Jasminka Babić
Visions of a Better City

We begin the review of selected artists with recent works of the two whose names have been, as far back as the 1980s, indispensable when we talk about photography in Split. Rino Efendić and Valentino Bilić Prcić are not only responsible for some of the most interesting artist series that are deeply engrained in the memory of every person in Split who is interested in photography, but who have, through their specific photographic oeuvres, both of which are characterized by continuity and consistent artistic thought, presented an authentic spirit of the time, and perhaps more importantly in the local context, the city removed from postcard frames and stereotypical interpretations. Although they differ in form, they share a specific approach to urbanity and a rare sensibility that manages to convey a very personal, clear emotion through silent photography, removed from spectacular motifs and devoid of grand gestures. The pedestrian approach in which photography becomes more a medium of perception of the world than a means of reproducing certain contents, is the starting point of Rino Efendić’s entire creative work, including the photographs presented in this exhibition. Although we are not dealing with the physical print on paper, but an Instagram profile, it is still a recognizable artistic style that is being translated in the new format. Accordingly, the profile that Efendić has had since 2015, with an indicative name epheme_ra, reveals recognizable outskirts of the city, some of the most beautiful images of the districts of Trstenik and Split 3, but also excerpts from everyday life shown through details that convey an exceptional sense of humour. Of course, it need not be emphasized that Efendić uses only the basic assumption of Instagram as a platform primarily intended for photography, while completely ignoring its promotional function. In that sense, Efendić’s practice also acquires a subversive note in the hyperproduction of visual content generated by contemporary social networks.

A personal interpretation of the city, either through incidental street scenes or through portraits of its inhabitants, is the focus of Valentino Bilić Prcić’s photographic work. The exhibited photographs are part of the series created between 2017 and 2019 entitled “Events”. Contrary to widespread eventification, Bilić Prcić marks events from everyday life in the city – dog walks, the familiar coexistence of tourists and locals on the Riva waterfront in Split, the playground, an interesting reflection on a car, everything that most of the modern city dwellers encounter every day. However, Valentino is an artist who clearly shows that what makes a scene special i.e. eventful, is entirely the photographer’s decision, and the consequence of his quick perception, skilful reaction and a trained eye. Nevertheless, the authorial approach here prevails over the urge to capture life-photography. Playing with different focuses, as well as dynamic framing in which the motif often goes beyond the frame, define a strong authorial style wherein, as with Efendić, the communication of deeply personal states and emotions comes to the fore.

If we were to look for the equivalent of Rino Efendić’s position in the film production in Split, we would certainly find it in Boris Poljak. This cinematographer and director was formed in the circle of the Split Cine Club, as part of the generation greatly influenced by the legendary Ivan Martinac. Poljak’s recognizable visual language and propensity for experimental form are visible in his authorial films, which form a kind of trilogy – The Split Watercolour (2009), Autofocus (2013) and They Just Come and Go (2017) that are presented as part of the exhibition. By filming the Bačvice beach in Split at dawn, as night transforms into day, Poljak follows the transition of protagonists who perceive/use the same space in completely different ways. Thus, under the cover of late night, we discover the younger population who, in proportion to the increase in alcohol levels, engage in love games, quarrels, sobering up. However, the regular visitors – pensioners, appear with the first rays of sunshine, and use the beach as a place for morning exercise, socializing and refreshment from the summer heat. It is precisely at this intersection where the most impressive frames of the film are made, which, taken with a telephoto lens from a “polite” distance, provide an exceptional documentary observation where Poljak, through one micro-location, managed to convey the summer lifestyle of an entire city, a clash of generations and their completely different worlds.

Remaining in the domain of the moving image, we continue by presenting the works of Toni Meštrović, a prominent video artist from Split. Two video works entitled Vertigo # 15 (Split 3), 2017 and Vertigo # 18 (Dubrovnik), 2020, are part of the series titled “The Horizontal Studies” that was started in 2012. Meštrović captures specific panoramas in various locations – from the islands of Veli Drvenik, Mackanara, through Split, Rijeka, all the way to Dubrovnik. By quickly rotating the camera tied to a rope, he gets a 360-degree panoramic shot, however because of the rotation of the camera itself the straight line of the horizon is lost. The result is a disorienting “vertiginous” image that precludes the regular perception of what is shown, no matter how recognizable the locations are. Unlike most of Meštrović’s works in which we are accustomed to studiousness, precision, special lyricism and meditativeness, with its speed and instability “Vertigo” dislodges us from our customary viewpoint, and ultimately provides a good starting point for a more complete understanding of what we see.

