Andreja Kulunčić’s exhibition at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka

Marijan Špoljar


Marijan Špoljar’s cri­ti­cal revi­ew of the exhi­bi­ti­on “You betrayed the Party…” for the show Triptych (HRT)

“Triptych” bro­ad­cast on April 5, 2022 at 4:03 pm on Croatian radio 3


No mat­ter how con­di­ti­oned by per­so­nal expe­ri­en­ces and pre­ro­ga­ti­ves, memo­ri­es are always subject to mec­ha­ni­sms of soci­al regu­la­ti­on and con­trol. To that extent, the­ir exis­ten­ce or the­ir sup­pre­ssi­on is the result not only of the indi­vi­du­al abi­lity to arc­hi­ve or, in the case of major tra­umas, the need for amne­sia as a defen­si­ve met­hod, but direc­tly depen­ds on the natu­re and goals of the sys­tem’s mani­pu­la­ti­ve power.

Political regu­la­ti­on of memory can, of cour­se, also take the form of super­fi­ci­al poli­shing or reto­uc­hing, but in its essen­ce, as a way of cons­truc­ting and main­ta­ining offi­ci­al truth, it is always part of the invi­ola­ble rig­ht of the rulers to deter­mi­ne, nor­ma­ti­vely or just impli­ci­tly, the subject and area of domi­nant memory.

Suppressed or for­bid­den memory, on the other hand, in the spa­ce of its ille­ga­lity, gra­du­al­ly dri­es up to the limits of the last bearer of the memory or, like any pro­hi­bi­ti­on, expan­ds arte­ri­al­ly, often metas­ta­si­zing into a reven­ge­ful cli­max. In both cases, what was true disap­pe­ars com­ple­tely, eit­her by passing into obli­vi­on, or by buil­ding the mira­ge of a myth.

In our recent his­tory, the­re are more such rup­tu­res, emp­ty pla­ces, the con­tents of which have been era­sed with ide­olo­gi­cal, class or sta­te-buil­ding rags. Any memory of them was or still is subject to public sus­pi­ci­on, fear or cauti­on that the memory does not endan­ger the cons­truc­ted nar­ra­ti­ve of his­tory. Be that as it may, the­re are too many such pla­ces, and by cor­rec­ting cer­ta­in his­to­ri­cal injus­ti­ces and reha­bi­li­ta­ting some tra­uma­ti­zed par­ti­ci­pants in that his­tory, they would make epoch-making stri­des. But, wit­ho­ut erec­ting a monu­ment to every vic­tim, even the smal­lest one, so that the per­son rises from obli­vi­on, and the­ir expe­ri­en­ce is recor­ded as a com­me­mo­ra­ti­ve mar­ker, chan­ge can­not be achi­eved not only towar­ds our col­lec­ti­ve redemp­ti­on but also towar­ds the con­fir­ma­ti­on of per­so­nal moral duty.

