Jasmina Tešanović: Sagmeister in Belgrade

Text by Jasmina Tešanović

Photos by Bruce Sterling

Stefan Sagmeister

In Belgrade… he came and left, but not altogether…
For days
now, in this half-abandoned summery Belgrade,
mysterious billboards
are puzzling our citizens. Zen Buddhistic minimalist
statements, or
street-art, or New York ads, or something completely
new to us…

Not like Belgrade's normal ads, loudly promoting
cigarettes, drinks,
cars, and open sexism…


Every piece has a different billboard of its own,
placed in a
different part of the city…

No semi-nude women, but blue areas / fences /
nowheres…I would rather get lost in that nowhere
than sit in some
fancy car with a carton of great cigarettes next to
some super-model
Yes, and if I do that, then what?

So, the performance of this artist-designer, an
Austrian living
in New York, is called 'Things I Have Learned in My
Life So Far.'

Money does not make me happy; Being not truthful
works against
me; Having guts always works out for me; Trying to
look good limits
my life; Everything I do comes back to me… And some
other thirty
aphoristic wisdoms of this kind, which the artist
threw into his
lecture in the National Library. They also appear in
his exhibition
in the SUPERSPACE gallery on the Danube river.

While I listened to Stefan Sagmeister I had a deja
vu, as if
somebody threw a net on the top of our dirty loud and
Belgrade which I once loved so much… And I even know
why, because
Belgrade is not much like Barcelona or Rome or Vienna,
or New York or
Los Angeles, although Belgrade had all the advantages
of wild big
dirty cities…

Belgrade refused to become that which was given to
it naturally,
that is an underground metropolis.

– It's a lovely city, says the designer.

– It doesn't lack for gritty charm, nods my American
friend, who is
used to Balkan hospitality but is still in business
for rakija and

-It is my city, in transition to nowhere, I say
suddenly, as if
anxiously protecting some handicapped child.

Designers like Belgrade, so do architects. Rem
Koolhaas was
recently again in Belgrade for the festival of design.
Some time
earlier in Sharjah where Koolhaas went to admire the
miracle of
architecture and
politics in that fundamentalist oasis, he spoke of
Belgrade… I
think it is still the much-repeated story by Le
Corbusier – Belgrade
is the ugliest city on the most beautiful spot in the

While I listen to these world stars of global
design, it occurs
to me that they know nothing of anything real to us.
What do they
know of mass graves, of spitting on the streets, about
Belgrade mafia
sponzorushas…. Then I realize that they are not
snobs, but it is
me who is biased — or maybe they just as biased as I
myself am a

When Sagmeister threw his cosmopolitan net on the
Balkan capital
of Southern Europe, as he calls the city, he got me
too. I listened
as if under a
spell to his simple stories about the wisdom he has
gathered, a
model public lecture.

For example, "Having guts always works for me" —
illustrated this with an anecdote in which he jumped
off an
underground train in the very last moment, at a stop
that was not
even his own, to chase a little old lady with a nice
hat, in Vienna.
Just to let her know something that had obsessed him
on the train,
and that is, that the old lady looks GREAT in her

Or "Money does not make me happy". He described
research that
shows that after earning 50 000 dollars per year, if
you somehow
double that sum, nothing of significance changes in
your life…

And an awesome motto now: "Everybody who is
is interesting" — this one really made me happy!

His simple honesty towards people and the place
that evening
teleported me to my dream-city, a place which does not
exist as
a concrete city, nor does it have any name.

That dream city within me is the sister city of
the invisible
cities of Italo Calvino, made of all the
masterpieces and the ruins
of world design and
world architecture, of people, insects, rats and
random dogs,
phenomena that must go without saying or remain
unspeakable, of fears
and incredible flights, water fire earth and
polluted air… the
inner stuff of us who live there…

Here I am in reality, gazing from a rusty terrace
in the Vracar
part of
Belgrade, at the tall decaying building of a
maternity hospital:
I was born there, my mother worked there, my daughter
was born there
too… But that building was invisible for me until
pointed a billboard towards it saying: "Over time I
get used to
everything and start taking if for granted."

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Jasmina Tešanović is an author, filmmaker, and wandering thinker who shares her thoughts with BoingBoing from time to time. Email: politicalidiot at yahoo dot com. Her blog is here.

Previous essays by Jasmina Tešanović on BoingBoing:

Jasmina Tešanović: What About the Russians?

Milan Martic sentenced in Hague

Mothers of Mass Graves
Hope for Serbia
Stelarc in Ritopek
Sarajevo Mon Amour

Killing Journalists

Jasmina Tešanović: Where Did Our History Go?
Serbia Not Guilty of Genocide

Carnival of Ruritania
"Good Morning, Fascist Serbia!"
Faking Bombings
Dispatch from Amsterdam
Where are your Americans now?

Anna Politkovskaya Silenced
Slaughter in the Monastery

Mermaid's Trail

A Burial in Srebenica
Report from a concert by a Serbian war criminal
To Hague, to Hague

Preachers and Fascists, Out of My Panties

Floods and Bombs

Scorpions Trial, April 13
The Muslim Women 
– Belgrade: New Normality
Serbia: An Underworld Journey
Scorpions Trial, Day Three: March 15, 2006
Scorpions Trial, Day Two: March 14, 2006
Scorpions Trial, Day One: March 13, 2006
The Long Goodbye
Milosevic Arrives in Belgrade
Slobodan Milosevic Died
Milosevic Funeral