(The Reconstruction of Memory)

Tihomir Milovac

Let’s begin with a title, taken over from a song whose lyrics begin with verses Avanti popolo, alla riscossa, bandiera rossa, bandiera rossa… For more than a century, this tune has been sang within the revolutionary circles of workers, communists, anarchists and socialists in Italy and other Mediterranean countries, including continental Europe. Republicans sang it during the years of Spanish Civil War. In Istria, Bandiera rossa was sang mostly during the socialists decades, as a sort of affirmation of freedom-loving ideas and a token of gratitude to the People’s Liberating Movement and partisans, who succeeded in bringing Istria under the aegis of its mother country. It was a way to demonstrate the allegiance to the revolutionary International, antifascism and also to the workers’ movements that have been developing and undergoing various transformations ever since the era of industrial revolution. In 1968 Bandiera rossa gained global popularity amongst the members of rebellious Beatnik generation. Afterwards, it was often used as punk and neo-anarchist gestus1. Though once the song had strong symbolic charge, as all the disenfranchised people recognized themselves in its verses, today Bandiera rossa can be heard only as a nostalgic melody, at some celebration held by the members of generations which heard and learned it during the socialist era. Alternatively, it is sang or quoted by the scarce critics of neoliberal policies, precariat and exploitation of workers, work and freedom of work, critics who disapprove with multiple deviations developed in post-transitional societies, all of which reflect in present Croatia as well. Long time ago, Bandiera rossa i.e. her red colour, has lost its strength and character which it carried on across generations and years. As early as the 1970s, artist Mladen Stilinović warned us of this realistic connotative paling. He did this within the art sphere, by replacing then revolutionary red colour with a washed-out pink, thus directing our attention to both symbolic and literal fall of the revolutionary ideas, the fall into post-modernist lethargy of « all and everything », the fall into both social and political de-ideologization, a dystopia which was about to seriously clutch « Fukuyama’s » generations from « the end of history »2 . Beginning in the the 1990s and based on the actual presumptions of « liberal democracy », this process triggered a historiographic revision of history.

At the time, Stilinović’s colourist-ideological diminutive seemed as an entirely local issue. These were the years when the former state of Yugoslavia, by and through its 1974 Constitution, officially renounced itself – as the political establishment realised that particular interests superseded those general ones. However, in the ensuing decade or two, it became rather obvious that the themes of both symbolic and literal paling and dying of the left, of the socialist, internationalist, humanist… idea which could be identified with « red colour » is actually a global phenomenon. It became clear that all the original ideas on equality, actually propagated and heard in popular revolutionary songs such as Avanti popolo or Ay, Carmela or Bella Ciao3 , were slowly, but surely pushed into history and – when it comes to Croatia – into oblivion as well. During the 1980s, under patronage of the democratization of society and moving out from the one-party system towards democracy, the numerous nationalisms developed, both within the more liberal milieu of The Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia as well as in the hard-line communisms of East European countries, then belonging to the Warsaw Pact. Democratization, which started with social and political changes during the 1990s and the end of the Cold War, has degenerated, turning into the arenas of war conflicts. This matrix begun here, at Balkans, and then spread further to the north of African continent as « Arabian Spring », followed by the Russian « liberation » of Crimea and North Ukraine (Donjeck), the formation of « Islamic State », the case of Syria’s « democratization” and eventually the most recent turmoil in Persian Gulf and the isolation of Qatar. And during these processes of « democratization », « liberation » or « social transformations » of various totalitarianisms, where did we see Bandiera rossa streaming? Where did we hear a cry Avanti popolo? Nowhere. One could hear other, entirely different and often legitimate, summoning and yet particular cries, along with frequent calls invoking violence, evil and hatred. So, where do we stand now?

Boris Buden4 says our epoch « sees itself through the perspective of its own innocence ». Why is this so? Because historiography, mostly of the revisionist kind, wishes to teach us that now we are entirely pacified and have no reason for turbulences. We’ve « left behind both totalitarianisms: Nazi-fascisms and communism… All is ended here: the terrors have already happened, the horrors have already occurred… Nowadays we comprehend terror as a thing from the past, as something that is left behind…. Therefore, the translation of any kind of political experience into what’s happening today has been disabled. »5

