Nine Dragon Heads at the SarajevoWinter2006

The Sarajevo Winter Festival (Sarajevska Zima) has been running continuously since 1984, when it was founded as an adjunct event to the Sarajevo Winter Olympics.  It has continued every year, including during the war, which began on April 6th 1992, when Serb militants opened fire on thousands of peace demonstrators in Sarajevo, killing at least five and wounding 30.  The siege continued until October 1995, the longest city siege in history.   We heard stories of people ducking sniper fire on their way to festival venues.  There are bullet holes in Festival Director Ibrahim Spahic’s office walls; shrapnel in his head, we were told. With this history of incredible defiance and commitment, Sarajevo’s annual arts, jazz and film festivals are now some of the major cultural events in Eastern Europe.

Artists from throughout the world travel there to participate, and to enjoy the warm hospitality of the people of Sarajevo.  At the same time, visitors new to this pretty city observe evidences of ravages of war.  They no longer experience what Susan Sontag described when she directed Waiting for Godot at the fetsival: ‘Bombs went off, bullets flew past my head.... There was no food, no electricity, no running water, no mail, no telephone, day after day, week after week, month after month.’   Sontag explains that the continuance of arts activities during the war as a ‘serious expression of normality’.  Evidence and stories of those hardships, and worse, still abound. In the very first hour of one’s visit, one sees that this is a city of new cemeteries. Pristine white marble tombstones are present everywhere one looks, in areas that were once the city’s parks.

Postcard 1abelled ‘1992 Sarajevo 2002’.  Purchased in Sarajevo.

This is indeed sobering for the visitor from a distant place; visitors who knew about the genocide, because they saw it on television. That mass exposure did not mean the world could stop it.  In our distant countries we saw scenes of Europeans starving behind barbed wire, disturbingly like 1945 all over again. The dreadful term ‘ethnic cleansing’ entered everyday language.

For artists attending the winter arts festival in February 2006, the highly apparent physical residues of war on the cityscape – the cemeteries, bullet holes in the facades of buildings, demolition sites, even postcards of war scenes -  were a raw and immediate form of consciousness-raising


The 2006 official Sarajevska Zima catalogue was in excess of 200 pages, indicating the vast scale and range of this event: musical theatre, puppeteers, photographers, musicians, singers, dancers, video installations, tableau vivant, city illuminations, events for children. Nine Dragon Heads was just one group of the many who participated in the festival in 2006. 

Nine Dragon Heads is a changing group of artists, co-ordinated by Park Byoung Uk (Korea) The emphasis in this group is on the internationalism of their work; for most of this group, it would be difficult to identity their country of origin by their work.

The 2006 Nine Dragon Heads group included artists from places as diverse as Bosnia-Herzogovnia, Turkey, Japan, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Switzerland and Norfolk Island. All of these artists have traveled and worked in various countries; their work is documented in a wide range of international texts. Most have websites featuring their work. There has never been a time in history when artists could be as international.

Artists in the city – creating spectacles

Nine Dragon Heads held their exhibition at the Turkish Cultural Centre on Mula Mustafe Baseskije for one week, February 8th - 14th 2006.  For some of the artists, their work in this show was their sole outing at this festival. 

Joung-Hye Yoo (Korea) created a wall installation of small colorful raffia flower-like pieces in bright orange and yellow: a radiant blossoming of nature/ culture from elsewhere, flourishing in the bleak Sarajevo winter. 


Bedri Baykem’s (Turkey) photographs of himself as Natural Man crawling naked amongst beach debris on a lake edge in Korea also recalled another place and climate, far away. His work could be read as comment on the anti-conservation ‘achievements’ of human evolution.

Ichi Ikeda (Japan) reiterated this theme in his political and environmental concerns for water preservation. His work is famous for its elegant depiction of water as a fragile consumable: a natural resource that has become a commodity.  Here he exhibited a wall montage of large black and white photographs of water running through the hands of people trying, impossibly,  to hold it; and an installation of soil, tubing and fresh water, referring to the depletion of this precious life source.    His work invites not just reflection, but also urgent political action to ensure its future availability.

In a different vein, Jusuf Hadzifejzovic (Bosnia -Herzogovnia) presented a performance about escape from darkness: the confined body blinded by its enclosure – a colorful plastic bag – and forced to poke its way out into the light.  The drama of this piece’s reference to imprisonment was poignant expression of the conditions the citizens of this country endured during the war: under siege in their own homes, wondering when and how there could possibly be a way out.

At the same time the materiality of this work – a simple plastic bag - pointed to the everyday nature of the scope for such enclosing of people:  high-end technology is not necessary for extreme cruelty.  (We recall the use of simple box-cutters as lethal weapons in the September 11th attacks).  Hadsifejzovic’s escape was also a bursting from the bag of his own forceful artistic personality: a dynamic metaphor for the positive character of the city of Sarajevo itself, which utilized the arts as an expression of refusal to be confined during the war.

Some of the artists stayed in Sarajevo for at least another week, to participate in the festival and to make work in the city and its environs.  This was the making of work outside the gallery; or entire city as gallery.  The Nine Dragons Heads artists were not frivolous tourists. They took very seriously this opportunity to engage with the city; to be part of the normality of a city which did, after all, host this festival for several years before the war. 

Most of the group had not planned their specific outdoor works before the festival; they had waited to explore the city to locate suitable sites. There was also a day at the Sarajevo Winter Olympic ski-field, to make art during a major snowboarding competition.

Swiss installation artist and videographer Susanne Muller explained that she liked to search for voids, and make the otherwise un-noticed spaces in a city into a visual event. ‘We can never know every part of a city, even our own city’. She brought with her to Sarajevo lightweight tent frames, and then searched locally for materials to make the tents’ canopies. A second-hand shop near the Turkish Cultural Centre yielded plenty of used cotton sheets.  She installed one tent in the Nine Dragon Heads exhibition at the Turkish Cultural Centre, where inside the tent flaps a television monitor ran a continuous loop of 24 –frames-per-second.

The content featured recent floods in Switzerland, particularly near her home city of Bern: a local catastrophe beamed out to the world.   This poignant inversion of shelter, the cataclysm inside the totally unfunctional tent, sat in the context of the reparation of the houses and public buildings of Sarajevo.

A few days later another of her tents appeared in the burnt-out shell of the Hotel Europa.  Through the former window spaces of this demolition site, her brave little tent sat in the snow, an apparent shelter for survivors of the 1990s siege.  A few days later Mustafa Skolpjak  (Bosnia and Herzogovnia) placed large cutout figures in the empty window frames.

The derelict hotel was now inhabited once again.

Muller’s work was a timely echo of another tent site in the city. 

Part of the protest camp of agricultural workers near the National Museum.

On Marsala Tito near the National Museum agricultural workers had been camping for 235 days, in protest against the lack of government support for agriculture.   Their tents were on low platforms in the snow. Despite lack of language in common, by showing them her Visiting Artist tag and footage of her work on her video camera, she was able to convey to them her solidarity with their cause.   They laughed and indicated their own small ‘Olympic flame,’ and a great pile of firewood.  They handed out sweets.  Muller was invited to do an installation that included their tents, in situ.

John Lyall and de-nature myth.

Meanwhile at Basčarsija John Lyall (New Zealand) threw seed to the pigeons, hoping they would arrange themselves in the formations of the marks he was trying to make with the grain. The pigeons would not co-operate, but quickly ate the grain.  People seated outside the cafes watched as the pigeons engulfed him. His marks without the pigeons were more successful: Cartesian swirls foot-printed into the snow at Basčarsija and at Vogosca, which remained visible for several days, and aroused local curiosity. The elegance of these shapes echoed his work in the Nine Dragon Heads gallery exhibition: the same mathematical curves assembled from orange and black extension leads, with inspection lamps shining onto sheets of New Zealand native paua shell (iris haliotis).  In his gallery performance piece the same curves appeared as cut-outs of postcards, the perforations heavily outlined in lipstick, as in ‘sent with love from…’

He also became a fixture wandering around the town with two helium inflated animals bought from street sellers:  a feral tiger and leopard.  They stared at sumptuous fur coats in shop windows; they bobbed against the formal framed photographs of Marshal Tito, décor at Tito Café.  They were finally released into the Miljacka River, where they swirled about in the weirs, only to be eventually washed up on the frosty shore:  a foreign environment indeed for these two stray lost creatures. 


