Eastern Block

Kate Sutton at My Sweet Little Lamb (Everything we see could also be otherwise)

Dalibor Martinis, The Eternal Flame of Rage. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

IN WHAT NOW SEEMS LIKE AN OMEN, I spent the Thursday before last huddled in a museum parking lot, watching a red sedan go up in flames.

“What about all the toxins?” I asked.

“They’re not blowing toward us,” replied artist Dalibor Martinis, waving his hand at the thick trail of black smoke. True. It was slithering up and away from us—toward observers on the terrace above.

We had gathered at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb to watch Martinis set fire to the car as part of his series of performances The Eternal Flame of Rage.

The sedan had been overturned pre-immolation, its belly exposed like a stinkbug in its final throes. “That’s a Yugo 45,” artist Ivan Dujmusic told me. “Everyone used to drive these.” (“The Worst Car in the World,” a surreptitious Google search confirmed.) “I was lucky to find such a historical model,” Martinis mused as the engine sputtered off a mild explosion.

Left: WHW's Ivet Ćurlin, artist David Maljković and designer Ana Martina Bakić at Galerija SC. Right: Artist Ivan Dujmusic at Dalibor Martinis's Eternal Flame of Rage at MSU Zagreb.

Unsettled legacies were a running motif of the weekend, which centered around the launch of the first episode of My Sweet Little Lamb (Everything We See Could Also Be Otherwise), a seven-month program of events hosted by the curatorial quartet What, How and for Whom (WHW) in collaboration with the Kontakt Collection, a seminal grouping of works from central, eastern, and southeastern Europe assembled by the Erste Foundation.

The six-episode exhibition had been in planning for several years, but the tone of the opening events shifted this July, following the passing of artist Mladen Stilinović. The entire collaboration was subsequently dedicated to Stilinović, its title taken from a 1993 drawing by the artist that inscribes the program’s eponymous phrase under an outline of a pig stamped in red ink. After all: Everything we see could also be something else. (A motto as close to Hope as we may be able to get right now.)

Multiple interpretations thrived at one of the weekend’s highlights, a roundtable discussion led by MoMA curator Ana Janevski and featuring members of Kontakt’s art advisory committee Branka Stipančić, Silvia Eiblmayr, and Georg Schöllhammer. (Adam Szymczyk, a longtime member and Documenta 14 artistic director, was a last-minute no-show, though social media clocked him onstage in Kassel playing keys for a band fronted by artist Hiwa K.)

Left: Artist Josef Dabernig with Kontakt's Kathrin Rhomberg. Right: Artist Sanja Iveković with MoMA curator Ana Janevski at Iveković's Archive.

In a nod to Stilinović’s 1979 lecture “Against English Language,” Stipančić delivered the opening statement in Croatian. After a brief overview of Kontakt’s twelve-year history, she quoted from Igor Zabel’s argument that the Cold War caricaturing of Western Modernism versus Eastern Socialist Realism had resulted in a situation where the West was understood as the natural control group for the development of contemporary art, while the East was seen as the West’s stunted little sister, hopelessly emulating whatever it could but never really fitting into anything. (Schöllhammer illustrated this with an anecdote about Benjamin Buchloh’s quick dismissal of Polish filmmaker Józef Robakowski some years back: “Oh god, not another copy of Bruce Nauman.”) This narrative reduces the art-historical workload, ignoring not only the active exchanges taking place at events like the Paris Biennial but also the preexisting connections, correspondences, and even collapses between the former West and East.

“The division was never as solidified as we’ve narrated it,” Schöllhammer pointed out, adding that Yugoslavia was only “Easternized” in 1990, its affiliations rewritten retroactively. Here Eiblmayr chimed in, confirming that, for Austrians, the so-called Eastern Bloc “was where we vacationed, where our relatives lived. We didn’t have that fear of what you call the threshold, the Iron Curtain.” From there, the conversation touched on various institutions or initiatives that have tried to give voice to artists from the region—from Moderna Galerija’s Arteast2000+ Collection in Ljubljana and the network of Soros Institutes to Tranzit—but, as Janevski astutely noted, each of these still risk homogenizing how we talk about the East.

