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Next Year in Sarajevo

I wasn’t in Sarajevo during the war; I also wasn’t here for its recent twentieth anniversary. A host of international journalists did return, and witnessed first-hand a very simple, devastating demonstration, staged by the theater director Haris Pasović, as testimony to the years of the Sarajevo siege. 11,541 empty red chairs, many of them child-sized, were placed as a barricade on the main artery, Marshall Tito Street, from the eternal flame memorial down to the city’s central park ( No one needed to ask what they symbolized.

Bosnians have a saying about the war, that “if you were here, we have nothing to talk about, and if you weren’t here, then we have nothing to talk about.” I’m certainly one of the latter (those who will never know what it was like), but frankly, since I came back a few days ago, I’ve been having more trouble understanding the post-conflict period than I do the war years.

Sarajevo today is a patchwork of some beautifully restored buildings, some war ruins, some new housing projects and many older ones, a lively Old Town market area that seemingly lacks for nothing, a few foreign-funded mosques, and a rather dizzying number of large, new, mirrored-glass shopping centers. Along with an incomprehensible and shameful neglect of the country’s cultural institutions. Sarajevo’s National Gallery is closed, as is its National Museum, home to the miraculous Haggadah, a 16th-century illustrated manuscript relating the story of the Jewish Passover. The history of how this beautiful book managed to survive each of the city’s devastating wars has been told many times.

Sarajevo’s heroic resistance to the barbarity of the recent conflict has also been frequently told. Those were years when the whole world was watching, and largely fiddling away while the city slowly went up in flames. Repairs to the National Library, rumor has it, may finally be finished next year, though how it could take this long is difficult to fathom. Resistance during the siege years was artistic as well as military; famously, there were hundreds of performances in Sarajevo’s theaters, and there were concerts, art exhibitions, even fashion shows. The Sarajevo Film Festival, perhaps the sole exception to the country’s current self-managed siege against its own cultural institutions, also began during the war years. For the French theorist Georges Bataille, any art that is truly serious is a form of sacrifice; few times in history could this have been as literally true as in Sarajevo from 1992-95. And it is important to recall as well that this cultural uprising was a collective response: those concerts, plays, and exhibitions drew audiences, and the mortal risk to attend was no less than that of performing. The FAMA artist group summed it all up in a memorable phrase: “The beseiged city defends itself by culture and thus survives.

And yet today one has to wonder again whether culture in Bosnia-Hercegovina’s capital city will survive at all. The bestevidence for this melodramatic-sounding claim is the incomprehensible paralysis of the Ars Aevi project. Ars Aevi is a stunning contemporary art collection, with works from artists of the caliber of Michelangelo Pistoletto, Cindy Sherman, Joseph Beuys, Nan Goldin, Joseph Kosuth, as well as many major artists from the former Yugoslavia. Each of these works was donated to the people of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and, as such, they now form part of the country’s national patrimony. Yet for more than a decade, the collection has had only temporary housing, despite the fact that the internationally-renowned architect Renzo Piano—responsible for Paris’s Pompidou Center, New York’s Morgan Library addition, and the Paul Klee Museum in Bern, among many, many other historic structures—has offered his designs for the new museum to the city at a bargain-basement price. What’s more, Maestro Piano has already given a bridge gratis; it now spans Sarajevo’s central river, bridging the former frontlines, leading to the proposed site for the museum. Not long ago, Enver Hadžiosmerpahić, head of the Ars Aevi project since its very inception, staged a dramatic series of protests across Sarajevo to publicize the stalemate, and still got nowhere.

During the war years, one of Bosnia’s most beloved poets, Izet Sarajlić, penned these poignant lines:

To survive all this,   
besides poetry,    
ten or fifteen people helped me,  
the common,   
saintly people of Sarajevo,   
those I hardly knew before the war.  

The State also demonstrated  
a certain understanding   
for my troubles,    
but every time    
I’d knock on its door,   
it was away –     
in Geneva or    
in New York.

One has to wonder whether, changed as it is today, those “common, saintly people” of Sarajevo will still rise up again in the name of cultural survival. One also wonders if those who have yet to give Ars Aevi a real home have any sense of history. Or of shame.

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