This is a general picture of how things are in the social-political sphere. And what is the state of affairs in art? We’ll continue with the issue concerning the position of art avant-garde. Namely, if we approve the thesis that « left » avant-garde ideas, ranging from workers’ movements to the 19th century English socialists to the Imperial Russia and October Revolution, are the predecessors of social and politic changes throughout Europe then – when it comes to the art sphere – this notion has to be comprehended with exactly such connotation in mind, as preceding and announcing the of changes in the language of art along with its multiple democratization. According to the theorist of avant-garde Peter Burger, within a bourgeois and therefore unjust society, avant-garde negates art’s autonomy and seeks its social influence. Further on, historical avant-garde does not aim at individual reception but seeks a common experience of its observers, which indirectly influences the creation of common notions and attitudes. Therefore, it introduces reception into the sphere of collective i.e. collectivism. In this manner historical art avant-gardes played the important roles as initiators or at least participants in the significant social, sometimes revolutionary changes of the past century, such as in the cases of Russian Constructivism, Bauhaus or DeStijl. However, what happened with avant-gardes in the already formed communist or socialist societies? The historical events of the 20th century demonstrate that avant-garde – in its original shape or strength – could not survive even in the changed communists milieus and that political, followed by the ideological, circumstances negated avant-gardes and eventually literally removed them from the scene. Though effecting powerful changes in the 20th century paths of art, architecture or design, whose positive results we inherit to this very day – avant-gardes did not survive in their original pioneering swing. Either they were violently stopped during the 1930s, as in the cases of Germany and Soviet Russia, or they’ve been canonized and thus remained distanced from the social reality. The latter produced almost the same negative consequences, as was the case with art avant-garde in post-WWII Yugoslavia.

Exat 51 Group, as « the last European avant-garde », existed during a turbulent decade following the WWII. Exat 51 shone strongly, established an ideational bridge with pre-war historical avant-gardes and consequently opposed the ideology of socialist realism on one hand and the liberal individualism on the other hand. Yet, being completely alone, it could not endure for a longer period. Soon enough, Exat 51 buckled before the onslaught of anti-collectivist phenomena in art which seized the entire Europe (Art Informel, Abstraction, Abstract Expressionism, et. al. ) Still, the legacy of Exat 51 can be tracked through occurrences surrounding the 1960s New Tendencies, all the way down to the appearance of New Art Practice and neo-avant-garde re-visitation of the social role of art.

I have invited several artists practising three diverse art disciplines to participate at this year’s edition of Poreč Annals. These are: Dejan Kršić from the sphere of design; Radenko Milak / Roman Uranjek, Jasmina Cibic, Marko Lulić and Maja Marković from the sphere of visual arts, along with Igor Vuk Torbica coming from the sphere of theatre. I consider their artistic strategies to be entirely in the spirit of the above explained analysis of « the state of avant-garde » within the cultural and political circumstances of societies which have been practising avant-gardeism, in its social, political and artistic aspects.

Dejan Kršić is a designer with the educational background in art history. His understanding of design’s role in culture essentially differs from the conventional linear historicization. Kršić comprehends design as a complex social and artistic practice, by no means a mere knowledge concerning the shaping of beautiful objects. As a member of activist group New Europe that was active in Zagreb in the mid 1980s, Kršić « rejects the ideas of artistic originality, founding his artwork on copying, multiplication, sampling and acting within the respective fields of society, media and widely comprehended culture, instead of a mere narrowly conceived field of art. »6

For the purpose of Avanti! exhibition, Kršić produced a new artwork, based on an old matrix dating from the 1980s, which at that time already was a conjunction between an adopted motif belonging to Malevich Suprematist painting and the heroic figures invoking Soviet propaganda posters. Let’s recall that the 1980s gave birth to the « awakened interest in historical avant-gardes » which was « accompanied by the awareness of new forms of avant-garde action, within new social, cultural, media and technological conditions. »7 Kršić formed his recent artwork as a multi-layered print featuring the lyrics from Bandiera rossa as a « decorative » background. Artwork’s title is a paraphrase of Soviet didactic slogan, mocking Europe Union for its state of disunion. In his photographic series of pseudo-polaroids Kršić records the motifs he discovers in his own surrounding, in various interiors or when walking around the city. Kršić then compares these motifs with various historical artworks, starting with Modernists as those who’ve formed their action as the issue of form and formation and hence produced their art outside the social reality, down to the protagonists of Pop Art, Conceptualism and Postmodernism. Here, one can find homage to Ivan Picelj and his memory of Malevich, to Zero, DeStijl, Exat51 and to Tomislav Gotovac with his movie Pravac (Stevens / Duke) and to music group Laibach. « Theory-as-practice » was the motto of New Europe. It follows « the ideals of new democratization of art, abolishing Modernists’ positioning of artist-genius, choosing to work anonymously and collectively »8 and thus emitting a clear message that there is still space left for new artistic practices.