The work of the Split artist Duška Boban can be read in the context of understanding photography as a social and cultural practice aimed at encouraging dialogue outside the field of art. Since the early 2000s, through her artistic and activist practice, she carefully records and critically examines her immediate surroundings – a city that, under the relentless dictates of capital and private interests, is depleting its natural, urban and cultural resources and, no less important, its citizens. Precisely from the position of a citizen who actively lives and loves her city, the artist turns towards Split’s problematic, neuralgic points, with a sincere belief in the meaning of raising awareness of the problem and the possibility of positive change. Through her affinity for the peripheral (not necessarily in the geographic sense) areas, Boban directs her attention to neglected places, derelict locations, segments of the city’s memory that are resigned to oblivion and are slowly disappearing from its contemporary identity. She combined her many years of research in the photo exhibition “Split *** Three Stars”, which was staged in 2017 in the Salon Galić Gallery. With very atmospheric, technically precise and quiet analogue photographs, she evoked the frozen time of abandoned and/or devastated spaces of Vila Dalmacija (presented in this exhibition), the Dalmacijavino building and the Koteks-Gripe shopping and sports complex. The artist communicates the significance and value of forgotten spaces and ideas about their possible future public purpose, in textual segments, through news media and discursive materials that encourage the audience to actively express their opinions, that is, potential new interpretations and a better vision of the city.

Gildo Bavčević, a multimedia artist from Split, also has a very direct critical attitude towards the current socio-political situation. The clarity of his views and a belief in change is best demonstrated in his performances, the majority of which he also participates in, often relying on symbolic gestures and staging that illuminate problems he considers most pressing. So in 2018, at the height of the affair concerning the Karepovac landfill in Split, when the city was suffocating in toxic fumes emanating in waves from the landfill as a result of the problematic amelioration, he staged a video performance in collaboration with a children’s choir and music school orchestra who performed the song “Let This Whole World” from the musical “Yalta, Yalta”. In the middle of the performance of Kabiljo’s optimistic composition, Bavčević covers the faces of young performers with protective masks, thus muffling their voices and symbolically shattering the utopian dream of a beautiful and happy future. From today’s pandemic perspective, this work acquires a completely new, even more serious context that only confirms the interpretative potential of a work of art, regardless of the initial intention of its author.

As a continuation of this line of thought we can observe the latest works of Kristina Restović. One of the most prolific and consistent graphic artists of her generation, she is represented with the first works from the series titled “Small Mercies”. Technically at a high level, these prints bring an exciting combination of the traditional intaglio printing technique and silk-screen, while the artist finds impetus for the works, as usual, in her immediate environment and personal experience. In her highly acclaimed and award-winning series of prints titled Tourists, she problematized the growing number of tourists in Split, showing them only as groups of people in abstract space, completely erasing the city from all the scenes. In “Small Mercies” she takes the opposite position – she no longer interprets the city through people, but places small sculptural segments in the foreground, which are, although accessible to everyone, almost invisible. They are Romanesque wall figural sculptures that are incorporated into different buildings in the city centre. Kristina identifies them as ailing and offers a new form of “care” to the hidden, neglected heritage visible only to those who pay close attention to detail as they walk around the city or those who know it well and follow all of its transformations. Thus, naked female figurines from the capital of St. Domnius’ bell tower are given a transfusion, while St. George and the dragon from the façade of Hotel Central are connected to an intravenous infusion, because as the artist herself explains, “after all, they have been struggling for centuries”. The humour and absurdity of these scenes only mildly conceal the sincere concern and love of the artist for the space she lives in.

Humour, irony and self-irony are also indispensable in Vedran Perkov’s work. Whether he thematizes his immediate surroundings and a moment in the city, expands the cultural space or his own role in the systems that he lives and creates in, through his works Perkov always clearly communicates the problems he deals with. The preference for textual works, either in simple form or related to more complex methods of appropriation, basically shows the artist’s insistence on a very direct transmission of the message, whatever it may be. His work in the form of a banner with the inscription “Who can pay for this” was originally installed in the Riva waterfront in Split in 2013 as part of the 38th Split Salon. The location of the banner was deliberately chosen and is indicative, as it was situated opposite the most popular sidewalk café, that is, the place where this sentence is definitely often repeated. The meaning is clear, because when everything falls apart, we are still left with the priceless beauty of the Mediterranean. However, Perkov is fully aware of the public space in which he positions his work and its “added value”. During the Split Salon, a Christmas Fair was also organized, and in the context of all the kitsch and visual noise, the textual sign truly did transform into a question. For this exhibition, the artist adapts the work by placing it on the museum façade. Naturally, the location change provides opportunities for new interpretations, and given the current economic situation, self-irony can also emanate from the position of museum institutions, however – any communication with potential audiences is welcome.

Through her intermedia and often interdisciplinary works, Ana Kuzmanić explores and deconstructs dominant social narratives, studying the patterns of the creation of social identities. In this exhibition she presents an installation titled “Greetings from the most beautiful city in the world”, which represents an initial phase of research into tourism and the problem of perception of a particular place from a tourist perspective. The work was shown for the first time in the Museum of Fine Arts in Split in 2017, as part of the City at a Second Glance project. By using another syntagm that is typical in Split in the title of the work itself, the artist introduces us to the critique of tourism, the superficial presentation and vacuous experience of the city. The artist collected numerous postcards of Split dating back to the beginning of the 20th century and continuing almost to the present day, grouped them together according to motif, and attached fictitious textual fragments that represent an amalgam of texts taken from postcards, travel logs and websites where tourists describe the specific locations and their experience. Inspired by Raymond Queneau’s “Exercises in Style”, she repeats fictitious descriptions in variations of different styles, and in doing so emphasizes their superficiality and vacuity. Interestingly, the search for the perfect frame that represents the city did not change much throughout the entire 20th century, which supports the fact that from the position of tourism the city is really presented only as a beautiful backdrop.

