Branko Franceschi
In the South Looking North

The artists Meira Ahmemulic and Sandra Sterle, the initiators of the exhibition linking Swedish and Croatian artists, while envisioning a framing concept, and choosing to name the exhibition Oscillations, unconsciously confirmed the essence on which the Museum of Contemporary Art in Split conceived, in 2009, the project One by One as a program guideline. After its simple beginnings the program, which linked or confronted individual artistic optics and aesthetics over the years focused on the more complex challenges, targeting complicated and specific cultural problems and demands: primarily the environment that the artists referred to in their work. Collective exhibitions representing different frequencies with two national, regional, or urban artistic centers, related to a particular curatorial theme proved to be the ideal medium for this strategy. In essence, on different levels of energy, concept, and attitude exchange, it has been about an oscillation between the two entities, since the exhibitions created direct physical and thematic contact. With this project, the Museum is questioning the predominantly self-satisfying and commodifying aspects of the local mindset within which it operates while at the same time accomplishing its mission of cultural collision and its (un)expected contrast, elaboration, and articulation of the given themes. Thus providing a more complex perception and subtler evaluation of local and national topics and productions.

Although all generalizations of artistic creation are unfortunate, the matrix of confronting local with international practices as a contrasting agent points out, to a degree, what content Croatian artists love to embrace. Therefore, if this is not exclusively about formal and media research, the themes preoccupying Croatian artists can be subdivided into two parallel narratives from which, of course, several specific solutions and links are developed. On one hand, artists are still following the problem of establishing a personal, and consequently, social identity that is constituted through the clash of historical experiences and the still unresolved situations and lingering processes. The parallel narrative may however be reducible to the reflections of global issues and trends seen through the specific prism of a local context. Although it may be argued that this generalization marks every art scene, simply by reading through the biographies of artists presented in this exhibition it is evident that the oscillation between the northern and southern European littoral arises from the impact of different cultural origins.

On the one hand, there is a Swedish multicultural social model, shaped by the narratives of different cultural origins and personal experiences of development through the collision with the dominant cultural position of power. On the other hand, there is a monolithic, introverted local model driven by ideological residues, history, secrets, and escapism. The constellation that will be established with the reflections of these two opposed, but legitimate and concrete social positions within the physical space and curatorial theme of an exhibition truly expresses the complexity and imbalance of current European discourse whose constant discomfort is at the root of every individual unease.

Speaking about the selection of Croatian artists’ works, it should be noted at the outset that, relying on the tradition of activist art from the 1920s onwards through independence and to the present, over the past twenty-five years artists were indeed a reliable mirror of our society, reflecting its disheveled image. It cannot be said, unfortunately, that their honesty met an adequate response from those who had and still have the mandate to make political decisions. Although artistic activism has often experienced high media exposure, it cannot be said that it has caused a great reaction, let alone a change in how the silent majority carries on or thinks about accumulated social problems. Nevertheless, despite the generally accepted attitude that art cannot change not only the world but also the institutional system or structure of its territory – as in 1997 when the war for Croatian independence was finally concluded stated by Croatian artist Zlatko Kopljar1 in his ironic interactive performance K2 – there is something obsessive in politics and social topics so that artists, just as politicians cannot give them up. And better that it is so, and better than some among us still believe that there should be a visibly declared conscience, even if only in a proverbially sterile area of culture.

