Božo Majstorović

Exhibition catalogue preface

Contemporary Art in Split: New Generation
Gallery of Fine Arts, Split, Croatia / March 16-31, 2006
Editor: Gallery of Fine Arts, Split, Croatia, March 16, 2006, pgs. 53-57

Among the exhibiting activities of the Gallery of Fine Arts, on this occasion, we want to place emphasis on individual and group exhibitions of authors from Split who belong to the younger generation. In other words, besides respect for the traditional role of museums in regard to exhibitions of the acknowledged artists, consciously and with reason we have made a step forward into a risky area of recognising and promoting recent artistic production of young authors. Through a special programme that so far has included twenty-two exhibitions and twenty-five authors, most of them connected with Split, which has been the most important reason for the concept and continuity of the programme. Respecting their quantity and quality the Gallery of Fine Arts has decided to make one step further. Organising group exhibitions the Gallery has confirmed and emphasised the fact that today in Split, and it was rarely the case in the past, there is a new generation of artists that in any case deserves attention. First of the two exhibitions staged in 2003 was devoted to contemporary photography. Reasons for presenting photography separately have been an enviable tradition of photography in Split, popularity of the media, already recognised qualities of individual authors especially news-photographers and a considerable number of artists who use photography in their work. Exhibition Contemporary Photography in Split – Life & Art curated by Jasminka Babić presented the works of Valentino Bilić-Prcić, Matko Biljak, Duška Boban, Tom Dubravec, Rino Efendić, Thomas Krstulović, Veljko Martinović, Robert Matić, Siniša Sunara, Božo Vukićević and Loren Živković Kuljiš. Contemporary Art in Split – New Generation is the second part of this kind of exhibition diptych. To get a clear picture of the contemporary art scene in Split it is important to stress that this exhibition is a selection. It has not included few authors who received a deserved attention in the past few years. Reasons for their absence are different: change of address, creative lull, and space restrictions. On the other hand the exhibition presents authors who do not exclusively belong to the art scene in Split, which in a special way speaks about vivacity and mobility of that scene. The artists selected bear the inveterate label of the younger and middle generation. Some have just graduated from the academy or they are just about to graduate, others have reached mature years. Conscious that every selection is a risk especially the one whose aim is not only to recapitulate but to envisage we have chosen the following artists: Luka Barbić, Vinko Barić, Sonja Gašperov, Petar Grimani, Siniša Labrović, Toni Meštrović, Dan Oki, Vanja Pagar, Marija Paparella Legentil, Vedran Perkov, Viktor Popović, Tanja Ravlić Čelić, Kristina Restović, Sandra Sterle, Boris Šitum, Dario Šolman, Ivan Svaguša and Loren Živković Kuljiš.

