By Maja Nedelkovska
As the government-sponsored facelift of the Macedonian capital, dubbed Skopje 2014, gains new additions almost every month, it is drawing increasingly vocal criticism from the outside world.
Foreign experts often mock the revamp or compare the effects to those of Disneyland. Many question its architectural and aesthetic values and find its politically imposed obsessions with the artistic styles of Classical Antiquity anachronistic.
Back at home, however, artists, architects and city planners seem strangely reluctant to raise their voices.
One possible explanation for this critical silence is that many are engaged in projects connected to the costly makeover that pay their bills.
Architect Vangel Bozinovski, author of the “Memorial House of Mother Teresa”, one of the most controversial additions to Skopje 2014, insists there is no enforced culture of silence.
“Artists can freely say what they want [about Skopje 2014],” he says. “Criticism also means affirmation.”
Bozinovski adds that the revamp, which incorporates dozens of new buildings as well as statues, fountains, bridges, a triumphal arch and an obelisk, is “carrying out the long-term desires of Macedonians”, and that “the people are loving it”.
Valentina Karanfilova Stevanovska, author of Skopje 2014’s most famous statue, the 20-metre-high equestrian statue of Alexander the Great, also rubbishes the idea that artists are afraid to speak out, suggesting that, like herself, many simply are not interested in politicised debates.
“I’m an artist and have never been interested in politics. I create artworks and, as an artist, am totally incompetent to talk about politics,” she told Balkan Insight.
“This project gave us a chance to show our qualities and we’re happy that our works will leave their marks on time,” she added.
Meanwhile artist Aleksandar Stankoski, who is well known for his criticisms of former Yugoslavia, and of Macedonia’s NATO and Europe aspirations, stands up for aspects of Skopje 2014.
“I’m not part of the project but those that are, are recognized by the government as the best in their fields,” he said.
“It’s unprofessional to say that politics and their employment [prospects] are affecting artists,” Stankoski added.
He said it was wrong to connect the debate – or lack of it – over the aesthetics of the project to political influence and artists’ own circumstances.
“Art goes beyond political polarization; it is historical, not political. It is wrong to put it into a political mould,” he said.
Culture expert Robert Alagjozovski says many artists face a dilemma.
“On one hand their profession is finally getting its recognition and they’re earning big salaries, but on the other hand, their talent has to make compromises with kitschy political orders,” he said.
“Caught between the hammer and the anvil, they’d rather stay silent,” he added.
Alagjozovski explains that “artists are careful about the hand that feeds them. They don’t have any interest in biting it.”
Meanwhile he believes the government is becoming ever more authoritarian.
“For those willing to think in those norms it will go well,” he predicted. “For all the others who have their own focuses and concerns, it is going to be difficult.”
Not everyone is keeping silent however.
Matej Bogdanovski is one of the few artists to have publicly opposed Skopje 2014. He blames apathy and a weak tradition of politically engaged art in Macedonia for the fact that, as he sees it, most artists have succumbed to the influence of the ruling centre-right VMRO DPMNE party.
“In our tradition, engaged art barely exists. To create engaged art, you have to have strong attitude, courage and creativity,” Bogdanovski said.
He believes the artistic community’s lack of initiative reflects a broader apathy in society as a whole.
“They are passive and can’t feel what is going on around them. It is as if the devastation of the city is not such a big deal for them. They see themselves as ‘only artists,’” he added.
Bogdanovski’s own collection “Skopje – rados ti ke bides,” (“Skopje- you will shine with joy”) has won popularity among critics of the government project.
“It was an instinctive and spontaneous reaction to the huge wave of absurdity and craziness covering my hometown,” he recalled.
“When you see that the monster is too big, all you can do is scream, not because of fear but because you are angry. I screamed ‘Skopje-rados ti ke bides!’,” Bogdanovski added.
“But the wave has swept over us all and today we’re all swimming in a murky swamp full of Baroque facades, Antique columns, Classicism, warriors, horses, bronze, marble, a glorious past, an undefined future… while the world is laughing,” he continued.
Architect and Professor Miroslav Grcev is another trenchant critic of Skopje 2014. His says most artists have kept quiet because the country is sliding into a kind of one-party dictatorship.
“The assumption that Macedonia is a democratic society is totally wrong. Our society is becoming a quiet and soft dictatorship,” he said. “Institutions are there only to execute one political will.”
Grcev argues that not only artists but lawyers and judges, engineers, doctors, professors have also been silenced.
“They [the authorities] use the same techniques when they need to subdue people, corrupting those who have no moral problems and making them their servants.
“Then they destroy those that oppose them. They keep the majority in fear, with the threat: if you keep silent, you won’t be hurt,” he said.
“Only a few who remain unstained raise their voice against this, while the majority is patient, and silently waits for better times,” he added. “This is natural behavior in a totalitarian social system!”
He fears that some foreign artists can see what is going on in Macedonia much more clearly than most people at home can do.
“Mario Botta, one of the greatest living architects, visited Skopje recently and told me, concerned and impassioned, that the buildings in the city centre were ‘a sign that something terrible is happening in Macedonian society’,” Grcev recalled.
This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.