Recent history, the inexhaustible source of controversy between local political parties, is dealt with by Sandra Sterle, one of the most consistent Croatian performers, in her trash SF video Revisiting History. Employing her usual satirical manner of character playing, and wearing a children’s space suit she is an astronaut exploring foreign worlds. On this occasion, Sterle finds herself in a now-abandoned notorious Yugoslav gulag on the island Goli. Sterle here essentially confronts her family history: her grandfather, a pre-war communist, was interned in a German concentration camp and liberated by the Soviet army. A few years after the war, after the breakup between Tito and Stalin in 1948, as a Soviet sympathizer, he was sentenced to hard labor on the island of Goli2. Her grandfather survived everything, but his stories were not ones to tell to his grandchildren. Today’s Croatia, in its troubled relation to the socialist era, has abandoned this horrific prison island to its decay, without piety for its victims and, further and oddly, without any investments. In this moment of unprecedented tourism such a site could easily be developed into a thriving tourist destination with the odd, but the interesting narrative on the communist gulag. The artists of the nearby city of Rijeka gathered around Multimedia Center Palach3 have been promoting a development concept for Goli as a specific tourist destination based on research and presentation of the history of the penitentiary along with the production of related new artworks. In recent years the project has been continued by a Zagreb couple, art historian Jasmina Bavoljak and photographer/director Darko Bavoljak. During one of the organized program gatherings, Sandra Sterle recorded her performance as an hommage to her grandfather. Among the dilapidated architecture of the prison and workshops of this abandoned corner of the state, pushed into the oblivion, seeming to exist in a parallel universe where gravity and atmosphere are condensed, with specters of suffering, Sterle moves cautiously and slowly. Her contacts with the world cause electric shocks that release flashbacks of documentary photographs and personal documents. Wearing gloves while collecting samples for subsequent laboratory research, Sterle moves cautiously over this planet of former political obsessions while from her earphones arrive messages of Soviet and American astronauts invoking the atmosphere of the Cold War divisions of the world, which was the motive for establishing this paranoid penitentiary for the supporters of Stalin’s idea of the socialist world hegemony. Finally, Sterle concludes her mission, and we bid farewell to the location by reviewing the initial frames of the video, only now the Mediterranean blue skies and sea in which the island floated at the beginning of the video, become red, implying that this concerns some other toxic world and some other time. The last witnesses are leaving this planet, and the moments of all their sufferings will disappear in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.4

In myths, conspiracies and secrets passed on from the socialist times as current tabloid scoops and café gossip, Vice Tomasović found inspiration for the content-specific wall drawing executed in fluorescent paint. After some sources, in the steep hills of Perun and Omiš Dinara, above the canyon of Cetina River and Tomasović’s native town of Omiš, the Yugoslav socialist government built a subterranean complex for the installation of the legendary Tesla’s oscillator, a project alienated from the scientist’s legacy when it was handed to his Memorial Museum in Belgrade. The oscillator is the legendary Tesla’s earthquake machine whose model, after the scientist’s testimony, produced a series of earthquakes in New York and almost caused the collapse of one of New York’s most important bridges. The alleged power of the device that was supposedly meant to be installed in the hills above Omiš, was sufficient to split the planet. This was a hypothetical answer of the Yugoslav political and military authorities to the possibility of a conventional or atomic attack either from the East or West. In underground premises attached to the central complex, other devices, developed by the regime in secret laboratories were to be set up for alternative warfare. This is, of course, yet another myth associating the military industry with the paranoia that overcame Yugoslavia and thanks to which a nationwide grid of bunkers and tunnels was built. Today in these structures assumptions and historical reality are intertwined in the ex-Central Atomic War Command in Konjic (Bosnia and Herzegovina) where the Military Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art coexist and merged.5 Tomasović’s drawing depicts a complex subterranean structure, carved in the mountains above his picturesque hometown, unaware of all this and clenched between the mountains and the mouth of the largest Dalmatian river Cetina, entering the Adriatic. Under the blue light, Tomasović’s drawing appears to be part of some top-secret document visible only under specific light conditions. What does the future bear to these relics of totalitarian management of public funds and cold-war fears? Their next reincarnation will most probably be that of a tourist attraction based either on the review of the bizarreness of Tito’s regime or transformed into an adrenaline park where some new version of adventure tourism in combination with tastings of local eco-products will be implemented. The pendulum of history, in the end, reduces Tesla’s oscillator from the strictly guarded machine of destiny set to split the globe, to an amusement park attraction that Disneyfies socialist paranoias for tourists bored of lounging in the beauty of the nearby sand and pebble beaches.