To quote Boris Goys, « Speaking in Marxists terms, art can be seen as a part of superstructure or as a part of material basis. In other words, art can be comprehended as both ideology and technology. The radical art avant-gardes have followed this second, technological manner of transforming the world. »9

Actually, these technological transformations helped affirming progress in the age of Modernism in both Western and Eastern Europe, as a phenomenon of post-war development and transformation of underdeveloped societies and economies into these developed ones. This moment of transformation, referred to as modernization within a social-economical terminology, and as Modernism in culture studies, is a focal interest of Austrian artist Marko Lulić and Slovenian artist Jasmina Cibic. Though their approaches to the theme of Modernism are based on researching architecture, the plastic art of monuments, dance and music of Modernism, and through their results are sometimes shockingly similar (as in the cases of Space-girl Dance by Lulić and some collages by Cibic ), their approaches differ. Cibic tackles the subject as an artist-researcher, discovering invisible data on the already known facts, only to use them as a basis for building a new narrative, history as a poetic construct. Cibic is aware that history as a scientific discipline exists in today’s post-historical moment, wherein one can produce multiple constructions, where narratives can be marked by opposing signs and can answer the questions brought forward by totally contrarian positions (politically left or right) or can, in Boris Buden’s interpretation, « produce a truth of a kind ». However, « problem is that such truth does not exist »10.

Therefore Cibic reaches after the Eisenstein-like experiences of « montaging the attraction ». Though this is not a film procedure, her junctions consist in a process of merging images, sound and movement. Her procedures, along with her formal values, are frequently quite close to the synthesis of creative practices as inaugurated by Bauhaus in 1930s or manifestly promoted as the « plastic unity » by Exat 51 in the 1950s. Due to the above said, one can entirely understand Cibic’s interest for the architect Vjenceslav Richter’s oeuvre, as a member of group carrying the idea of synthesizing all the arts in architecture, primarily through equalizing the respective value statuses of pure and applied art.

Video Nada, Act 1, which resulted from the engagement with Richter’s architectural project of Yugoslav pavilion in Brussels in 1958, along with the artist’s own series of collages from 2015, have been inspired by the ornaments from Modernist architecture, proving the measure in which Modernism is interesting to and in our own time. However, to achieve the vertical communication, Modernism still needs « a translator », which in the case of Jasmina Cibic’s « translation » reveals the astonishingly new, unknown and invisible narratives. In her video Nada, Act 1 Cibic takes Richter’s utopian idea of anti-gravitational architecture – a building without foundations visualized while projecting the pavilion – and then translates it into a musical instrument. Her own model of pavilion was rendered following the original sketches and photos of maquette, with a pillar wherefrom the pavilion hangs. Cibic translates this into an instrument, producing a sound of entirely abstract « space » music.

Lulić’s approach is analytical one. He finds the Modernist paradigm in architecture and the plastic art of monuments in the post WWII Yugoslavia to be a personification of authenticity. It is « an amalgam of Western Modernism and East European communism. The rebirth of Modernism (then denoted as bourgeois decadency) was a state-ideological project stemming from Tito’s conflict with Stalin and Information Bureau… »11 However, Lulić also pays attention to a paradox embodied in the 1990s when, following the breakup of Yugoslavia, war conflicts raged throughout the territories of newly emerged states. At the time, this Modernist and internationalist paradigm, along with its idiomatical abstract syntagma, was recognized as unmatchable with new national paradigms. Consequently, the plastic art of monuments dedicated to People Liberation Movement and revolution either violently disappeared or got entirely neglected. Presently, Croatia is witnessing the emergence of radical revisionist tendencies regarding the displacement and total devaluation of the historic period of socialism spanning from 1945 to 1991. According to Boris Buden, « historical revisionism stems from historiography. Historicists are those who inaugurate the topics of revisionism, but a problem is that the latter (especially in the present moment) has seized the widest social domain (masses of people), becoming an emotional dimension and a premise for acting within post-politics. Historical revisionism grew omnipresent through a legitimating discourse of post-politics, and furthermore through the so called post-history along Fukuyama’s ideas »12. Here, we could paraphrase a known thesis according to which avant-garde « does not wish the audience to love it but wishes to shape its own new audience »13, a thesis that gained its application in daily politics. Hence, one could ascertain that « the revolutionary » behaviour of (all) historical avant-gardes has mutated into its tragic reflection – the political practice. Lulić translates phenomena of this kind by using the titles such as Invisible Monument, Death of the Monument, Museum of Revolution, Futurology, Klasseundkunst, Raum Frage, Total Living and Constructing Context.

