International Test Site

The strengthening optimism of the year 2000, when hopes about reestablishing the visual art system in Serbia were high, seems to have collapsed under the economy downturn which hasn’t passed us by. Plans to construct a new building for the Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina in Novi Sad or, to build the City Gallery at the Republic Square in Belgrade dedicated to Dr. Zoran Djindjic, gradually faded away even in the most optimistic discussions in art circles regardless of the fact that the institutional and developmental procedures of these projects were strongly supported. Namely, these projects were awarded at public competitions and approved by politicians who were ready to provide financial support. Similarly, the investments for reconstructing the Museum of Contemporary Art and the National Museum in Belgrade have also been stopped, and it is now uncertain whether all these projects will be carried out in the end. Culture is certainly the first one to pay the price of recession. For example, in 2009, the October Saloon which has been internationalized since 2004 and has gradually become visible on the map of European visual culture, received a considerably reduced budget despite of its 50th anniversary. The curators were therefore forced to concentrate on and invite those local artists who are considered internationally recognized, in order to preserve a desirable quality of the exhibition.

There are, however, a few institutional projects that stand out of the existing system and financial dirt. For example, Dusica Drazic and Una Popovic’s site-specific project “Belgrade:Nonplaces” which is conceptualized and developed precisely on the fact that the Museum of Contemporary Art is absent from the fine arts scene. Then, there is October Saloon which has slightly changed its form and started collaborating with already respectable Istanbul Biennial on the institutional level. Finally, there is also the Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina in Novi Sad which still continuously manages to exhibit the works of contemporary visual art in the center of the Province, thanks to a well coordinated cooperation with the local Museum of Revolution.

However, no matter how visible or prestigious these particular institutional projects are, underneath lies an implosion and, as a matter of fact, a complete absence of any kind of serious institutionalized system of visual arts on the state level. That is exactly why it is important to point out the fact that somewhere beyond these media prominent activities exists a completely new and different strategy for constituting a solid institutionalized art system. I hereby refer to several important but certainly not the only projects which are not recognized publicly but only by the experts, and which are unfortunately positioned at the margins of events with media coverage. These include Macura Museum in Novi Banovci, Dragan Ilic’s International Test Site (ITS) in Ritopek and Kuzman Art Workshop, a foundry of sculptor Zoran Kuzmanović which, for quite a while now, surpasses its basic production purpose. Public awareness of these projects can be traced back to the opening of Macura Museum on May 3rd 2008, which was documented in texts with indicative titles such as “A Museum that Works” by S. Popovic1 and “Collectors Faster than the Museum” by M. Djordjevic2.

All three projects share similar characteristics:

1. They are financed by their owners, i.e. without any donations whatsoever, and can evidently sustain as self-preserving; 2. they combine strategies of collecting and exhibiting art and apart from that, they often organize activities such as visual art workshops, international cooperative projects and “residence” programmes which basically make them the centers of visual art; 3. Although more or less designed by architects, they are rather constructed by the owners themselves than by professional architectural concepts; 4. They are all located at very specific sites which are outside the cities and, intentionally or not, by the Danube River in authentic and stunning natural settings.

Vladimir Macura, born near Knin, earned his assets in Vienna where he started his career as a collector primarily interested in the works of 20th century historical avant-garde and neoavant-garde. The collection was presented to our public on several occasions and in 2008, it was finally installed in the Macura Museum in Novi Banovci. The object, totaling 650 m2, was built by the owner and an architectural team Kucina-Katic who designed the object’s foundational matrix in the spirit of Julije Knifer’s meanders. The local magazine Danas wrote about this object, but it still remains uncertain whether Kucina and Katic were in the end satisfied with how the Museum was finally constructed. However, their object will undoubtedly find its place in all future overviews of Serbian architecture as an outstanding result of a very well thought-of modern architecture. Although it could be called the collection rather than the museum, this object is a must-see site of Serbian art.