There are several ways in which contemporary visual arts in Split can be pondered upon, perceived, evaluated and placed in context. Value judgements will largely depend on the coefficient of respect for the historical heritage and the actual conditions of recent art production. The names of the selected artists reveal the criteria of the selection but even more conditions and relations among the art microworld. Namely, to speak about contemporary art scene in Split, and we believe situation is similar in other parts of the country, means to sum up individual poetics and practices that rarely find artistic and less and less pragmatic reasons to work within a group. Group exhibiting that was a specific phenomenon in the art life of the 20th century disappeared in time. It would not be untrue if we say the reason was break with the tradition of modernism, absence of dominant stylish/poetical tendencies as well as ideational/ideological verticals. However, this seductive simplification tells nothing about the actual time. The time in which art has become a part of the civilisation of spectacles, articulated and marketed in mass media, economically profitable and in a trendy way manipulated activity… Art today has been treated as goods whose economical, ideological, political and symbolical values have been taken care by the system that, with more or less success, covers its true interest. Hyper-production of art works and manifestations that have literally web the world speaks vividly about the treatment of art. It might be said that the growing presence of art in mass media, an incalculable number of exhibitions, visitors and profit are in inverse proportion to the real influence of art in the society. Of course, we must respect the right to a different position of art as well as the objection that function and aims are changeable categories. Actual art is more a reflection of lines of social force than an area of conflict, shifting or promoting; it is more a consequence than a cause. Artistic and political discourses and in a large part forms of action practically overlap in their idyllic life and tolerance. Is there a place for wonder that even conflicts and provocations that happen now and then end in mutual benefits very soon, leaving a bitter taste of theatrical play for the public? The question remains whether the salon activism, omnipresent cynicism or metaposition were a convincing alibi. On the other hand, is the returning of an aura to the work of art by the actual affecting to the tradition of modernism the only possible reaction? Indicative in this context is the case of the museum – an institution that has largely shaped the idea of art and the work of art. Until recently, museums were envisaged the destiny of cultural dinosaurs; because of their sluggishness and lack of adaptation to the new times they were going to die out. Not only the prediction has not come true but museums have in the meantime become more attractive than ever, being practically the only cult place of the contemporary civilisation. Thousands of pilgrims come to adoration in firm belief that they will experience something unique and valuable. Aura does not happen in the space of the work of art but in the field of experience that can very much so be stimulated. Today art has been handed over like natural resources of the Third World to the concession of the profit that sells it like Coca-Cola or some other planetary popular brand. Consciously or unconsciously art today has in a large part become a subtle but extremely efficient weapon of neo-colonial politics.

In Croatia the processes of globalisation and standardisation (uniformity) went on under specific circumstances of the social system changes, war and postwar events and transitional anomalies that engaged and exhausted the economic, intellectual and emotional energy of the society. Optimism with which Croatia had entered the 1990s, a decade when most of the artists exhibiting on this show finished their academy education and had first public appearances, had in time turned into resignation and disappointment. Today we are the inheritors of a painful experience of the lightness of destruction and the painstaking of building. Despite the fact that at one moment Croatian society by consensus saw better future in politically speaking Euroatlantic integrations, it turned out that the establishment of the new values and standards was not just a mere mechanical substitute. However, Croatia as well as the image of Croatia was gradually changing. Perhaps the reason was that only few years ago an intolerant society in the meantime turned out to be an extraordinary client of foreign banks, telecommunication operators or mercantile chains.

An infinite number of typed pages have been written about the 90s in Split. Depressive pauperisation and overall devastation caused by war, peculiar privatisation, traffic isolation and negative selection turned Split into the case city. Art life that in the second half of the 1980s abandoned provincial frames thanks to the Art Summer exhibition programme which dispersed artistic activities all over the city, from Diocletian’s substructures to squares, was once again turned into an occasional simulation of culture. All generations of artists from Split exhibited mostly on group exhibitions that were nominal continuance of the earlier salons or biennials. The already modest exhibiting premises were additionally impoverished with the extinction of the Art Salon while the umbrella museum institution, the Gallery of Fine Arts, rarely opened its door. Benevolence in regard to the criteria, lack of any serious concept, drawing on daily political and even ideological rhetoric, rare guest performances of authors from other regions had as a consequence exhibitions below the achieved standards. At that time the Split Salon was transformed into the Sacred Art Salon and the local professional association insisted that only artists from Split should exhibit in Split. A group of artists gathered around the Adria Art Annual tried to promote a departure from traditional painting and statue, obsolete reminiscences, emptiness of landscapes and views and newly discovered sacredness. With reference to the above mentioned exhibitions at the end of the 80s whose continuity they wanted to preserve, their programme was at least on paper much more radical not to say more rigid. Crucial terms of their poetics were insistence on engaged art and aversion to the work of art as an aesthetic object. Zealous approach and performance more appropriate to the art of the 60s than the 90s could be understood in regard to their desperate environment. Unfortunately, organisational sloppiness, personal outwitting, dissonance between the proclaimed and the presented resulted in understated exhibitions that rarely had powerful reverberations.

