Nothing conveys the winter of our discontent1 better than the eerie reinterpretations of historical photo documentation depicting the glorious days of the National Museum of Modern Art back when it was the home of the Vranyczany family. The mirror to our frustrations is set up by Viktor Popović in the introductory graphic section of the exhibition Untitled (Archive Vranyczany-Dobrinović Palace). In fact, next year, in 2024, the National Museum of Modern Art will celebrate its 90th anniversary at the Vranyczany-Dobrinović Palace. Simultaneously, it marks the beginning of the first in a series of uncertain years during which the Museum, as a result of an awkward comprehensive renovation, will be relocated from the Palace. Lest we forget, during nearly a century-long period, the only time the Museum operated outside the Palace was during World War II when it was evicted by the then-authorities, in a conescending political gesture of appeasement, and its headquarters were repurposed into the embassy of fascist Italy. The subsequent authorities did not prove to be any more favourable to the Museum. After the war, the Museum returned to the Palace, but against the will of its management, it was placed under the suffocating administration of the then Yugoslav Academy of Sciences and Arts, the vice-like grip of which it has not been able to break free to this day. The change of name to the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts did not help; on the contrary, today, despite the Museum’s current name emphasising its role as a national institution, it exists as a pale shadow of its potential and the significance of the collection it manages. So much for culture among Croats. It is encouraging that, unlike the administration of culture, its strength now, as always, lies in the performances of artists and their skill in representing the absurdity of their own environment. Art is symbolic speech. Popović’s use of dust collected in the NMMU as a material for the execution of the graphic print, that is, the symbolic representation of the intended motif, can only underscore the reasons for multiple concerns about its function. This effect not only evokes the ingrained notion that we are dust and shall return to dust but even more so, the fact that dust, along with the process of its creation and accumulation, symbolises enduring, eroding forces that continuously and gradually, in scarcely noticeable progression, erode what the Museum is and even more so, what it should be. We sense that it also symbolises the passive aggression of social neglect and thoughtlessness that contribute to the stifling, lulling, forgetting, and ultimately, the gradual annihilation of the meaningful role, activities, and purpose of the Museum. Of course, these processes strengthen when we do not confront them with the same persistence, consistently and daily. In these moments, the enlightening task of living, truly activist art is brought to the forefront, the task of awakening and encouraging, a call to action that primarily means creating a new thought paradigm that will change reality.
The problem with activism in art today is that it often degrades towards academicism, mere fulfilment of trendy creative formulas and forms of presentation, with little ambition beyond furthering one’s own interests and career. Artists like Popović distance themselves from the clamour of social engagement, its clichéd rhetoric and empty declarativeness, seeking the very essence of visual art. They hold the belief that an image filtered through our perceptual apparatus speaks a thousand words without uttering a single one.
Viktor Popović established himself through perfectly executed and produced objects and installations in which he, using the lexicon of post-conceptual and postmodern artistic practices, quoted and contemporised patterns and strategies developed in the now historical movement of Pop Art, in installation art or the method of appropriation, simultaneously linking them with the contemporary multidisciplinary creative paradigm. In his generation, the package of contemporary creative openness to material, medium, and discipline, already includes an element of inspiration from the immediate social environment. Referentiality, which has in the meantime, for better or worse, become a sine qua non of contemporary artistic practice, becomes more evident in Popović’s work since 2017 when he commenced a body of work inspired by the local context. We are talking about the emblematic district of Split III, where he grew up and still resides today. Some of the best examples of architecture and urban planning from the socialist era were designed and executed for Split III, ultimately intertwining with spontaneously (under)developed private initiatives and remaining pockets of previously built settlements. The central theme of Popović’s work becomes the degradation of the socialist, never-completed utopia of a more humane and advanced society, which, in the current state of ongoing transition, experiences decay and undergoes revision. Popović elaborated on the complex topic of local transition through a series of themes, carrying out ambitious and intricate procedures that link multiple execution phases and disciplines, never deviating from his well-known production perfectionism. Accordingly, the targeted installation, in various combinations and interrelationships, represents a fusion of objects appropriated at the reference location, graphic prints based on photographic documentation found during archive research, and objects produced for the occasion, which function equally well as part of the installation and as independent artistic objects. It is important to emphasise that the need to create an artistic object with strong formal characteristics is what defines Popović’s practice as a specific link between two parallel artistic tendencies today: the traditional one focused on the production of the object and the avantgarde one that sees the purpose of artistic work beyond the object, in the reality to which the artist refers.
