All Tomorrow’s Parties

Kate Sutton on David Maljković’s “A Retrospective by Appointment”

Left: Artist David Maljković, collector Neda Young, and dealer Tom Heman. Right: Lauba's chief curator Morana Matković. (All photos: Kate Sutton)

IN 1956, London’s Whitechapel Gallery hosted Pop art’s coming-out party, a twelve-part exhibition uniting artists, architects, designers, and musicians under the rubric “This Is Tomorrow.” Last year, Stockholm’s Tensta Kontshall, the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art in Riga, and the Zagreb-based curatorial collective WHW/What, How & for Whom (Ivet Ćurlin, Ana Dević, Nataša Ilić, and Sabina Sabolović) appropriated the title for a programming initiative that looks at what happens after the party’s over, institutionally speaking.

“We realized we were all facing the same questions of what it means to be a midsize institution that still wants to hold onto the political and social activism possible when you’re smaller,” Sabolović explained at a coffeehouse in Zagreb. “We wanted to think about ways to test the limits and possibilities of the institutional framework we have now.”

So far the program has used its threefold vantage to ruminate on whether, as Sabolović put it, “the uselessness of art can be thought of as useful.” The question came to the fore this time last fall, when WHW opened its group exhibition “Really Useful Knowledge” at Madrid’s Reina Sofía. As a counterbalance, the collective hosted Tania Bruguera’s open-source archive Arte Útil in Galerija Nova, the municipal gallery in Zagreb that WHW has run since 2003. “In some ways the projects were direct inverses,” Sabolović observed. “Arte Útil puts forward strict categorizations of what functions art can have, while ‘Really Useful Knowledge’ left everything open to debate. But that’s how that original Whitechapel exhibition was, opening itself up to different positions and disciplines.”

Left: Artist Kristian Kožul and WHW's Sabina Sabolović. Right: Kontakt Collection's Hephzibah Druml.

Last Tuesday, WHW unveiled the latest project in the series, David Maljković’s “A Retrospective by Appointment,” a multivenue exhibition strung along a central artery in the artist’s hometown of Zagreb. Here’s where a fourth question could be added to the three in the collective’s name: Why? Alongside Sanja Iveković, Maljković may currently be Croatia’s most prominent artist. His work can found in the collections of the Tate, the Centre Pompidou, the Stedelijk Museum, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, whose recent rehang of the permanent collection lifts its title from one of his key works, Scenes for a New Heritage. One journalist approximated the number of his exhibitions at over 250, including biennials in Istanbul, São Paolo, Berlin, Paris, Konjic, Prague, Tirana, and, this year, Venice. “David is our golden fish,” artist Darko Fritz confirmed. “He more than deserves a major museum show.”

And yet Maljković has yet to have a significant exhibition in Zagreb, a town so devoted to its artists it built its contemporary art museum in the shape of a Julije Knifer painting. “No artist is ever loved in his hometown,” a dealer told me, but in Maljković’s case, it’s a little more complicated than that: Chosen to represent Croatia at the Fifty-Second Venice Biennale, the artist had his invitation yanked out from underneath him at the last moment by commissioner Zeljko Kipke and curator Branko Franceschi.

This is where the “Why?” comes in handy again. For starters, Maljković doesn’t make it easy. With each exhibition, the artist actively resists standard protocol, approaching the act of exhibition making as he would an artwork. For his 2011 midcareer survey at Vienna’s Secession, he opted to remove all content, showing only the support structures for each of the works “presented.” Even the poster was void of any information other than the word retrospective. For “A Retrospective by Appointment,” Maljković kept the content, but chose to play spatially with the idea of artistic progress, leading viewers on a march from the artist’s studio to the modest showroom of the Croatian Designers’ Association and, finally, to Galerija Nova.

Left: Dealer Georg Kargl. Right: Collector Neda Young and artist Andreja Kulunčić.

“David is one of the most active Croatian artists abroad, but here most knowledge of his work is still based in rumors,” Sabolović lamented to the early birds who had descended on the artist’s studio a few hours before the evening’s official progression. They included inimitable Korčula-born collector Neda Young; dealers Georg Kargl, Andreas Gegner, Tom Heman, and Floor Wullems; artists Roman Urajnek and Radenko Milak; and the A-Team from Ljubljana’s Moderna Galerija, led by charismatic director Zdenka Badovinac.

