The Lure of Fresh Air: Sustainability in Contemporary Croatian Art

In recent Croatian contemporary art, several art projects that deal with human interference in the natural environment require critical tools that go beyond pleasure-based aesthetics and exceed the prism of national identity and the drama of transition. The works discussed here are engaged with specific localities and global forces rather than the frame provided by the nation state. The intensive interest in the interconnectedness of the social and natural environment shown by Dalibor Martinis, Ivan Ladislav Galeta, and Antun Maracic is arguably linked to the deepening engagement of contemporary art with sustainability.

Sustainability, in its definition, contains the dilemma of “how to meet the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This wide question points to the connection of ecology, grassroots democracy, social justice, and non-violence. It is therefore important to stress that any engagement with the natural environment is necessarily linked to the other elements of sustainability, just as engagement with society has to take into account the consequences it has for the natural environment. This understanding is evident in many of the most relevant works of contemporary art that seem to appear simultaneously in various locations and respond to the burning global issues of the present.

The 1990s in Croatia were marked by war and the painful process of transition. As a consequence, engaged artists tended to be preoccupied with the immediate political and social situation. Many of the most notable artworks of the period explored issues of nationality, gender, and social change, while the predicament of nature was rarely addressed. In 1995, however, a festival to celebrate Earth Day was held in Zagreb, and an exhibition of contemporary art was organized.“Exhibition in the Tunnel” on the occasion of Earth Day, curated by Magdalena Pederin, Zagreb 1995.  The exhibition took place deep in the earth, in a tunnel under the old town, with the majority of participating artists responding to the site specific ambient of the unusual exhibition space, rather than the subject of the festival. After a week, the exhibition had to be taken down, as the tunnel was again needed as an air raid shelter after renewed bombing of the city. This episode encapsulated the reality of the 90s in Croatia, and the following contemporaneous project represented a possible response to it within the context of art and environment.

The 90s: Escape into Nature

The inter-generational project Weekend Art: Hallelujah the Hills! is based on photographic documentation of regular visits to Sljeme, the mountain above Zagreb, by initiator Alexander Batista Ilic, fellow artist Ivana Keser, and veteran performance artist and experimental film maker, Tomislav Gotovac. Their performative excursions into nature functioned as a temporary escape from the political and cultural reality of the city and post-war Croatia. Although the idyll lasted only for a weekend, civilized behaviour never left these protagonists. The changing seasons serve at the same time as a background that matches the colour of their jackets, as well as being a set for artistic expression: visual interest in these staged photos comes from the posture and relations of the artists’ bodies in the natural landscape. For Ilic, nature serves as an ideal studio: “I simulate the studio in nature, with often impossible surreal scenes.” Rather than, for example, the impact of the war on the natural environment, the overriding concern of the artists is what they have temporarily left behind: “here the weekend is not a time for communing with nature…but for artistic expression of the dramas tearing the region apart.”Alexander Ilic quoted in Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, edited by Laura Hoptman and Tomaš Pospiszyl (Museum of Modern Art New York: New York, 2002), 192.

Variable Risk Landscape

Throughout 2004, Dalibor Martinis realized the project entitled Variable Risk Landscape. The artist bought 365 shares of an investment fund through the MAN (Man, Art, Nature) Foundation and once a month climbed in the mountains to an altitude that matched the fluctuating value of his investment over the preceding month. At the beginning of the project, Martinis clearly explained his intentions: “the artist-investor will financially and physically live through changes in the value of the investment, and through his movements in the natural landscape reproduce the landscape of variable risk.”Dalibor Martinis, Variable Risk Landscape (Zagreb, 2004),7.

 Variable Risk Landscape, by Dalibor Martinis, 2004.

Every month the artist wrote a climbing log in which he connected the experience of being in nature, world events, and natural catastrophes, and noted the influence they have on the international stock markets: “the news about the booming of the Chinese economy forced us down into a deep depression in the landscape, and we ended up at 1036.4.” The project also involved adverts in a banking magazine, showing the artist’s desire not just to borrow financial language for use in an artistic context, but also to project art back into the world of business. Information with indexes of the investment balance could be followed on the website of the project, and at the end of the year, at the finissage in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, the total yearly dividend was shared between all those present and registered.