In 2015, an exhibition format titled Dates14 presented the audience with Radenko Milak’s and Roman Uranjek’s composite artworks. Though treated equally, these works comprised two art concepts. Their artistic decision on joint appearance and the formal confrontation of autonomous art pieces is embodied in their conceptual idea of connecting the artworks via dates. The procedure of formatting starts with Milak’s black and white watercolours derived from the photographic motifs of real historical events along with their concrete dates, motifs most frequently featuring the topics of global catastrophes and wars i.e. themes connected with the world of art history. Exhibition Avanti! presents watercolours derived according to photographic testimonials, such as the appearance of John Cage, Alexine Teeny Duchamp and Marcel Duchamp on March 5th 1968 at Ryerson Theatre in Toronto, or the opening of Documenta in Kassel on June 30th 1972  or the reminiscences of painter Julije Knifer or Zenithist Ljubomir Micić. The process is then taken over by Uranjek, who treats dates from Milak’s watercolours as the keys for selecting and attaching one of the pieces from his own rich archive of drawings and collages, which he has been creating for over more than fifteen years under a slogan At Least One Cross Daily. In this manner Uranjek selects the most adequate match for a respective Milak’s watercolour motif.

Radenko Milak and Roman Uranjek use their artistic position as translators, mediators and even teachers. Employing their composite works, primarily through the selection and recreation of motifs, they educate or at least remind us that past can and has to be a participant of reality, albeit not as its burden – but as its instigator and corrector. In their decisive and somewhat masochist gesture of repeating the content « of that past », we discover a form of self-punishment, by which artists symbolically take over the responsibility for the reality that is both failed and dissatisfying. Yet, Milak and Uranjek take care that observers recognize the motif that was appropriated, hoping the audience will realize the original associative values carried by the actual photographs, along with the reasons for its re-invoking within the new temporal, spatial, political and social contexts.

We can claim that the artistic procedure of Milak and Uranjek draw on originals that are not found objects (French: objet trouvé), in the sense in which art history defined those innovative art practices introduced into the 20th century art by Marcel Duchamp and Kurt Schwitters who invoked the experiences of collecting the civilizational wonders within « curiosity cabinets » (German: Wunderkammer). With Milak and Uranjek, these became « found motifs » stemming from « memory cabinets” of the media-mediated memory, so characteristic of this era of ours. Here, the events and motifs are connected/opposed at an ideational, most frequently irrational level. Hence, this union is mirrored in a space of historically unreal, as the history which did not happen and could have never happened according to the conventional interpretation of the linear flux of time. But, is this really so? Using this new narrative, risen within a construed temporal synchronicity of two historically incomparable entities, the artists have liberated the space aiming to annul the objective, date-related and chronological succession, enabling a rise of history as its own negation. Due to their ideological inclinations, in this affair the artists have recognised an actually important factor which can contribute to the positive « changes of entire reality »15.

Let us now take a look at which line of avant-garde is inherited by artist Maja Marković and how does she achieve it. The artist says that « in her work she has emphasised creation of (non)specific place for playing out of the unplanned and temporary relations… extending these from the objects to the papers, via drawings », most often featuring the architectural motifs. The rendering technology is directed towards the exhibition space, the area of the actual exhibition. Marković uses paper, transparent plexiglas and fragile wooden constructions as the spatial drawings. Her interventions into the exhibition space do not exist outside the space of actual exhibition. There is no artwork. However, there is a field within which the artist is acting. Inasmuch, the time of artwork’s existence is always correlating with the time of exhibiting. One can say that her experiment with the technology of exhibiting has been transformed into an experiment with a notion of time, actually with its « playing out », to borrow the artist’s words. Formally, these temporary works are closest to painterly constructs evolving from the tradition of Suprematism as non-objectual painting. Namely, the artist’s radical act of artwork’s physical disappearance leads us to the Malevich’s idea on « the economy of thought » whose Suprematist derivation, « the economy of form », as the most important claim of Malevich’s philosophy, is exemplified in the reduction of this painter’s motifs down to Black Square.

Artworks by Maja Marković remind us that, just as Kazimir Malevich believed, « sincerity is the biggest enemy of artists: artists should never do what they sincerely love, because they probably love something trivial and artistically irrelevant… In accord with these words, avant-gardes were outstandingly sceptical towards the possibility of influencing the soul of public and of constructing the community whose part they could become. »16

