Nataša Ivančević Traces of Modernism in Personal and Social Memory
Viktor Popović has been active on the Croatian art scene for more than twenty years, exploring the new possibilities of multimedia expression in the field of post-conceptual practices. Although an academic painter by education, already in the initial formative phase, he exhibited in group exhibitions dealing with the phenomenon of New Sculpture,1 as well as in exhibitions of a new generation of Split’s contemporary artists that was recognized for its innovative approach, pluralism and radical shift in relation to the production of the generation of established artists of Split’s scene at the end of the last century.2 The processes which were taking place in Split in the mid-1990s contributed to the aforementioned processes, primarily the establishment and operation of the Arts Academy and the activities around the Museum of Fine Arts which put contemporary art into the focus of interest.
Popović attracted the attention of the general public by winning the Grand Prix of the 8th Triennial of Croatian Sculpture in 2003 for his installation of men’s articles of clothing executed in sheet lead. The works are based on merging disparate work models and representation. The sculpture Untitled (2000/2005) is a lead curtain in actual size, separating the exhibition space like a “real” curtain, which points to a contradictory situation. Objects of utility, which by the nature of things should be light and supple, thus become rigid, heavy and immobile.
The next group of works was created using industrial materials, steel profiles, argon or fluorescent tubes, rubber, or even engine oil. The elements of the installation, as well as the work process, were completely depersonalized, and the author, by composing a new ensemble, established a relationship with legacy and context. In Popović, we will not find grand gestures, direct references, loud narrative structures. The newly established layers of meaning are present implicitly, accessible by reflection, by the mental engagement of the observer who, if he or she so wishes, should take an active role. This is also supported by the “nameless” names of his works that he mostly neutrally designates as “Untitled”.
A new direction of his further engagement with visual art, started in 2006, is the appropriation of ready-made objects of utility. We recall the 100th anniversary of the invention of the ready-made (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain), in which everyday objects were raised to the status of artwork. Popović would often use a similar method in his works. The author is interested in the transformation of erstwhile utility and now discarded objects that become part of a sculptural group, in their relocation to another context—in this case the context of the exhibition space of the museum—which creates a whirl of new relationships and meanings. These are objects that carry traces of use, so they are a sort of carriers of memory, and their grouping creates a new spatial composition to which he associates the fluorescent or argon tubes. By using cold light, the lines in space emerge as pure formal constructions – minimal, poor and reductive. Despite complete asceticism, he uses the combinatorics of standard elements to create associative complexes (ladder, spider web, conical form). The next process is the exhibiting of steel profiles (Untitled, 2006), to which he associates argon light tubes, which, despite their cold, industrial character, create an atmosphere. The result is a composition of accentuated linear structures in space.
On one occasion, Viktor Popović explained the reasons behind his fascination with light as a visual element by saying that it was about material (gas) caught inside a glass tube. Thus, the matter—that is elusive—is a means he used to create a drawing in space. He most literally toyed with this contradiction when creating the light installation in the Richter Collection, challenging the sources of Richter’s synthetic approach to architecture, urban planning and visual art. He used argon tubes to compose Plato’s quote from 387 BC, “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here,” placing it at the entrance to the family house, today’s Richter Collection, in Zagreb’s neighborhood of Vrhovec as part of the SintArt project in 2010.
He would use used chairs in several site-specific installations in various locations. In the Town Library of Komiža in 2006, the chaoticness of the structure of chairs from Komiža Elementary School, seemingly thrown together, was visually balanced and connected by argon light tubes, transforming them into an exhibit. Visible traces of use established a direct link with the context, so the change in the role of the objects was multiply encoded. For his 2006 exhibition at the Portland Art Center in Portland, Oregon, he invited the people, whom he met during his residency program, to lend their chairs for the installation. From one reality, in which they served their original function, the chairs were moved to the reality of the exhibition space with all the connotations that this space entailed. Following the return of the objects to their everyday life, they kept the “invisible” layer of meaning. In the installation which he created for the exhibition T-HT firstname.lastname@example.org at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Untitled, 2006/2007), he used the chairs that, prior to being moved to a new location, had been used in the Museum’s offices for decades. Inside the sculptural form, the lighting was placed that was the only light within the exhibition space. Thus illuminated, the traces of use present in the furniture became visible. By translocating the furnishings, he transferred part of the memory of employees and associates of the Museum to the new building.