My Sweet Little Lamb presents an excellent chance to see things “otherwise.” Working together with Kontakt’s Kathrin Rhomberg, WHW curators Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović placed works from the Kontakt Collection in an illuminating dialogue with artists such as Július Koller, Wu Tsang, Halil Altindere, and KwieKulik, in a two-part exhibition split between WHW’s Galerija Nova and a neighboring apartment. Its opening program was then fleshed out with contributions from artists and institutions that helped shape the region’s scene.

Left: Artists Dalibor Martinis, Vlado Martek, and Zorn Pavelić with WHW's Ana Dević at ZKM. Right: Curator Daniel Grúň at Galerija Nova.

The festivities officially kicked off Friday evening with the public opening of Sanja Iveković’s private archives, in the same Savska Ulica apartment where the artist performed her iconic 1979 work Triangle. Encapsulating a complete cycle of public exhibitionism and censure, the piece saw Iveković greeting General Tito on his visit to Zagreb with a carefully choreographed masturbation session on her balcony, followed by the (planned) arrival of a policeman, who forbids her from continuing. Nearly four decades later, the balcony has been remodeled into an ostensibly harmless reading nook, while the rest of the space has been set up with plain white tables and binders of source materials and sketches splayed for the public’s delectation. Given the typically understated tone of events in Zagreb, even the curators were caught off guard by the crush of the crowd, which included conceptual artist Goran Trbuljak, filmmaker Josef Dabernig, and Bratislava-based curator Daniel Grúň.

A little before 8 PM, the hordes began squeezing out the door of Iveković’s apartment and down Savska Ulica to Galerija SC, one of the key institutions driving Yugoslavia’s New Art Practice movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. As part of My Sweet Little Lamb, the gallery was hosting “One Is Not Enough,” an exhibition of photographs by filmmaker Friedl Kubelka, who had a way of capturing unfiltered intimacy on camera. (Witness two 16-mm films in which she stripteases off-camera, her lens trained on the reaction shots from men she recruited off the street.)

In the accompanying screening and artist’s talk, Kubelka openly bucked art-historical attempts to position her as the sexually empowered feminist, à la Iveković’s and her irreverent Triangle. This resistance made the experience of watching Kubelka pose for self-portraits in the mirrors of Paris sex hotels feel invasive or even exploitative, rather than “empowering.” The Kardashian parallels dropped for me when the artist admitted that she took photos of her rivals to understand what made them attractive to men. Well, that and the similarly brazen acknowledgement that she considered her films on her aging—now deceased—mother to be a kind of revenge. Kubelka added that their relationship had improved markedly since her mother’s passing, prompting knowing laughs.

Left: Irwin's Dušan Mandič and Borut Vogelnik with MSU Zagreb curator Nada Beroš. Right: Collector Marinko Sudac at Galerija Nova.

Death may have been the pretext for Saturday’s main event—“Onward Cakes!,” a public memorial for Stilinović at Zagreb Youth Theatre (ZKM)—but the gathering could not have been more life-affirming. As his many devotees know, the artist had a habit of incorporating custard cakes—kremšnita—into his work, devouring them at the end of lectures, readings, or videos, smearing slices across paintings, or even hawking them on the street as “potatoes.” In keeping with the artist’s sweet tooth, Stipančić (Stilinović’s lifelong love and partner) and WHW structured the memorial as sets of three-minute reminiscences from cultural figures including Documenta 12 curator Ruth Noack; Moderna Galerija’s Zdenka Badinovac; the Tomislav Gotovac Institute’s Darko Šimičić; scholar Antonia Majača; artists Dan Perjovschi, IRWIN, and Ahmet Ögüt; and the artist’s brother and colleague, Sven Stilinović—all interspersed with copious cake breaks. (Artists Markita Franulić and Marko Marković skipped the formal divisions, spending their three minutes eating cake on stage in tribute.)

