Vienna

Radenko Milak, Drone delivers aid to people amid the lockdown measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Catapilco, Valparaiso Region, Chile, April, 2020, watercolor on paper, 13 3/4 × 9 3/4".

Radenko Milak, Drone delivers aid to people amid the lockdown measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Catapilco, Valparaiso Region, Chile, April, 2020, watercolor on paper, 13 3/4 × 9 3/4".

Radenko Milak

KOENIG2 by_robbygreif

The black-and-white watercolors in Radenko Milak’s exhibition “Sideratio” were made between February and April of this year, while the artist was confined to his home in Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina, watching the Covid-19 pandemic unfold globally via the screen. As the exhibition’s emotional compass, the Latin title—referring to the malign influence of a particular configuration of the stars, and, more recently, as explained in the press release, a state of numbness resulting from a traumatic event—suggested a personal starting point for broader reflection. To document and potentially start working through the unfolding collective crisis, Milak transformed Covid-related images from around the world into finely rendered chiaroscuro depictions. With the dates and places of their origin often incorporated into their titles, the works became a partial archive of a media landscape intent on capturing (and producing) representations of life under quarantine. Hung salon style on three large untreated cardboard surfaces that turned the gallery into a provisional newsroom, these illustrations of depleted supermarket shelves, exhausted medical workers, deserted public spaces, empty railroad cars, and other strange and solitary scenes raised an important question: Can art help make sense of such historical upheavals in its own time?

According to Milak’s frequent collaborator Christopher Yggdre, who wrote the text accompanying the exhibition, the artist makes visible the drastic changes wrought on the most prosaic aspects of everyday life through his particular painterly touch. Milak’s use of sharp contrasts and his atmospheric handling of materials certainly lend an expressive tenor to illustrations of singular, anonymous lives upended by the virus. We could observe and perhaps identify with the urgency of keeping one’s job in Chinese security guard in empty shopping mall on February 22, 2020 in Beijing, China, 2020; of maintaining normality in novel ways in A man exercises on a beach in Limassol, Cyprus, April 09, 2020; or even of facing the existential struggle of hunger in Drone delivers aid to people amid the lockdown measures to halt the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) in Catapilco, Valparaiso Region, Chile, April, 2020. As if to counter the matter-of-factness, the sense of inevitability, or the possible detachment produced by relentless news cycles, Milak tries to tap into each image’s emotive underbelly with an aesthetic nod to film noir. We, too, may already be the antiheroes caught in a web of circumstances beyond our control.

Indeed, Milak’s works are animated by their compositional and visual resonance with film and photography, as well as by their sheer strength in numbers: There were more than forty watercolors on view in the small space. Working serially, the artist mined the tensions between the status of images as purveyors of facts and their role as transmitters of affects and desires that exceed rational or even visible frameworks. While the corona series surrounded the viewer within the gallery, a work made a year earlier, April 15, 2019, Paris, 2019—a charcoal, ink, and pencil stop-motion video—was displayed on a monitor propped behind one of the cardboard panels and could be seen properly only from the street. To the accompaniment of Gael Rakotondrabe’s emotive piano score, the video showed the spiral of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris collapsing as it was ravaged by fire. The effect was both saccharine and sublime.

Constructing personal archives to confront historical cataclysms is not new, as we might be reminded by Joseph Beuys’s vitrines, Christian Boltanski’s installations, or Kara Walker’s cut-paper silhouettes. Yet in the face of the contemporary challenge of how to react artistically to the deluge of data, its global scope and synchrony, Milak suggests that our contemporaneity might be rendered more diffuse—and potentially more exposed to critical reflection—if it is handled not only as an algorithmic ready-made but also as a handcrafted object. Yet to be resolved, however, is how to manage the paradoxical Baudelairean task of producing beauty from our collective spleen or actively stylizing its affects.