Tito’s ARK: Bosnian nuclear bunker transformed into a contemporary art space

It’s not every day you visit an art gallery with virtually no signs directing you to it, but then it’s not every day that you find an exhibition space in a nuclear bunker. ARK may be the trendy modern art gallery that it sounds, but its name stands for Atomska Ratna Komanda, or Nuclear Command Bunker – a top secret military site constructed for the former Yugoslavian president Josip Broz Tito.

Today, thanks to the perseverance of two artists, Edo and Sandra Hozić, ARK – near the town of Konjic in Bosnia-Herzegovina, about an hour south-west of Sarajevo – has been transformed into the most unique and unlikely of artistic spaces. It’s home to a renowned Biennial of Contemporary Arts – the 2017 edition launches on 21 April.  

We meet our guide, Mirnes Bajić, outside two utterly nondescript white buildings nestled in the foothills of Mount Zlatar, alongside the jade green waters of the river Neretva. A skull and crossbones on a red background warns of landmines – one of the lingering reminders of the devastating war that wrought havoc across the region in the early nineties. 

 “Let us build a monument to remind us of our futuristic past,” reads a sign opposite by Egyptian artist Basim Magdy – a reference to the futuristic monuments dotted across the former Yugoslavia, also commissioned by Tito. For some he was a dictator; for others, a socialist liberator. 

We enter past an aged reception room (replete with small bed) and through a short tunnel. The air is thick and stuffy – Mirnes draws his handkerchief to blow his nose. The casino-style lighting starts to affect our sense of time. New additions – two giant mirrors facing one another by Albanian artist, Helidon Gjergji, and cracked floor mirrors by Italy’s Alfredo Pirri – further disturb our sense of space.   

D-0 to D0′ by Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen (aka STEALH.unlimited) in the bathroom (Almin Zrno)

Completed in 1979 after some 26 years, the ARK covers 6,500 square metres and cost an astronomical $4.6 billion (£3.6b), equivalent to over $10b (£7.8b) at today’s prices. The price tag is mocked by Serbian artist, Dragoljub ‘Rasa’ Todosijevic, who’s installed a decrepit wardrobe pointlessly rotating outside the bedroom intended for Tito. 

The bunker was capable of housing some 350 of Yugoslavia’s military and political elite for up to six months, and could withstand an explosion equivalent to 25 kilotons of TNT (more than the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki). An installation by Ana Džokić and Marc Neelen, situated in one of the bunker’s bathrooms, considers the prospect of making such a life support system available to everyone.  

Codenamed ‘Istanbul’, this was the best kept military secret in Yugoslavia – locals were completely unaware of its existence until 2003. Currently, its collection – described by former Tate Modern director, Chris Dercon, as one of the most valuable in south-east Europe –comprises 125…

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