Croatian Artisits Exhibit in NYC
The following review of an exhibit in New York City mentions a number of
Croatian artists whose works are included in the exhibit being held at
the Austrian Cultural Forum. John Kraljic
February 6, 2004
ART REVIEW | 'PARALLEL ACTIONS'
Once Upon a Time in Central Europe, When Unruly Was the Rule
By KEN JOHNSON
Conceptualism, the most easily transportable artistic practice, spread
like a highly contagious virus all over the world in the late 1960's and
70's. "Parallel Actions: Conceptual Tendencies in Central European Art
From 1965 to 1980," an exhibition at the Austrian Cultural Forum,
focuses on that one region where it flourished - parallel, as the title
suggests, to its occurrence elsewhere.
The show was organized by Hedwig Saxenhuber and Georg Schoellhammer, who
are Viennese curators and magazine editors. Few of the more than a dozen
artists represented will be familiar to New Yorkers. Their countries
include Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Serbia and Slovenia. Among
the participants, Valie Export of Austria, who once famously invited
passers-by to feel her breasts inside a cardboard box covering her
chest, is the best known in the United States.
This show's visual interest is minimal: various forms of paper make up
most of what is displayed - photographs, collages, posters and other
printed matter, as well as some grainy, semiabstract films shown on
video monitors. There is already a look of antiquity about most of this
material. And without a catalog to fill in artistic, social and
political backgrounds, much of it remains enigmatic to a contemporary
New York viewer.
Still, the show provides an intriguing glimpse of what some radically
minded people thought was worth doing in the name of art at a certain
moment in history and in places remote from the Western world's major
urban art centers.
Among the works on view are black-and-white photographs with typewritten
texts documenting absurdist performances by Jiri Kovanda of the Czech
Republic, which recall 1960's performances by American artists like Vito
Acconci and Adrian Piper. The caption for one picture, of Mr. Kovanda
apparently doing nothing in particular, explains that he was performing
actions scripted so that passers-by would not realize he was doing an
art performance. In another case he rides up an escalator while standing
backward and locking eyes with the person behind him.
Some art historical context might help at this point. Conceptualism is a
late development in a centuries-old debate about whether artists should
be seen as mere artisans or as intellectuals on a par with poets,
philosophers and scientists. Modernism advanced the debate by devaluing
craft and repositioning the artist as an innovator of ways of seeing and
thinking about art, the self, society and the world.
Meanwhile, from modern philosophy, the idea arose that reality is not
fixed but is shaped or constructed by the way people think, what they
believe and how they describe the world. This gave Conceptualism its
traction: if you could change the way people ordinarily think, you could
change the world.
And to do that, you needn't do much. Slight but purposeful deviations
from ordinary modes of thought or behavior, like those performed by Mr.
Kovanda, might conceivably alter whole cultural and social landscapes.
It is the art world's version of the butterfly effect.
One instance of this line of thought is Milenko Matanovic's "Collective
Fixing of the Point." In the gallery, Mr. Matanovic's work appears as a
small photograph of an antique statue on a tall column, with a little
circle inscribed just above the statue's head. A text invites people to
concentrate on an imaginary point above the statue in Slovenia, the
country where the artist lived; this is to be done from 11 a.m. to noon
on a certain date and thereby "inscribe the point into the memory of the
world." As the artists of the Fluxus movement had come to believe, going
from individual imagination to global reality might not be such a great
Another strategy was to focus on art world conventions. For his 1971
exhibition Goran Trbuljak of Croatia simply put up posters announcing,
"I do not wish to show anything new and original." In theory, at least,
Mr. Trbuljak's Bartlebyesque renunciation would cause viewers to reflect
critically and subversively on the arbitrary nature of the art system
and its connection to broader, equally arbitrary systems - academic,
economic, governmental and otherwise.
Sanja Ivekovic, a Croatian artist, confronted contemporary politics and
power directly in a 1979 performance called "Triangle," documented by
photographs and text. The prose explains that while President Tito of
Yugoslavia was going by in a motorcade outside Ms. Ivekovic's apartment,
she sat on her balcony reading, sipping whiskey and pretending to
masturbate in full view of a surveillance officer stationed in a
building across the street. The police quickly came to her door and
ordered her to stop. What, if any, further consequences followed we are
This is the big question raised by an exhibition of this sort. Unlike
paintings and sculptures, which are comparatively self-sufficient, the
kind of activities addressed here do not travel well without good
Julius Koller, a Slovakian who invented something called the
anti-happening, organized a group of young artists into a Ping-Pong
club, founded an organization called U.F.O. (for "Universal
Futurological Operations") and continues to make an annual absurd
photographic self-portrait as a "U.F.O.-naut." He looks like an artist
worth getting to know better, and others may be also.
But without more information about the contexts that these artists
worked within and what influence, if any, their works had in the world,
one feels more baffled than informed. And the skeptic is allowed too
easily to conclude that it all might amount to not very much.