First attempts to get out from the local backwater appeared in the middle of the 90s, associated with a new generation of art historians and artists whose enthusiasm and persistence made up for a slender support they received for their projects. Art and exhibition scene in Split was woken up thanks to the efforts of the GAP project by Toni Horvatić, the 21st Spring by Petar Grimani and the Split Art Project by Božo Majstorović. It was significant that these three initiatives appeared almost at the same time, more or less similar in concept and the selection of artists, conditioned by almost identical reasons and goals. More important than disappointment with Split art scene was desire to give scope for a new generation of artists, establish contacts with other regions, insist on new criteria and promote contemporary visual media and poetics. The result were tenths of exhibitions presenting work of numerous young artists from Split, Zagreb, Rijeka and Dubrovnik, and artists who by that time had rarely or never exhibited in Split although they were important names of Croatian contemporary art. In this context we must mention later curator work of Ana Peraica and the group of artists gathered around Viktor Popović and Dario Šolman who realised series of exhibitions of young authors from Split and Zagreb at the Galić Salon. Looking back it was the beginning of gathering of a new generation of artists who in the meantime exhibited on numerous individual and group exhibitions and won significant awards for their work.

Far from belittling the importance of all these more or less individual efforts, the fact is that taking a long-term view the most important events happened within an institution. In the first place we think about the foundation of the Art Academy and the activities of the Gallery of Fine Arts. From the practical point of view the Academy has provided working places for numerous young artists, opened its lecture-rooms for artists, art historians, theoreticians and critics from Croatia and abroad, and last but not the least it has educated several interesting young artists, which has been the main reason for its existence. The story about the Gallery of Fine Arts is more than illustrative. At the beginning of the 20th century, first generation of artists that gathered around Bukovac, Vidović and Meštrović was already fully aware of the importance of founding a museum in Split. Besides collecting and taking care of the artistic heritage, the museum was envisaged as a place for exhibitions of contemporary artists as well. Ninety-eight years have passed since their initiative and the time when first works were bought up for the future museum. Split has not still found a home for its museum, and an inadequate relation to visual arts is best reflected in the premises where artists from Split have been exhibiting their works for decades. However, the adaptation of the former Museum of Revolution building and the possibilities of a construction of an annex in the Cornaro bulwark for the needs of the Gallery of Fine Arts, give hope that the largest black mark in the history of culture in Split will be finally solved.

If we ignore the existential and social environment and look upon artistic and visual aspect, the question arises itself: what does a new generation of artists in Split have in common? If we bear in mind the prevalent trend, style or preference of a particular media, a laconic answer could be that there is no such thing as common denominator. Pluralism, openness to different media, art disciplines and subjects, freedom from artistic heritage and authorities make authors from Split the typical representatives of their generation. Not so long ago, in a way characteristic for self-sufficient, enclosed regions much has been said about the singularity of artistic expression in Split. With references to the tradition and innate inclinations, all contemporary tendencies were proscribed as something unnatural. Stone on one side and the nostalgic sfumato of Vidović on the other were the tokens of local normative aesthetics. During the 90s voice of the artists who in their work placed emphasis on criticism of the society, politics and ideology, became louder. Their artistic practice was uninterested in form/object, rigid in attitude and in content burden with a need to be engaged and subversive. Probably not by their own wish this practice became part of the gloomy picture of the grey decade in which various protagonists while adapting history and manipulating with the reality, built virtual worlds to their own measure. Followers of Soros-realism in Split will be remembered by their bombastic statements and the persevering exhibitive negligence. This exhibition of a new generation of artists in Split is a definite break with the art of the 90s. However, it does not mean that those authors have abandoned the position of a critic. On the contrary they all are educated, well-informed artists who intelligently interpret the machinery of the world they live in and articulate their ideas wittily and attractively. Their works are carefully pondered and elaborated on conceptual, media and presentational level.

