NEW SENSIBILITIES OF THE MATERIAL-NEW IMAGE SCULPTURE
By the end of the last decade already, some concrete and clear artistic orientations began to escape definition, or, were no longer so recognizable as those we got accustomed to in the history of art in distinguishing a dominant artistic practice. The sculpture of the '80s had erased those classical determinants of this medium, had even earlier established an inter-dependence with space, broadened its limits, i.e. liberalized the relationship towards usable materials so that at one moment it turned to sculpture/object of a certain meaning, certain narrative structure and reliance; by the end of that same decade it was asserted as a new form of a new objective reality, activated through its own constructive shape as a definite complex mass free of all reference (at least a descriptive one). In following its internal logic it achieved a different manifest plausibility. Such practice in sculpture was no breach with, or establishment of, postmodernist demands for dialogue; this materialization of the idea simply shifted the system of logical appropriation, indicating again the ontological possibilities of sculpture.
Sculpture simply returned to some of the determinants that defined it as such in the first half of this century, in its basic medium categories. The fact that it now avoided "allegorical discourse" in favour of form and its new entity, was once defined by Tomaz Brejc as "nothing new, since it happens every few years as the sickness of one and the medication for another". The notion of art as a "production of new reality",no longer aimed at copying one reality in order to make a different one or bring about a radical confrontation, was quite reasonable when compared to expansions and shifts in the rules of overall survival; it was an echo of Hegel's hypothesis that all changes were products of their time. This text does not intend to investigate to what extent the application of historical attributes, a revalorization of "visual-literary" artifacts in any sense or in relation to any definite historical-artistic necessity, has lost its healing effectiveness or if any new, pragmatic solution has forced itself as the right medication. At least, this text does not intend to do this in order to define an ad hoc or exclusive priority and absolute position of a new artistic practice.
Under the term "invariables of the sculptural language" (of course, within the system of modern thought), applied at the beginning of this century, one primarily understands the basic principles of visual quality, simplicity and consistency of form, that can be discerned, in different attitudes and expressions, in the works of Arp, Brancusi and Moore. It is quite justifiable to refer to historicism when talking about contemporary sculpture if one accepts the elimination of the narrative-literary materialization as one of the conditions of the procedures of the first track that fashioned Belgrade sculpture of the preceding decade (which has obviously not yet spent all of the objective sources of its existence), and if we accept that repetition (as Deleuze would say, "varied repetition") is made toward those three principles of modern sculpture, i.e. toward the so called "expressive form". If we accept the fact that the last decade radically changed the relationship to works of art in placing them into the expanded field of memory, in a discourse that turned to be the logical consequence of the concept of the '70s, then the sculpture of the new decade (it actually appeared already at the end of the preceding) aspires, in an ascetic way, to return to its immanent qualities and the historic premises of materializing an idea through form. This ascetic approach to work frequently assumes a need to eliminate all or at least the most drastic external influences and challenges that could endanger the aura of the subjective reality that almost always permits, even stresses, the illusionist variant. A sculpture of a different significance was born out of such a detached attitude or isolation created by the youngest sculptors who were at one moment, probably for the sake of a more practical survey of the entire Belgrade scene, labeled the second line. They did not, however, reject certain aesthetic determinants already attributed to it at the end of the last decade. This aesthetic dimension has always been in the function of sculpture/object never threatening to turn into an aim in itself – it is mostly defined by tactical precision and an emphasized sensibility on all levels of treatment, as a need to revert to absolute form, a perfect work of art – as always with the strict rational amount of aesthetization. Therefore, one can fundamentally refer to it as synthetic sculpture, not only because of its physical, material duplication of elements or their existence, but even more in a spiritual sense: it merges the aesthetic component with an ever more complex contemplative procedure. A thematically stylized and purified sculpture directs its own activity toward the classical sculptural invariables – form and material. In an interactivity of these elementary components, without any prejudice toward what is definitely possible or possibly reconcilable, albeit respecting the idea of mutual unity and the existence of one in the other – without jeopardizing or subjugating either of the elements – we encounter sculpture conceived in a classical way, but with a totally flexible visual communication ability, seemingly outside the system of the existing space and time as its primary realities (in fact, obviously present), but despite all this, within its own world where all the rules are valid and the awareness of ascertained values remains constant. Treated in such a way, this sculpture, free of all metaphoric prerequisites, approaches Vattimo's theory on stopping at "the very innocence – or inoffensivenss of artistic creation" where innocence he relates to the "emotional, aesthetic part of artistic practice – opposed to the problem of existence" – the reason for its presence – while its origin is the so called "shock from an encounter with the truth of being".
