Saturday, 25 April 2015

Croatian Art on the Horizon: Lecture by Vanja Žanko

Cursed Crew (2013)
I took my new language on an artistic field trip to Wandsworth on Tuesday evening. Kristin Hjellegjerde's gallery was hosting an event under the auspices of the Creative Croatia Festival, and people with an interest in the Croatian art scene were there to hear freelance curator Vanja Žanko speak. She not only spoke about her curatorial work with various international artists but offered an insight into the artistic world in Zagreb, and Croatia more generally.

It seemed appropriate to talk about artists and their position as antenna of current events against Kirsten's current exhibition of Ethiopian artist Dawit Abebe. In his large scale, enigmatic yet colourful canvases, he explores the conflicts that can arise when history and technology collide. Although he is talking about his own culture, he is placing it against a broader international context, as he says, 'Ethiopia, like many developing countries, has struggled with the impact of technology and modernisation and its place within a long and rich local heritage and culture'. And that is precisely what Vanja is interested in.

It is easy to take art for granted in London. The city is awash with independent high quality imaginative galleries, which promote a huge array of artists. London is also a destination for some of the most well known and inclusive commercial cycle of art fairs, for instance this weekend sees the Bloomsbury based Other Art Fair. The art press is continuously telling us that the UK and international art markets are stronger than ever. So when someone says that their city does not have a private gallery network, or art market infrastructure and artist representation system, this comes as quite a surprise.

Vanja has been working hard to provide support and exposure for artists against a society and economy in transition from socialism to capitalism. Previously there was little need for artists to sell their work as many curators in public institutions would encourage the government to support a particular type of institutional art. These curators remain authoritative and influential, yet she is looking for something different in the art and artists with whom she works.

The criteria she specifies when taking on an artist are these; they have to have an international career of at least eight years; their art practice has to be still undergoing change and development; they have to be robust enough to cope with difficulties and challenges that they will inevitably face. She says that it's a struggle and that many of the artists are undergoing as much transition as their art. Helpfully she gave us some headings to create a classification framework to the many types of contemporary artwork being produced. She suggested Invisible Heritage, Silent Transition, Regime of Visibility, and Image Production.

Invisible heritage

The first is Invisible Heritage. Croatia is still a young country, very much rooted in its socialist past, therefore socialist art provides a relevant starting point. David Maljkovic makes films, collages, sculpture and instillation that deal with the historical, cultural heritage of modernist projects of the former Yugoslavia. The redundant and decontextualized monuments of the past are given new meanings. In his Scene for a New Heritage 2004-2006,  a ruined monument to the Yugoslav partisans of Voijn Bakic, he rethinks the abandoned ideology, whilst moving around the building.

Most interesting is this use of archives, a source now being explored by many artists, notably London artist Anne Howson. Depending on the type of archive obviously, these underexploited collections offer an opportunity to examine 'place' and the transformations which have and continue to take place.

A second artist to revisit a socialist past from an architectural point of view is Jasmina Cibic. Regarding her latest work, Spielraum (2015) she states that 'through film, performance, sculpture, and installation, her gesamtkunstwerk explores the instrumentalisation of visual language and rhetoric in the construction of the State as spectacle throughout recent history'. She represented Slovenia at the 55th Venice Biennial with her project For Our Economy and Culture. Marko Tadić also uses found images in order to make a statement about the changing nature of the past. He uses flea markets and personal archives producing Modernist yet formal and minimal abstract works.

Finally in this group is Ivan Fijolić. He takes a subversive look at some of the serious sculpture that was produced to commemorate important figures of the country's history - as well as producing work incorporating Jesus Christ and Bruce Lee. He is unusual in that he works with figurative sculpture, for instance, Fijolić’s 2012 show Neo NOB exhibited a copy of a well-known statue of Communist leader Tito cast in 1948, but with head of Tito’s wife Jovanka superimposed on top.

Silent Transition

The second Silent Transition could in my view apply to all of the artists she mentioned; transition is a common recurrence. However she mentions three artists which specifically focus on changing political and economic circumstances. The first is Renata Poljak who merges past and present, reality and unreality and a very fractured history. Using the events from the life of partisan hero Boško Buha and the actor who played his brief life in a 1978 film, she holds up a mirror to time and place, and alternative realities, in a video piece called Staging Actors/Staging Beliefs (2011-12).

The Silent Islands photo series of SofijaSilva explore the political systems of ancient regimes, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, again combining landscapes and abandoned interiors. The dynamic artistic duo Žižić/Kožul have worked with a material which is ubiquitous in covering or protecting bankrupt shop fronts in Zagreb. They have produced art which reflects economic and social reality, and a fragile new consumerism which is struggling to get a foothold.

Regime of Visibility

Fragility is definitely the theme of the artists in this category. The conceptual pieces produced by Ivana Franke and Igor Eškinja work with material which is by its nature temporary or site specific. Franke represented Croatia at the 9th Venice Architecture Biennale in 2004 and at the 52nd Venice Biennale in 2007, works with light and dark, light and ethereal, and the visible and invisible. The viewer moves around the installations, so she is also incorporating movement and passage of time.

Light art has a particular attraction for me because it is so difficult to pin down; light seems to be as much an emotional trigger as smell, and is just as 'of the moment'. Dark art installations such as How It Is by Polish artist Miroslaw Balka, or Your black horizon by Olafur Eliasson and David Adjaye had such a profound impact on me, not simply because they were interesting works, but the extra-sensory experience of light and dark gives my memory an extra boost. I imagine it, and the visual impact is right there, in my mind's eye.

Igor Eškinja also demands that you move, however, in his case you need to find the exact point required to see how the installations work. Like Holbein's anamorphosis, or the Channel 4 idents, everything falls into place in the sweet spot. He also works with temporary material such as dust which he forms into beautiful geometric shapes to create a carpet. His installations seem to offer something solid but before you know it, certainty has slipped away and you are left with more questions. 

Image production

This final category is image production and perhaps takes us into a more fantastical and imaginative world.  Lovro Artukovič figurative painting is arresting, with Models Posing for Pieta and Pieta Inverted, engaging directly with western religious art and subverting it. The female figure, who cradles the male, gazes directly at the artist/view which removes the intimate grief which you would normally associate with a traditional Pieta. And when the roles are reversed, the meaning shifts again. Oko also plays with social norms and takes a humorous look at gender expectations and identity creation.

Zlatan Vehabović explores literary adventure themes, such as men at sea and fantastical animals. As the gallery says, in his Cursed Crew (image above), he mesmerizes us with his use of color: the azure blue of the sea beckons us while the reflections of lights on the whalers’ faces warn us to keep our distance. He is not content with remaining in a studio as he will be embracing adventure on an Arctic Circle Residency. This is both artist and scientist led, and is an annual expeditionary residency program bringing together international artists of all disciplines, scientists, architects, and educators who collectively explore remote and fascinating destinations aboard a sailing vessel.

These individuals represent just a handful of the Croatian artists currently practicing, but the fact that I've struggled to find some of them online, and certainly haven't found any critical commentary, demonstrates the difficulties they face in getting international exposure. The breadth of ideas and quality of art created by all of these artists is a relatively untapped and unexplored seam of talent.

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