|Glocal Practices in Contemporary Croatian Art||
Praesens: central European contemporary art review 4/2004
The syntagma ‘cheese and cream’ has a particular resonance in Croatia, bringing to mind a fresh, homemade regional speciality, as opposed to the bland, mass-produced fare of the dairy multinationals. It is perhaps not surprising that the issue of the survival of ‘cheese and cream’ has become a touchstone of the debate over globalisation and the costs and benefits of European integration. What is less well-known, and rarely acknowledged, is the role that contemporary art has played in bringing this issue into the public arena.
The artist Kristina Leko (1966) has over the years researched various aspects of this traditional culture in different parts of continental Croatia. Her earlier works highlight the precarious economies of small scale milk production, as well as explore its communicative and social dimension by, for example, organising a meeting between Croatian and Hungarian small milk producers in a gallery. Subsequently, the traditional occupation of the milkmaid, who sells her own homemade cheese and cream at the market - the meeting point of rural and urban culture - has become the focus of her major project ‘Cream and Cheese.’
With this work, Kristina Leko’s concern with dairy issues entered a new and more activist phase. She initiated a collaborative, interdisciplinary project with the aim of protecting the livelihood and products of the Zagreb milkmaids. At its heart is the Milkmaids’ Declaration, which demands that this ‘trademarks of the city’ and ‘particular form of cultural heritage’ be preserved. ‘We suggest and demand legal protection for our milkmaids and their fresh cheese and cream, as an indigenous product and custom of our own.’ During 2002-3, a team of people questioned in depth more than 500 milkmaids at the seven main Zagreb markets. The results of the questionnaire, audio and video recordings, and photographs of the milkmaids, are all accessible from the www.sirivrhnje.org website, which also invites visitors to sign the Milkmaids’ Declaration online, and add their own stories, recipes, and opinions. Apart from extensive research resulting in a comprehensive database, the project entailed an exhibition at the PM Gallery in Zagreb, a public petition and effective press campaign, and a roundtable discussion with professionals and politicians on the theme ‘Can Zagreb milkmaids and cream and cheese enter the European Union?’
The success of the project has been reflected in greater public awareness of the modern issues affecting ‘cheese and cream’ culture. Journalists and politicians have also become more interested in the story of the Zagreb milkmaids, frequently appropriating the subject for their own ends. In one case, the BBC correspondent in Zagreb made direct use of it in a television report, but failed to mention the project or artist who initiated it. In another, a new rightwing party in Croatia took up this issue as one of the most visible elements of its anti-European integration platform. Activists from SIN could be seen walking around Zagreb wearing message boards with the slogan ‘Europe isn’t cool – but cheese and cream are.’ The artist herself rejects the idea that ‘her’ project has been ‘misused’ by others, for Leko: ‘cheese and cream does not belong individually to me or anyone else.’
This successful and wide-reaching project shares many of the characteristics of contemporary socially-engaged art practice. The stress in such practice is usually on process and projects, and when this takes the form of a gallery exhibition, it shows the results and progress of research rather than finished art pieces. These become a forum for discussions, the feedback from which are integral to the work as a whole. Socially-engaged practices are often interdisciplinary, in the sense that they borrow methods from other fields, such as sociology and advertising. Another common facet is that they are collaborative, with the production of the work a group effort, often involving not only artists, but members of a specific community or social group. The artists engaged in this kind of art practice tend to take on alternative roles, such as empowering others and engendering debate, moving the focus onto the issues highlighted by the work, rather than their own individual creativity.
A more recent work of Kristina Leko is focussed on the gathering of suggestions for reform of the American Constitution. At its core is the idea that ‘everyone should have the right to actively experience the world’s largest democracy.’ This resonates with demands by some political commentators that the whole world should have the right to vote in the US election, as its result arguably affects us as much as general elections in our own countries.
The ‘Office of Constitutional Correction’ was set up in July 2004 in a park in the historic German city of Weimar. The artist offered passers-by, tourists and inhabitants of the city the possibility to read and compare various constitutions. Following on from the discussion and interaction of this symbolic action in the park, a corrected version of the sacrosanct American Constitution will be developed and sent to influential politicians. Along with the revised US constitution, a video piece will feature statements from 38 people from different countries. Each person addresses the American people and politicians in his or her own language and there will be no translation or subtitles. As the artist comments, ‘and even so, one can understand what people are talking about…’
An early socially-engaged art piece by Andreja Kuluncic (1968) counted on the effectiveness of advertising, by adopting its methods to draw attention to the problem of structural unemployment in transitional economies. Her project, which took place in June 2000, focused on the predicament facing employees of NaMa, a socialist-era department store then on the verge of bankruptcy. It involved installing posters of shop assistants in ten light-boxes in the centre of Zagreb with the caption ‘NAMA - 1908 employees, 15 department stores.’ Although she simulated advertising, and the models were professionally prepared for shooting, the resulting photos are more like portraits, with real destinies legible on their faces.