Miles Sanderson from Norfolk Island installed fruit –  large luscious oranges – as regularly spaced architectural motifs along the bridge famous as the location of the assassination of  Archduke Franz Ferdinand.  As in his gallery work, a drift of rolled paper sea anemones, his emphasis was on order, symmetry, and surprise achieved by using simple, readily available materials. The fruit glowed in the dim wintry afternoon mist.  Gypsy children hung about, waiting for the artist to finish, and maybe give them the oranges.

Sanderson reflected on this later. ‘I won’t use food again in an installation in a place where people cannot afford fruit’.  In a later work, at the ski-field of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, he used red string to make marks in the snow, and to tie around winter twigs that poked up through the ice crystals.  The quiet elegance the red streaks on the shimmering white ground was respectfully resonant of blood in the snow, a tribute to the lives lost throughout this region during the war.  We’d all seen the ‘roses of Sarajevo’, indentations from the explosion of mortar shells on the city’s pavements, filled with red concrete in remembrance of those killed.

Video still: Ali Bramwell walks her sawn through the streets of Sarajevo.

Meanwhile at the ski-field Ali Bramwell (New Zealand) laboured hard to turn snow into a large swan. Her life-sized swan, layers of corrugated cardboard stabbed with metal shafts, reposed on a gently-lit ledge in the Turkish Cultural Centre gallery.  It referenced silent tales of migration, while inferring all those mythic, figurative and mystical cultural references to swans; and the current global alarm and doom-saying about Avian flu, predominant in news broadcasts that week.  Would this disease be the next apocalypse?  Would it strike this city, too, still recovering from another disaster?

Ali Bramwell took her swan for a walk around the streets of Sarajevo.

In Svetlost Park the work took its final form,  Walking with swan: stone sleeper.’   Bramwell describes this walk:

‘It began at the bust of Mak Dizdar (Bosnian poet) and ended at the National Museum. The Swan (labud) was bolted together from cardboard cartons collected in the city, in itself a different kind of document, a kind of stored history in both material (used boxes stamped and labelled) and form (the image of swan is overlaid with many layers of poetic and mythic history). I placed the swan beside Dizdar. For the walking performance I tied the swan to my body with 9 metres of black satin ribbon, wrapped around and around my chest and walked dragging it trailing behind me. It took just over half an hour to walk the distance.’

Consummate performer Park Byoung-Uk’s irrepressibility was a constant motif during the weeks the Nine Dragon Heads group worked in Sarajevo.  At the ski-field, once snowboarding competition had finished, Park raced beneath the banner labeled ‘Finishing Line’ and threw himself in the snow. In his arms he clutched the handmade sign he carried on behalf of fellow Nine Dragon Heads artist, Bedri Baykam,  ‘Yes sir, I know you’re very special’.   As one of the founders of Nine Dragon Heads, he has delivered artists over and again to venues throughout the world. For him, performing as an artist is also about facilitating the performance of others.

Park’s medium is the everyday actions of people in nature, going about their lives. His fluorescent orange jumpsuit foregrounds the artist, the brand Park Byoung-Uk.  But once he has donned this garment,  his actions in the social context are so everyday and perfectly positioned within the actually quotidian of others, that he simply appears to be a municipal official, or an official organizer – a trenchant wit that translates remarkably across cultures.

Performing in Sarajevo  – the joy of participation

Whatever distance they had traveled and however different their own cultures from the everyday life they experienced or observed in Sarajevo, these artists could not be oblivious to the context in which they found themselves. Here was a city where the citizens had survived unimaginable nightmares in recent memory.  It is still addressing issues of survival.  At the same time, here was city with sufficient support from citizens and government to stage several ambitious annual festivals. 

The artists installing objects and performing events in the city contributed to the festive feel of Sarajevo in wintry February.  They invited a genuine democracy of viewer participation and enjoyment, unfettered by any need for formal aesthetic sanction on visual pleasure.

Sarajevo’s icy streets became galleries of inclusion, not exclusion. The artists’ works in the square, on the bridge, in the river, at a derelict hotel, in any void Suzanne Muller could find, were public presentations for anyone who cared to look.  Indeed, this invitation to artists to make work anywhere in the city  may be seen as a graphic counter to the alienation of art in many city galleries all over the world, where the immaculate intimidating hushed white spaces are irrelevant to perpetual non-visitors. The street and ski-field works bore no inherent sense of the sacred or precious, no suggestion that one must have some elusive insider prior knowledge to read these presentations.   The artists were creating blatant spectacles for every single person passing by.