Cracks in the intersections of opposites | kulturpunkt

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Cracks in the intersections of opposites

A Retrospective by Appointment is an offbeat overview of David Maljković’s past work.

by: Bojan Krištofić

PHOTO: Gallery Nova

It is not that often that a perplexing contemporary art exhibition sparks such a great interest in the so-called mainstream media, usually immune to more demanding forms of visual expression. However, this is what happened with A Retrospective by Appointment, an offbeat overview of the past work of David Maljković, the renowned Zagreb artist hailing from Rijeka. Actually, in his case "renowned" sounds too modest, since the relatively young Maljković (b. 1973) is one of those rare artists who are more famous abroad that at home, and the process of his international affirmation has been going on steadily from almost the late 1990s, when he began his artistic career. In that context, A Retrospective by Appointment serves as a nice indication of the different ways in which mainstream and specialized media approach contemporary art, which does not only apply to our local scene. Let me expand on this point with a couple of examples, because, as always, the more interesting the exhibition, the less effort certain media make to inform the potential audience about what they can see, and what the artist’s work is about.

It is not surprising, but still entertaining, that it has been most important to quantitatively inspect Maljković’s opus. For Patricija Kiš, Jutarnji list’s art critic, the crucial fact is that Maljković has had 253 shows abroad, which places him right next to Mladen Stilinović and Sanja Iveković. According to this criterion, Maljković easily makes the triumvirate of Croatian artists with the greatest international presence. Of course, what was not pointed out nor explained was the transgenerational connection between their work, on the lines of questioning the traditions of high modernism and early postmodernism, and communicating with pop culture. That would have explained some of their popularity with the global experts, and the somewhat wide audience. The situation was not much different in the foreign media either. Even Kate Sutton, a reporter for the respected Artforum magazine, focused more on the famous faces in the audience than the pieces themselves in her text All Tomorrow's Parties, which addressed the opening of Maljković's retrospective. In the regional media, the most in-depth interview with the artist was done by Srđan Sandić for the independent portal Vizkultura, specialized in visual arts. It was only there that interested readers could find some specific information on Maljković’s work, learn about his artistic development and become aware of his context. All of this is extremely important, if we bear in mind that the artist’s absence from the local exhibiting scene has made it necessary to introduce the audience more thoroughly to his opus, which definitely has no aspirations to mass appeal. However, the standard flaw of mainstream media, both printed and digital, is that, in part due to priorities of quantity and publishing frequency, they don’t venture far enough into the subjects that require more serious investigative work, nor do they have the capacities to do so (which is absurd considering that their financial construction/constellation is much more sound/solid/better than that of specialized, usually non-profit media). Structurally speaking, this is indeed a problem because merely informing is not enough: what is continually lacking is educating an audience potentially receptive to this kind of artistic expression. It comes without saying that the problem is even greater when it comes to cases like Maljković’s, where pondering on a subject can lead us to certain insights about our social reality, or the frame that determines it, the roots of which we have repressed or forgotten in the meantime.

An accurate contextualization of Maljković’s work is all the more necessary, seeing as A Retrospective by Appointment, his first Zagreb exhibition of that sort, was not even arranged according to standard methods of curating retrospectives, both due to necessity and on purpose. Lacking a monumental exhibition space, the agile WHW curatorial collective divided the collection and placed it in four locations, which turned out to be a lucky solution indeed, since a stuffy, linear presentation was avoided, and the visitors could take on the challenge of diving into the city almost like explorers. Conceptually, none of the locations eclipses the others, although the number of exponents varies from space to space, due to their different dimensions. The exhibition’s four stations are, however, extremely well-coordinated, thanks to a nearly choreographic conceptualization of the collection, characteristic for Maljković. Gallery Nova (Galerija Nova) exhibits a smaller lot of the artist’s works in different media, from paintings, objects and photographs to video projections, and the space is dominated by a huge, over-dimensioned pedestal which significantly hinders movement through the gallery. The pedestal also forces the visitors to face the art as soon as they enter the gallery, leaving them no opportunity to comfortably check out the exhibition and mingle with friends. Another nice detail is the emptied gallery bookshelf, which further heightens the sense that the visitors’ perception of space is being cognitively toyed with, and the entire Gallery Nova (except the basement) is turned into a multimedia installation of sorts.

