Branding vs. No Logo: Current Trends in Croatian Art

As an introduction to the present day situation in Croatia and its contemporary art, one artist’s project is particularly illuminating. Kristina Leko’s Milk 2002-03 puts the problem of standardisation processes in Europe into focus by pointing out the danger in the disappearance of local cultural diversity.

The case in question is that of the Zagreb Milkmaids, who for centuries have brought fresh homemade cheese and cream to the city markets, and have become one of the ‘trademarks of the city’, as it states in the Milkmaids’ Declaration.

We read further, ‘buying fresh cheese and cream in this way is a special form of life and communication. The relationship between the milkmaid and her customer has been developed through several generations of their two families.’

The survival of this traditional woman’s trade is threatened by the adoption of uniform regulations meant for big producers. This in-depth project involved creating a database and website and has entered public discourse through exhibitions and discussions, with the goal of providing an organisational platform for the Milkmaids.

By selecting and exploring one segment, Kristina Leko comments on the complexity of change that Croatia is undergoing, while at the same time she skilfully employs contemporary artistic strategies for dealing with the social context.

Throughout April 2004, the House of the Society of Croatian Artists in Zagreb was given over to the long-awaited Salon of Youth. Lately there have been several attempts to change the inherited concept of a grand survey exhibition of artists under thirty five.

For example, the previous exhibition, with Slaven Tolj as chief curator, took place in 2001 and was sited in the Velesajam fair complex. The works were exhibited in transport containers, playing on the idea of art evaluation. This year’s show, which is back in the gallery, lacks an overall concept, and the committee of curators remains invisible.

This display has attracted only a few of the leading artists of the generation, who also won all the prizes, and the rest is dominated by the efforts of newcomers.

The grand prix went to Alem Korkut for his video documentation of the artist’s gesture in defacing his own sculpted head, presented together with the sculpture itself, entitled Homage to Rodin. The fluctuation of conservatism and innovation seen in the Salon of Youth can also be recognised in the wider scene.

A contrasting example of a more serious overview of the scene was the exhibition ‘Here Tomorrow’, which was organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002.

Roxana Marcoci from MOMA New York was invited to curate the show. Her approach involved following Croatian art on the international scene and making 120 studio visits across the country, before eventually settling upon thirty-five artists.

The broad overall concept of temporality suggested by ‘Here Tomorrow’ and the generous scale of the show made possible the inclusion of both established and emerging artists, including Sanja Ivekovic, Sandra Sterle, Ivan Faktor, Igor Grubic and Ana Opalic.

The works and projects presented in the exhibition dealt with issues as diverse as institutional critique, war memories, globalisation, travel, fashion, and activism.

Promising a ‘critical assessment of the most influential practices in contemporary Croatian art’, this show interestingly did not include any painting or sculpture, choosing instead to spotlight some favoured trends in new media and interventions.

This kind of collaboration with international curators is not an isolated case. Catherine David, for example, curated a two-year exhibition project entitled ‘Dubrovnik, Here and Elsewhere’, organised by Galerija Umjetnina in Dubrovnik.

Furthermore, following thevisit of Okwui Enwezor to Zagreb, a number of Croatian artists (Ivan Kožaric, Andreja Kulundic, Sanja Ivekovic) participated in the last Dokumenta. Looking to the future, the curator of Dokumenta XII, Roger Buergel, recently gave a talk at Galerija Nova in Zagreb, and the list goes on.

Another aspect of international awareness is keeping ties with Croatian artists living and working abroad by regularly showing their work at home. Tomo Savic Gecan, Dan Oki, Leo Vukelic and Iva Matija Bitanga, working in New York, Amsterdam and Dusseldorf, are names that spring to mind.

The frequent participation of international artists in festivals, residencies, and other events is another strong point of artistic practice; after all, Croatia is a very brand conscious country. In the last year, Jimmy Durham, Candice Breitz and Pierre Huyghe, were among the international artists to present their work in Zagreb.

Representing another current, there are many artists who are well positioned on the Croatian scene without taking much notice of international trends.

Last year, the conservative Hall of Exhibitions hosted the show ‘Much, Too Much’, which featured the work of such artists, predominantly painters and sculptors, who have turned to new media.

Glorifying in trash, over-production and disjuncture, they filled the grand halls with chaotic structures made up of advertising messages, television sex and violence, and junk materials.

A fascination with excess in behaviour, images, and mass culture characterises the work of the Zagreb anti-group made up of Davor Mezak, Frane Rogic, and Danko Frišcic, who share a phobia of theoretical and curatorial authority and despise, as well as aspire to a position in the local art scene.

In the words of the curator Tihomir Milovac, their work can be read as evidence of a ‘new, baroquised situation that disregards elitism, so common on the local art scene’.

Two newly established annual prizes, the Filip Trade prize and the Radoslav Putar, play an important role in the recognition and positioning of young artists.

The former is about private investment in young contemporary art and was set up in an attempt to boost the local art market. The winner gets a cash prize and a solo show in a commercial gallery.

The latter is named after a modernist critic, and is conceived as a process involving exhibitions, presentations and panel discussions. The award takes the form of a residency in New York, previously in PS1, and subsequently in Artslink. On his or her return, the winner gets a solo show in a non-profit gallery.