Among the variety of media and individual handwritings presented on this exhibition, only the three youngest authors form a separated entity: Vinko Barić, Sonja Gašperov and Ivan Svaguša. Their paintings are not just the usual products of the talented students at the end of their studies. Painting is a traditional media, actualised again by the laws of the market, but painting products of those three authors, their ideational subtext, iconography and form are by no means contemporary. Even then, when like Barić they refer to the famous works from art history. Behind the recognisable influences of Pop Art, and the aesthetics promoted by mass media, there are hidden personal stories and critical attitudes unequivocally presented in a humorous and unpretentious way. Apart from this noisy and cheerful painting, for Marija Paparella Legentil painting is a meditative act. Although the subject has been stylised to the verge of abstraction, scrupulously arranged or multiplied in a regular raster, Marija’s green monochromes are the reflection of the spirit, not the reason. Literally and metaphorically they are her carefully cultivated garden. Driving by Kristina Restović has a completely different character. In the exhibition set-up, graphics with the imprints of automobile tyres simulate a real distance between the wheels as well as the zero point of graphic arts. Instead of an esoteric vision of nature we meet the traces of civilisation.

After being a constructor, Vedran Perkov has become a builder. First he built space ships; afterwards he started building fallout shelters. Moreover, they are not the products of imagination but based upon serious designs. Vedran’s shelter made of cardboard will not protect anyone, just like his space ship will never fly. His work was inspired by the fact that the Gallery of Fine Arts building was originally an orphanage but none of the wards lived to their majority. Almost forty years ago when the building was adapted for the Museum of Revolution, a fallout shelter was built. On the Internet the artist found a commercial for the production of family fallout shelters. Bearing all that in mind, a pseudo shelter of a pseudo builder stops being a bizarre building and becomes a comment on the bizarre reality. The key determinant of the artistic practice of Petar Grimani and Vanja Pagar is a critical relation towards the environment, ideological, political, cultural paradigms and the systems of power. Their work is a link of its kind with the poetics of the 90s. Grimani usually starts from the concrete space, situation or a problem and in the end the work of art becomes a complex, multilayered and ambiguous form. In contrast to the talkative and never fully expressed (or always open) Grimani, Pagar is concise and concrete. His artistic gesture is reduced to a pure idea, a concept. Any additional part would create an unnecessary noise in communication. Common Drive by Siniša Labrović, professor of Croatian language and literature by training, is a wistful and traumatic evocation of childhood as well as the naturalistic picture of the society. A shabby bus is a cruel stage of life, one moment colourful and surreal the other bitter and apathetic. While Labrović’s language is, regardless of its indisputable poetics, concrete and his criticism unambiguous, Luka Barbić leads us to the world of manipulation and simulation. We could say that total project Maxon Universal is a forgery in the museum and artistic context. In other words, using various mechanisms and strategies in the process of creation, promotion and finding a market for goods Barbić makes up “an ingenious product that every household should actually have”. Maxon Universal is carefully packaged with a recognisable logo, it advertises itself on TV, acts as a sponsor… It is present although it does not exist, it is the reality. Therefore, the reality of the Common Drive and the virtual reality of Maxon Universal are different only at first look.

Viktor Popović persistently refers to the tradition of high modernism in his work. Restrained in gesture, deliberate and rational, he creates works that most accurately can be placed in the context of modern poetics actualisation. Essentially those are auto-referential works in which we can sometimes recognise symbolic connotations. After simulating ready-mades, in his recent works Popović has used industrial products. Spatial installation made of aluminium industrial profiles and neon tubes simultaneously conquers and denies space. Neon tubes dematerialise the metal diagonals and the nearby space that together with the always-new views, at the same time creates the impression of affirmation and negation of spatial relations. In the last few years Boris Šitum has brought attention to himself with his ambient interventions; either on the existing objects that in this way have become new landmarks in space or with the articulation of spatial structures open to physical communication. In his recent works he has been interested in the dynamic relation between a visual and a linguistic sign and between the form and the meaning. The Spaces of Surpassing are the result of a need to affirm the meaning of the work of art in a period of impossibilities, says Loren Živković Kuljiš. To be affirmed as a sculptor once meant to affirm the form in space. What does it mean to be a sculptor in times that have abandoned the traditional values of that classic discipline? In search for the meaning of sculpture Loren becomes a media nomad and the results are media casseroles that exist in the rift between presence and absence, the material and the conceptual. Conceptually and procedurally transparent The Spaces of Surpassing are spatial illusions of mathematical and geometric origin.

