Landscape Minimalism in SFRJ: Reinterpreted Monuments, lecture presented at Aesthetic Communities and Contextual Translation of Communal Art, 5th Summer Seminars for Art Curators, Yerevan, Armenia, 17th August, 2010.

Specific party policy on artistic expression in Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRJ) has led to some astonishing artistic achievements. It has enabled or rather, let’s be honest, tolerated and of course financially supported modernist painting in the late 1940s, experimental films by Tomislav Gotovac or Ladislav Galeta in the 1950s, conceptual art of OHO Group in the 1960s or a decade later the excessive Group of Six Artists from Zagreb. To some extent it gave a blind eye to performance art of Marina Abramović or Raša Todosijević or even Sanja Iveković although the famous performance of the latest only succeeded, because the national security reacted on her provocation of masturbation on the balcony while Tito’s convoy drove by. Whatever one may claim, this things were possible. Provocative, but nevertheless possible. The policy also allowed and promoted a computer art festival New Tendencies from 1963 onward and last but not least welcomed early video experiments in the cultural programme of the national televisions in Belgrade, Ljubljana or Sarajevo. The artistic expressions were anything but monotonous. They were controlled, but the systems of control were relatively transparent. Much more than the age of pathological transparency where the expression is suppressed much more subtly. But hey! What do I know? I was only 2 years old when Iveković already masturbated. This was all happening 10, 20, 30 years prior to similar movements in other communist countries to my humble knowledge. Of course it is dangerous to be proud of being more westernised if this is what this time leap represents. However that may be, my estimation might be wrong and it would be very interesting to talk about this later.

All this neo-avant-gardes, as we can conditionally nominate them, are by all means what I would recommend you to invest your time in if you ever get intrigued by the art history in that region. But there are a few blind spot, suppressed memories or a declarative reservation, when it comes to the colossal monuments for the revolution that are rising from the ground in most unlikely landscapes. Seldom built in the towns and cities, most often on the mountain slopes or at the brinks of some remote forests. This timid architectural beasts of concrete and iron await in solitude for the end of times. The ongoing research on this monuments aims at searching for a voice that would speak about the value of monuments for the revolution that were erected in SFRJ from the beginning of 1950s till the beginning of 1980s.

For Yugoslavia I use an abbreviation SFRJ standing for Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia. Firstly to pay tribute to it’s slaughtered of brotherhood and solidarity. But also to represent the semantic indoctrination, to which the language of the this narrow frame of fine arts, that we are going to deal with, was particularly susceptible. Maybe some of you have seen a video by Katerina Zdjelar picturing Albanians not being able to speak a word of Russian although they have studied the language thorough their childhood. Similarly the language that was assigned to the SFRJ monuments was suppressed, the ideas behind them forgotten, the artists and artisans dead, but the sculptures remain. So, are the SFRJ monuments a symptom? Maybe, but not necessarily.

Socialist realism in SFRJ was replaced by a Yugoslav variant of modernism, the formalist language that was not directly determined by either of the ideologies on one or the other side of the iron curtain. As Tovariš Tito has so straightforwardly proclaimed: “Not those from the East nor those from the West will endanger our self-management.” Self-management as some of you might know was a unique economic variation of socialism in SFRJ introduced by Edvard Kardelj, so called Tito’s theorist or rather his economic genius. The specifics were gradually developed after SFRJ broke away from the Soviet Union in 1948 and consequently from the rest of the communist block. Dramaturg Andreja Kopač has linked this economic experiments to the experiments in the field of art. Although this is a bit bold it is not so far from reality.

The centre for exchange of knowledge between artists in the 1950s and 1960s was Paris (Tinca Stegovec). The modernist artists circulated around the Group 69 that was artificially composed by the Modern Gallery who was the main promoter of modernism. If we consider John Berger’s critique of the political hypocrisy of Clement Greenberg’s alienation from the political aspect of art, than the promotion of modernism is very understandable. It was intellectual and completely politically benign. SFRJ art had not belonged to the Eastern art context until it was forcedly branded as such for the purpose of promotion in the Western art market by the gravediggers of Yugoslavia Irwin and their East Art Map. To me this is a form of self-balkanization. This fall-pit is very dangerous for me as well, because I suggested to compare this monuments to traditions of the Western art hemisphere like Land Art, Minimalism or Fascist Architecture. Nevertheless we are in title to clearly recognise some of the astonishing “stylistic similarities” like Boris Groys had drawn between the Stalinist propaganda and the images of the global mass culture from 1930s till 1950s.