The installation Untitled (Archive ST3), dating from 2015, reveals a new chapter of interest in Popović’s work. It was preceded by his archival research on Split 3, a large urban planning project, which encompassed part of the unbuilt urban area of Split in the 1960s. Although it was not fully executed, the project highlighted the high quality of urban planning and envisaged content in line with modernist visions of humane architecture aiming to provide citizens with a pleasant space for living. The elements of the installation consisted of the digital print of the enlarged photograph of the architectural model of the unrealized urban planning solution, onto which several photo objects of the details of the architectural model were placed. The author’s intervention consisted of a drawing with a graphite pencil, a working tool that was once widely used in design and architectural offices. The decision to use the photographs of the preliminary design—and not of today’s as-built state of the urban planning intervention—in the work was driven by the wish to raise awareness of the importance of such consideration and the disproportion in relation with the situation today. The incompatibility between the project and its execution and the awareness of the recent devastations of space have, along with the universal, also a strong personal connection for the author—he grew up here, and he still lives here today, so he has been a witness to the changes that are reflected in the urban matrix. As argued by Ivana Meštrov, “[…] Viktor Popović’s exhibition Untitled (Archive ST3) is primarily a layered communication with the past, the one with which continuity has been lost, and with which the still open, active connections and arguments for further negotiations with the present are being sought.”3
The backbone of the exhibition Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital) is a recontextualization of the architecture of the former Split Military Hospital, whose construction preceded the aforementioned urban planning project, and which was considered Split’s most significant completed construction project in the 1960s. In technology, interior design and interior equipment, it followed the world trends of that time. For Popović, the research is a starting point for questioning both the social and the personal memory of modernist architectural heritage.
The centrally positioned and spatially dominant exhibit of the exhibition is an installation made of discarded hospital beds that carry traces of use, so they are a sort of carriers of memory. Popović found the scrapped beds in the hospital depots, and borrowed them for this purpose. The structure of the installation points to an architectural structure, while the light-emitting fluorescent tubes constitute a cohesive element of the ensemble. The white light dematerializes the original function of the beds, and creates the “aura” of the artwork generated by the act of changing the environment and transferring the ready-made objects into the institutionalized exhibition space of the museum. Semantic analysis gives us a broader framework for interpreting. We associate the hospital bed with sickness, fear and suffering, and, in extreme situations, with death as well, and it therefore evokes emotional reactions. The works on the walls of the gallery are a sort of hybrid of photography, light installation, and photographic filters for color correction. These are digital prints of archival photographs taken in 1965 immediately before the hospital opening, showing the original state of the highly aestheticized interior and the technologically advanced equipment. The photographs document the state of things: the uniform light and regular composition of the photographed give the impression of order, simplicity, clinical cleanliness and depersonalization. The filters and fluorescent light-emitting tubes that follow the perspective lines of the photographed hospital interiors are attached to these supports. In one photographic installation, the position of the fluorescent light-emitting tubes constructs the form of the isometric representation, which establishes a link with the constructivist roots of modernism.
Viktor Popović’s confident connecting of different media, the reaching for the legacy of modernist architecture and design, the interlacing of social and personal memory, the application of archival research methods, appropriation, deconstruction, and collaging, as well as the devising of a new system of an open network of meaning make his work an authentic representative of the art of our time.
