Art From the Shadow

Antun Maračić

vrapcanski-jastuci-web.pdf web

Text by Antun Maračić from the cata­lo­gue of the “Vrapce Pillows” exhi­bi­ti­on held at the Forum Gallery in Zagreb

The first time I wor­ked with Andreja Kulunčić was during the time I was direc­tor of the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Dubrovnik, back at the begin­ning of this cen­tury, on a pro­ject of French cura­tor Catherine David cal­led Dubrovnik Here and Elsewhere.

She had bro­ug­ht toget­her young artis­ts from all over the wor­ld (from, for exam­ple, Austria, Greece, France, Lebanon and Ecuador) who in the­ir work were acti­vely pon­de­ring on spa­ce and soci­al life in vari­ous parts of the wor­ld. The task was to get to know and, on the basis of one’s own ear­li­er expe­ri­en­ces and man­ner of work, to think up a work that would have rele­van­ce to the local con­di­ti­ons. Andreja was the only repre­sen­ta­ti­ve of Croatia, but she alre­ady had behind her nume­ro­us impor­tant inter­na­ti­onal acti­ons and exhi­bi­ti­ons (inclu­ding an appe­aran­ce at Documenta in Kassel), and this Dubrovnik pro­ject and the final exhi­bi­ti­on of 2003 – par­ti­cu­lar­ly when one bears in mind the more than impre­ssi­ve list and impor­tan­ce of her wor­ks pro­du­ced later on – were for her a minor epi­so­de, almost hard­ly wor­th mentioning.

But also this ‘lit­tle’ pro­ject ena­bled me to get an insig­ht into her uniqu­ely hig­hly deli­be­ra­ted and com­po­sed man­ner of work. I was impre­ssed by her abi­lity in a very short time to take a snap­shot of the set­ting, to make con­tact with the audi­en­ce and the artis­ts of the city (her the­me was actu­al­ly the Museum and its users, the­ir per­cep­ti­on of the sta­tus of art in the city and the­ir affi­ni­ti­es as aga­inst the con­tents being shown in the Museum), to inter­vi­ew a num­ber of them, to form a team of local asso­ci­ates of vari­ous pro­fi­les (a mas­ter car­pen­ter, a TV came­ra ope­ra­tor, a psyc­ho­lo­gist and a soci­olo­gist), to design for her­self the equ­ip­ment and fur­ni­shing nece­ssary for the pre­sen­ta­ti­on of her work and to set up a sym­bo­lic library and orga­ni­se the admi­nis­tra­ti­on of a ques­ti­on­na­ire. All this, with my modest assis­tan­ce, whi­le adap­ting her­self to the limi­ted pro­duc­ti­on capa­ci­ti­es and rati­ona­li­sing  to the utmost the time and the ope­ra­ti­ons needed put on the ope­ra­ti­on in just a few days pri­or to the exhibition.

Andreja has shown, time after time, in vari­ous parts of the wor­ld, an abi­lity rapid­ly to detect and then get into the essen­ce of the soci­al cha­rac­te­ris­tics of a given spa­ce, and then quic­k­ly to form a network of asso­ci­ates to make possi­ble the growth and con­ti­nu­ity of the com­plex orga­nism of a work, of its soci­al pene­tra­ti­on and real effec­ti­ve­ness, making people awa­re of and then making good the pro­blems found. Often the­se have been pro­jec­ts requ­iring long-las­ting, per­haps years-long, enga­ge­ment, with gro­ups of dif­fe­rent pro­fi­les of people; wor­ks that nece­ssi­ta­te the pro­vo­ca­ti­on and unco­ve­ring of the most power­ful ins­ti­tu­ti­ons in a sta­te or a city (gal­le­ri­es, jails, coun­cils and par­li­aments) in Hungary and Austria and Switzerland and so on. With the use of titles and con­tents that use parap­hra­se, irony and inver­si­on, in pro­jec­ts that with the­ir subver­si­ve char­ges deno­un­ce soci­al ano­ma­li­es (Bosnians Out!; 1 franc = 1 vote; Only for Austrians…) employing gal­le­ri­es and other public spa­ces as well as reso­ur­ces like lig­h­t­boxes, railway sta­ti­on dis­play panels, news­pa­pers and other con­tem­po­rary mass media, the Internet, soci­al media and so on, the artist brin­gs abo­ut a power­ful dif­fu­si­on of infor­ma­ti­on, com­mu­ni­ca­tes over a wide area, ena­bles real effec­ti­ve­ness, ini­ti­ates soci­al change.