For the needs of our exhibition, Viktor Popović extracted an installation from his remarkable cycle Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital) that he has been developing since 2017. Although Popović started his successful art career with the execution of stylized sculptures and installations made of unconventional materials such as lead plates or neon tubes, his latest cycles relate to the area where he grew up: a part of Split known as Split 3 and built in the ‘60s and ‘70s, period of the greatest expansion of the city as an industrial center. The area was developed after modernist plans but was never completed. After the rise of interest in the art of socialist Neo-Avant-Garde on the international cultural scene, it also transfused into the architecture of Socialist Modernism and culminated in the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.6 Split 3, as well as other architectures of that time, mostly brutalist in their character, was designed by enthusiastic architects who sought to realize total urban planning and achieve a balance of residential and public architecture. Social circumstances of the times and contemporary attitudes reduced these utopian concepts to the dystopic never completed city dormitories. Some neighborhoods of Split 3 are among the few from this period that has managed to develop a certain identity and build a reputation as spaces and architecture for comfortable living. The focus of Popović’s interest is the former Military Hospital which, at the time of its inauguration its architecture and equipment represented the very top of the then medical standards and are now integrated into the public health system. For the structure of the installation, Popović uses the original hospital beds obtained when the hospital was refurbished to meet current standards. The structure supports prints based on documentary photographs that represent the hospital at its past best and over which a geometric raster is printed.

At the time of the Socialist Yugoslavian economic boom in the 1960s, utopian modernism in architecture was closely followed by the explosion of abstract art, most often inspired by the legacy of Constructivism. This trend was inaugurated in the 1950s by the group of painters and architects EXAT517. It was architect Vjenceslav Richter who initiated the group’s historical manifesto claiming the total transformation of society. In today’s transitional society of liberal capitalism and conservative ideology, the legacy of socialism is largely perceived and treated as an undesirable relic of the totalitarian socialistic society. The consequence of such an ideological position is the neglect of great and valuable social developments achieved during this period, especially concerning the social state and level of social care of individuals. The impoverishment and disintegration of this system is a painful issue in contemporary Croatia due to the inability of political and administrative practice to find solutions that would get the social care system back in balance.

In the impressive video by Goran Škofić, On the Beach (2016), we can find references to the current Croatian, but also to the general European geopolitical situation, at the level of connotations and symbols. The over half-hour-long video was recorded with a static camera positioned on one of the typical North Dalmatian beaches. For the uninformed, the view towards the islands of the Croatian Littoral and Mt Velebit represents the view to the North and Europe. The represented events, though somewhat surreal and dramatic, are happening quietly and casually. Individuals or groups of individuals of different generations and both sexes enter the frame from the left and right sides of the camera. Willingly and without much interest or hustle, as if they are doing something completely normal, they walk into the sea fully dressed and continue walking towards the open sea until it closes over their heads and they disappear never to emerge again. Škofić is a fan of tricks and effects and his video works and photography are often evolving around some intelligently designed technical knack or procedure, shifted views, multiplication of the artist’s body, unexpected moves, and other oddities. On the Beach is based on the classic magician’s disappearing act taking place under the seemingly continuous gaze of the audience. What is most astonishing, in Škofić’s exodus of hundreds of people, which in the video takes long enough to convince us of its continuity, is the absence of any irony or intensity of some dramatic event. Participants appear, move forward, some stop and talk, some call out to somebody, and some wonder what is over there and if are they late. The atmosphere is comparable to that of short stories by Dino Buzzati8 in which narration spontaneously and logically evolves from normal to the absurd and surreal. Is it necessary to recall that it was in 2016 that the migration wave moved over the sea towards Europe to dramatically change the previous political constellation – a transformation that continues to this day. However, not only for the sparsely populated Croatia but also for the entire former socialist bloc, what is more, tragic is the departure of a large number of highly educated people in their prime to more developed countries of the EU where they are, unlike immigrants from Africa or the Middle East, accepted without any problem. For the countries of emigration, this represents another cause of impoverishment, the flywheel of depopulation and rapid aging of the general population, and the pressure on the entire state and on those who have remained. Of course, resolving their existential problems, which in their homeland they could not solve at all or in a satisfactory way, these people – with help of the agencies who assist them and organize their migration by the principle of EU as an open labor market, leave without intention to return as long as it fits the needs of the leading EU states. As far as Croatia is concerned, the beach could soon be empty. For the first time, our society is fully aware of the dysfunction of elementary social systems, and even of the possible disappearance of the nation.

