Before my seminar about Croatian contemporary art, I had very little – or no – knowledge about the state of the art scene in the former Yugoslav country. I chose the seminar because, unlike many Austrians, I had never been to Croatia before and I wanted to see how the country’s history as a former part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman empire and Yugoslavia, the civil war and its recent accession to the European Union are reflected in contemporary art. In the course of the seminar we had the chance to carry out interviews with artists, art spaces and museums. And my expectations were not disappointed.
Zagreb as a Hub
Being Croatia’s biggest city and due its proximity to government and private sector organizations, Zagreb is still the biggest art hub in the country, followed by Rijeka and Split. It seemed to me that there is a big difference between centre and periphery and Zagreb, Rijeka and Split do not seem to be closely linked. Maybe Rijeka as the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2020 will change this missing link.
Independent Projects vs. Establishment
One of the most striking learnings for me was the tensions between established institutions such as government-funded museums and independent initiatives. Without being an expert in current political events, it became clear that the government, similar to other countries, prefers certain projects or institutions over others depending on their political messages.
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, even though located about 30-40 minutes from the city centre, is a prestige object by the government. The building itself is really impressive and so is its permanent collection. However, it displays art of already established artists and there is only little to no focus on current upcoming artists. It appeared that there were certain artists who have to be exhibited even though they are critical of Croatia’s past and present – probably because they have become famous around the world. But artists who have not reached the same international recognition as yet, are not represented.
Rijeka 2020 and Its Impact
Rijeka will be the European Capital of Culture in 2020. As a consequence, some people who are active members of the Zagrebian scene are currently making a move to Rijeka to benefit from the positive developments attracting international attention. When we talked to local artists, they see two sides of Rijeka 2020: on the one hand, it will benefit the city because of an increase in investment and tourism. On the other hand, a lot of capital which was used to support smaller initiatives is now allocated to the organization of the Capital of Culture, thereby negatively affecting small projects.
Furthermore, Rijeka is one of the few areas in Croatia with a left-wing local government. We learned that the national right-wing government is cutting funds for Rijeka 2020. Their aim may be to sabotage the success of Rijeka and thereby accusing the local government of failing with the project – a prime case of art being instrumentalized by political strategies.
No Art Market
I was surprised to hear that there is no real art market in Croatia. Galleries are very rare and collectors usually purchase directly from the artists. The scene is quite small and everyone knows everyone. As a consequence, the majority of art initiatives relies on government grants. Because of the missing art market and the opportunities in other EU countries, young artists very often move to Berlin.
Importance of Performance Art
I am personally very interested in painting and photography and not so much in installations or performance art. However, this trip to Croatia opened my eyes about the importance and impact on society of performance art. We had the chance to meet artist Sinisa Labrovic, who uses his body as a vehicle for his art.
In one performance, he gathered visitors around himself and stood in complete silence. He waited for the first person to get fed up or bored and leave. And then, he started whipping himself. For every person who left, he kept hurting himself. He told us about the reactions in different countries. While a lot of people did not care and just left, the visitors of the performance in Poland gave him a group hug to prevent him from hurting himself further. An even more radical project was when he tattooed “Private Property” on his forehead.
We also visited the apartment of performance artist Tomislav Gotovac, which has been preserved as an art installation by the Tomislav Gotovac Institute since his death in 2010. It was a unique insight into the life, mind and (hoarding) habits of this provocative artist.
Influence of Private Sector Initiatives
I always find it interesting to discuss the role of private sector institutions in the field of art. In my opinion, government grants are very often widely accepted, while private sector support is considered as “dirty money” by the art scene. However, during our talk at Galerija Nova in Zagreb, it was mentioned that accepting government money can even be “dirtier” if it is by a government with dictatorial tendencies spreading fascist, racist, homophobic or anti-women/anti-minorities ideas. In Zagreb, the foundation of Erste Bank has not only been a big collector but also supporter of contemporary art.
My Personal Highlight: Feminist Art
We also had the chance to meet feminist artist Sanja Ivekovic. Frankly, I had not heard about her work before my trip to Croatia. But this artist if often referred to as the “Croatian Joseph Beuys” and has participated in 25 years of Documenta – at documenta 14, she built the Monument to Revolution in Athens. It refers to the Monument to the November Revolution which was commissioned by the German Communist Party in 1926. This monument designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was demolished by the Nazis in 1935. With this monument, Sanja Ivekovic tries to question how the public commemorates revolutions.
In her studio in Zagreb, Sanja Ivekovic established her personal archive and the walls are decorated with email conversations and artefacts of projects which have never been carried out – a lot of them due to her radical approach or political reasons.
One of my favourite works was pictures taken from fashion commercials in the 1990s. Ivekovic substituted the brand and product names with Croatian anti-fascist heroines. She told us that she aimed for a collaboration with Vogue but due to copyright reasons brought up by the company Chanel, the magazine refused to carry out the project. I agree with the artist that it would have been a great project to deal with company history – especially for a company like Chanel, whose founder was allegedly a Nazi-collaborator.
My week in Croatia was very intense but also eye-opening to contemporary art in a region with which I was not too familiar. If you travel to Croatia, make sure to make some time in between the beach and island hopping and visit some of the local art events or initiatives. I can only highly recommend to learn more about contemporary art in Croatia.