One of tho­se for­bid­den pla­ces and repre­ssed memo­ri­es is cer­ta­inly asso­ci­ated with Goli otok: as a loca­lity and term, it exis­ted for a long time only at the level of a gene­ral sym­bol or offi­ci­al poli­ti­cal nar­ra­ti­ve abo­ut the Informbiro (Cominform) pri­so­ner camp, whi­le indi­vi­du­al des­ti­ni­es rema­ined in the spa­ces of family memory so that tho­se, over time, they gra­du­al­ly weake­ned and were lost in obli­vi­on. As the deta­ils and per­so­nal sto­ri­es from the lar­ger, male poli­ti­cal camp alre­ady appe­ared in the public, media and sci­en­ti­fic spa­ce in the 1970s, the exis­ten­ce of a smal­ler poli­ti­cal camp on Goli otok and Sveti Grgur inten­ded for women had yet to be anno­un­ced. While some male deta­ine­es pre­sen­ted the­ir tes­ti­mo­ni­es in news­pa­pers, novels and films, women’s expe­ri­en­ces were sup­pre­ssed due to gen­der, cul­tu­ral and soci­al valu­es and cus­toms, and they them­sel­ves were stig­ma­ti­zed for life. Feeling that com­plex of ques­ti­ons to be unu­su­al­ly impor­tant, but in some way also dis­tin­c­ti­ve, sepa­ra­ted from the ove­rall tra­uma­tic story of the camp, Andreja Kulunčić star­ted wor­king on the pro­ject “You betrayed the Party just when you sho­uld have hel­ped it” a few years ago. Before that, the­re were alre­ady seve­ral artis­tic pro­jec­ts that dealt with the fate and con­di­ti­on of the camp, which exis­ted as a poli­ti­cal pri­son from 1949 to 1956, for exam­ple the pro­ject “Goli otok — new Croatian tourism”, by Damir Čargonja or three-year site-spe­ci­fic acti­ons and artis­tic and bil­l­bo­ard inter­ven­ti­ons, orga­ni­zed by Darko Bavoljak. In the book that was prin­ted for the dura­ti­on of the Rijeka as a European City of Culture pro­ject, an arti­cle abo­ut the par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on of Andreja Kulunčić was also inclu­ded, and now, after a smal­ler exhi­bi­ti­on in the Historical Museum in Pula, a sepa­ra­te and com­pre­hen­si­ve art exhi­bi­ti­on of her rese­ar­ch-acti­vist pro­ject was held in the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka. When we say com­ple­te, we mean, of cour­se, the cur­rent sta­ge of its reali­za­ti­on, sin­ce it is cons­tan­tly being sup­ple­men­ted and in the futu­re inclu­des more and more exhi­bi­ti­on spa­ces, the­reby acti­va­ting new par­ti­ci­pants not only in the even­tu­al tran­sfer of memo­ri­es, but even more so in par­ti­ci­pa­ti­ve-artis­tic collaboration.

Among a seri­es of orga­ni­zed and ad hoc col­la­bo­ra­tors, our artis­tic acti­vist reli­ed mos­tly on the con­tri­bu­ti­ons of femi­nist ant­hro­po­lo­gist Renata Jambrešić Kirin and psyc­hot­he­ra­pist Dubravka Stijačić, on three music and dan­ce artis­ts, on cri­tic Irena Bekić and Romanian cura­tor Anca Verona Mihulet, as well as on the orga­ni­za­ti­onal and logis­ti­cal sup­port of asso­ci­ati­ons Goli otok and MAPA.

The phe­no­me­non of Goli otok as a sym­bol of com­mu­nist tor­tu­re is simi­lar in form and con­tent to all cam­ps of tota­li­ta­ri­an sys­tems, but it is unique in its con­textu­al deter­mi­na­ti­on: it was a camp in the fun­c­ti­on of de-Stalinization, and it prac­ti­ced repre­ssi­ve met­hods that were Stalinist in the­ir dis­til­led form. Of cour­se, the con­sequ­en­ces for the pri­so­ners were exac­tly the same as tho­se in the Stalinist Gulags. It is also likely that the degra­da­ti­on models were copi­ed from an alre­ady deve­lo­ped sys­tem, which did not pre­vent cer­ta­in met­hods from being per­fec­ted here to a mons­tro­us extent. Basic infor­ma­ti­on abo­ut the men’s camp on Goli otok has been known for a long time, inclu­ding the deta­ils of the repre­ssi­ve sys­tem imple­men­ted the­re. The women’s camp rema­ined a taboo for a long time, and the tes­ti­mo­ni­es of the wit­ne­sses were quieter and quieter mil­led, not only beca­use of the smal­ler num­ber of pri­so­ners but also beca­use of the spe­ci­fic tra­umas that women expe­ri­en­ced in the per­fi­di­ous and self-vic­ti­mi­zing sys­tem of pro­duc­ti­on of both “vic­tims and exe­cu­ti­oners”. This posi­ti­on is hard­ly possi­ble to des­cri­be and under­stand so that the women’s camp is seen only as a ver­si­on of the men’s camp, but if this pri­son and the met­hods appli­ed in it are seen as part of a spe­ci­fic policy of cru­shing and dis­ci­pli­ning the fema­le body. Therefore, the enti­re exhi­bi­ti­on pro­ject is based on femi­nist set­tin­gs, which are spe­ci­al­ly apos­trop­hi­zed and ela­bo­ra­ted by Renata Jambrešić Kirin. According to this, the prac­ti­ce of patri­ar­c­hal beha­vi­our inter­po­la­ted into the women’s wor­ld of the island — and which is most impre­ssi­vely recog­ni­zed thro­ugh the tes­ti­mony of one of the inma­tes — is the real measu­re of the des­truc­ti­ve sys­tem: the sen­ten­ce “We are all beaten and we all beat others, the one who beat har­der, got out fas­ter” des­cri­bes, but also expla­ins, how insul­ting, aggre­ssi­on and beating, accor­ding to the model of patri­ar­c­hal soci­ety, is the most effec­ti­ve way to deny one­self and one’s own physi­cal, psyc­ho­lo­gi­cal and moral integrity.