Continuing the tour in David Maljković's Ribnjak studio, the collection becomes significantly more abundant, though not much changes typologically. There are pieces from all phases of his work; from his earliest student days at the Faculty of Teacher Education in Rijeka and studying painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Zagreb, to his first longer stays abroad – the postgraduate study in Paris and the residency at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, as well as some bits of his various recent projects. All of the artist's series in the past fifteen years are shown fragmentarily, so the visitor necessarily experiences them through associations, creating his or her own vision of Maljković's work. There is some excitement in that, because it represents a thoughtful game of interpretation, difficult even for the informed audience, but it is also problematic, since the lack of a contextual frame hinders laymen from more firmly grasping Maljković's subjects. Personally, I found that having the author present in the studio and being guided through that segment of the exhibition was of great assistance, and it helped me notice that connections between the pieces are something more complex than a repetition of certain leitmotifs. Taking into consideration that the walk through the studio collection was also organized with the utmost care, direct communication with the artist turned the visit into a performance act, breaking the immanent monotony of the "white cube", like the surreal pedestal negated it in Gallery Nova.

Speaking of Maljković's themes, I would say that there are two fundamental reflective directions running through his series like Scenes for a New Heritage (2004–2006), Out of Projection (2009–2014), Recalling Frames (2010), Afterform (2013), New Reproductions (2014) and others. The first one is the artist grappling with the burning issue of the survival of modernist heritage and the position of the modern project's remains today, both locally and globally. He does that not by publishing pamphlets, but by building subtle links between different varieties of recording memory, connecting documents of remembrance into multimedia collages that are always greater than the sum of their parts. Therefore, in order to comprehend the scope of certain series’, it is not enough to encounter only a couple of examples or details, but, on the other hand, it is the fragmented nature of the retrospective’s collection that illustrates really well his artistic methodology. Usually beginning with drawings and sketches as investigative tools, Maljković truly orchestrates situations that sublimate certain artistic (and implicitly social) relations, from an entirely intimate perspective. That is related to the second important direction of his work, concerning primarily questions of form, and thematized equally in two-dimensional and three-dimensional media, as well as hybrids like video installation. Of course, both directions are constantly intertwined, so we could say that Maljković’s exploration of the elements of modernist heritage using his characteristic media is his approach to the intimatization of the subject and a way to make it his own and inevitable. 

In one of his new series, Afterform, the artist collaged elements of his older pieces into wholes that are charged with meaning. For example, one of the memorable photos shows a big white rectangular object showed into a veduta of a neighbourhood in New Zagreb (either Trnsko or Savski Gaj), i.e. into the archetypal urbanistic picture of high modernism gone local, which by itself presents an entire depository of memories of the era when it was built. With his site specific intervention, which was performed live and photographed, Maljković left his own mark on the field, embracing it and making it a reference area of his artistic universe. In another, similar series, Scenes for a New Heritage, the central motif is Vojin Bakić’s landmark - today retro-futurist - partisan monument on Petrova gora, which has over time also become one of the archetypes of socialist modernism (among Croatian sculptures, its place in the collective consciousness of "nations and nationalities" is matched only by the marble Tito in Kumrovec, the manifest socrealistic sculpture by Antun Augustinčić, and the poetic Stone Flower in Jasenovac by Bogdan Bogdanović). David Maljković combines drawing, collage, photography and video to create a disparate fictive scenario that deepens the symbolic meaning of Bakić’s monument, using its architecture and aesthetics as a starting point for new utopian projections. Still, in this series the relationships between heterogeneous visual art elements, divided into different media, eclipse the social connotations of the subject, transforming the monument and its surroundings into a mise en scène for Maljković’s visual game. In other words, Maljković translates the ideological context of socialist modernism into the seemingly neutral gallery surroundings, using its characteristic elements as part of a sophisticated art vocabulary, which embodies his ability to meander between different poles of artistic tradition with recognizable style.  