The titles of video works Revolution and Illegal Operation by Tanja Ravlić Čelić and Toni Meštrović imply socially traumatic contents. Although both works are about situations from authors’ private lives and the titles are literally based on the content, authors have left a space open to various interpretations. In this way a humorous event on the occasion of preparing a family lunch, an attempt to light the fire with a newspaper sheet with clearly seen word REVOLUTION on it, acquires a new dimension thanks to the symbolical and historical context. With continual repeating of the scene and freezing of the foreground an accidental event gets a timeless dimension. Toni Meštrović has edited the tape of an illegal operation of his own tooth in the three – channelled video/audio installation where in irregular rhythms in a loop, audio-visual flashes appear creating a chaotic and aggressive atmosphere that provokes fear and chill in the viewers. More than significant is the title of the work by Sandra Sterle Integration / Who wants to play? whose subject are the actual debates connected with the attempts of Croatia to become a member of the European Union. The three-channelled video installation shows the performance by the author herself partially costumed as a clown. The scenery of the clown’s game is the insignia of the EU, an enclosed courtyard for play and the gratings. Taking of the role of a clown with all his symbolism in the work that questions the European Integration is both symptomatic and warning. Visually the most attractive work at the exhibition is The Householder by Dan Oki who in a rather impressive way uses the modern technology possibilities in generating of the picture. From the point of view of the genre it is a self-portrait made by scanning of his head with a 3D scanner. With further computer processing he has created a sequence of virtual sculptures and inamorphous pictures. Synchronised movement, exchange, transformation lead us to a spatial – temporal journey with recognisable historic and private references. The Heart of The Perspective / The Making of the Film by Dario Šolman is a multimedia project on which author has been working since 2001. All phases and compounds of the work that includes drawings, animation, video, stroyboards, digital art and written materials have been presented on the Internet. Of all this abundant material that by authors own words will never be edited in a film, only drawings and two animations have been exhibited. Behind or more appropriately above the infantile segments with the stylised cube-shaped character in the leading role there is a hidden story about one of the key notions of the Western civilisation, the perspective. Perspective has been imposed as a universal model that defines personal position and the way we see, interpret and visualise the world around us. Perhaps nothing better than the perspective symbolises the civilisation of abstract thought and individualism impregnated with a strong sense of practical.

To deal with art without going with the grain has for decades been an almost impossible mission in Split. Therefore it is not surprising that numerous artists left and only few came back. The only possibility left for Split was like in the case of Ljubo Ivančić, to stress his origins and emotional ties with the hometown. Let us remember the first great generation of artists gathered at the beginning of the 20th century with whom modern art made a fabulous stride in Split. By a combination of circumstances only Emanuel Vidović did not leave Split. We hope that a similar story will not happen again. Once painters, sculptors, writers and musicians sat at the same table, shared the same ideas and destiny. Today those are separate worlds with less and less in common. The criteria of the profit and catering to popular tastes provoke criticism only when it comes to exhibitions. If we return to the local situation we can conclude that a new generation of artists has appeared in Split. We shall see if the city would be able to recognise their creativity and energy. In that context the question of the Gallery of Fine Arts is pivotal. It is difficult to educate the public and raise interest for contemporary art without a permanent set-up and lively exhibiting activity. Upon the answer to the question if after one hundred years and with the indispensable support Split would end the story of the Gallery of Fine Arts happily, depends whether the city is going to be the city of intellectuals and creators or the city of merchants and waiters.