The notion of the fascist architecture come to my close attention after an informal conversation with Duba Sambolec, a remarkable Lacanian, a sculptor who makes video performances and, most importantly for our current interest, she is in some way a contemporary of our monument builders. She said that she was immensely happy to be young enough that she was very free to reject any offers of projecting a monument. Although she has been given a few offers and even contributed some of her early realistic small plastics to be a part in the monuments. We must note that her realism did not belong to the socialist realism of for example Tine Kos, but was rather connected to pop art or photo realism. She had of course approached these monuments from a psychoanalytical perspective. Sambolec as an advocate of the haptic sculpture and the condensation of the form that embodies a symbolic order finds this monuments void. In some perverted way they are modernism at it’s best, the pure form. She sees them as seemingly symbolic shapes that are either literal like the gigantic fists for the monument for the battle of Sutjeska in Tjenište in Bosnia and Herzegovina or purely decorative like Bogdan Bogdanović’s tulip at the Kragujevac concentration camp. To Sambolec the monuments are hollow empty spaces, that have a disturbing gravity that support obscenely patriarchal stability (Ilirska Bistrica) of the order and the state. They are a cut in the very fabric of the landscape like it is pertinent in Miodrag Živković’s V-shapes. For her, they could never be considered as Land Art, rather landscape insertions on the monumental scale. If the only purpose of Land Art would strives to accord with nature and to play with it’s materials, than this is so. In this sense, the monuments are symptoms, not trying to pay tribute to the memory, but rather cut in a traumatic scar.

Mostly this tendency would be presented by poorly performed public commissions like a number of smaller monuments, but with the largest commissions, we can recognise that there is the idea of openness. If we would to compare these monuments to any of the traditions in the Western artistic production, then it would have been more reasonable to compare them with minimalism. I would suggest Landscape minimalism. I think that would do.

The predominant question is the intention of the artistic positions, when erecting this monuments? For the monuments to be considered as works of art, it is necessary that they recognise themselves as such. They are a product of collaborative enduver of architects, sculptors, constructors and sometimes also painters or other workers in the field of arts and crafts, that produced mosaics (Kruševo) or primitive decoration (Bogdan Bogdanović). The problem in collective production is the fact that it would sometimes not be recognised as the artwork by the whole body of the collective.

Now we are at the point where we will briefly go through three contemporary art projects by Croatian artists and a curatorial collective that give voice to these silent monuments. It would be interesting to speak about why most of this projects are conceived in Croatia, but there is unfortunately not enough time.

Marijan Crtalić Nevidljivi Sisak (2007-2010)
David Maljković in Scene for a New Heritage (numbers 1 & 2, 2004 & 2006)
And the project on Croatian sculptor of Serbian descent Vojin Bakić by the curatorial collective WHW (What, How & for Whom)