Similar means and met­hods are used in the pro­ject Vrapče Pillows, the out­co­me of five years (!) of work with pati­ents and staff of the Vrapče Clinic in Zagreb, as well as with out­so­ur­ced con­sul­tants. The work on pal­li­ating the gene­ral repug­nan­ce felt towar­ds men­tal ill­ness unfol­ded in vari­ous for­ms, and final­ly took the sha­pe of the making and dis­tri­bu­ti­on of pil­lows and cushi­ons, acting as the­rapy for the pati­ents them­sel­ves, as well as objec­ts of and media for soli­da­rity and an effi­ca­ci­ous pro­cess of destigmatisation.

After the vari­ous ear­ly cam­pa­ig­ns in which pil­lows were lent out, beca­me the occa­si­on for soci­ali­sa­ti­on, gro­up pho­to­grap­hy and the publi­ca­ti­on of the pho­tos on Facebook, this gal­lery pre­sen­ta­ti­on, with a depic­ti­on of the events and media echo­es to date, also inclu­des a wor­k­shop in which, apart from experts, for­mer pati­ents take part and, if they want, people visi­ting the exhi­bi­ti­on. The pil­lows can be boug­ht, and the money obta­ined is used to help the pati­ents. During the exhi­bi­ti­on, the­re were seve­ral lec­tu­res and tal­ks abo­ut the the­me of men­tal pro­blems and the­ir tre­at­ment, and the who­le event was once aga­in amply cove­red in the media. And so this exhi­bi­ti­on, with the ancil­lary events, took on the task of relaying the ide­as and acti­vi­ti­es for the sake of des­tig­ma­ti­sa­ti­on that were star­ted in 2010.

When in 2014 I plan­ned this exhi­bi­ti­on, I ima­gi­ned it as a solo appe­aran­ce by Andreja Kulunčić but in the mean­ti­me her name had gen­tly faded into the bac­k­gro­und and had fit­ted into an aut­ho­ri­al team of five leaders of the pro­ject, with a few other asso­ci­ates, whi­le the pati­ents of Vrapče were lis­ted as pil­low co-authors.

It is impor­tant to emp­ha­si­se this fact, beca­use it indi­ca­tes the essen­ti­al attri­bu­tes of the cha­rac­ter of the work, that is, the aspi­ra­ti­on for real soci­al and artis­tic acti­vity. Traditional, indi­vi­du­al artis­tic aut­hor­ship wit­h­drew into the bac­k­gro­und, the artist ego being sus­pen­ded. It seems that to this artist the orga­ni­sa­ti­on, the effec­ti­ve­ness and the pur­po­se of the pro­ject con­ce­ived are more impor­tant than being featu­red in her own per­son. The actu­al art in this case is reti­rin­gly mimic­ked to the bene­fit of the effec­ti­ve­ness of the soci­al cam­pa­ign and the desi­re for a chan­ge for the bet­ter. Thus in some public dis­cu­ssi­ons and repre­sen­ta­ti­ons of the pro­ject, people in the media enti­rely over­lo­oked its artis­tic ini­ti­ati­ve and gene­sis, but the aut­hor does not expe­ri­en­ce this fact as any drawback.

