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Confrontations: Sessions in East European Art History

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Setting the Confrontations Agenda

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

The first session of Confrontations kicked off with a circle of introductions of this select group of scholars of East European art history, coming together at the beginning of an ambitious programme of collective research. Hosted by the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb, the first gathering was an opportunity to introduce the agenda of Confrontations over the coming years, with the aim to uncover the contested histories of the art of the first and last decades of the socialist period across the diverse art scenes of Eastern Europe.   Anticipating from the outset the complexity and potential irreconcilability of certain positions in contested art historical evaluations, the participants were invited to confront their views through a symbolic Tug of Art History. The question that saw the group take the most opposing positions indicatively was whether abstract art could be seen as a propaganda tool of the socialist state. Intended as a gesture to establish a safe environment for the expression of discordant points of view, this group exercise was also an indication of the objective of Confrontations to activate the potential of ‘sensuous scholarship’ through an embodied art history in which researchers are immersed in direct experiences, exchanges and encounters with the objects of study in situ.        The first group seminar vividly illustrated the plurality and wealth of approaches in response to the task of proposing their own working definition of East European art history. As we went around the table, it was clear that everyone had interpreted the brief set out in advance by the convenors of Confrontations differently. In that sense, attempts to define our research area ranged from historicising the question of East European art, either relegating it to the pre-1989 state-socialist period or conceiving it as a post-1989 construct, to putting forward theoretical or linguistic distillations of the field. Also voiced was the notion that focusing on Eastern European art could be a strategic choice, in terms of pursuing particular ethical or decolonising agendas with regard to art history.

(MRF)

Tomislav Gotovac Institute

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

After intensive discussions at MSU and pulling of the rope, we ended in the Krajiška street 29 in the former apartment of Tomislav Gotovac. Welcomed by Darko Šimičić, co-founder of the Institute and secretary of the artist’s archive, along with Zora Gotovac and daughter Sarah, we could follow Gotovac’s fascinating journey from experimental films, photostories towards performance art.

In the authentic settings of the artist’s apartment and the studio we were able to understand the birth of a visual artist using expanded media in the unique situation of Croatia since the 1960s. Gotovac’s case is one of the examples of artistic trajectories behind the Iron Curtain, influenced by politics, social change and personal standings. He was a key member of the Yugoslav neo-avant-garde and exhibited in 1976 for the first time after 15 years of continuous work. He created series of photographs, collages,  a number of experimental films and famous performances. The visit of the artist’s kitchen was an experience of its own – Gotovac’s Yugoslav Merzbau is an original and very personal collage in the space. And when Darko Šimičić pulled out of one of the closets Gotovac’s batman suite made by Zora Gotovac from underwear, we were hooked.
(Pavlína Morganová)

Pluralising Yugoslav Art

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

A constitutive element of the Confrontations sessions are peer seminars at which the members succinctly present their research related to the particular focus of the programme and then respond to questions and comments from the others. The first such seminar was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb and was focused on the uneven terrains of Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav art history, with presentations by Ivana Bago on What is Yugoslav Art?, Asja Mandić on The Centre-Periphery Relations in Socialist Yugoslavia: Multiple Art Histories and Sandra Bradvić on Jugoslovenska dokumenta (Sarajevo, 1984-1989): From ‘off-space’ to ‘big-scale-exhibition’.Much discussion ensued over the relation between Yugoslav art history and that of the individual countries of the former socialist federation, and how to evaluate moves during the post-communist period to assimilate Yugoslav art to a wider East European account. Productive debate was also sparked over how the narrative of Yugoslav art history could be pluralised to include artists and communities who were excluded from the celebrated ‘second line’ traced in canonical accounts from EXAT51 through New Tendencies, Gorgona and the New Art Practice to the post-avant-garde formations of the 1980s.
(MRF)

No SR in the MSU

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

In light of our discussions, it was extremely instructive to have a tour of the incomparable MSU collection from curator and co-author of the display Tihomir Milovac. He shared his methodology of developing a ‘collection in motion,’ and the intricacies of approaches to abstraction in the oeuvre of EXAT51 artists and the Gorgona group.


He also sympathetically fielded critical observations on particular curatorial / institutional decisions about how to represent the art of socialist times, such as why there is no Socialist Realism on display. The diplomatic response was that the museum takes 1950 as a cut-off point and that the Gallery of Contemporary Art was founded and began collecting only in 1954, so had no interest in acquiring works in this style.
Curator Jasna Jakšić offered further illumination of the research possibilities of the collection and was of invaluable assistance in organising our time in the museum. Direct encounters with the artworks and their museological presentation created a rigorous setting for discussions and it was refreshing – and paradigm-expanding – to follow an alternative route around the collection that gravitated towards those art historical episodes that preceded and followed the heights of new art practice in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
(MRF)

Situated Knowledge

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

A guest talk by artist and researcher Darko Fritz drew the group closer to the influential New Tendencies series of exhibitions and symposia held in Zagreb from 1961. In an impassioned presentation delivered in front of the works themselves, he laid out the lifecycle of the movement from inception to crisis, the local politics around New Tendencies and its relation to other artistic formations.  He also addressed the way in which the movement was eventually subsumed into other stylistic categories, like Op Art, within an international context. Reflecting also his own  background in New Media Art, Fritz emphasised the exceptional contribution of New Tendencies to the development of Computer Art.
Another engaging talk was by curator Ivana Janković on Croatian artist Antun Motika, whose singular post-war experimental practice, involving work with organic materials and slide projections, does not easily fit into existing local art historical narratives of the period. For the participants, with their broad comparative perspective, Motika’s approach revealed unexpected points of connection with the interests of other East European artists of the post-war period in the overlaps of art, nature and science.
(MRF)

Before the Nineties

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

The group had a further chance to connect with the Zagreb art scene during an Open Seminar held at the Institute of Contemporary Art Zagreb. After an insightful and in depth analysis by art historian Leonida Kovač of the singular oeuvre of Edita Schubert (1947-2001), an artist whose practice still awaits international recognition, the evening carried on with an engaging conversation exploring the heterogenous streams of eighties art with curator and director of the ICA, Janka Vukmir.

The issues that were addressed included the importance of alternative art venues such as the Gallery of Extended Media in providing a platform for subcultural trends and the visual arts. Furthermore, what can be salvaged from the interrupted legacy of the time before the nineties?

Afterwards our speakers joined us for a memorable dinner. On our last night in Zagreb, everyone was full of impressions and keen to exchange notes and deepen acquaintances with fellow members of Confrontations.
(MRF)

 

 

 

Institute of Art History

MajaFowkes29 April 2019

Still in Zagreb, next morning we visited the Institute of Art History, where the group met with art historian Sandra Križić Roban for a seminar on the history of the Institute and the art history journal, Život umjetnosti, of which until recently she was the editor in chief.She emphasised the role of particular individuals in determining and building up the profession of art history after the Second World War, while discussion also shifted towards the confrontation between EXAT51 and Edo Murtić over their designs for a mural in the Ritz Bar nightclub in 1953 as epitomising the struggle between competing streams of modernism in Yugoslavia after the Stalin-Tito split of 1948.  We also had a tour around the building, one of the most representative achievements of socialist-era architecture and design, which opened in 1961 as the Moša Pijade Workers and Peoples University.  The tour even took us into the basement of the institution, a trapdoor into a past world and a reminder that the infrastructure of the present is built upon the material world created by socialist modernity.
(MRF)