The experience of nature and the world of financial landscapes is revealed in Martinis’ project as a social construction. In the afterword of the catalogue accompanying this artistic project, entitled “The Spectacle of the Nature of Capital”, nature is described as “an ideological phantasm that serves for the rejection of alternatives,” while at the same time “critically deconstructing the very nature of the spectacle of capital.”‘Afterword’ by Žarko Paijic, ibid., 82. As a consequence, nature is not directly the subject of this work, to the extent that “nature as such does not exist.” The mountains the artist climbs remain anonymous; they serve as illustrations or metaphors for something else, in this case the fluctuations of the stock market, and are actually used similarly to computer simulations of the rise and fall of the index. There are some similarities here with Weekend Art, especially in the photos that illustrate the climbing excursions, in which the artist poses in business suits.

It would be wrong to seek sustainability in the fact that this project partly takes place in nature. The problems of sustainable development here are expressed through the artist’s exposure to the flawed ecological and social values of the existing global financial system. The artist’s critical position can be read from his climbing logs, which mimic the neutral tone of financial reports on stock market movements. In 2004 these were negative because of the success of the Chinese economy, positive after the re-election of George W. Bush, and indifferent towards the catastrophe of the Asian Tsunami.

The Shift from Anthropocentrism

Throughout the career of Antun Maracic runs a sensitivity for natural motifs and ethics, while his recent cycle, Lokrum, marks both the continuity of his practice and a turning point. Maracic started photographing the island of Lokrum in 2000 when he took over the position of director of the Dubrovnik Art Gallery and could not resist the view of the ‘miraculous island’ from his office window. He was attracted by “visual constellations that are dictated by the swirling of the weather, clear skies, clouds, the south wind, or Bura.” By observing the influence of weather change on the transformation of the island and the sea, Maracic tried to “breathe and endure in synchrony with this indifferent beauty.”Vjesnik (13 June 2005), p.46.

 Lokrum, by Antun Maracic, May 2005.

With this long lasting and persistent documentation of a natural environment, Antun Maracic has created a unique opus in contemporary Croatian art. Aspects of sustainability in this work can be recognised through his shift away from an anthropocentric interest. Here, registering the existence of the natural environment is not at the service of narrative. There is an element of the diary in which the artist dates the photos and writes down his impressions of the weather conditions at the moment the photograph is taken; however, the role of the artist as subject lies in second place, and does not have a decisive meaning for the experience of the work.

Here we cannot speak about ecologically-engaged art; rather the interpretation of this work through the terms of leisure, self-amusement, l-art-pour-l’artisme, and work “without a message with a reference in reality”Antonia Majaca, Život umjetnosti no.73 (2004), 6-21 (19).   says more about our indifference towards the environment and the understanding of nature in our culture as a pressure valve for releasing the stress of urban living. Gustav Metzger, writing in 1992 about our changed relationship towards the natural world, argues that nature today cannot be experienced without anticipation of the consequences of the catastrophic human influence upon it: “Dealing with nature today forces us to face the guilt that we all share.”Gustav Metzger, ‘Damaged Nature,’ Auto-Destructive Art (London, 1997), 25-63. To see Lokrum as carefree is therefore to ignore the moment in which we live.

The position of Lokrum in the body of Maracic’s work to date seems to be significant. In a structurally similar work from the 1970s, May’78 to November’79, Maracic uses photography to document natural changes in himself, specifically the journey from bald and clean-shaven to long-haired and bearded. In the series Alea Iacta Est from 1980, the artist is photographed hesitating over whether or not to break a branch from a bush. Lokrum could also suggest the possibility of alternatives, to break the branch or not, to change our modernist and patriarchal relationship to nature as object—primarily the source of raw materials and the source of leisure—or accept nature as something enduring, beyond our control, and of intrinsic value.

Throughout the 90s, Maracic marked the political and social reality of the country in which he lives, his gaze frequently caught by the destruction of war, defaced graves, and tragic accidents. Even when singling out empty frames in the city, he comments on the erasure of collective memory. In 1997 he exhibited a series of photos that dealt with a tree growing around a metal fence and concrete block, which the artist experienced as “not only a trivial environmental fact, but the material result of an unplanned experiment with the possibility of surviva.”stablo [exhibition catalogue] (Zagreb, 1997), 3. Although artistic attention was attracted by the power of nature in his work of the 1990s, Maracic’s interest was arguably governed by a fascination with the picturesque. In Lokrum such an interest does not exist. Here the artist lets go and submits to nature, without any attempt to control or manipulate it.

