Nataša Ivančević Traces of Modernism in Personal and Social Memory
Viktor Popović has been active on the Croatian art scene for more than twenty years, exploring the new possibilities of multimedia expression in the field of post-conceptual practices. Although an academic painter by education, already in the initial formative phase, he exhibited in group exhibitions dealing with the phenomenon of New Sculpture,1 as well as in exhibitions of a new generation of Split’s contemporary artists that was recognized for its innovative approach, pluralism and radical shift in relation to the production of the generation of established artists of Split’s scene at the end of the last century.2 The processes which were taking place in Split in the mid-1990s contributed to the aforementioned processes, primarily the establishment and operation of the Arts Academy and the activities around the Museum of Fine Arts which put contemporary art into the focus of interest.
Popović attracted the attention of the general public by winning the Grand Prix of the 8th Triennial of Croatian Sculpture in 2003 for his installation of men’s articles of clothing executed in sheet lead. The works are based on merging disparate work models and representation. The sculpture Untitled (2000/2005) is a lead curtain in actual size, separating the exhibition space like a “real” curtain, which points to a contradictory situation. Objects of utility, which by the nature of things should be light and supple, thus become rigid, heavy, and immobile.
The next group of works was created using industrial materials, steel profiles, argon or fluorescent tubes, rubber, or even engine oil. The elements of the installation, as well as the work process, were completely depersonalized, and the author, by composing a new ensemble, established a relationship with legacy and context. In Popović, we will not find grand gestures, direct references, or loud narrative structures. The newly established layers of meaning are present implicitly, accessible by reflection, by the mental engagement of the observer who, if he or she so wishes, should take an active role. This is also supported by the “nameless” names of his works that he mostly neutrally designates as “Untitled”.
A new direction of his further engagement with visual art started in 2006, is the appropriation of ready-made objects of utility. We recall the 100th anniversary of the invention of the ready-made (Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain), in which everyday objects were raised to the status of artwork. Popović would often use a similar method in his works. The author is interested in the transformation of erstwhile utility and now discarded objects that become part of a sculptural group, in their relocation to another context—in this case, the context of the exhibition space of the museum—which creates a whirl of new relationships and meanings. These are objects that carry traces of use, so they are a sort of carrier of memory, and their grouping creates a new spatial composition with which he associates the fluorescent or argon tubes. By using cold light, the lines in space emerge as pure formal constructions – minimal, poor, and reductive. Despite complete asceticism, he uses the combinatorics of standard elements to create associative complexes (ladder, spider web, conical form). The next process is the exhibiting of steel profiles (Untitled, 2006), to which he associates argon light tubes, which, despite their cold, industrial character, create an atmosphere. The result is a composition of accentuated linear structures in space.
On one occasion, Viktor Popović explained the reasons behind his fascination with light as a visual element by saying that it was about the material (gas) caught inside a glass tube. Thus, the matter—that is elusive—is a means he used to create a drawing in space. He most literally toyed with this contradiction when creating the light installation in the Richter Collection, challenging the sources of Richter’s synthetic approach to architecture, urban planning, and visual art. He used argon tubes to compose Plato’s quote from 387 BC, “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here,” placing it at the entrance to the family house, today’s Richter Collection, in Zagreb’s neighborhood of Vrhovec as part of the SintArt project in 2010.
He would use used chairs in several site-specific installations in various locations. In the Town Library of Komiža in 2006, the chaoticness of the structure of chairs from Komiža Elementary School, seemingly thrown together, was visually balanced and connected by argon light tubes, transforming them into an exhibit. Visible traces of use established a direct link with the context, so the change in the role of the objects was multiply encoded. For his 2006 exhibition at the Portland Art Center in Portland, Oregon, he invited the people, whom he met during his residency program, to lend their chairs for the installation. From one reality, in which they served their original function, the chairs were moved to the reality of the exhibition space with all the connotations that this space entailed. Following the return of the objects to their everyday life, they kept the “invisible” layer of meaning. In the installation which he created for the exhibition T-HT firstname.lastname@example.org at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Untitled, 2006/2007), he used the chairs that, prior to being moved to a new location, had been used in the Museum’s offices for decades. Inside the sculptural form, the lighting was placed that was the only light within the exhibition space. Thus illuminated, the traces of use present in the furniture became visible. By translocating the furnishings, he transferred part of the memory of employees and associates of the Museum to the new building.