Maljković had cleared out most of his belongings and used the remaining furniture to prop up a series of partition walls, festooned with a salon-style hanging. “For me the studio was the most difficult of the venues,” the artist explained, hesitantly at first. “It’s personal space, so there’s generally a lot of cleaning involved, but I also wasn’t interested in the romance of ‘the artist’s studio.’ ” In keeping with his rejection of chronological hierarchies, the selected works sampled liberally from his career, mixing a print from the New Representation, the installation shown in Venice, to the 2008–10 Retired Form collages and a sketch of snuggling cats the artist made at the tender age of eighteen.

Next we bundled up and headed to the Croatian Design Association’s gallery, which Maljković had filled with posters, publications, and photographs, all centered around one of the sleek gray tables the artist had designed with Konstantin Grcic for the recent Ljubljana Biennial. By the time we got to Galerija Nova, the crowd was spilling into the courtyard and the neighboring cake café. Granted, this was partially because much of the gallery space had been swallowed by a chest-high platform the artist had built specifically for the show. “This structure was David’s way of dealing with his frustrations with the space,” I heard Dević explain to Kontakt Collection curator Kathrin Rhomberg. “It makes me feel all out of proportion,” Rhomberg replied.

Left: WHW's Ana Dević. Right: Škuc curator Vladimir Vidmar with Fokus Grupa's Iva Kovač and Elvis Krstulović.

Someone told me they had seen Iveković, sending me on a futile attempt to spot her amid the throng. I did, however, run into a host of delightful others, from curators Morana Matković and Vladimir Vidmar to artists Fritz, Kristian Kožul, Helena Janečić, and Fokus Grupa. Ducking into the side gallery, I noticed that a wall-length bookshelf, usually brimming with a selection of self-printed wonders, had been emptied for the occasion. It hung with an understated grace beside a floor-to-ceiling photo of an installation the artist made in 1995 by relocating the contents of an elementary school classroom to an underpass. “I love how the bookshelves almost look like part of the show,” I ventured, admiring the modernist slant of their design. Moderna Galerija’s Igor Španjol shot me a look. “You do know David made them, right?” He motioned to a wall label I had assumed errant.

As the visitors kept pouring in, it was clear that whatever the reason for Maljković’s lack of exhibitions in Zagreb, it had no correlation with a lack of interest. Of course, it was not all unqualified praise. “Did you see his film about nothing?” grumbled graphic novelist Helena Klakočar. “They’re in there applauding it. An artist getting paid for nothing, when there are all these artists trying to say something. And now Marina Abramović is getting sued by some artist who said they thought of doing nothing first!” What could I say? This Is Today.

From Galerija Nova, the procession flowed back to the artist’s studio and then a celebratory dinner at Karijola, a beloved pizza place with an outside terrace and an attic wine bar. Process-ed out, I decided to join Young, Gegner, and Wullems for preprandial pumpkin soup and fresh mushrooms across Tesla Street at city staple Vinodol. We were wise to eat beforehand. By the time we arrived at Karijola, the pizzas looked fabulous but few between. While the Dalmatian wine was enthusiastically received, international guests were caught off guard at the indoor smoking. “I can feel it on my skin,” Wullems marveled.

Left: Dealers Floor Wullems and Andreas Gegner. Right: Moderna Galerija's Zdenka Badovinaovic, WHW's Ivet Ćurlin, and artist David Maljkovic.

We ducked out to the terrace in time to catch Andreja Kulunčić coming up the stairs. The artist was in town for the day, taking a breather from installing a show in Rijeka. The project, “Creative Strategies: Toolkit for a Joint Action,” had actually been developed for Galerija Nova as an offshoot of “This Is Tomorrow.” For the piece, Kulunčić combined her own experiences working within the country’s educational system with the social activism of the group Direct Democracy in Schools. “It’s been instructive to work with activists,” Kulunčić told me. “Their stance is, you’ll never be fully prepared, so you just have to move forward with what you have ready.” It sounded like solid advice.

Speaking of moving forward, as we contemplated options for the rest of the evening, Heman resurfaced, looking dapper in a suit (the only one at the party). “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look so nice!” Gegner enthused. Heman rolled his eyes: “Yes, you have. I think I wore this every day at FIAC.” But as we had learned, sometimes you have to take the long route to appreciate what’s right in front of you.

Left: Artists Roman Urajnek and Radenko Milak. Right: Art historian Maja Marković with artist Helena Janečić.

Left: Artist Miodrag Manojlović. Right: Kontakt Collection's Kathrin Rhomberg with WHW's Nataša Ilić.