Sustainable Art and the Ecological Citizen

Experimental film maker and artist Ivan Ladislav Galeta engages with the full implications of sustainability to the degree that he says: “I simply cannot divide art from nature…equally as I cannot divide it from my life.”Ivan Ladislav Galeta, interview in Up and Underground no.6 (2003).   Galeta is a passionate gardener, inspired educator, and conceptual artist, for whom everything is interconnected: the blackboard is a means for artistic expression as well as a teaching tool, tautological notations and diagrams point to the complexity of the world, while picking his own tomatoes becomes an opportunity to make an avant-garde film.

Ivan Ladislav Galeta’s understanding of the expanded moral community comes forward in Garden Scenes, compiled from footage of his work in the garden. Nothing is staged, he works with one hand and holds a camera in the other, and when a chicken walks into the frame, or a cat nestles up to the camera, the animals do so of their own volition. According to the artist, care should be taken over the effects of artistic actions on the natural environment. He cautions that even temporary interventions, such as when he trimmed the bushes over half the area of an abandoned outdoor cinema, filmed it, and then projected it back onto the screen, could in some respects be regarded as an unjustified interference in an eco-system.

E-mail art is one of the principle channels for Galeta, a contemporary reference to mail art of the 1970s. Through this sustainable form, he communicates information about art projects and events, recycles art pieces from his earlier practice, and features current work. Many of his most recent projects take place in his “studio in the open” and involve interventions in nature, such as when he uses a scythe to cut a spiral in tall grass, or when he makes and then burns a hay stack. E-mail art is often a by-product of his work as a gardener, such as when he sends an image of a basket of freshly picked vegetables with the following short text: “This is only a trace of artistic fruits which in their original form are no more, the basket was woven in Ludina some thirty years ago.”

Spiral Mow; e-mailart No 1; mown by Ivan Ladislav Galeta at Kraj Gornji during the morning hours of 23 May 2005.

One interesting dimension of e-mail art is the artist’s application of the usual format for classifying art objects through parameters such as size, material, technique, and duration, to his work in a natural environment. These works are described in terms such as: length—can be extended, material—organic, height—still growing, and format—40 x 40 steps. On one hand, these characteristics are paradoxical, humorous, or absurd, and parody our obsessive need to label everything, particularly art. On the other hand, they stress the processuality, constant change, and adaptability found in nature, which is opposed in its essence to the finality of closed measurement systems.

Galeta’s work is pertinent in the way he faces up to the problem of the sustainability of art itself: “only art today does not think about recycling.”TV Documentary, Croatian Contemporary Art: Ivan Ladislav Galeta, HRT, 2000.   Galeta does not produce any art objects, and alongside his scythe, uses only a camera. He strongly criticizes the over-production of art objects and the museum and gallery system for storing these objects, which, because of their size and energy consumption can be regarded as ultimately unsustainable. In this sense, he criticizes the very essence of Western art as the highest civilizational value and problematises the fundamental belief that priceless artworks are created for future generations and eternity.

The art of Ivan Ladislav Galeta is not focused on the search for solutions to the larger ecological problems of our planet, but primarily creates alternative value systems necessary for the realization of ecological living and sustainable art.

The sensitivity of artists such as Dalibor Martinis, Antun Maracic, and Ivan Ladislav Galeta to the ideas and practices of sustainability may be connected to their origins in the conceptual art of the 1970s, a source from which today’s sustainable art practice draws strongly. The reawakening of concern about the threat posed by international politics and global capitalism to nature and society has arguably encouraged a return to the radical ideas and practices of the artistic avant-garde of the 1970s.Maja and Reuben Fowkes, ‘Indie Art and the Seventies,’ Umelec: Contemporary Art and Culture no.1 2006, pp. 47-48.   Overall, these works suggest a shift in the interests and practices of contemporary Croatian artists towards engaging with deep-rooted and pressing environmental problems, which are manifest both as global issues and a myriad of local contexts.

Maja Fowkes and Reuben Fowkes (Budapest) Maja and Reuben Fowkes have dealt with issues of art and sustainability through exhibitions, such as ‘Human/Nature’ in 2002 and ‘Unframed Landscapes’ in 2004, in their collaborative writings, including ‘The Art of Making Do with Enough’ in The New Art (Rachmaninoff’s London, 2006) and ‘The Principles of Sustainability in Contemporary Art’ (Praesens /, and as organizers of the ‘International Symposium on Sustainability and Contemporary Art’ at Central European University Budapest in March 2006.