Finally, to provide my selection with the necessary other poles that will allow oscillation to happen between works beyond the inner pulses that mark them, the spatial drawing-sculptural installation of Loren Živković Kuljiš aims at the deep formal issues of modern visual art. It is concerned with the oscillation between the figurative and abstract without entering into the ideological sets that are today associated with them. Meditative, turned towards the poetic contemplation of reality – in contemporary art practice almost a lost creative horizon – Loren intends to produce a series of eighteen works with a long-lasting process of pencil drawing technique – that will visualize his ambiguity about the capability of art to grasp and reproduce the reality completely. Conceptually the series departs from the source – Paul Cezanne’s work that laid the foundations of the transition from the 19th-century conception of artistic endeavor to a new and radical world of the art of the 20th century. Kuljiš’s inspiration was Cezzane’s concept of the simplification of naturally occurring forms to their geometric essentials, which led to the Cubist revolution. The rest is history, but here and now, more than a century later to be contemplated within a subjective field of vision. As already finished and exhibited drawings and an installation demonstrate, Kuljiš’s series will not resolve, nor is it its purpose, the foundations of settings that have permanently changed visual art and transformed our perception of the world. As always, he is targeting the acute problems of reality, but focusing on how it is processed within the aesthetics of the visual arts, the field that is indeed the point of his most personal stand and referential frequency within the Universe.

In this text, we have already mentioned the awareness of the inability of artistic creation to change reality and now, in the end, I want to say that this statement is not entirely correct. It is difficult for art to reverse some of the painful socio-political trends that acutely and chronically mark our reality, just as it is equally difficult for one person or a politician to do so. We are aware, however, that each can contribute at least to the immediate mitigation of suffering. Nevertheless, in the act of addressing precisely the issues of its domain art changes the world radically and powerfully. The world we see today and the way we look at it, and the culture we live in today, are all conceived in artistic creation that has been trying and succeeding to change the established aesthetic formulas and canons. Now and then we should be reminded of this. For a better tomorrow, one should remember that art has that power.
  1. Artist’s statement: ‘On the table in the center of the gallery there are sheets of paper, on each one is written one word from the phrase, “I AM THE ARTIST WHO WANTS TO CHANGE THE WORLD.” One by one, I rise each sheet above my head, show it to the audience and then tear it up. When the last notion is shown and the last sheet of paper torn up, I take a bat from under the table and start to powerfully hit the gallery walls. After two or three minutes the audience is also equipped with small hammers and joins me in the demolition of the gallery.’
  2. Goli (Bare) Island is located in the northern part of the Croatian side of the Adriatic Sea. The island was uninhabited until the Austro-Hungarian monarchy made it a camp for Russian prisoners of war during World War I. In 1949, by Marshal Tito’s decision, the island became a strict political prison. The prison ceased operations in 1988.
  3. MMC Palach under the leadership of Damir Čargonja 1999. – 2009.
  4. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die. Final words of Roy Batty’s Replica Monologue (actor Rutger Hauer). Blade Runner, 1982. Director Ridley Scott, screenplay by David Peoples (monologue modification by actor Rutger Hauer).
  5. D-= ARK Project Biennial
  6. Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948–1980; MoMA 2018 – 2019, Organized by Martino Stierli, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, and Vladimir Kulić, guest curator, with Anna Kats, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art.
  7. (1950. – 1956.) Group members were architects; Bernardo Bernardi, Zdravko Bregovac, Zvonimir Radić, Božidar Rašica, Vjenceslav Richter, Vladimir Zarahović; and painters; Vlado Kristl, Ivan Picelj i Aleksandar Srnec.
  8. Dino Buzzati (1906. – 1972.) Italian writer.

group exhibition

Museum of Fine Arts, Split, Croatia
August 6 – September 1, 2019

Branko Franceschi

works exhibited:

Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital)
digital prints on canvas, used hospital beds
each print 185,5 x 173 cm
archival photographs: City Museum of Split, Collection of Photographs (photographer: Ante Roca)

photo credits:
Viktor Popović