Last year’s winner of the Filip Trade prize was Matko Vekic, who exhibited a series of paintings that rotate in the manner of advertising panels entitled The Sheep who didn’t get Lost.

The winner of the Putar prize was Nika Radic for Echo, a work made up of photographs of empty streets with excerpts of speech from random passers-by.

While the Filip Trade prize favours commercially-valuable painters, the Putar prize tends to reward artists working in new media. Branko Franceschi weighs them up by stating, ‘The Putar prize is more about the private experience of the winner, the other one is more a society thing, and that is what is more important at the moment’.

In the search for the most interesting art events, several addresses regularly recur, and Miroslav Kraljevic Gallery is one of them. This independent exhibition space has an interesting history, having developed out of the Workers’ Cultural Art Club of the INA state oil company into a leading contemporary art venue, under the effective curatorial direction of Branko Franceschi.

Apart from exhibiting established Croatian and international artists, this gallery has played a seminal role in promoting young artists by offering them early solo shows.

The gallery’s website was one of the first, and is still the biggest in the field. Another space that has recently come into focus is Galerija Nova, since the WHW collective took over management of the gallery.

The first major project of WHW, or Who, How, and for Whom?, was an international exhibition to mark the 153rd anniversary of the Communist Manifesto in 2000. Further projects, which often have a social or political agenda specific to the region, have included Broadcasting, Side Effects and Looking Awry at Apex Art, New York.

The WHW, whose activity can be read as an example of successful curatorial branding, are currently exploring the notion of normalisation through presentations, discussions and exhibitions in Galerija Nova.

One more venue with a profile on the contemporary scene is the Gallery of Extended Media, with a consistent programme of local and international artists, including the likes of Kai Kaljo and Kristina Leko.

Animosity and frustration towards major art institutions occasionally becomes the subject of artistic interventions. In a well-known case, Zlatko Kopljar obstructed the main entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb with a huge concrete block, forcing employees and visitors alike to enter through an adjacent café.

In a similar vein, the body of work of Tomo Savic Gecan is dedicated to incisive actions to expose the workings of the institutional system behind contemporary art.

These have ranged from asking curators to speak to the public about a work that does not exist, to literally interrupting the communication channels of the museum by blocking a connecting exhibition room, to moving walls in order to gradually shrink an exhibition space.

Following international trends and in partial response to this kind of critique, the Museum of Contemporary Art is opening up a project space for innovative initiatives.

Started as part of the museum’s fiftieth anniversary celebration, the Pilot 04 project involves a year-long series of presentations and events organised by artists and curators from outside the institution.

Many of the most active artist organisations and independently run spaces outside the capital collaborate through the Klubtura platform, a recent initiative that brings together alternative organisations in a countrywide network.

Art Radionica Lazareti in Dubrovnik, lead by Slaven Tolj, organises an annual festival, the Karantena, dedicated to the performing arts. Lazareti’s success is also based on an international exhibition programme, as well as their wider activities in organising symposia and other events.

Another art organisation with an international profile is the Labin Art Express in Istria, which is best known for symposia and subversive interventions in new media art.

Among independent galleries, Galerija Balen in Slavonski Brod has an inventive programme of international collaborations, thematic group exhibitions, and solo shows. Urban centres like Rijeka and Split have lively scenes revolving around their academies and annual events, such as the FONA festival of new art in Rijeka and the Split Salon.

With more academies set to open in the near future, as well as museums aspiring to compete with the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, the venues and manifestations outside the capital have to be taken into account to give a full picture of Croatian contemporary art.

And finally, the issue of the Balkans, which has become a commonplace of international curatorial practice, should be mentioned.

Lately Croatian artists have taken part in a number of shows conceptualised around the Balkan label, such as ‘Balkan Consulate’ in Graz, ‘Imaginary Balkans’ in Sheffield, and ‘Blood and Honey: Futures in the Balkans’, curated by Harold Szeeman.

At home, feelings and opinions about Croatian participation in these shows are divided, but it is recognised that artists do not always have much choice.

Krešimir Purgar, the editor of the leading Croatian art journal, Kontura, writes about ‘the dominant Western European curatorial rhetoric according to which the Balkans is both a political destiny and a permanent exotic stylistic stigma’.

He identifies Kristijan Kožul as a rising star in the Croatian art scene for going against this trend: ‘It is a real refreshment to see here an artist who doesn’t need to let blood flow to provoke discomfort, and still succeeds at it, who is not concerned with gender or some other identities, and who doesn’t see himself in the role of the Messiah or Redeemer.’

In Discoware, Kožul decorated a wheelchair with pearls, white feathers, and shiny mirrors, and placed it on a low pedestal. Rich in visual effect and contradictory associations, this work talks about the easy manipulations of taste and feeling in art and life.

Maja and Reuben Fowkes have a shared interest in Central and East European art. Their collaborative work often involves issues of exchange and communication, the social and ecological contexts of art, and interaction between local and global environments. In addition to curating exhibitions in Croatia, Hungary and beyond, they also write on contemporary art for several regional and international art magazines. See and