Even as Lithuania observes events in Ukraine with great concern, the nation's second-biggest city is preparing itself for the biggest cultural event of its year.
In September, Robert Wilson's “Dorian” will premiere in Kaunas, artists Yoko Ono and Marina Abramovic will show work and yet another superstar of the international art world also opened an exhibition there in January. William Kentridge, member of a Jewish-Italian family, is exhibiting “That Which We Do Not Remember”.
The director of the city's culture programme, Virginija Vitkiené, and her team set the artists a task: To dig out buried memories and knowledge about their own cities. It's an excellent endeavour. Other cultural programmers will label a fading film festival for the Capital of Culture program or perhaps put on a huge show for a year, then let their metropolis sink back into artistic obscurity. But Kaunas has chosen a different path. The city sees artistic events as more than touristic drawcards. Above all they are a way for the city and its inhabitants to define themselves.
“There are hardly any Russians or Poles here. The Lithuanians are on their own in Kaunas.”
That's why this program asks the question: Who are we? It’s an especially pertinent question for Kaunas, 100 kilometres west of the country's capital, Vilnius. Unlike before World War II, the city's population is no longer particularly diverse. There are hardly any Russians or Poles here. The Lithuanians are on their own in Kaunas. “We don't actually know who we are,” program director Vitkiené says. A suitable phrase in times when every cultural institution, no matter how small, needs to optimize its profile to reach its desired audience and when every cultural capital spends more on marketing than the actual culture. Based on this it almost seems bankrupt to declare that you don’t know who you are, or why people should be visiting you. But this questioning of one's self, this lack of knowledge to demonstrated throughout a whole series of events, is in fact a huge win - not just for the people of Kaunas but also for the guests who will attend.
The park in the middle of Kaunas, known as Peace Park, used to be a cemetery. Since 1956, the year of a national uprising in Hungary, Lithuanians commemorated that protest in the park with vigils. The Soviets had destroyed the cemetery. There is also a mosque in the park, although hardly any non-Muslims have ever set foot in it.
However during the cultural program, there will be an an open day here for the first time. And in the so-called “memory office” staff are collecting both the large and small stories, from the past and the present, from different ethnic and religious groups within the city.
You can immediately tell that there's something different about Novi Sad. The appearance of the city, around 80 kilometres from the Serbian capital Belgrade, is reflects the 21 different nationalities that live there. It is as if there was a grand theatre, a municipal office or an apartment building constructed for every newcomer. The diversity of the 350,000-strong city is reflected in its architectural variety.
The variegated architecture makes Novi Sad's primary marketing catchphrase – “multicultural” – for its European Capital of Culture campaign seem empty though. The translation of the city's colourful identity into events is limited – there's the Tamburica Fest, the “best ethno festival in Europe”, Exit the “biggest music festival in Europe” and various other festivals. Everywhere the street signs are in Cyrillic Serbian; the only exceptions are found near major tourist sights, where they are in English.
“Nationalism is on the rise, tolerance on the decline – even while Novi Sad's cultural offerings go to great lengths to disguise these uncomfortable topics.”
Just a few streets away from the centre of Novi Sad and the façade crumbles, literally as well as figuratively. “It's getting more and more difficult to be a Novi Sad-er in Novi Sad,” says László Végel, a writer who has lived here for 80 years and is part of the Hungarian minority here. Nationalism is on the rise, tolerance on the decline – even while Novi Sad's cultural offerings go to great lengths to disguise these uncomfortable topics.
One of the most conspicuous examples of this discomfort is the way the city has treated one of its most famous denizens, the writer Aleksandar Tišma. The author, who died in 2003 at the age of 79, was world famous as a chronicler of Novi Sad. In his novels he worked through the crimes of the national socialists. But his work, and the role that Hungarians, Germans and Serbians played in those crimes, are not part of this cultural program. In Novi Sad, these sorts of issues are pushed under the carpet, a tour guide tells me, so that the exterior remains beautiful.
Meanwhile though, the local Matica Srpska Gallery is showing that culture is best created when you examine your own faults. Gallery director Tijana Palkovljević Bugarski is showing work by Serbian painters in a way that traces their evolution from amateur to master, an evolution imprinted with lessons learned from Russian and French artists. “We wanted to show that you cannot by creative if you just stew in your own juices,” the gallery director explains.
One can only hope that this kind of perspective will be shared throughout the city, so that its multicultural diversity is visible once again.