View of “Milica Tomić,” 2020.

View of “Milica Tomić,” 2020.

Milica Tomić

In her research-based practice of the past twenty years, Milica Tomić has delved into various historical and national contexts in which the suspension of laws and civic culture became a long-term strategy to manage the life and death of populations. Opening just before the Austrian government enacted strict measures to confront the Covid-19 pandemic, her exhibition “The Small Letter ‘a’” was a poignant intervention in this attenuated time.

As a focal point, her installation The Museum in Suspension, 2020, paid tribute to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Belgrade, a modernist icon designed in 1960 by the architects Ivan Antić and Ivanka Raspopović. The institution was shuttered between 2007 and 2017 for what was supposed to be a brief renovation. To make visible the symbolic lack signified by the museum’s protracted closure and the unfulfilled desires and conflicted political agendas of its stakeholders (among them artists, audiences, real-estate speculators, and politicians) as they anticipated its reopening, the installation juxtaposed three incongruent episodes. One was a re-creation of the detritus left behind in 2007 after Jim Lambie dismantled his work for what was to be the museum’s last exhibition, devoted to new British art. Another was a precise technical drawing for the giant JUGOSLAVIA lettering that adorned the pavilion representing the six Socialist republics at the Venice Biennale between 1938 and 1992 and now mislabels the Serbian pavilion. The third was a group of six photographs, all from 2010, showing Tomić in the museum’s abandoned interior; employing her own technical drawing of the JUGOSLAVIA sign, she cast the empty spaces surrounding each letter using molten lead. While the scattering of remnants—bubble wrap, drawings, blocks of metal—suggested that art can give weight and shape to historical transitions, the exhibition’s Lacanian title, with its objet petit a evoking the missing object of desire, implied that the psychic burdens and immaterial losses of such crises are difficult, if not impossible, to represent.

Tomić broached the same quandary in Life of Crops: Memorial in Becoming, 2020, an iteration of an ongoing project first presented at the Steirischer Herbst festival in Graz, Austria, in 2018. Through an analysis of the soil at a newly discovered labor camp in the Styrian village of Aflenz an der Sulm, Tomić made visible the material and ideological sedimentation of history and memory. A video showed forensic archaeologists excavating the overgrown site and recovering artifacts and plant remains, while a long table displayed a partial archive of an actively repressed history. It included petri dishes with soil samples; factory workers’ identification papers; books on fascism, Marxism, and their relation to nature; and accounts of specific companies that used prison labor in the Austro-fascist and Nazi eras. On the wall, Research Painting, 2019, transformed scientific data about the reconfiguration of property relations in Styria between 1938 and 1945 into an abstract rendering reminiscent of Josef Albers’s 1950–76 series “Homage to the Square.”

Though the exhibition’s framework was intellectually and historically dense, the visual components often appeared to be nonchalantly installed and merely “in progress.” Stated differently, the disequilibrium between content and form at times felt vexing and haphazard. Tomić undoubtedly privileges ideas and process over material form, but which, if any, formal means can fulfill the task of articulating historical and contemporary states of exception remains unclear. Or must they remain in the realm of the formless?