It rarely happens that I am transfixed by art, however almost two decades ago, I could not stop staring at very haunting painting of Santa Clause on a morgue table, and portraits of children, blankly looking at me while sitting uncomfortably, scantily clad, in a slaughterhouse-like setting.
I was in one of the public art galleries in Central Belgrade, which, as galleries around the world tend to, normally showed very underwhelming contemporary pieces (trash strewn around only explained in an arcane curatorial text, “personal stories”, bland abstract art, etc.) which I would barely notice by artists whose names I did not even intend to remember. That time, however, I took out a notebook and wrote the name of the person who painted these: Biljana Đurđević.
In the coming years I occasionally googled Ms Đurđević’s name to see how she was getting on. Thankfully, she was doing very well it seemed, and, as a snob, I was happy to see my taste vindicated and a youngish fellow Serb making it big in a competitive, weird field. However, a few years ago, browsing Twitter, I was led to believe that the art that impressed me so much as a pretentious arty teenager, was Satanic, paedophilic and beloved by a cabal of people ruling the world.
The thing, of course, was that in the heyday of QAnon and Pizzagate, it turned out I share taste for somewhat disturbing contemporary art with Tony Podesta, a powerful DC lobbyist who, according to the worldview of people who believe that QAnon and Pizzagate are real, is member of the said cabal. To make this even more amusing, Podesta and his brother, John, were also friendly with another Serbian art super star, Marina Abramović, whose intense, often macabre performances and hijinks I also tend to like, or at least appreciate (more on why I think she is awesome here).
These allegations, along with Đurđević’s art works, pass my Twitter feed every few months, whenever there is some strange scandal with the US elite. The last time I saw them was in conjunction with the Balenciaga allegedly pro-paedophilic, but certainly edgy photoshoot which had children carrying teddy bears in bondage gear and with references to things from QAnon canon (Phoenician deities which required child sacrifice, paedophilia lawsuits etc.). This cycle of (understandable, but overblown) outrage was followed by inclusion of another Eastern European female artist into the “coven” of strange evil women corrupting the west. Lotta Volkova, a native of Novosibirsk with an edgy aesthetic and the stylist for Balenciaga, is now the new hot topic with her gothy photoshoots joining Abramović’s and Đurđević’s risqué works.
If you were hoping that now I will go down the rabbit hole of trying to explain their exact roles in adrenochrome harvesting and blood orgies, you will be disappointed. I also won’t ridicule the Pizzagate and Qanon fans and show how absurd their claims are, or how they tend to be misogynistic and xenophobic, especially as those opposing them were very happy to slander another successful ex-Yugoslav, Melania Trump, as maybe not Satanic, but certainly dark and nefarious actor, based on similar prejudice and lack of knowledge.
I will deal with something more depressing: the tendency for Eastern European (and in general non-Western) creatives to be pushed into, and push themselves into the cottage industry of outrage porn and all the horrors this entails.
Indeed, a few short years after noticing Ms Đurđević’s work, I realised that presenting yourself and your (Eastern European) country in the most outlandish ways gives you clout in the West. In those post-Borat years, I did it as a gag at Uni, testing my English friends’ credulity for fun. I also found it boring to have to prove myself as normal decent person when asked questions such as “Do you hate Albanians?”, “Are your parents in the mafia?” or the ones where I had to take a stance on any of the many complicated and dreadful events in my region (we all have them, you know), while I just wanted to make small talk.
I was far from alone: many of my fellow Eastern Europeans used their “exoticism” to their benefit even more.
More honest ones would sell their alleged ties to important people in their country to get girls, land cool jobs and maybe lure greedy but dumb into various investment schemes. The truly sleazy ones would build whole academic, journalistic, artistic and activist careers on basically selling whatever was expected of them, and what was expected was reducing their whole countries and nations to either the stereotype of brutish evil degenerates or saintly perma-victims with no agency. The latter entails strip-mining whole histories, cultures and most awfully, tragic personal experiences of people they know, to produce buzzy content to placate the infinite need for the West to have its evil degenerate counterpart in Eastern Europe.
Having decided to be somewhat of a creative, I quickly realised that the content that sells the best in the prestige western media is the same that sold as good banter at Uni: basically outrage and poverty porn, as they are the recognisable “hooks” for allegedly educated readers. You can either write about awful brutish locals, brave people defying expectations that they are awful brutish locals and, finally, people that were victimised by awful brutish locals. While you can play with complicated, stories about identity, history and culture as a Westerner, as an East European that is too complicated and alienating, so you stick with the outrage cottage industry if you want to make it big.
Thus some, like Volkova and Abramović play up the bizarreness, while others, like Đurđević, end up caught in it.
To her utmost credit, Đurđević never tried to link her paintings to the typical drab political messages like most globally renowned artists from the Balkans tend to peddle their banal works using politics (it’s about the waaaar!, it’s about the state of (marginalised group)! etc.) . Indeed, in many of her interviews that her haunting paintings are basically based on her personal sensibilities, and reflections on the world as a whole where she sees us as both victims and oppressors. Still, I cannot imagine that part of the allure of her art for Podestas (and similar circles) was not that here you had a woman artist (awesome) from an exotic, troubled country (wow) painting suffering (cool) that can be made into a cocktail anecdote showing off your knowledge of a brutal conflict that was in the news (ka-ching!). Had Đurđević been of a more sunny, optimistic temperament, depicting, say, the beauty of Balkan countryside, one can wonder if that would have worked, given her origin.
While this does get your a foot in the door, and maybe a good career (Abramović, Volkova and Đurđević have truly made it by global standards), it never erases the stain of being from Eastern Europe, and thus there is always a risk of the ambient popular paranoia and disaffection to be directed at you, as it did now with QAnon extended universe.
What I think struck me the most seeing Đurđević’s paintings as a teenager is that they convey the sense of brutal disillusionment and ambient horror at some aspects of the world, the feelings that you only start becoming aware of, at that age. That is universal and has less to do with excesses of elite paedophiles and blood orgies, than with understanding how things really work on the most banal level. Sadly, however, seeing Đurđević’s case it seems is much easier for most to stomach that you are a proponent of elite paedophilia (or a victim of paedophile cabal, or whatever macabre), especially if you are from somewhere like Serbia, than an artist with a unique, deep vision who wants to show how they see the world, unflinchingly.