Since the NaMa project, Andreja Kuluncic has produced a significant body of work with a strong social or political dimension, dealing with issues from asylum seekers to teenage pregnancy. The work ‘Distributive Justice’ was more in the realm of virtual philosophy, and was developed for Dokumenta 11 and later adapted for the Whitney Museum in New York. Grappling with societal attitudes to the sharing of resources, the work is a multi-disciplinary, collaborative project between professionals from various fields on the one hand, and visitor-participants on the other, who provide the content for this interactive work-in-progress by playing an internet game, and participating in the ‘working space’ gallery installation.
Kuluncic’s most recent activity in Croatia investigates growing social differentiation in leisure pursuits. For ‘A Place in the Sun’, the artist carried out a survey of visitors to the Jarun lake in Zagreb, which was designed to show the correlation between financial or social status, and how and where people spend their leisure time in the park. It is interesting to find out that visitors to catering establishments are among the most educated and highest social status park-goers; in-line skaters are both the most educated and include the highest proportion of unemployed; fishermen tend to be the least educated and spend the least during their visit to Jarun; while the ‘barbecuers’ have the greatest proportion of the student population. The results of the survey, which was designed and analysed by a sociologist, were used to create three new socio-economic maps to replace the existing maps of the park, copies of which were also handed out to visitors as fliers. The intention of the work was to show how ‘everything, including leisure time, is subject to a set of rules’ and the fact that increasingly, ‘even in our free time we have to pay.’
Rather than attempt to change the world on a grand scale, Andreja Kuluncic’s ambition is to ‘make people stop and think, even for one minute, and to find a strategy to make that happen.’ Her artistic method therefore involves ‘finding out about a problem and highlighting it from a different angle.’ While she has conceived and carried out socially-engaged projects in communities across the world, her concern closer to home is with the need ‘for people to think during the transition process about what to adopt from the Western model.’
Igor Grubic (1969) describes the role of the artist in a similar vein as ‘to make a spark in the viewer’s mind, to make them think about what the media and politicians serve us up.’ His Velvet Underground (2002) has sparked strong reactions around the world, and has been shown at Manifesta 4, the Tirana Biennale and at APEXart, New York. The work originated as a community-based project with prisoners at the Lepoglava Prison, a notorious jail in Croatia. The artist made numerous visits to a group of inmates convicted of violent crimes, talking to them about their childhoods in the manner of a psychotherapist. He also made photographs to illustrate the idea of the prisoners behind bars and dressed up in velvet animal costumes. However, in order to spare the men from ‘abusive labelling and mockery’ in the macho environment of the prison, it was the artist himself who dressed up in the toy suits. These incongruous photographs of dangerous criminals transported into the realm of childhood fantasy are exhibited together with transcripts of their stories and early recollections, descriptions of favourite games, and childhood dreams. The brutal reality of how their adult lives turned out is conveyed by the adjacent display of the prisoner’s cold vital statistics: initials, age, crime and sentence. The work has undertones of a Foucaultian critique of the modern penal system, as well as broader references to the role of society and the mechanistic education system in fostering crime by not giving people the opportunity to be creative in life.
Igor Grubic established his reputation as a political artist in Croatia with Black Peristil, a provocative intervention in celebration of the infamous ‘Red Peristil’ action of 1968, in which the entire square in front of Diocletian’s Palace in Split was painted red as a protest against totalitarianism. In his clandestine re-enactment in black, Grubic left the following message: ‘In honour of the group Red Peristil, 30 years after, Peristil, as a magic mirror, reflects the state of society's conscience.’ Currently the artist is preparing a new work entitled ‘Reinventing the Revolution’, to be shown at the exhibition ‘New Politics for an Old Past’ in Seoul this December. His multi-media installation will combine images from television reports from the era of socialism with western consumerist iconography to create an ironic view of propaganda. Elements of the work include a duke box playing both revolutionary songs from the East and ‘socially-engaged’ pop songs from the West, and a performance in which the artist does graffiti or ‘urban guerrilla advertising’ on the exterior of the gallery.
The three artists featured here are among the
most successful Croatian artists of their generation. They all work
both in Croatia and abroad, carrying out socially-engaged projects that
reach out to the general public as much as the professional art world.
Their art practice is appealing and relevant both internationally and
at home, working on the level of the ‘glocal’, or intersection
of global and local culture. The ideas and practices driving these works
are part of a newly re-politicised global art discourse that ultimately
draws on the growing, worldwide, anti-globalisation protest movement.
Equally, the formal practices of socially-engaged art - such as interdisciplinarity,
collaboration, process and participation – are, when they avoid
the pitfall of tick-box art, as important an element of its contemporary
appeal as the content or issues it treats.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes