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Jim Lambie, installation view, 2007, Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade

‘I wish I were in their shoes,’ says Uros Djuric, echoing Adam Chodzko’s ‘M-Path (Belgrade Version)’, 2007. In the spirit of the Balkan ‘culture of complaint’, Djuric goes on to contemplate the shortage of support infrastructure for artists in Serbia. We talk while being bombarded by balls of all sizes from Wood and Harrison’s ‘The Only Other Point’, 2005 and ‘Notebook’, 2004. The balls appear as striking signifiers of lottery money and lucky draws for the arts in Britain.

Just-so stories about life cycles, cause and effect, improbability and accuracy, reminiscent of Fischli and Weiss’ earlier work ‘The Way Things Go’.

We are at the Salon, Old Belgrade’s outpost of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Novi Beograd, where Djuric recently exhibited. The Salon is showing Wood and Harrison’s video vignettes as part of Breaking Step, a comprehensive group exhibition of contemporary British art in Belgrade. Initiated by Caroline Douglas, and co-curated by the erudite and energetic trio Branislav Dimitrijevic, Sinisa Mitrovic and Jelena Vesic, Breaking Step is the culmination of four years of artists’ interventions, events and residencies in the city and beyond.

Humour and compassion, absurdity and ambiguity are the keys to understanding the impressive range of site-specific commissions. The dream-like ambience of Toby Paterson’s new paintings marks the artist’s encounter with the vernacular of modernism in and around Belgrade (from the perspective of his skateboard). With titles such as ‘Bank Lobby’, ‘Interchange Stairwell’, ‘In Blok 21’ and ‘Fountain’, this work reveals a sensibility for post-war socialist architecture ‘cast adrift in a society that has pronounced it a failure’. It also hints at the artist’s own mapping of the sprawling area of high-rise ‘bloks’. Arranged in a signature grid structure, his works are embedded in the fabric of the museum, itself a fine slice of modernity and a triumph of International Style over Socialist Brutalism. A tale of two rivers, the Danube and the Sava, and as many ideologies, the building was constructed in the 1960s as one of the first purpose-built art museums in the Balkans.

Belgrade’s urban space and recent turbulent history are also inscribed in Nathan Coley’s ‘Camouflage Bajrakli Mosque’, 2007. By creating sculptural scale models of such symbolic sites and places of worship, Coley poses questions about the meanings we invest in architecture. How, for example, can religious institutions reinvent their raison d’être? The re-creation of the artist’s acclaimed work, ‘There will be no miracles here’, 2007, continues his investigations into power and authority. The low-tech, fairground-like neon sculpture is sited in the park between the museum and another iconic modernist building constructed in the 1960s as Yugoslavia’s Communist Party HQ. Turned into a stronghold of the Milosevic regime, the building miraculously survived the Nato bombings in 1999 to become a business centre in the 2000s.

Phil Collins, probably the only honorary Belgrader amongst the artists in ‘Breaking Step’, speaks of ‘the massive joy and absolute privilege’ of showing in this city. His ‘free fotolab’, 2007 ‘germinated’ in the flea markets of Belgrade and among his refugee friends in London. It is a poignant reminder that, in exceptional emotional circumstances, photography could be our last resort but equally can terrify us. People are encouraged to donate old rolls of film, to be developed free of charge in exchange for the artist’s right to use the images as he sees fit. A public contract of an artwork, the death of 35mm colour film aesthetised, the photographic apparatus of representation demystified, or ‘a heartfelt yet troubled exchange’?

Both Mike Nelson and the artists’ collective Henry VIII’s Wives engage with iconic mo(nu)ments of European cultural heritage. Nelson constructs a tongue-in-cheek hall of mirrors around ‘Great Widow’, 1907—a heavy-weight sculpture from the museum collection by the prominent Yugoslav artist Ivan Mestrovic. Henry VIII’s Wives use Belgrade as the next stop en route to erect Vladimir Tatlin’s ‘Tower’, 1919. The artists fabricate life-size fragments from the centre of Tatlin’s visionary skyscraper. Dislocated in space and time, but united in the artists’ process-led intention, ‘Tatlin’s Tower and the World’, 2007 carries an air of abstract minimalism akin to Richard Serra’s large scale assemblies of sheet metal.

Cathy Wilkes and Jim Lambie also work within and in response to the generous space of the museum to create new room-sized installations. Their off-the-wall aesthetics are enhanced by multiple viewpoints from different levels in the museum and their own contrasting styles. Evoking the story of Jochabed, who bestowed her baby to the waters of the Nile, Wilkes’ work is a sensual visualisation of invisible labour and corporeal routines. Here, the body is implicated as an intuitive and intellectual battleground, while repetition is a virtue. This allows her work to grow organically from earlier installations such as ‘She is Pregnant Again’, 2005 by reinvigorating found objects, paintings and handcrafted things.

For Lambie, continuity, expectation and freedom merge to inform his often ‘smart and grotesque faux-modernist abstractions’. His new floor-painting, laid in ubiquitous duct tape, assumes black and white op art charisma—a giant canvas hosting found objects in an explosion of colour, shapes and textures. Notable is the recurrent motif of the mattress stuck on the wall, and covered with dripping blood-red paint: perhaps an implicit reverence to Mladen Stilinovic’s performative work ‘Buried Pain’, 2000—where the burial of mattresses raises a chuckle and defies the popular perception of the Balkans as synonymous with chaos and heartache.

Iliyana Nedkova is a writer and curator working on projects in Edinburgh and Sofia