The project of of giving voice to the sculpture works by Vojin Bakić is a result of proliferated independent cultural production in Zagreb, which is positioning itself in opposition to dominant models of representation and as a reaction against the inadequate work of institutions. Curatorial collective WHW is directly related to the possibilities of its institutionalization and influence on that process. Although in the last years we have witnessed significant changes in the vocabulary used by decision-makers and representatives of institutional »state« culture, the cultural domain in Croatia is still characterized by the logic of identity, particularly national identity. And here I can deeply relate to Vardan’s yesterday’s lecture. Antagonisms that deeply stratified society throughout the 90s have been temporarily suspended under consensus, which is, obviously, exclusionary, and nationalistic rhetoric is certainly watered down, but the basic understanding of culture has not changed at all. In that context, the exhibition of Vojin Bakić (1915-1992), organized by the curatorial collective »What, How & for Whom / WHW« in the public, city-owned Gallery Nova in Zagreb in June 2007, intervenes in the highly restricted and institutionally guarded area of high modernism.
Vojin Bakić is an artist on the one hand perceived as an »authentic« modernist sculptor, a key figure in the break with socialist realism and a proponent of abstraction who forged the paths for freedom of artistic expression in the 1950s, and on the other hand is seen as a »state artist« whose art has been serving ideology; highly acclaimed in official art histories, yet his monuments to the anti-fascist struggle have been devastated in the heat of the nationalism and anti-communism of the 90s.
In that narrative Bakić is understood as a propagator of abstraction who struggled for freedom of artistic expression, and his use of clean abstract forms is interpreted as a victory of art not only over socialist dogma, but over ideology in general. What such an understanding fails to comprehend is the fact that modernism is not a monolithic construction nor is it ideologically empty what we have previously mentioned; notions of artistic freedom and the autonomy of art are only seemingly disconnected from ideology and politics. Neutralization of art as a means of social critique, performed through the abdication of the avant-garde, and the possibility of introducing precise ideological messages into the self-referential forms of high modernism, without direct »program intervention« on behalf of the centres of political power and without openly violating the institution of autonomous art, was politically functional both in the West and in former SFRJ. The common understanding of Bakić acclaims him as visionary who played a »historic« role of breaking with soc-realism in sculpture.

one of the interviewees in the formally, scenographically superb film made in the context of the researche projects frankly admits that such production was entirely conceived by the artists and the architects ad the participants of the colonies and the workers were marely the executers of the strange orders. Of course by now most of them identify themselves with the public sculptures and recognise them as the core of their township’s identity, while those from the political right wing which produces nationalist sentiments are somewhat more aggressive towards that phenomenon

Vojin Bakić and his Monument to the anti-fascist movement and the victims of the IIWW at Petrova gora in Croatia was also a key figure in David Maljković’s epic film series Scene for New Heritage Trilogy. The trilogy is set in the futuristic world in the year 2045. It was shot over three years from 2004 till 2006. The first film focuses on a group of travellers visiting a memorial park. As they visit the monument, debate is sparked as to its long-forgotten meaning – it means nothing to them, just as their strange dialect is alien to us. The second film is set 20 years later. It features a young boy approaching and looking out from the monument’s tower to an empty snowy landscape, as if on some spiritual pilgrimage. The third and final film depicts young teenagers milling aimlessly around the central tower; talking, playing and walking around the derelict monument. Amid the desolate landscape, this heritage of the 20th Century history has become a folk tale for the visitors, its raw concrete structure an empty shell offering no indication of the brutality it represents. The film invites viewers to travel through time to discover the artist’s vision of the future and look at how the meaning of history and monuments changes from one era to the next. The film’s powerful subject matter comes from the artist’s own memories of obligatory visits under the Communist regime. Now just to give Maljković some institutional aura. This project was exhibited among other places also at the White Cube in London.

The last piece I’d like to show is Marjan Crtalić’s Invisible Sisak – The Ironworks Phenomenon. In the beginning of the 1970s and under the patronage and organization of Sisak Ironworks, an art colony was founded which, over the course of almost 20 years (1971-1990), gathered about two hundred eminent artists (among which were Ivan Kožarić, Dušan Džamonja, Ratko Petrić, Peruško Bogdanić, Milena Lah and many others) and produced more than two thousand artworks in the medium of painting, sculpture and photography. The existence of such a symbiosis between art and a factory enables us to search for parallels between a worker and artist: for both, the final instance of their ‘vocation’ and their work is located in the production process whose final materialization is visible and palpable, whether it concerns a metallurgic product or sculpture made by an artist associated with the Colony. Besides providing the artists (participants of the Colony) with raw material, the factory also bought their artworks, offering them as gifts to workers to reward their various achievements. This could be read as a closure of the cyclic production process: worker – raw material – artist – artwork – worker.

What remains today of this fruitful collaboration and the complex relation between worker and artist is but 30-odd derelict and damaged sculptures situated in the public area of the Ironworks workers’ settlement, a destiny alike that of the factory’s workers whose number used to equal more than 14000 and is today reduced to approximately 1000.

Text by Ida Hiršenfelder