Jasminka Babić The Afterlife of Archives
Day to day we witness the rising interest of contemporary art in the themes of history, memory and archive. The analysis of the relationship of the aforementioned, related, but not identical terms will be left for some other discourse, but, given the title of the exhibition which is the subject of this text, it is necessary to glance at the notion of archive in contemporary art. The reasons for the archive fever1 can be found in the evident endangerment of personal and social memory. New media technologies have brought organic memory to retardation, and, as a result of forcing the dominant narratives, social memory is being fully politicized.2 It is in the area of endangered narratives, fragmented history and unfinished projects, where the archival impulse emerges in contemporary art practice, and which is articulated by the American historian and theorist Hal Foster in the text of the same title.3 Artists physically give shape to historical information through the found images, objects or texts. By using fragments of archives, but also by creating new ones, they open up new spaces for reactualization and revaluation of historical segments.
Although in terms of content the archival impulse is clearly expressed only in recent works of Viktor Popović, interesting in this sense is the text by Klaudio Štefančić titled “Retorika modernizma” (“The Rhetoric of Modernism”)4 in which he interprets Popović’s strategy of the appropriation of the language of the art of high modernism through the process of archiving, that is, deconstruction of the same tradition. Referring to Miško Šuvaković, he calls him “an archivist in ‘disorderly and ‘chaotic’ archives […] in which art (painting, sculpture, etc.) is not seen as continuous development (progress, improvement through self-criticism […], but as a multitude of discontinuities.”5 However, even if we move away from the reference field of art history, in the works of Viktor Popović we can find examples of the use of archival material. Let us recall the works dating from 2004, in which the artist introduces photography, i.e., his personal photographic archive created during his stay in New York City. The works reveal a specific impression of the city filtered through the lens of an analog camera. If we extract only a photographic image from the final artwork appearance, it becomes clear that this personal archive has emerged as a result of informed and very specific artistic sensibility rather than as a need for a simple record of personal travel experience. But, as Popović’s ultimate aim is not to produce art photography, he uses it as a basis for the construction of a completely new content. Photographic images by the complex technique of underpainting with acrylic paint and by transferring to a lead base through the screen printing technique acquire a completely different context. Painting of the axonometric representation of geometric bodies can be read as the appropriation of the elements of the abstract painting tradition, that is, the reinterpretation of the historical and artistic archive. The final result is the work whose equivocal quality is manifested in the dichotomous relations of the figurative-abstract, pictorial-photographic, mechanical-manual, language of high modernity-postmodernist speech, and it is precisely such strategy of dynamic relations and inverted meanings that is intrinsic to Popović’s entire oeuvre.
The works exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb and at the gallery of the Multimedia Cultural Center in Split follow the same development trajectory and confirm Popović’s extraordinary skill in governing the aforementioned relations, but also his confidence in the transformation of the gallery space through the media of spatial installation. The artist intervenes on large format digital prints of archival photographs, taken in 1965 at the former Military Hospital in Split, with recognizable neon tubes and industrial filters for color correction. A dynamic play between the representation of hospital interiors from the 1960s and the cold geometric lines of neon give the documentary photography a strong auratic character of the work of art. The memory of the represented space is further enhanced by the introduction of old bactericidal lamps and scrapped beds taken from the same hospital. With the form of a large installation structure made of iron beds, Popović cites modernist elements of the architecture of the hospital’s main building. The objects of utility themselves—as carriers of memory—are almost completely anonymized through the geometry of the verticals and horizontals of the newly created architecture. However, Popović is fully aware of the extraordinary strength of the memory code of the material he uses, and precisely through this tense relationship between content and form he makes the observer actively perceive the presented ensemble.
After almost two decades of artistic work, in 2015, Popović added to his programmatic (un)naming of the works the segment Archive ST3. A seemingly small change is, in reality, a sign of a greater shift. The fact is that a whole series of works—united under the titles of Untitled (Archive ST3) and Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital)—are based on his research of institutional archives.6 However, it is not just about that. Popović has already used materials that we can consider archival,7 but now, unlike before, when the objects became part of the work by temporary appropriation, changing depending on the context of their exhibiting, for the first time, the artist takes the role of the archivist, the Derridian archon who has the competence and power to determine what enters into the archive and how that archive is interpreted.