In one of the more heartrending contributions, Schöllhammer sat across from an empty chair to deliver a rendition of Stilinović’s 1978 artist book I Have No Time. As Schöllhammer repeated the titular mantra, his voice grew plaintive, the words “I’m sorry, Mladen, I had no time” echoing as an infinitely applicable refrain in moments like these, when last interactions get weighed and reweighed in an attempt to squeeze some additional significance, a last little parting gift of the artist’s presence.

Thankfully, we all had time. The memorial ended up stretching over three hours, leaving just enough pause before the evening’s openings, which kicked off at 6 PM at Galerija Miroslav Kraljević, where Nina Gojić was unveiling her new Multilogue for Later. At 8, visitors finally got a gander at the Kontakt Collection with the simultaneous opening of the two exhibitions curated by Rhomberg and WHW. Galerija Nova had gotten a slight sprucing for the occasion, with clean white walls ready to showcase a cluster of Mária Bartuszová’s sculptures (including the sublime Endless Egg, 1985), alongside Geta Brǎtescu’s 1978 Censored Self-Portrait, Tomislav Gotovac’s delightful 1962 work Showing Elle, and a 2005 Vlado Martek text piece lamenting that “by creating beautiful things I am doing the East a disservice.”

Left: Still from “Onward Cakes!” at ZKM. Right: Zora Cazi-Gotovac with Tomislav Gotovac Institute researcher Darko Šimičić.

The Softić Apartment was located just off the city’s main square, though it required ducking into one of the “secret passageways” spun through Zagreb’s major thoroughfares. Inside, the telltale blue scotch-tape line of Edward Krasiński spanned the suite of sixth-floor windows, which provided an excellent view across the square to the building where the curators had hung Koller’s Question Mark Cultural Situation (U.F.O.), a bright red banner emblazoned with a symbol simultaneously suggesting an S, a question mark, and a punctuated infinity sign. In the living room, Dimitrije Bašičević Mangelos’s tempera-on-chipboard Paysage de la Mort, 1971–77, held court above the couch, where visitors could sit and marvel at Dezső Magyar’s mesmerizing 1969 film Agitators, a barely disguised ode to the 1968 uprisings that featured Magyar’s fellow artists and philosophers ventriloquizing the Marxist arguments that fueled the Hungarian revolution of 1919. In the dining room, a constellation of Stilinović drawings benefitted from a sound track of “In My Language,” a text by autism activist Amanda Baggs, read aloud in Wu Tsang’s 2008 video The Shape of a Right Statement.

The curators seemed pleased with the results of the collaborative efforts, while visitors got distracted admiring the midcentury Yugoslav modern interior, with chic touches like the soft-cerulean-colored Olivetti typewriter resting on the desk alongside Roman Ondák’s 2003 Letter to the Slovakian Minister of Culture. “This was the apartment of my friend’s grandparents, and they haven’t done anything with it since,” Sabolović explained. “It’s great to see this work in a domestic setting, but it also makes you feel a little uneasy. It’s like you’re trespassing, but you still want to see it all.”

Left: Curator Dietmar Schwärzler with artist Friedl Kubelka at Galerija SC. Right: Kontakt Advisory Committee member Silvia Eiblmayr with Kontakt curator Walter Seidl at the Softić Apartment.

Left: Kontakt's Hephzibah Druml at Galerija Nova. Right: Kontakt Art Advisory Committee's Geörg Schollhammer, Branka Stipačić, and Silvia Eiblmayr.

Left: Artist Siniša Ilić and WHW's Sabina Sabolović at “Onward Cakes!” at ZKM. Right: The Showroom London director Emily Pethick with WHW's Nataša Ilić at Galerija Nova.

Left: Artists Marko Marković and Markita Franulić devouring cake onstage at ZKM. Right: Apoteka curator Branka Benčić and artist Siniša Ilić at ZKM.

Left: Filmmaker Lennart Van Oldenborgh at Galerija Nova. Right: Július Koller's Question Mark Cultural Situation (UFO) in Zagreb's main square.