Jernej Kožar

Viktor Popović used photographs from the photographic collection of the Carinthian Regional Museum (Ravne na Koroškem Museum), taken by Maks Dolinšek in the 1950s and 1960s, as templates for silkscreen prints. The images, which depict various historical working processes, when each step still required the presence of a worker, serve as a starting point for reflection on the factory‘s relationship with its workers and the environment. Popović selected 196 portraits from the museum‘s archive and assembled them into a special commemorative composition. The ink used for the prints was made from dust he collected at the steel production site. Because of the nature of the material and the production process, these monochrome prints are very bright and the pictures barely legible. They resemble faded photographs and appear as a pale, vanishing memory of a heroic past. They show the dynamics of the relationship between the socio-historical space of Ravne and the content from the steel factory, which imbues the works with a special symbolic meaning.

The photographs displayed in light boxes show some of the production locations at SIJ Metal Ravne, which were taken by the artist during a visit to the factory. The contrast between the printed archival images and their bright, clear modern counterparts creates an implicit tension that adds drama to the whole. In comparison to the older images, which reflect the socialist glorification of labor, the new ones are limited to internal perspectives and breathtaking interiors of industrial spaces. There are no workers, only a shadow that occasionally appears at the edge, and the steps of modern-day Sisyphuses. Their indifference to the impressive process of continuous transformation of steel into familiar and technically sophisticated forms transcends the significance of the results of their work in the Carinthian environment. The local landscape has suffered for decades as the working process irreversibly marked the people and architecture.

Viktor Popović lives and works in Split. Every day he is confronted with the problems of the historic city – on one hand, the progress, and on the other, the devastation left by tourism. He has long been interested in archives and other historical sources, which he studies and exhibits not as a historian, but as an artist for whom they serve as a creative tool. At first glance, his exhibitions appear museum-like, but they are not. They are art installations, whose language deliberately resembles the language of museums, which is skillfully used and sometimes even intensified by the artist. The exhibition is then interesting from both artistic and purely historical point of view. With a layout that has been carefully thought out and stripped of all unnecessary details, Popović emphasizes the interplay of artistic intuition and scientific precision. The work is characterized by the inversion of meanings and the use of different languages.

In his work, Viktor Popović explores, analyses and, by staging the consequences, subtly exposes the viewer to the causes of the state of mind and the environment in a chosen context. In recent years, a central aspect of his work has been the research of the modernist architecture of Split. In the 1960s, Split experienced rapid economic and, consequently, urban development. Today, sixty years later, the buildings are changing and moving away from the originally outlined ideals. Their functionality and usability are dictated by the thousands of inhabitants, which is not always in line with the look originally conceived by the architects. Popović is consistently documenting this changing image of the city. Similarly to Split, Ravne also experienced, albeit to a lesser extent, rapid economic and urban development during the same period, as evidenced by the urban districts of Čečovje and Javornik. This development was, of course, based on the economic success of Ravne Steelworks.

In “Untitled (Archive Ravne Steelworks)”, Viktor Popović intentionally uses the language of industrial design: the frames of the prints and light boxes are metal, the boxes are attached to the forgings with ratchet straps, and seemingly forgotten electrical cables are lying on the floor. We encounter light boxes daily as carriers of advertising messages on billboards. Here, the aluminum-framed light boxes, manufactured with industrial precision, carry artistic photographs and are transformed into sculptures. The constant shifting of focus, the change of location – from the symbolic and artistic world, back to reality and vice versa – and the interplay of different fields such as art, design and industry, gives the installation a fresh and dynamic feel. All these modes of presentation are intertwined and enable the viewer to understand the exhibition on different levels.

The exhibition “Untitled (Archive Ravne Steelworks)” contains many levels of latent meanings, the key to which hides behind the shiny surface and the precise placement of individual pieces and their interaction. Viktor Popović conveys his historical and sociological analyses, here transformed into a work of art, through images alone. The first level of meanings is immediately visible, the others reveal themselves as we grasp the significance of the arrangement of the works and their communication with each other. Many elements are repeated and thus accumulate meanings: the frames of the prints on the wall and the light boxes in the room, then the shiny surfaces and reflections in the glass, the forgings on the floor, the connecting strips, the billboards and the electric cables.

Viktor Popović situates the work of art in relation to the strictly regulated industrial world without attempting to analyze this apparatus. Rather than that, he takes us into a special world that immediately absorbs us into a carousel of images. Time mutates and shifts, but the structure remains the same. The poetry of this installation is revealed in the selection of images, in archiving, dismantling and repetition. The exhibition asks: what is it that defines our lives, our space and our environment? The present disappears when the remnants of the past are revealed. Time is always something that has already been.
Solo exhibition catalog preface

Untitled (Archive Ravne Steelworks)

Ravne Gallery – Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art Koroška, Ravne na Koroškem, Slovenia
September 29, 2023 – January 31, 2024

Jernej Kožar