In a way many theories, analyses and hypotheses a priori hamper and qualify the development of contemporary art, particularly sculpture, as a medium that has already unburdened itself of certain prerogatives, expanded and elaborated not only its visual-plastic methodology, but the very terminological system of some such existence and recognition becomes a phenomenon in itself. In such surroundings, where evaluation is made difficult not only by the profusion of previous experience, but also by the simple fact that today everything can exist as it is, that anything absolutely new is equally absurd to propose, even more so to prove, and finally, that the last decade of this century has just turned into an immense visual field where, at least for the time being, various poetics, mutually irreconcilable, function simultaneously – and when a connection is found, either in concept or the visual with small groups or workshops that have already been in operation since the end of the preceding and the beginning of this decade, in order to evolve again into individual, separate systems of assessment.
In such a complex state of Belgrade sculpture at the end of century, the common denominator that united the four young artists from the Students Cultural Centre workshop has remained rather definite and plausible and could be reduced to – a reversion to the standard values of sculpture where the whole concept begins with the causative relation of idea versus material and form, and ends when these elements are absolutely satisfied meditatively and aesthetically, of course, with all the yet unspent potentials, challenges and experiments offered by the existing factors. An unofficial group comprising Zdravko Joksimovic, Dobrivoje Krgovic, Srdjan Apostolovic and Dusan Petrovic, was more a working community of peer soul-mates, gathered toward the end of the preceding decade around a, then new and different, idea on what sculpture could be and a practical, concrete problem – the working and exhibition space that would provide an expanded, broadened scrutiny of their work – one of the unsolved elementary necessities of our time.
This transformation in material treatment and the establishment of new old forms of sculpture could historically be referred to several phenomena from the recent and somewhat earlier past. First of all there were the three already mentioned masters of modern thought in sculpture – Brancusi, Arp and Moore, who established the extraordinary connection between form and material: Brancusi and Arp went a step farther: they vitalized the unity of otherwise different parts, the combination of volumes and opposites, with yet another moment – a specific treatment of the material by which they activated its physical properties and brought it to a state of aesthetic organization; in case of Brancusi the respect for the qualities of the matter, its management to the state of perfection and an ideal harmony with the concept of form, represented a certain mental, even ritual amalgamation of the sensual and rational with the traditional. Such a flawless construction method, where neither of the elements was just the means or a passive segment in expressing the idea, could never disturb or endanger those internal natural essences and compulsion by which each material imposed itself upon the content. In the periods that followed, these expanded regulations on work with material (already accomplished) were directed more to the very concept of work, where the idea became the means of both the formal and the thematic. Some basic principles could be singled as rules in the treatment of material – mostly relying on Focillon's formalistic theory where almost everything is said in just one part of the postulate: "Materials have in themselves a certain kind of predetermination, i.e. a certain formal vocation; they have a definite firmness, definite colour and definite fineness – the form that inspires or limits, that requires a specific treatment and gives certain effects; their natural shape provokes other forms, because it liberates them by the laws of those materials... Therefore, there used to be a division to the materials of art and the materials of nature – and there were constant speculations with them: the masters of the Far East had highest respect for those materials of nature that were most expressly intentional and created by some unknown art. They endeavoured to introduce in them certain natural qualities in order to make an equal replacement for nature; this could be taken as "imitation" – from the material of nature one separates the material and substance of some new nature that is being continually renewed".
In that sense, towards the end of the '70s and at the beginning of the '80s New British sculpture offered different aspects of expanded form and a shift of certain visual logic and the material quality of works in their practical results but even more in the theoretical disputes held in their art schools like St. Martin's and the Royal College, about: what were the potentials of sculpture and how far can they be exploited, i.e. "what else could sculpture be". It may not have been so obvious with the first exhibition of Cragg, Woodrow, Deacon and Wilding, who were then primarily working with easily accessible materials, coming from their own direct surroundings – and the act of materialization was subordinated to the idea – but later, in works of half-Indian Anish Kapoor and Iranian Shirazeh Houshiary, one can follow a fine liberation of that conceptual approach to the realization of sculpture, the introduction of a new sensibility into the expressiveness of the material, mostly experimental, whereby the language of sculpture was directed toward preserving the organic form as an imitation of material existence, with Kapoor even further – to the level of sensual-spiritual recognition. In those attempts to validate certain shifts and make them physically provable – application of natural materials should not be just the means of expression and realization of an idea – Cragg called it "something partially resembling a frozen moment", because one was striving to achieve the "softer" current of the "cold concept" offered earlier by Richard Serra. That feeling for contrasting of mutually unrelated materials was almost always accompanied by a feeling for purified materialization, with a respect for both the visual and biological prerequisites, when the object was no longer opposed in its size and durability to natural laws and given properties. The New British sculpture brought a different reality of artwork, a specific delicate feature of the form and surface, and preserved the "natural" state where nothing was infinite, everything was temporary, not only in the physical sense, but harmonized with the moment that would become something else tomorrow.
The exhausted post-industrialist society was no longer able to offer and materialize permanent values, and the needs of art had to conform to the closed historical moment that was only seemingly losing its rational duration, shortening the memory and acquiring the only possible visual meaning only in a virtual space. The functional meaning of the material was ever more combined with intuition and reservations regarding the permanence of material nature – and so the whole system of values was directed toward a clear but closed relation: subject -object, to the very mental act of implementing an idea into an object. In that closed system of displaced values, artists turned one moment to their own mythology that guaranteed at least some peace and introspection. Inconsistent materials grew even more into a reflection of the current time, and the New British sculpture, as one of the more radical although not coherent but exclusively individual phenomena, introduced with its open attitude toward analytical reexamination some new sculptoral materials into the system of form structuring, the materials that ever more frequently turned into the means of symbolism, mythology, spirituality, new illusion, dematerialization, meditation, even alchemical experiments... Working with quartz crystals, straw, earth, coal... in sulfur, salt, water... (and the list of natural expendable materials would not be exhausted by this) dialectically broadened the attitude toward sculpture, which, regardless of all, preserved its definite objective identity. In such an atmosphere of almost absolute liberalization of artistic focus, the appearance of Anish Kapoor was certainly essential since his works marked a possible line of development of British sculpture at the beginning of the nineties. Confrontation of different, seemingly irreconcilable materials and surfaces acquires here a totally opposite, more complex meaning. At the same time (during the whole preceding decade) in an artistic space of different formation, in Germany, sculptor Wolfgang Laib made meditative homogenous entities of the material kept in its natural state; his work was the result of a prolonged mental process that never reached its end as long as there were possibilities of a new beginning and change.
Such and similar examples on the new sensibility toward form in sculpture made of various materials and non-materials, examples from the European art of the preceding and current decades, that are manifested as a general practice in some places and as individual and totally isolated cases of expression in others, while in third they appear to be experimental attempts or just the need to communicate narrative concepts through matter and senses, to give a complex picture on what sculpture at this moment really is and give at least one of the answers to the question what that refined object of art could be at the end of this century. Within the framework of such international sculptoral language there are similarities and differences in Belgrade's visual arts space (isolated and kept in enclosure for the last several years), almost identical with some artists who apply on ever more delicate and sensitive approach and procedure both in material and form, and create sculptures of exceptional sensibility and tactile quality, fictitious aesthetic objects, or, as Vattimo called it "a product of the innocence of an artistic process". When one speaks about contemporary Belgrade sculpture, and if one accepts and respects the inevitable differences and is accustomed to judge and evaluate through more or less expressive individual poetics, one could begin such a survey with the four already mentioned sculptors from the Students Cultural Centre workshop, who have made probably the most obvious, not breach, but shift from a certain practice in sculpture of the last several decades that evolved into several authentic variants (translated into a fabular-dialogue physical object). To conclude, a shift or a reversion to a purified material sculptoral legacy has been made, to the prototypes of the basic sculptoral language, developed in the spirit of their own time.
Zdravko Joksimovic does not reject completely the practice of associations; sometimes even in its emphasized title his sculpture preserves the narrative and visually stylized subjective reality (better said: conscious unreality). This detachment from the primary conceptual presentability of an idea, Joksimovic solves by displacing the theme into the field of form structuring, into the area of the very process of treating the material, pigment or glazing... In this complex system of structured relations, and different qualities, meticulously caring about the finished product's concrete appearance and its carefully organized components, there frequently emerges an object of a completely different destiny, an object that could sometimes be called assemblage or ready-made.