The series in which the dialectical relationship between global popular culture and local modernist tradition is most explicit, and has the most pronounced meaning, is New Reproductions, which is shown in the Gallery of Croatian Designers' Association. The tested form of work portfolio again brings together a number of photographic collages, made by linking frames from Orson Welles’ film The Trial (1962), based on the unfinished novel by Franz Kafka, and starring Anthony Perkins as the "innocent man" Josef K. The film inspired by one of the most distinctive and mysterious modernist prose texts was partially shot in Zagreb, which allowed Maljković to put contemporary photographs of the exteriors where the film was shot face to face with fragments of the scenes just before the protagonist’s inexplicable execution. Unlike his other series’, which are usually characterized by a ludic, playful, basically optimistic mood, in New Reproductions the atmosphere is dark, almost disturbing. On one level, the complete absurdity of the trial against Josef K. is connected to the system which marked the time and place where the film was shot, and the menacing silhouettes of the bare geometric architecture underline the well-known estrangement effect. On the other level, the convincing conception of this series emphasizes the thin line between fiction and reality, as well as the unpredictable mechanisms both use to mutually predict and push each other, becoming one in the endless world of media spectacle. Broadly speaking, Maljković's series' fit into the sociopolitical context in which modernist narratives have long ago become fictionalized, and thinking utopia is limited to the safe zones of industry-regulated artistic presentation. In his most interesting works, the author uses the suggestivity of unusual associative sets to transcend that position.

Except for New Reproductions, the collection in the Gallery of Croatian Designers' Association focuses on the high level of presentation of Maljković's work, which consists of his close collaborations with a number of Croatian and foreign visual communications designers, namely (and most often) Toni Urod (former member of Numen/ForUse collective), Damir GamulinÅbäke collective (UK) and Mevis & Van Deursen studio (the Netherlands). The exponents include posters for Maljković’s exhibitions abroad, as well as publications that are much more than accompanying material for these events, and are in fact hybrids between artist’s book, monograph and catalogue. Their high level of production speaks of the opportunities available to Maljković, but even more of his consistent intention to leave nothing in his work to chance, because – as much as the design of publications varies depending on the authors the artist collaborates with – in the specific multi-layer relationship between image and text, and image and image, one can undoubtedly recognize Maljković’s "signature". If nothing else, that means that designers also did their job well, because in the dialogue between design and art, whose characters are still separated by some differences, the first convincingly fulfils its role of communicating the other without compromising its own identity. Finally, the smallish space of Gallery of Croatian Designers' Association is dominated by a somewhat extravagant table from the Negatives (2015) series, which Maljković realized in cooperation with industrial designer Konstantin Grčić. Basically, Grčić projected a minimalist work table and gave it to Maljković as a ready-made object to be plastically intervened on by disturbing the continuity of its surface ("cutting, marking and notes", applying paper and red ink). Although the result is aesthetically interesting, it is hard to shake the impression that this process only further emphasizes the immanent fetishistic component of industrial products, unlike the historical examples of ready-made objects whose point was to subvert, and purpose to satirise the art world.

In conclusion, after completing the circle of David Maljković’s exhibition (except for the selection of his films, which were only shown on Tuesday, November 10 in Tuškanac cinema), it is clear that the author’s work freely meanders between two obvious extremes. One is the continual interfusion with the functioning of the global art scene, which fits into the profitable mechanisms of the so-call creative industries, while the other, of course, slithers on the margins of that world, allowing obscure motives and hermetic puzzles to enter Maljković’s work, giving his art the effect of an alluring and tempting mystery. The most exciting moments happen in the cracks at the intersections of these opposites; the moments that allow visits to galleries and museums to retain a dose of the transcendental, without which art would make no sense anyway.

Translated from Croatian by Lana Pukanić.

Objavio/la matija [at] kulturpunkt.hr 27.11.2015