In 2003, a sculptor Zoran Kuzmanovic established one of the top quality foundries called Kuzman Art Workshop. The foundry is located by the Danube River in Jugovo, between Belgrade and the town of Smederevo. In past six years, it has become much more than just a handicraft workshop. In a very attractive architectural complex, Kuzmanovic has managed to create a meeting point for artists from the whole region and go beyond the basic commercial activities of the foundry. At first, Kuzmanovic was helped by the architect Petar Vukoicic to design the foundry, but thanks to his own significant sculpting skills, he managed to give shape to a worthy and rich architectural space. The foundry is conceptualized through applying postmodern strategies onto the relation of industrial and history-loving style, with specific sculptural elements added on top of that. Kuzmanovic created a space where places for work, staying and communication interweave. What is interesting is the fact that thanks to the mutual support of Kuzman Art Workshop and the City Gallery of Smederevo, the city of Smederevo itself became a significant spot on an art map of Serbia. The Workshop is now gradually turning to non-commercial and collector’s activities since the conditions for such activities are now slowly but firmly being established.

If there is anything that makes Ilic’s ITS different from the two abovementioned projects, then it is certainly a clear concept of building an art laboratory as Ilic’s endowment. Ilic has managed to make ITS a place of permanent art events which do not necessarily involve museum, collector’s or commercial activities.

Dragan Ilic’s Architectural Complex

Dragan Ilic3, a Serbian, American and Australian artist, returned to Serbia in 2002, after spending seventeen years in East Village, New York. Since 2003, Ilic has practically been investing all of his life savings into International Test Site in Ritopek. Upon his return to Serbia, he was trying to find a location for his life project for almost two years before he found a perfect spot: a hill called Orlovo gnezdo (Eagle’s Nest) which rises high above the Danube River and commands a view that stretches out to all four sides of the world: to the North, there is Banat region and the town of Pancevo, to the West, there is a great Danube curve near Vinca. Further to the East, the town of Smederevo can be seen in the distance. Finally, to the South, Mt.Avala and its newly built tower dominate the landscape, while behind it the view stretches further to the region of Šumadija. Located in the midst of vineyards and fruit plantation with a view spreading over endless wheat fields of Vojvodina, one is under the impression of being on the rooftop of Serbia. This place is also known for a very high mobile signal transmitter positioned right next to Ilic’s complex and as such, it metaphorically suggests that this site is a place of communication.

Ilic first bought a property totaling 14 acres at the very top of Orlovo gnezdo, where the architectural complex is situated today. In the meantime, he managed to buy another 48 acres around the property and expand the complex. When he started building ITS in 2003, he was helped by an architect friend but later on, he designed the whole complex by himself. ITS is now an impressive architectural complex which is still in the process of construction and it will never be completed – not because of Ilic’s lack of means or strength but simply because it was never planned for the complex to reach its formal completion. Ilic views architecture as a process, i.e. a work in progress with no end. He espouses the belief that ITS as an architectural object should undergo a constant evolving transformative process.

The first phase of the project’s construction included the artist’s multilevel home totaling 400 m2 of interior space and terraces set on 200 m2 surrounding it. Apart from a garage and several spare rooms in the house, there is also a 70 m2 atelier which can also serve as an exhibition space depending on the events articulating it. Even the artist’s premises can function as a specific exhibition space. The living room commands a stunning view on the Danube through a glass-made wall designed for observation and contemplation.

In the second phase of the project, three connected exhibition spaces were built into the ground. As such, the exhibition space has only one hidden facade. The roof is made of concrete it can be accessed from the ground level or from the house entrance via a narrow and inventively shaped step. The lightning comes directly through the roof’s six skylights. The entrance is positioned at the bottom of staircase, between a massive supporting wall and the exhibition space. The interior is designed and functions as an exhibition space and therefore it also has a storeroom and an office at the bottom of the staircase.