The shifting of the theme from the outside inwards (and vice versa) indicates a certain conscientious relationship to the hereditary materialization of form, and so the mentioned terminology used in marking these works gets more complex or simply obsolete in case of these new sculptures. The numerous methods of shaping the surface often provoke the well-known "strain of material". Traditional modeling is getting rare, forms are attained by various combinations, insertions, gluing, chemical reactions, in order that the generated reaction could change the structure of the material and activate its (possibly) unknown side of the natural. Combinations of metal, rubber, wood, glass, terracotta... made the very meaning of the form more structured, regulations and problems imposed themselves and thus the experiences of modern form construction broadened with no hesitation.
Srdjan Apostolovic preserved some reference to utilitarian forms to the degree permitted by the synthesis of different materials, their dynamics, their opening and modeling of space inside a form (also by duplicating, by constructing both the space and the material), before the final touch. His almost obsessive precision in work results in a specific phenomenon: his need to control the harmony of a sculpture's elements until the seductive aesthetic factor is satisfied.
Sometimes, a more expressive minimization of form, i.e. its reduction to somewhat austere elementary plastic entities – that can be followed in the work of Dusan Petrovic – inevitably brings about, in its elegant simplicity of works done in stone (mainly granite and marble), this new aesthetic dimension in observing an artwork. One of the basic guarantees of aesthetic ideology is "the close relationship between pleasure, sensuality, beauty, truth, art and freedom". This meeting of truth and beauty, sensuality and freedom, often becomes a challenge for young authors. In the works of Dusan Petrovic, truth always lies in the values and potentials of the material which (either wood or stone, in his case) has its provocative natural structure, facture, pigmentation. The respect of the properties and specific features of a material instigates the process of its treatment, which, on the other hand, conditions a certain form, constructive shape, accompanied by all of the understandable changes and surprises a material has in store for the one who works with it.
Some parallels in wood treatment could be found between Dusan Petrovic and Tatjana Milutinovic-Vondracek (most of her work has been done in this material). Tatjana Vondracek's first one-person show was in the Youth House in 1992 and was marked by a subtle symbolism of wood as material and wood as form with its own characteristic offer and demand. Her respect of the natural demands of the material and her endeavour to activate its own structural dynamics influence and affect the appearance of archetypal forms but also of a refined, reduced expression of a bygone mythological world.
Such an insistence on the sensitivity of a material, on its specific treatment (in the conceptual and physical sense) in order to get a characteristic refined form in space, is new just because the younger generation of sculptors makes frequent recourse to systematic analyses of the constitutive elements and a general synthesis of form-object that can, but need not, have a transparent, cognitive meaning, beside the meaning of "pure visibility", which, according to Fiedler's theory, indicates that form can take its own visual entity itself and reassert itself in quite a natural way. The other thing, not new but from a recent past of Belgrade sculpture, somehow an indication of these and similar potentials of sculpture in the '70s, can be observed in the work of Kosta Bogdanovic. Bogdanovic is engaged in both the theoretical and practical treatment of sculpture and he has arrived at a complex symbolism of subjective absolute form; in a certain way, through his attitude, this new line (or this segment of the Belgrade sculptoral scene) can be observed consecutively as well – but equally with no prejudices or obligations toward the experience of modernism. His relationship toward different structures, sensibilities and anatomy of a certain material – wood, metal, stone and terracotta, mostly – instigates the moment of action itself, i.e. of effectiveness on material, which can totally elude a "classical" modernist logic – terracotta is frequently chiseled like stone, wood is painted in order to get the metallic "cold" relief surface opposed to the natural nobility of wood texture. Form within form and the illusion become the object of a specific symbolism of the sacral, of minimalist aesthetics of the natural and the pictorial, an encounter of the contemplative quality and the myth of a tradition with the sensuality of a contemporarily applied sensibility.
The concept of the "innocence of a work of art" could be replaced by a new and strategically more concrete – "innocent sculpture". And this innocent sculpture, although minimized in themes, sometimes almost ethereal, hermetic and detached, when it communicates a certain absence of objective reality it warns against the complex moment of its existence, desiring to survive, but having no ambition to convey anything but this idea of its own existence.
The need to replace consistent materials with inconsistent ones, this conscious risk of working with unpredictable and unstable form, indicates a twofold interpretation. One is turned in the direction of accepting the expanded morphology of sculpture (the practice of New British sculpture and some generally observed phenomena) and the other would be a philosophical-social direction that evokes the "frozen moment" and the state where nothing is infinite, at least not in a physical sense.