In order to understand Popović’s decision to make such a turn in his artistic strategy it is necessary to look at the broader historical and social context that is at the very source of his new works. All the material gathered by Popović consists of digitized archive photographs related to architectural and urban planning projects in the period of high modernism in Split. This was a time of the most intense development of the city that followed after the first post-war industrialization. The large inflow of new population demanded urgent addressing of the issue of appropriate accommodation in Split, so that the period of the 1950s and 1960s saw records in the intensity of residential construction in Yugoslavia.8 The major project of the modernization of the city involved the development of significant public facilities – administrative and business buildings, schools and, of course, hospitals.9 In the late 1960s, a large urban planning project was carried out that regulated the expansion of the city of that time to its eastern suburbs, known today as Split 3.10 It is an example of an exceptionally well-considered urbanism that solved the issue of a rapidly growing population, while at the time preserving the Mediterranean identity and way of life through pedestrian streets and public spaces. Although it involved the mass construction of residential architecture, the project successfully avoided the complete alienation of the residents and the reduction of the new suburbs to the dormitory function, thus becoming a paradigmatic example of an exceptional urban planning and architectural practice.11
The reasons for Popović’s interest in the aforementioned period of the formation of Split can be understood through several parameters. On the one hand, Split 3 is the space where he grew up, and, in that case, the memory of space has a very personal character. On the other hand, the architecture of high modernism is fully consistent with the reference field of Popović’s interest in the field of art history. But while the development of artistic strategy in the autoreferential space of art can be seen as the defining of a very personal artistic identity, research of the living urban space inevitably acquires a broader social context. In Popović’s case, the decision to use archival and not recent photographs—as was the case with the photographs of New York City—speaks of a critical detachment from the current state of urban planning chaos and of recollecting the values according to which these spaces were originally conceived. The need for the accumulation of one’s own archive and for its reinterpretation is the consequence of the position taken by the institutional archives in relation to the socialist period of modernism in Croatia. The change of the social system and transitional chaos have destroyed the successor institutions of the aforementioned projects – the archives of either the former Urban Planning Institute of Dalmatia or Lavčević Construction Company are incomplete and partially lost. For example, the architectural model of the preliminary design of Split 3 itself was destroyed, and Popović was able to find its high-quality photograph only in Mušič’s Archive at the Museum of Architecture and Design in Ljubljana. The situation is even more serious with regard to the Military Hospital because, at the time of taking control of the institutions of the former Yugoslav Army in 1991, the found archives were almost completely destroyed.12 The found photographs are part of Lavčević’s book of clients, which by sheer luck came to the Photographic Collection of the City Museum of Split.
The problems with systematic institutional work on the collecting and processing of archival material from the period of socialism are an indicator of a distinct politicization of memory. The process in which our not-so-distant history becomes a forgotten narrative has opened up a large field of artistic practices that problematize precisely the socialist legacy. In the public discourse, such practices are all too easily labeled as sentiment toward the undesirable past, but the described context of creation of Popović’s recent works clearly shows that the artistic archival impulse is essential in a situation where we are physically losing the records that are the basis for all future interpretations of our history.
New Croatian Sculpture, Croatian Association of Visual Artists Osijek, Kazamat Gallery, July – August, 2004, Osijek
Contemporary Art in Split: New Generation, Museum of Fine Arts Split, March 2006, Split; Home of Croatian Visual Artists, April–May 2006, Zagreb
Ivana Meštrov, Viktor Popović, Bez naziva (Arhiv ST3) [Viktor Popović, Untitled (Archive ST3)], School Gallery, School of Fine Arts, Split / 19th March–20th April 2015. Triptih – Viktor Popović, Igor Ruf, Dieter Roth, and Oskar Schlemmer; Editor: Evelina Turković; Author: Evelina Turković; Broadcasted on Tuesday, 7th April 2015 at 4:03 pm; Text by Ivana Meštrov
I borrow the term from Jacques Derrida, whose anthological text embodies the change of a traditional perception of the archive as a closed repository of the past in understanding the archive as a dynamic category, both in the process of its creation and in the possibilities of interpretation. See Jacques Derrida and Eric Prenowitz, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. In Diacritics, Vol. 25, No. 2 (Summer, 1995), p. 10. Title of the French original: Mal d’archive: Une impression freudienne, Éditions Galilée, Paris, 1995.