At the Josip Račić Gallery, Popović presents two groups of motifs. The first is based on photographic documentation of the palace interiors from the golden age of its financiers, the Vranyczany-Dobrinović family, who made it their representative home for several decades. Using the silkscreen printing technique, Popović transfers them onto graphic paper, using as pigment dust collected on-site during routine cleaning following reconstruction work. The result is the aforementioned faded afterimage of a glorious past. It would be expected that the representative palace, which has in the meantime become the home of the museum with the mission of collecting, preserving, and interpreting visual art created from the time when the desire for an independent Croatian state arose, up to the present-day when Croatia has been independent for more than thirty years, would now be experiencing its most magnificent days. Unfortunately, the habit of continuing and working with fruitless compromises and unworthy solutions, stemming from a lack of vision, makes these moments probably the most dramatic in the nearly 120-year history of the National Museum of Modern Art.
The second group is dedicated to the theme of the current state of the Palace, presented through images of the improvised storage room where a collection of 12,000 artworks is stored. The theme is explored through photographs taken by Popović himself with the intention of displaying them as freestanding double-sided lightboxes, integrated into an installation with pedestals borrowed from the Museum. The pedestals, which, in addition to serving as supports for artworks, have now become artistic objects themselves, perhaps best exemplify the sense of absurdity in the face of the Museum’s third move in two years, one that will completely relocate it from its headquarters. The spatial display connects both motifs, the conveyed historical references, as well as two creative solutions that evolve from the original medium of photography towards silkscreen printing and a lightbox, resulting in a multidisciplinary, content-specific installation. We are grateful to Viktor Popović for his quick response that transformed the uncertain future of the National Museum of Modern Art into an artistic work, thus preserving it for eternity. Only time will tell whether this situation will one day seem incredible or be remembered as the beginning of the museum’s ultimate disintegration. With this theme, Popović has moved away from his customary anchoring in the familiar local context. However, to him, like any other visual artist, the museum of fine arts represents an extended home and homeland, the fate of which he personally, culturally, and existentially cares about. After the earthquake, but primarily due to a lack of vision and a sense of public welfare, the enriching cultural space has been narrowed. Perhaps only temporarily, perhaps in the long run, but steadfast in our mission, we are fighting alongside artists to ensure that this is by no means permanent.
This work by Popović which can be categorised, from a formal standpoint, as content- and site-specific art, uses dust collected within the reference space as the material for execution of the artwork that refers to it, thus lending a degree of persuasiveness to the entire concept which arises from the fact that the material and spiritual are literally, and not just symbolically, fused in it. The inability to exhibit at the actual location, which would have fully closed the circle initiated by the vision, continued by production, and concluded by presentation, adds a dose of dramatic tension to the project and stands in stark contrast to its static form, which is particularly painful for those of us who are familiar with it.
And, in the end, praise be to the dust, or rather to the one who thought to utilise what, in the hierarchy of human culture designates the realm that is trodden upon, shaken off, removed and discarded, that which is an inconvenience, for the execution of what conventionally represents the pinnacle of the human spirit, the realm in which the subjective, in contact with the absolute and eternity, transcends the most profound realisation of our own transience, interchangeability, and insignificance. Ultimately, this is also the state of affairs at the location where we began.
“Now is the winter of our discontent”, the first line of William Shakespeare’s Richard III