Also wor­th emp­ha­si­sing is the essen­ti­al dis­tin­c­ti­on of this stri­king and rich, glo­bal­ly pre­sent oeuvre from many wor­ks of what is cal­led ‘soci­al­ly enga­ged’ art that at first glan­ce seem simi­lar. Either deli­be­ra­tely or less deli­be­ra­tely, some with uncon­ce­aled pre­me­di­ta­ti­on of ‘cons­truc­ti­ve’ cru­el­ty in a necro­sa­dis­tic appro­ach to the tre­at­ment of soci­al­ly han­di­cap­ped per­sons, and many wit­ho­ut any bad inten­ti­ons at the start, artis­ts of this ori­en­ta­ti­on take as the­ir the­mes the wret­c­hed­ness and pain of the con­tem­po­rary wor­ld, in order to com­ply with the impe­ra­ti­ves of cer­ta­in con­tem­po­rary tren­ds or cura­to­ri­al expec­ta­ti­ons or com­mi­ssi­ons and thus gain in per­so­nal visi­bi­lity. These enga­ged aut­hors tre­at the vul­ne­ra­ble gro­ups, the vic­tims of soci­al segre­ga­ti­ons, of fami­li­al and bel­li­ge­rent and other cir­cum­s­tan­ces as rewar­ding mate­ri­al, con­fir­ming and pro­lon­ging this sta­tus thro­ugh the­ir acti­ons, all for the sake, they think, of the­ir own per­so­nal sal­va­ti­on, the­ir own good. But if a cer­ta­in amo­unt of com­pun­c­ti­on is inclu­ded, if empat­hy is expre­ssed for the­se subjec­ts of artis­tic pro­ce­ssing, the enga­ge­ment with them is usu­al­ly short-lived, one-off, and the vic­tims rema­in more or less what and whe­re they were, and the artis­ts con­ti­nue to exhi­bit the­ir trop­hi­es in major or less major gal­le­ri­es aro­und the wor­ld, buil­ding up the­ir artis­tic and ‘huma­ni­ta­ri­an’ career.

The work of Andreja Kulunčić must in no way be con­fu­sed with such cases. Apart from the men­ti­oned self-effa­ce­ment, her pro­jec­ts at the begin­ning take for gran­ted the awa­re­ness of the dan­gers of an inca­uti­ous appro­ach. In this case, for exam­ple, the pati­ents have been shi­el­ded from unne­ce­ssary and har­m­ful expo­su­re (that is, they were featu­red per­so­nal­ly to the extent appro­pri­ate to the­ir needs and affinities).

For the objec­ti­ve of atta­ining some indu­bi­ta­ble posi­ti­ve effect and chan­ge, of tho­se who suf­fer this soci­al misfor­tu­ne and of the­ir imme­di­ate sur­ro­un­din­gs, the artist has in gene­ral avo­ided any sur­plus sen­ti­men­ta­lity and unne­ce­ssary lamen­ta­ti­on. On the con­trary, she uses means and valu­es inhe­rent in art: spi­rit, inven­ti­on, cri­ti­cism, absur­dity, humo­ur and irony. Indeed, she thin­ks up some cons­truc­ti­ve soci­al enter­ta­in­ment medi­ated by the con­tem­po­rary media via which she draws atten­ti­on to the pro­blems and pro­vo­kes the desi­red reac­ti­ons. We can recog­ni­se Andreja’s work as a con­ti­nu­ati­on and con­tem­po­rary ver­si­on of the cre­ati­on of soci­al scul­p­tu­re, the dif­fu­se and com­pre­hen­si­ve work that was anno­un­ced by and in a par­ti­cu­lar way affir­med in the last cen­tury by Joseph Beuys. From this point of view, as alre­ady said, this artist under­stan­ds her work as ani­ma­ting and set­ting in moti­on mec­ha­ni­sms that will ena­ble the pro­cess of tran­sfor­ma­ti­on, of soci­al res­to­ra­ti­on to heal­th. And when the pri­me mover for this or that reason is no lon­ger pre­sent, by the induc­ti­on and sti­mu­la­ti­on of the awa­re­ness and cre­ati­vity of nume­ro­us asso­ci­ated par­ti­ci­pants and actors, the idea and the pro­cess sho­uld be able to sur­vi­ve as a self-sus­ta­ining dri­ve mechanism.


Zagreb, January 2016