Neuralgic topics of soci­al reality are at the cen­tre of Andreja Kulunčić’s inte­res­ts. Completely in accor­dan­ce with her artis­tic stra­tegy, the­se the­mes are unra­ve­led from wit­hin to reach tho­se layers that best show the root causes and true natu­re of hege­mo­nic soci­al prac­ti­ces. In this unfol­ding, the artist uses all the met­hods and dis­cur­si­ve ele­ments of con­tem­po­rary artis­tic pro­ce­du­res, with the regu­lar invol­ve­ment of a wide cir­cle of ver­sed and inte­res­ted public, with the use of an ela­bo­ra­te network of vari­ous par­ti­ci­pa­tory prac­ti­ces and with inten­si­ve own rese­ar­ch in the field and in ava­ila­ble docu­men­ta­ti­on. It is, the­re­fo­re, abo­ut mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary acti­ons that neit­her begin with the exhi­bi­ti­on, nor end with it. It is the same with the pro­ject on Goli otok, that is, with the part that has evol­ved to the cur­rent sta­ge of a com­plex rese­ar­ch and pro­ject pro­cess. Of cour­se, the cur­rent exhi­bi­ti­on will also expe­ri­en­ce chan­ges, and it is plan­ned in such a way as to pro­vi­de not only an insig­ht into what has been achi­eved so far, but also to pro­du­ce a new quan­tity and quality of infor­ma­ti­on and artis­tic results.

In a very sim­pli­fi­ed way, we can say that Andreja Kulunčić’s pro­ject bran­c­hes into two direc­ti­ons: one is dedi­ca­ted to com­me­mo­ra­ting and map­ping the for­mer island camp reality, and the second part deals with sti­mu­la­ting, imple­men­ting and orga­ni­zing vari­ous for­ms of artis­tic inter­ven­ti­ons on the topic of violent tran­sfor­ma­ti­on of the fema­le body and spi­rit in situ­ati­ons of excep­ti­onal aggre­ssi­on, tor­tu­re or for­ced self-des­truc­ti­ve actions.

At the exhi­bi­ti­on level, the exhi­bi­ti­on in Rijeka con­ta­ins three units, spa­ti­al­ly sepa­ra­ted, con­tent-dif­fe­ren­ti­ated, media and tec­h­no­lo­gi­cal­ly plu­ral and inten­ti­onal­ly sepa­ra­ted. The first part is fil­led with more stan­dard for­ms of drawing, pho­to­grap­hy and ins­tal­la­ti­on, and it memo­ri­zes, docu­ments and con­tem­pla­tes the real time of the camp and the cur­rent situ­ati­on on the gro­und, the second part in the form of a four-chan­nel video-ins­tal­la­ti­on docu­ments the dan­ce-music acti­on and the sound per­for­man­ce on the hot sto­ne of the island, whi­le the third sec­ti­on is inten­ded for par­ti­ci­pa­tory and acti­vist acti­ons. Of the many paral­lel and pro­ce­du­ral events, per­haps the most intri­gu­ing are the acti­ons that take pla­ce with the par­ti­ci­pa­ti­on of the audi­en­ce, and refer to the indi­vi­du­al wri­ting of the names of 850 camp women and the making of the same num­ber of ter­ra­cot­ta figurines.

Through a seri­es of exhi­bi­ti­ons, acti­ons, wor­k­shops, prin­ting of publi­ca­ti­ons, media inter­pre­ta­ti­ons and inter­ven­ti­ons on Goli island loca­li­ti­es, Andreja Kulunčić is buil­ding a type of com­pre­hen­si­ve public monu­ment. Of cour­se, with the full awa­re­ness that her goal is not to build a plas­tic monu­ment or to impo­se or octro­ina­te memory, but to do what is otherwi­se the fun­da­men­tal reason for her prac­ti­ce of art — to achi­eve soci­al change.