Down the road a piece from the TOL office is a hilltop park offering nice views of Prague, a large children’s playground and, most days, dozens of dogs romping with their owners. Some centuries ago a gibbet stood at the point with the best view of old Prague; the most unusual features of the park now are two or three concrete machine-gun nests, the only visual hint that once, an object deemed of great importance lay under the hill. This was one of the complexes built to shelter communist notables in case of nuclear war. I once walked for what seemed like hundreds of yards through the underground corridors on my way to interview an American DJ spinning records for an English-language FM radio station which, bizarrely, had its studios here in the early 1990s. This relatively modest bunker complex pales in comparison to ARK (Atomic War Command), the vast installation near the Bosnian town of Konjic, built between the ’50s and ’70s at a reported cost of $4 billion as a nuclear shelter for the Yugoslav political elite. The very existence of the facility was a secret until after the breakup of Yugoslavia. One of the lovingly preserved rooms is pictured on this page. Now what organizers are calling the first “Time Machine Biennial” of art is on display, until 27 September.
Named No Network – for the absence of a mobile phone signal in the underground complex and more generally for the sense of physical and psychological isolation there, making the place “a space of anxious reflection rather than a space of unhindered communication” – the show is rather unusual not only for the site. Visitors are allowed only on organized tours three times a week, and are led through the show by Bosnian soldiers. Among the 45 contributors, their works scattered throughout a maze of corridors, meeting rooms, dormitories, and service areas for departed dignitaries, are artists from many nations, which a slight preponderance of “Yugoslavs.”
Several contributors reflect on the nature of the space itself. Raša Todosijević, a Belgrade-born conceptual artist, writes, “The very idea of holding an art exhibition in the bowels of an ideological concept inspired by the heartless self-sufficiency of the primitive ruling clique – and the nuclear shelter in Konjic certainly fits this description – goes against common sense and higher moral values. No one has the right to blur or relativize traces of madness.” Todosijević’s piece in the show consists of two wooden chairs mounted on a wall with two buckets and some pot lids on the floor.
The show draws on the work of previous investigations into the use of bunkers in art, including the work of the Turkish-Finnish-Swedish Bunker Research Group in the infamous Albanian bunker system. The Turkish artist Hüseyin Alptekin of the Bunker Research Group is represented posthumously in Konjic with a series of photographs, Melancholia in Arcadia; he died in 2007, having written, “Bunkers are innocent today; they are there as urban ornamentation of the survey of history and presence. They stimulate me to open up some visual debates in relationship with social, political, cultural, individual, sexual connotations within con¬temporary directions in the context of local/global conflict and universal cognition.”
In her New York Times piece on the show, Ginanne Brownell describes several of the works on display. Mladen Miljanović’s installation refers to the day he was sworn in to the Yugoslav army. “In a corner of a room near the entrance to the bunker are a table, a chair, a helmet and a giant poster of the artist – whose body is partly erased – in his military uniform accompanied by his parents.”
The work by Estonian artist Villu Jaanisoo (below) consists of “hundreds of long utility lights that hang from the ceiling in one of the maintenance rooms, [and] takes advantage not only of the physical but also of the olfactory aspects of the room, which is filled with industrial tanks reeking of fuel oil,” Brownell writes.