At the top of the 90′s I wandered through Yugoslavia, just another dumb teenage kid with a backpack. A week later the country ceased to exist, the rest is history…. or at least historical fiction as presented by Emir Kusturica.
Today I came back to Belgrade. A few hours after arriving I was taken by a friend, Uros, to explore an abandoned factory on the edge of the city. It was as dramatic as you might imagine, crumbling brick and iron halls about a dozen stories tall, dangling remnants of the machines, fallen bird feathers, fine powder dust. A WWII-era motorcyle+sidecar in one hanger, an equally aged river patrol boat in another. The boat looked sadly marooned so far from water, and covered as it was in a centimeter of pigeon shit.
Nothing could have prepared me for what was yet to come. One wing of the factory had been granted to a theater director and culture icon named Ljubiša Ristić. We passed through a door that brought us out of the ruins and into his private palace.
Suddenly it was all marble floors, vaulted ceilings, walls painted with life-sized nude women in mughal style, a grand piano functioning as a stand for a collection of live cockatoo birds, fireplaces complete with roaring flames, classical arabic music piped throughout via a discreet soundsystem. We passed through three halls like this, each furnished and lit as if expecting a thousand guests, but there was not a soul to be found. We walked around in circles, feeling like intruders, until finally bumping into the master of the house. Fortunately he was (kind of) expecting us. We spent the next hour talking of the balkans as a chessboard of global geo-strategies, the origin of experimental theater in late 70′s europe, Spain’s paralysis in the baroque, and whatever else occurred to him.
We finished our night with another building visit, Bigz in 1928 would have been one of the most impressive deco-style industrial buildings in europe, later in the 90′s was a squat, now functioning as a semi-feral cultural space. A jazz bar full of professional smokers can be found on the top floor, a circus collective on the 6th. Every vertical surface is a riot of graffiti.
Tonight’s lesson: It’s time to buy a camera. Haven’t had one in six months. It saves me having to write so much.