Creative Global Network for the Visual Arts

Srebenica, 1996. Mixed materials. Installation at Kulkælderen/Kulturland, Aalborg, autumn 1996.

Working with national romanticism. Seeking out, drawing and discussing local images. Folk culture and nationality in relation to unconscious internationalization, expressed in drawings, a 5.5 m. tall sculpture and ten large clay vessels among other materials.

When Yugoslavia broke into violent ethnic clashes in the first half of the 1990’s, nationalism came to be viewed from a completely new perspective in the global community. I was also emotionally affected by it. In the early summer of 1995, UN guaranteed that the small town of Srebenica would act as a ‘safe zone’ and sanctuary region. A small group of Dutch UN-soldiers were there to guarantee safety, and thousands of people sought refuge there. They were mainly fugitives from the surrounding villages that were now almost emptied of Muslims. The place was crammed with tens of thousands of fugitives comprised of men, women and children. Many Bosnian men, still armed, had also shown up there. When these armed men put down their weapons, they were lured into a trap - They thought they were surrendering themselves to the UN.

Muslim women and children were driven out of the area in busses. The men on the other hand were driven into the surrounding forests and massacred. The butchers were soldiers from one of the other ethnic groups of the area. In this massacre two-three times as many people were killed, as those who were killed on September 11th 2001 in New York. But there are not many photographs from Srebenica, and few of them are good. Few pictures will ever be as emotionally effective as those from 9/11.

The awful message that may be deduced from what happened in Srebenica is that Europe could not - or would not - protect its own Muslims. This message has had a large and devastating significance for later developments in history. This massacre took place in the first weeks of July 1995. At that time I was on holiday in the north of France with my family. I have many happy family pictures from Disneyland Paris that were taken on one of the worst days in Srebenica. It was a very unreal experience to return home and find newspapers recounting this incident. Even I had lived in the false hope that war would never again break out in Europe. In the early summer of 1996 mass graves were dug out and the extent of the massacre was revealed to the world at its full length. This became the theme that I brought to the exhibition Kulturland in the Nordkraft building in Aalborg. I chose to work in the coal cellar; a raw, dirty room, that I ornamented using a tapestry of my own graphic art and drawings. It was a deconstruction in which I destroyed examples from the art that I had been occupied with up until that point.

In the process I realized that my own language was too poor and useless for the story I wanted to express. Rural Denmark, local culture and discussions of identity had taken up a lot of space in my practice thus far, and was no longer neither useful, nor pleasant. Not in the wake of Srebenica. Now it was clear to me what powers might be hidden within these topics – how dreadful the consequences could be if you were too self-obsessed.

A new language was necessary. This necessity ultimately led me to discard the draft I had initially used to base my work on. Image was not enough anymore. This called for the use of words, so I painted the name Srebenica over one picture frame, and on the other a mirrored note of a lithography by Honoré Daumier. It is a caricature depicting “Europe” personified by a women dealing out weapons to people of multiple ethnicities and nationalities. It is implied that these people could kill each other. Daumier’s lithography is from 1868. Outside the Europe-figure I painted the words “Never again war in Europe”.

The way I see it today, this was a necessary deconstruction. To me it was a cleansing and an expurgation - a way of getting rid of everything which was superfluous. Now there was room for a new beginning: A modern language with which I could express the stories that I wanted people to hear. In this perspective the Srebenica installation may be viewed as the basis of my art production in the following years.

Gorm Spaabæk
January 12nd 2012
Dronninglund, Denmark
(Translated March 2013)

Photos of Srebenica installation

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