As an architectural concept, Ilić’s house is usually experienced as a house of view. It consists of massive white cubes which naturally rise out of the ground and are a thrilling site on the top of the hill. It is optimally adapted to its function as an exhibition or working space. Moreover, it naturally fits in the surrounding but at the same time it transforms the shape of the landscape. Many architects would most probably compare the shape of ITS to a glass cube of Mies van der Rohe or any other “glass house” that commands such panoramic view. However, Ilic constructed the space thoughtfully and created rather interesting working and exhibiting elements of the interior. This is not a house designed to necessarily connect all functions of the space in a rational whole. It is rather a structure with the openings which is adapted to its surrounding. This brings us to a methodological twist in design: instead of connecting the positions of functional elements with each other, the forms are completely designed in proportion to the natural surrounding. In other words, all the openings are constructed differently and each one functions as a lookout turned towards a particular site in a surrounding landscape. Ilic emphasizes a very important methodological component included in constructing this architectural complex: it is conceptualized as a system of panoramic views conducted from the interior and not as a formally contextualized form in a specific surrounding. The terraces also correspond to Ilic’s strategy. They spiral up around the object towards a small ship-like lookout at the highest level of the house.

Sublimation of this architectural idea is reflected in another fascinating concept of Ilic: in year 2008 he bought an acre of land in the fields of Vojvodina, 4km away and opposite the house but on the other side of the Danube.  He has already developed a strategy to place art installations and objects there which will be observed from the house or terraces through telescopes. Such a concept is already art in itself and it suggests exciting creativity and interpretative significance.

When speaking about the relation between his home and the exhibition space, Ilic refers to it as a relation between a tug boat and a barge, which is a usual site seen from a house overlooking a river. The house is propulsion and the exhibition space is some kind of a derivation of that propulsion. Such a brave and wonderful association can be compared to the concept of Hollein’s Aircraft Carrier in the Landscape or, in both real and symbolic way, to W. Herzog’s lifting a ship on a mountain. I personally had a strong association with simple and modern houses of Loos or even with Koolhaas’ Casa da Musica in Porto, but Ilić kept on directing my attention to his own role model, an American architect Frank Gehry (sculptural form). At the same time he was telling me about his own ambition to cover the object with layers of different artistic interventions as time passes by and thus keep its dynamic function alive. Integration of form into its natural surroundings evokes a distant association with the complex Xanadu in Calpe, Spain, designed by the architect Ricardo Bofill and his associates in 1967, as well as with Naiku temple at Ise sanctuary in Japan. The similarity lies not only in the giant rocks Ilic has placed inside the complex as markers, but also in his vision and desire which is to have the complex destroyed and rebuilt in the spirit of fore coming time.

Although Ilic disregards the form and emphasizes the concept and meaning in construction of ITS, he also uses the constructing materials rationally. In other words, the whole complex is build with conventional and for the most part cheap materials used for the wall, openings and plain fences. With such features, not a single detail is pointed out to bring this kind of architecture in relation to representation of fortune and power. On the contrary, the emphasis is precisely on unconventionality and communicativeness of the object.

The Laboratory

International Test Site opened in May 2007, when Ilic invited a famous Cypriot born Australian artist Stelarc to Ritopek. Ilic had met Stelarc while living in Australia and the two have been friends with ever since. On this occasion, the works of young Greek artists were presented and Stelarc gave a lecture called “Alternating Anatomical Architectures: Plasticized Bodies, Partial Life, Multiplied Organs and the Extra Ear”. Ilic carried out this event independently and was perceived as a bomb in expert circles of Serbian scene. Unfortunately, it had a limited media coverage, despite the fact that Stelarc is one of the most important and controversial artists today4. From this event on, Ilic has been working on ITS’s development whether being in New York or Belgrade. It is very often the case that he arranges details about architectural issues by phone. Even though ITS has a limited public function at the moment, this space has certainly become a significant meeting point of nearly all relevant actors of local visual art scene. Art is present in each square meter of this space: from Ilić’s land-art interventions, through major planning and reconstructing of the land, to small but significant interventions made with art objects which seem to be in a constant flux and search of their own place in the space. Ilic became inspired by the activities of the Media Lab, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and its founder Nicholas Negroponte whose work he has admired and recognized as a key concept for the development of ITS. This crucial influence directed his ambitions to multimedia activities and powerful fusion of art, science and culture into a unique Laboratory project. Therefore it is not surprising that Ilic cooperates with certain scientists from the Institute in Vinca. His intention is to provide an exhibition as well as a working space for these scientific-technological activities within ITS. This, of course, does not restrain Ilic’s interest in traditional visual art media such as painting or sculpture. On the contrary, it actually brings multidimensional concept of the Laboratory into prominence. Ilic’s sublime concept of the Laboratory represents a permanent openness for experimenting in all fields of art.