Susannah Radstone, Bill Schwarz (ed.), Memory: Histories, Theories, Debates. Fordham University Press, New York, 2010, pp. 1-9.
Hal Foster, “An Archival Impulse”, October 110, Fall 2004, 3.
Klaudio Štefančić, „Retorika modernizma“ (“The Rhetoric of Modernism”) in K15 Pojmovnik nove hrvatske umjetnosti (K15 Glossary of New Croatian Art), Krešimir Purgar (ed.). Art magazine, Kontura d.o.o. Zagreb, 2007.
State Archive in Split; Archive of the former Urban Planning Institute of Dalmatia; Archive of the former Lavčević, Ltd.; Archive of the Conservation Department of the Ministry of Culture in Split; Archive of Architect Vladimir Braco Mušič in the Architectural Collection of the Museum of Architecture and Design in Ljubljana; Photographic Collection of the City Museum of Split.
For example, the museum material of the former Museum of Communist Revolution in Split.
For a concise development of the city and the most significant examples of 20th-century architecture in Split, see SPLIT: Arhitektura 20. stoljeća: Vodič (SPLIT: Architecture of the 20th Century: A Guide), Darovan Tušek (ed.), Faculty of Civil Engineering and Architecture, University of Split, 2011.
Continuing on the project of the new hospital, which began in the inter-war period, a large complex of the General Hospital was built in the city quarter of Firule in the period 1958–1969 according to the 1951 design by Zoja Dumengjić. The entire hospital complex represents an outstanding example of modern architecture, which was built in line with the contemporary structural and technological achievements, and designed with great sensitivity to the site’s urban and natural context. See Barišić Marenić, Zrinka: „Opća bolnica u Splitu (1951.-1969.) arhitektice Zoje Dumengjić“ (General Hospital in Split (1951–1969) Designed by Zoja Dumengjić), in Prostor 22  1. The military hospital was built in the period 1962–1965 according to the design by Antun Ulrich, a prominent promoter of modernist architecture. Program-wise, it was the most significant building of that decade in Split. See Vesna Mikić, Arhitekt Antun Ulrich: Klasičnost moderne (Architect Antun Ulrich: The Classical Quality of Modernism). Naklada Jurčić, 2002, pp. 114–119.
Following the 1969 competition, the construction began in the 1970s. It was based on the design by Vladimir Mušič, Marjan Bežan and Nives Starc of Ljubljana.
The project was halted in the late 1970s due to the construction of infrastructure facilities for the 1979 Mediterranean Games. During the 1980s the project was partially continued, but it was interrupted during the Homeland War. In the second half of the 1990s, architectural construction intensified again, but the former so-called socially oriented residential construction gradually gave way to small-scale private investments.
Darovan Tušek, Arhitektonski natječaji u Splitu: 1945. – 1995. (Architectural Competitions in Split: 1945–1995), Faculty of Civil Engineering, University of Split, Association of Architects Split, 1996, p. 45.
1-10 Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital), 2017 archival prints on paper mounted on aluminum boards, fluorescent light tubes, electrical fittings, colour correction filters each print 120 x 120 cm archival photographs: City Museum of Split, Collection of Photographs (photographer: Ante Roca)
12-13 Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital), 2017 archival prints on paper mounted on aluminum boards, used medicinal bactericidal lamps / fluorescent light tubes, colour correction filters height 205 cm archival photographs: City Museum of Split, Collection of Photographs (photographer: Ante Roca)
14 Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital), 2017 used hospital beds, fluorescent light tubes height 585 cm
15 Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital), 2017 digital print on paper, fluorescent light tubes, electrical fittings, 300 x 340 x 5 cm archival photograph: City Museum of Split, Collection of Photographs (photographer: Ante Roca)