Still, the possibility that urban fabric, despite being understood essentially as a backdrop, can be transposed from background decoration to a symbolically strong motif is shown by Neli Ružić in her three-channel video work “Black Flags”. The work was created in 2016 during a spatial intervention in the historic city centre, when the artists installed seven black flags along Bosanska Street in Split. The artist was inspired by the eponymous anthological painting of Ljubo Babić from 1918, which is part of the Museum of Fine Arts’ collection. The expressiveness, immediacy and scenic quality of Babić’s work, as well as the need for a symbolic motif that is clearly read in the contemporary moment, prompted Ružić’s reinterpretation, a staging of sorts, almost a hundred years later. On the one hand, the choice of Bosanska Street as the intervention location is related to the character of the street itself, as one of the busiest streets at the very edge of Diocletian’s Palace and contextually it clearly reflects the current socio-economic situation of Split (commodification of public space, pronounced problems of gentrification, etc.). On the other hand, the artist feels strong emotional ties to that street as the place of her family history. An additional segment that refers to the specific flow of time is achieved in the three-channel video. Passers-by, who originally had the role of observers, become indispensable content in that video. By overlapping different layers of the moving image, Ružić changes the real perception of time when people passed through the street and its spatial determinations. In the new situation, the flags are almost static, contrasted with the fading human figures, which makes the moment of someone passing by, i.e. being in a certain space at a certain time, an almost immaterial category. Nevertheless, it remains recorded as a specific personal and socially archived moment.

The sense of wonderment that is present in the previously showcased work of Neli Ružić can also, to a large extent, be found in Tanja Deman’s photo-collages. In a series of works consolidated under the title “Collective Narratives”, two of which are shown in this exhibition, Deman meticulously edits and combines architectural and natural ambiences into imaginary, surreal scenes. The artist chooses spaces where large groups of people – spectators, gather in order to collectively participate in an experience and inverts the content that the audience observes. Thus, instead of a football match on the pitch of the Poljud Stadium there is a large sand formation, or she focuses the attention of theatre audience on an unexpected segment of a dense rainforest that replaces the dance performance on stage. The artist underscores the fact that the architecture she uses in her works is a space where the world undergoes a transformation during each performance anyway, she just changes the manner of the supposed perception by including the unexpected content. Instead of dynamic performances, the audience is confronted with a quiet, contemplative scene that replaces participation in the spectacle with an experience that is otherwise associated with a space of solitude. As a result, she makes us aware of the dynamic back and forth between the collective and the individual, which everyday life is consisted of, after all.

The last two artists use motifs and the theme of architecture in different ways. It is important to note that both of them do not perceive architecture only as the art of spatial design, but as an indicator of its social, psychological and cultural context. In her work, the young artist Lana Stojićević is focused on the themes of the post-transition chaos in contemporary Croatian society. Although thematically not necessarily connected to Split, her works reflect the consequences of the process in which consumerist society dictates everything and there is an absence of consistent regulations that is visible along the entire coastal region, both in urban areas and beyond. This primarily refers to the group of works that problematize the processes of uncontrolled, and until very recently, illegal housing construction. The exhibited work titled “Land Plot” is basically a caricatured depiction of the need to expand living space, often to the detriment of the closest neighbours. The elongated architectural elements rise, and penetrate one another, while every bit of free space is used to the maximum extent thus creating a chaotic three-dimensional horror vacui. With these procedures, the artist takes the logic of this ever-expanding practice to the level of absurdity, and in so doing creates a shift in the reflection of social reality around us.

We can position Viktor Popović’s artistic research on the completely opposite pole of the rational, thoughtful architecture of high modernism in Split. In the last few years, the artist has focused on the archival methodology and practice, exploring major processes of modernization in Split from the second half of the 20th century, which have significantly determined the present identity of the city. In Popović’s case, the decision to use primarily archival materials speaks of the critical departure from the current state of urban chaos and reminds us of the values these spaces were originally based on. The 2018 installation “Untitled (Archive ST3: Content)” is based on the 1969 document “Split 3: Basic Urban Design”, and photographs taken by Zvonimir Buljević shortly after completion of part of the housing project. With his previously elaborated artistic strategy, Popović forms hybrid works at the intersection of photography, relief and object. The artist intervenes in archival photographs by applying industrial colour correction filters that are perforated with segments of text from the aforementioned document. He shows the technical details of the project, but what is more important in this context, the basic ideas that defined the original project. The often sublime and idealistic language thus reminds us that “the city is an act of will and must increasingly be the subject of a conscious design effort and a preoccupation of the most thoughtful and intelligent forces in society”. An attitude that is extremely important to remember today.
2020
Group exhibition catalogue preface

The Other City

Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik, Dubrovnik, Croatia
November 6 – December 6, 2020

Museum of Fine Arts
December 15, 2020 – January 24, 2021

curators:
Jasminka Babić
Rozana Vojvoda