As it has already been mentioned, ITS is not necessarily a collector’s or a museum project. It is rather some kind of a multimedia center (robotic-sound-visual art) which welcomes all kinds of research projects in the field of art. It has no strict schedule and it is open for permanent transformation and exchange of programmes and ideas. This is what makes Ilic’s project absolutely unique within the local art system.

Future events at the International Test Site include a major exhibition of 30 Slovenian artists from Kapelica Gallery. After Brussels and Washington, this exhibition will be transferred to Ritopek. Until this event, Ilić will undoubtedly make many contacts and put on “ad hoc” projects which is already a regular and common practice at ITS. Apart from hosting various events at ITS, Ilic will also prepare for his major retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina in Novi Sad, scheduled for 2012. In order to put on this exhibition, he has to ship two containers of his works and documentation from Australia and America. Ilic is also planning to build eight accommodation capsules (as he refers to them in architectural terms) at the ITS. The capsules will be constructed on a slope facing the Danube, and they will serve as a base for implementing the ITS’s “residence” programme. Moreover, he is planning to expand the exhibition space which is already immense having in mind the local standards.

If there is something representing and not only announcing a way out of the transition period, then, among the abovementioned, it is certainly Dragan Ilic’s International Test Site project in Ritopek. Although there are actors or occasional international exhibitions that depict this transition, this specific project truly represents a unique and necessary breakthrough not only on the institutional level but on the level of art system in general. Therefore it is of great importance to pay full attention to these rare projects.

From the architectural point of view, it is important to underline that well conducted research, ideas and concepts can form worthy achievements even without a strict professional monitoring. ITS’s architectural design should serve as both warning and inspiration to professional architects who are usually very likely to neglect theoretical, cultural and social constitution of architecture.

Milorad Mladenovic

[1] Daily paper Vecernje novosti, 2009, Belgrade

[2] Kultura/Umetnost/Nauka (Culture/Art/Science), Politika’s Saturday supplement on culture, June 14, 2008, Belgrade.

[3] Dragan Ilic was born in 1948 in Begaljica near Grocka. In 1970 he moved to Australia where he first attended Canberra Art School and then continued his education at the Australian Film Academy video department in Sidney. He has lived and worked in New York since 1977, where he joined the celebrated and very active vanguard East Village art movement. During this period, Ilic collaborated with such artists as Kiki Smith, David Wojnarowicz and Carlo Mcormick. Since 1974, Ilic’s one-man shows have been exhibited in Sidney, Melbourne, Canberra, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Brussels, Paris, Amsterdam, Belgrade and Pusan (South Korea). He has also participated in many group exhibitions worldwide, the most important being “Ten Yugoslav Artists“ in 1982, New York, “Documenta 7” in 1982, Kassel, and “Conceptual Art” produced by Miško Šuvaković in 2008, Belgrade. Dragan Ili’s current artistic research focuses on “the sphere of robotics and combination of computer technologies with performance abilities of robotic machines. The machines are operated via brain sensors to create large format drawings”. Dragan Ilic is an initiator and founder of International Test Site in Ritopek, which will be open from 2007. (Citation above taken from

[4] See for example: Timotijević, S, Iznenadna medijska čuda, p.7, STELARK u Beogradu, p.18, ArtFAMA/Museum & Gallery Guide no.4, G.L.O.R.I.J.A., May 2007, Belgrade.

Dans, Magazine for Architecture and Urbanization