Tacky Tourist Magnet or Hub of National Identity? Skopje, Macedonia

Nations have constructed and expressed their identities through public art throughout human history. Generally this process is a gradual and organic one, not a quick and deliberate flurry of activity.  Not so in Skopje, Macedonia, one of the world’s newest capital cities, with one of the strangest assemblages of public architecture and statuary I have ever seen.

Skopje is the largest city in Macedonia, a nation formed in 1991 after the breakup of Yugoslavia. While the country itself may be young, its history of human habitation runs deep; there is evidence of settlement beginning in 4000 BCE.  The Romans took over the area in the 1st century CE, beginning a long sequence of empirical governance of Macedonia.  At various points it was a part of the Byzantine, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Ottoman Empires. Skopje sits at the confluence of several rivers, including one that runs from Belgrade to Athens, so its strategic position made it a consistently dense population center. Currently, Skopje is home to close to a million people of a variety of ethnicities, including Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, and Romani (formerly called “gypsies.”)

A devastating earthquake struck the city of Skopje in 1963, destroying 80% of the buildings in the city. Reconstruction was hasty, and it resulted in a lot of gray, modern structures. In 2010, the city’s leaders decided to give Skopje a facelift, and they launched the “Skopje 2014” initiative. Ostensibly a beautification project designed to make the city more aesthetically appealing and attractive to tourists, Skopje 2014 was –and is—also an attempt to define the young country’s identity.

Somewhere between 300 and 500 million Euros have been spent on the construction of buildings and fountains, the creation and erection of statues, and the remodeling of building facades as part of this project – sixty features in all. Authorities seem to be little evasive about the exact amount of the total bill, in part because of the controversy that has arisen around an expenditure of this magnitude in a country where unemployment runs about 30% and a significant portion of the population is living in poverty.

The results of Skopje 2014 are truly unbelievable. I walked around Skopje with my mouth agape. I tend to agree with the critics who accuse Skopje of being the “kitsch capital of the world” or a “Disneyland- style theme park”– I found most of the improvements to be downright garish. That said, I could not help but admire the scope of the project. It was so tacky it was almost cool – like Las Vegas. Nearly everything was done in a Neoclassical style, leading me to wonder if Athens had this same shiny glare back in its heyday that Skopje has now.  After all, the central square is made of marble, and bronze statuary and Corinthian columns abound.

The controversy does not revolve only around the aesthetic of the work, however; it extends to the message behind it. Through these Neoclassical public monuments, Skopje and Macedonia are positioning themselves as the descendants of the ancient Macedonian civilization, one with Hellenic (Greek) roots. For better or worse, Macedonia’s background is more complex than that; between the Greek Empire and the present day, the nation experienced two millennia of occupation by various Slavic populations. Omission of this heritage has managed to offend nearly every minority in the country as well as many ethnic Macedonians.

The flashpoint piece of Skopje 2014 is a twenty-two meter high statue entitled “Warrior on a Horse.” Its official name was chosen in an attempt to circumvent the controversy which it has, nevertheless, created. Name aside, the statue is believed to portray the Greek hero Alexander the Great. Macedonia appears to be claiming him as their own, along with his father, Philip II, by prominently situating gigantic statues of them in Skopje’s central square. The statue is the most prominent feature in the central plaza, and it instantly reminded me of the enormous statue of Ghengis Khan I saw years ago in downtown Ulaan Bataar, Mongolia. Both monoliths serve the same function; they attempt to legitimize a struggling modern state in the foundation of an illustrious – but very distant – past one.

In Skopje’s case however, claiming direct descendance from Alexander and the classical Hellenic culture of his times is not completely justified. For many people, this calls the whole Skopje 2014 project into question. The fact that the project does not represent the nations Slavic ancestry, not to mention its Albanian, Roma, or Bosniak roots, has further alienated a lot of citizens.

On the other hand, tourism numbers in Macedonia have increased significantly. Whether visitors think the additions to the city are tacky or wonderful is immaterial; they are coming to Skopje and spending money there, and there is a lot to be said for that. During my recent time in Europe, the BBC aired numerous glitzy television commercials with the theme “Invest in Macedonia.” Clearly, the country is pushing foreign investment, perhaps seeing it as their quickest and easiest way up and out of their current economic situation.

I love public art, in almost any form, but I found myself a little turned off by this project. I kept returning to the idea that 300 million Euros could have funded an awful lot of programs to improve the health, education, and standard of living of the Macedonian people.

In the process of exploring Skopje, I realized that my love of public art is contingent upon its intentions and origins. I am fascinated and tickled by art that comes “from the ground up” – spontaneous expressions, or even publicly funded individual or collective projects, whose concepts and executions come from the heart. I’m less fond of government-sanctioned art whose objective is to create – or, even worse, rewrite – a narrative of a culture. Art can be used for so many purposes: to delight, to educate, to provoke, and yes, to manipulate. For me, Skopje 2014 had a little too much of the final flavor for my tastes – even though I giggled my way around town taking it all in.

If you’re interested in reading more about this project and the controversy surrounding it, here are two great resources I came across:

A CNN video entitled “Is Macedonia’s capital being turned into a theme park?”

An ezine article entitled “Skopje 2014: Tragedy or Farce?”

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