The fourth sculptor from the mentioned group, Dobrivoje Krgovic tends to combine different materials in order to contrast and combine the elementary and the industrial, by chemical law principles and the possibilities of cohesive existence of one with or within the other. Almost liquid bitumen, oil, paraffin, lubricator, opposed or connected with the nature of consistent structures of steel, wood, terracotta, glass... it is not just a new aesthetics of bipolar unity, it could more appropriately be termed metalinguistic superstructure of an intellectual action.
The latest exhibition of sculpture held in Pancevo was certainly the most elaborate indication of the state (or, complex states) of Belgrade sculpture at the beginning of this decade and the end of the century. Parallel to some thematic, general cross-sections, a series of one-person shows held in Belgrade in the last few years has displayed this new appearance of sculpture, dialectically directed toward a unity of form and material in a certain active space. In this regard one should mention two other exhibitions held in the Youth House Gallery, and two phenomena that were certainly the cause and effect of such developments in sculpture. The first show was that of Nina Kocic with pieces done between 1989 and 1992. These sculptures directly proved all the flexibility of the newly accepted contemporary sculpture, and globally follow various dialogue transformations of nature-matter/material-form. There is an evident insistence on the process of work, sometimes starting from models done in clay or styrofoam and arriving at objects done in patinated brass. In another case it is an object done in pine wood which activateds in its visually tactile finesse the already neglected sense of smell... Through such a natural evolution one eventually begins to experiment with dispensable, non-sculptoral materials, like soap, wax, coal dust on a velvet background, essentially respecting the laws of physical change, natural reactions and an accelerated disappearance.
The other exhibition in the Youth House Gallery was the one-person show of Marija Vauda. The first striking impression is linked to the shown works that visually much closer resemble paintings than sculptures. However, once we become used to the fact that practically paintings and sculptures have become identical, at least largely disjointed, and spatially predestined, then a broader view of this work might miss the primary meaning of its own discipline and its morphology. Three synthesized works, more precisely, one spatial entity comprised of three works, contains in itself a seemingly minimalistically simple logic of repetition. The shift from the method of painting represents just another way to legitimize the elements of differing nature, where this minimalist form is the proper means of a subtle contrast of the plastic wholes. Thin lines of the metal background (cooper and steel) confronted to black pigment – a totally satisfying vitalization of the opposites done in a womanly sensitive way. This survey could be concluded with another (yet unexihibited) work of Marija Vauda – segments of the Hair series – a separate projection outside a real space of the medium, which symbolically closes the dialogue line between the subject and the object, where object grows into a long-contemplated materialized "innocent" strategic fetish of the new generation.
The conclusion will be replaced by a self-imposing quotation, taken from one of the most exploited, but also most pragmatic and sarcastic analysits and pessimists of our time, Jean Baudrillard, who is known for transposing each hope of survival into one of potential realities: "...We have covered all the paths of production and the virtual surplus in producing objects, signs, messages, ideologies and pleasures. Today everything is liberated, the game is over and we are again facing the crucial question: What does one do after a party?... It is the state of simulation when we can only replay the scenarios because they have already been played – really or virtually. It is the state of realized utopia, of an implementation of all utopias, where paradoxically one should go on living as if nothing has happened... However, since they have happened and we can no longer hope to realize them, we can only hyper-realize them by means of an indefinite simulation. We live in an unfinished reproduction of ideals, fantasies, images and dreams that will be behind us from now on, but which we have to reproduce in a kind of fatal indifference. Therefore, when things, meaning actions, get free from their ideas, concepts, essence, values, references, from their origins and purpose, then they enter infinite self-reproduction. Things function on, but the idea of them has long been dead. They function on in total resignation toward their contents. The paradox lies in the fact that they function better for it."
1 The paper called "New sensibilities of the Material" (also presented as a lecture in the Kolarac Foundation) was written toward the end of 1994, as a possible survey of a certain phenomenon, or a segment, of (Belgrade) sculpture. All the anticipated changes that have taken place in the meantime (both in individual cases and globally, as well) and the trasnition of the existing situation into a new discourse of observation posed by the time "after", do not affect potential alterations of the text. Even by this short temporal shift some interpretations could appear logically anachronistic. Like all other more or less current phenomena, they should be accepted as a trace of accumulated experience.
(Belgrade, December 1994)