The installation Untitled (Archive ST3), dating from 2015, reveals a new chapter of interest in Popović’s work. It was preceded by his archival research on Split 3, a large urban planning project, which encompassed part of the unbuilt urban area of Split in the 1960s. Although it was not fully executed, the project highlighted the high quality of urban planning and envisaged content in line with modernist visions of humane architecture aiming to provide citizens with a pleasant space for living. The elements of the installation consisted of the digital print of the enlarged photograph of the architectural model of the unrealized urban planning solution, onto which several photo objects of the details of the architectural model were placed. The author’s intervention consisted of a drawing with a graphite pencil, a working tool that was once widely used in the design and architectural offices. The decision to use the photographs of the preliminary design—and not of today’s as-built state of the urban planning intervention—in the work was driven by the wish to raise awareness of the importance of such consideration and the disproportion in relation to the situation today. The incompatibility between the project and its execution and the awareness of the recent devastations of space have, along with the universal, also a strong personal connection for the author—he grew up here, and he still lives here today, so he has been a witness to the changes that are reflected in the urban matrix. As argued by Ivana Meštrov, “[…] Viktor Popović’s exhibition Untitled (Archive ST3) is primarily a layered communication with the past, the one with which continuity has been lost, and with which the still open, active connections and arguments for further negotiations with the present are being sought.”3
The backbone of the exhibition Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital) is a recontextualization of the architecture of the former Split Military Hospital, whose construction preceded the aforementioned urban planning project, and which was considered Split’s most significant completed construction project in the 1960s. Technology, interior design, and interior equipment followed the world trends of that time. For Popović, the research is a starting point for questioning both the social and the personal memory of modernist architectural heritage.
The centrally positioned and spatially dominant exhibit of the exhibition is an installation made of discarded hospital beds that carry traces of use, so they are a sort of carrier of memory. Popović found the scrapped beds in the hospital depots and borrowed them for this purpose. The structure of the installation points to an architectural structure, while the light-emitting fluorescent tubes constitute a cohesive element of the ensemble. The white light dematerializes the original function of the beds and creates the “aura” of the artwork generated by the act of changing the environment and transferring the ready-made objects into the institutionalized exhibition space of the museum. The semantic analysis gives us a broader framework for interpreting. We associate the hospital bed with sickness, fear, and suffering, and, in extreme situations, with death as well, and it, therefore, evokes emotional reactions. The works on the walls of the gallery are a sort of hybrid of photography, light installation, and photographic filters for color correction. These are digital prints of archival photographs taken in 1965 immediately before the hospital opening, showing the original state of the highly aestheticized interior and the technologically advanced equipment. The photographs document the state of things: the uniform light and regular composition of the photographed give the impression of order, simplicity, clinical cleanliness, and depersonalization. The filters and fluorescent light-emitting tubes that follow the perspective lines of the photographed hospital interiors are attached to these supports. In one photographic installation, the position of the fluorescent light-emitting tubes constructs the form of the isometric representation, which establishes a link with the constructivist roots of modernism.
Viktor Popović’s confident connecting of different media, the reaching for the legacy of modernist architecture and design, the interlacing of social and personal memory, the application of archival research methods, appropriation, deconstruction, and collage, as well as the devising of a new system of an open network of meaning, make his work an authentic representative of the art of our time.
New Croatian Sculpture, Croatian Association of Visual Artists Osijek, Kazamat Gallery, July – August, 2004, Osijek
Contemporary Art in Split: New Generation, Museum of Fine Arts Split, March 2006, Split; Home of Croatian Visual Artists, April–May 2006, Zagreb
Ivana Meštrov, Viktor Popović, Bez naziva (Arhiv ST3) [Viktor Popović, Untitled (Archive ST3)], School Gallery, School of Fine Arts, Split / 19th March–20th April 2015. Triptih – Viktor Popović, Igor Ruf, Dieter Roth, and Oskar Schlemmer; Editor: Evelina Turković; Author: Evelina Turković; Broadcasted on Tuesday, 7th April 2015 at 4:03 pm; Text by Ivana Meštrov
Solo exhibition catalog preface
Untitled (Archive ST3: Military Hospital)
MSU Gallery – Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, Croatia October 20 – November 5, 2017