure printed by NIN magazine, “Yugonostalgia” is defined as nostalgia for something that was unique and authentic, which is now missing from the cultural realities of the former Yugoslav republics. However, this look back, as it fails to offer a more self reflexive and critical approach to the present day, invokes a utopian vision of the “good old times” that the region is currently struggling to accommodate. Instead of developing a more structured dialogue with the past, that could possibly work towards defining the existing differences in a reflexive engagement with the unitary Yugoslav identity, the exhibition presents its viewers an ideal society through its relics found in mostly commercial objects. This circumscribed view into the idealised past reflects its problematic use in current political discussions where two positions are usually crystallised: the Yugoslav past is either entirely rejected and observed as something imposed, or nostalgically recalled and idealised.

As Mihajlo Pantić, a professor from the Faculty of Philology in Belgrade states: “The problem arises when the past is given a psychological priority, or every other sort of it, and when it is manipulated with.” In the exhibition Long Live Life, the past is not manipulated with, but is rather left to grapple with the commercial products that may speak to new audiences through the aura of the never-experienced (commercialised) past or to the older viewers who can finally freely situate their Yugoslav experience within a safe framework of consumerism that does not provoke deeper political reflections.

Biljana Purić holds master’s degrees in Film Aesthetics from the University of Oxford, and Gender Studies from the Central European University. She previously worked as media lab assistant at CEU and has been actively involved in film and art teaching and scholarship both in Serbia and abroad.

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