More than any other European river, the Danube has been mythologized in music, literature and art. Today, changes along the river are inspiring new generations of artists. An unusual exhibition is showing their work.
Kutlug Ataman's installation tells the story of one of Istanbul's most notorious ghettos
From Kepler to Kafka and from Strauss to Strindberg, artists have explored the landscapes and told the stories of the peoples of the Danube. The countries along the river have gone through rapid and complex changes in the past few years. Yet artists today are still motivated by the stories along the "Queen of Rivers."
"Journey Against the Current" is a symbolic voyage capturing stories about minorities, memories and identities among the many communities along the Danube. Its venue is the Danube barge Negrelli. She carries award-winning art installations that have been exhibited at cities along the way.
Philanthropist Francesca von Habsburg, the brainchild of the exhibition, says the Danube has been represented so differently culturally, in music and in literature.
"At the same time, it acts as boundaries and borders, and in this case, it's a river of communication," Habsburg says. "So there were so many symbols and associations that I could make that this was the perfect design of putting all these things together."
The river as a birth canal
At the center of the design is the award-winning art installation "Küba" by Turkish artist Kutlug Ataman. Forty video screens tell the story of an impoverished and marginalized city, which has emerged on the outskirts of Istanbul. At first, it's difficult to see a link with the Danube. But the artist says his work brings this story onto a new platform.
"I come from and am bringing stories from a country, which is perceived as on the periphery of Europe," Ataman says. "Those stories are going to come into the heart of old Europe in a kind of clandestine way -- hidden in a barge, traveling through this river, which I perceive as almost like a birth canal."
The region's Roma communities are very impoverished
As it traveled against the current, Ataman's story of a marginalized society found echoes in communities along the Danube where social and political upheaval -- and sometimes violent ethnic conflict -- have left many on the margins.
Another project onboard by filmmaker Zelimir Zilnik focuses on the life of Roma communities on the shores of the Danube, between Novi Sad and Belgrade, where there are a several Roma settlements.
"Zelimir's project was not just to film them, to make an image of them, but to give them the tools and create the know-how within the community to depict their own lives," says the exhibition's curator Daniela Zeman. "So it's about self-representation."
A living sculpture portrays social stratification
"Journey Against the Current" worked with local artists to mount exhibitions in cities such as Rousse in Bulgaria, Novi Sad in Serbia, Vukovar in Croatia, the Hungarian capital Budapest and the Slovak capital Bratislava.
In Bratislava, artists Anetta Mona Chisa and Lucia Tkácová took themes of class and status and created a living sculpture.
"We like this division of people, using this social stratification so that was the inspiration that we got," Chisa says.
Their work "After the Order" takes the form of a giant human monument -- the Capitalist Pyramid. It was staged on the site of a former socialist memorial in what is now Bratislava's Freedom Square.
"There was one question asking people what they feel which class they belong to," Chisa says. "We took just this one answer, the percentage, and that is actually the numbers that we used into this pyramid."
Danube flooding transformed the exhibition's motivation
The journey of the Nigrelli was not all smooth sailing. As it attempted to leave the Danube mouth at the start of its voyage, the most severe floods in a century created misery for hundreds of thousands of people in Romania and Bulgaria.
Danube river traffic, including the Negrelli, came to a standstill. Habsburg says it was a chance to turn a cultural event into a humanitarian effort.
"We adapted to the floods, we confronted the issue and raised 150,000 Euros ($192,000) to help the flood victims," Habsburg says. "So suddenly there was a humanitarian aspect to this project which developed. We realized that this was a need and brought attention to it."
The Negrelli housed the exhibition
Like the Danube itself, "Journey Against the Current" is difficult to define. It consists of exhibitions, films, lectures, public performances, discussions between intellectuals, artists and the audience. But linking these complex concepts is a boat -- the Negrelli -- and a river: the Danube. For artist Ataman, the river is the real link.
"For me, the vehicle here is not the boat, the vehicle is the river," Ataman says. "The vehicle is really the entire map going from the Black Sea to Vienna."