However, one could ask whether art avant-garde can survive without its social « shadow », its reflex in the political tissue. Therefore we rejoice when, from time to time, the neglected « red flag » streams, even if only as stage prop – as in the case of Hinkemann, written by Ernst Toller and directed by Igor Vuk Torbica.17 This expressionist grotesque on « lame person » and « lame state » was written by leftist who was close to anarchists and communists and who served, for six days, as the president of short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic, that was born as a reflection of Weimar Republic. This new staging of the play is a search for contemporary neo-expressionist gestus within the present (Croatian) circumstances of increasingly stronger and deeper social stratification, reflected also in a significant economical division into rich and poor. The director opted to stress the element of grotesque, a powerful social disfiguration which Toller described in long-past 1922 and which became increasingly obvious in our own contemporary society, traumatized by the transitional processes that have been going on for too long, by the growth of intolerance and by – which is a rather essential fact these days – the lack of empathy accompanied by a social doubt of the meaning of making sacrifice for the other. Torbica is a director of « animated pictures ». He literally draws his play in advance, coding the images he will eventually produce on stage. The pages of Torbica’ s notebook are filled with non-hierarchical depictions of characters and scenes, which he afterwards repeats on stage. Torbica equalizes the presence and visibility of the actor’s private personality – outside the role – with a character the actor plays on stage. In this manner he recalls the Brechtian procedure of theatrical democratization as one that is more directly connecting the performance, primarily its content, with our now-and-here reality.

Finally, the exhibition’s ambient is a quote of an idea whose architectural and design concept was done in 1925 by Russian Constructivist artist Alexander Rodchenko, as a proposition for Workers’ Club. This work was publicly presented for the first time, also in 1925, at International Exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Art (Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs et industriels Modernes) in Paris. Quoted here is the idea of an affirmative relation towards worker, his active leisure time, his sociability, along with ideas on how to permanently advance the fundamentals of revolution if we want to keep the moral dignity, exemplified as the classless and equal society and the freedom of labour. During past 90 years, Rodchenko’s Workers’ Club has been rendered and accordingly re-designed on several various occasions. However, the unique feature of all these renderings was the red colour, which – in our case – reconstructs the space as the symbolical retro or post-revolutionary spirit, one pervaded with Constructivist didactic elements, words and images.

1 A cover of this song was recorded in 1984 by Ljubljana-based punk group Pankrti, as a part of their « Rdeči album » (« Red Album »). During the late 1980s, Pula-based punk group KUD Idijoti made its own cover of the song.

2 In his essay End of History  (1988) and book The End of History and the Last Man (1992) Francis Fukuyama proposes a thesis that human history as the battle between ideologies has come to an end and that that, following the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989 and the end of Cold War, the world will from now on be founded on liberal democracy.   

3 Of these songs, probably the most famous and endowed with highest emotional charge is Ay, Carmela!, a song which originated during Spanish Civil War, fought from 1936 to 1939 as the resistance against Franco’s fascism.

4 Boris Buden: NOB i politika povijesti (Peoples Liberation War and the Politics of History), a public panel held at Bogdan Ogrizović Library, Zagreb, July 6th 2015

5 Ibid.

6 Marko Golub: Dejan Kršić: Dizajn je uvijek bio značenjska praksa, (Design Was Always a Connotative Practice), http://dizajn.hr/blog/dejan-krsic-dizajn-je-oduvijek-bio-znacenjska-praksa/

7 Dejan Kršić: Excerpt from an unpublished text in progress, 2017

8 Dejan Kršić: Excerpt from an unpublished text in progress, 2017

9 Boris Groys: The Truth of Art, e-flux, Journal #71 – March 2016

10 Boris Buden: NOB i politika povijesti (Peoples Liberation War and the Politics of History), a public panel held at Bogdan Ogrizović Library, Zagreb, July 6th 2015

11 From the text by Marko Lulić  

12 Boris Buden: NOB i politika povijesti (Peoples Liberation War and the Politics of History), a public panel held at Bogdan Ogrizović Library, Zagreb, July 6th 2015

13 Boris Groys: The Truth of Art, e-flux, Journal #71 – March 2016

14 In the following text I have used the excerpts from my own text Dates – History as its Own Negation, which appeared in publication Radenko Milak with international guests – University of Disaster, The 57th Venice Biennial, Bosnia and Herzegovina Pavilion, Museum of Contemporary Art of Serb Republic, 2017  

15 At this point, I would like to invoke « the law of negating the negation », one of three famous Hegel’s laws of dialectics within his philosophy of absolute idealism. This law claims that each phase in the development of absoulte idea negates one previous phase, and will itself be negated by the next (future) phase. That is, each phase is a negation of an already existing negation. Herein, negation does not connote abolishing or rejecting, but transcending and overpowering in the « process of changing the entire reality ».  

16 Boris Groys: The Truth of Art, e-flux, Journal #71 – March 2016

17 Zagreb premiere of Hinkemann was staged by ZKM (Zagreb Youth Theatre) in 2016.