Kopljar versus museums and vice versa

Željko Kipke / 2016

American artist of German descent Hans Haacke fell from grace with the director of the Guggenheim museum because at an independent exhibition in April 1971 he intended to inform on the background of the murky business with the real estate in some New York neighbourhoods (Harlem, Lower East Side).

The exhibition was cancelled six weeks before the opening, the curator Edward Fort Fry – as the museum’s external associate – was fired and the director Thomas Messer tried to justify these actions by saying that Haacke’s research was incompatible with the function of an art institution. Fifteen years later, the same conceptual artist exposed suspicious transactions with the real estate at another New York museum (Hans Haacke: Unfinished Business, New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1986–1987). Without any doubt, Messer’s explanation sounds ridiculous nowadays and it is hard to understand for the generations of artists who, if they feel like it, tear down the walls of galleries in order to publicly display their frustrations or disagreement with their organization, especially with the politics of leading institutions in the world of art.

Zlatko Kopljar does not restrain himself from aggressive behaviour in the public spaces of galleries. Ten years after Haacke’s Unfinished business in New York, he openly expressed his anger by tearing down the walls of a Czech and, later, a Slovenian gallery. He even had the visitors demolish the interior area of the Chapel in Ljubljana with him to destroy it as much as possible. Similar activities were not realized without the consent of the organizer or the programme manager, however, so we could say that the anger of the artist at the end of the last century was controlled or aesthetically contaminated. After Kopljar’s radical intervention in the interior of the Slovenian gallery, the manager was eventually criticized for the caused damage. At the beginning of his career, the Zagreb author announced that his building projects or the changing of the world would be destructive. He thus signified the development of similar art situations, i.e. structures, economically – with an index K and a number (a small digression: at the first biennale of industrial art in Lamparna in Labin in March 2016, the same screen that displayed film underground journals of the American anarchitect Gordon Matta-Clark also showed Kopljar’s film K18. The tactics of the deconstruction of the film is determined by the media, i.e. virtually by an electronic image. It has an apocalyptic character and it is focused on the second skin of the artist – a phosphorescent suit that lies discarded in the woods and seems completely devoid of any inner content. It lies next to a river, it is voluminous and from the position from which one should be able to see the parts of the body – ankles, the neck and the face – they seem empty, like black holes. While travelling through the network of the tunnels under Manhattan where water constantly flows and threatens, Matta-Clark also explored and recognized the apocalyptic dimension of the New York underground. According to the half-hour long movie record from 1976 under the title Substrait: Underground Dailies, social and metaphysical waste of the world capital of culture was hidden in those holes. Much later, under the index K9 Compassion, the Zagreb artist was kneeling down at the crowded places of New York, ignorant of the fact of what lay deep underneath the buildings such as the MoMA or the Guggenheim museum).

Two decades after Haacke’s New York paradigm, the Croatian artist adopted a more balanced and sophisticated attitude. He stopped using dangerous tools such as bullets, rods or a heavy hammer. The new tools are much lighter – a phosphorescent suit, a glowing ball, a white cloth on which he is kneeling down in front of the institutions of power, the film camera in the hands of a distinguished Croatian film maker Boris Poljak, poetry of Miloš Đurđević, etc. Over time, Zlatko Kopljar replaced his strategy of a direct attack on architecture of cultural institutions with the film medium, where everything is allowed and where there seems to be no collateral damage. On the other hand, no live performance goes without consequences – whether they are aware of it or not, the observers and participants of the activities of the artist who uses heavy tools are constantly exposed to unpredictable events. The term danger is probably too exaggerated but cannot be completely eliminated from the context.

Within the exhibition Here Tomorrow at the beginning of October 2002 the artist put a heavy concrete block at the entrance of the Zagreb Museum of Contemporary Art, which was then situated at the Kulmer Palace in the Upper Town (Katarina Square). The short-term project combined the author’s still strong need for dangerous tools, from trucks and cranes to an enormous concrete structure of 12 tonnes that would briefly and symbolically obstruct the social function of the institution. Someone could have ironically commented on the enormous amount of energy invested in the task that was temporary and the fact that the museum could have been entered from the side entrance. The irony is greater when you consider the fact that the same museum, after its relocation to the other address on the south bank of the River Sava, included Kopljar’s attractive photographs from his art journey across the world in its permanent collection. They show Kopljar humbly kneeling down in front of the institutions in New York, the parliament in Beijing, Bruxelles and London, Duma in Moscow etc. The logical conclusion is that the energy invested in the concrete obstacle in Zagreb finally borne fruit.

The aggressive block or the K4 is an overture to Kopljar’s recent installation with concrete castings of Anglo-Saxon museums and two film records. K20 Empty is only a model or a proposition for realisation, almost apocalyptic if done in 1:1 scale, as in a group exhibition in Zagreb. It is hard to imagine that the management of the London Tate Modern Gallery would allow that the entrance to its halls be closed. The casting of the concrete ring around all access points to the New York Museum of Modern Art would be much more problematic. Both models have futuristic characteristics because the author included the planned reconstruction of Anglo-Saxon institutions. There is an additional connection between the Zagreb obstruction and its potential variant in New York. The curator of the exhibition Here Tomorrow, Roxana Marcoci, is currently a senior curator at the MoMA’s Department of Photography. Her Zagreb title seems to have provoked the New York future thirteen years later. Symbolically, of course, in Kopljar’s manner. Following the logic of K4, the author’s new private war against the institutions of power in art is tactically quite similar. It is no longer openly aggressive and the circumstances are not such that all preconditions for heavy mechanisation are fulfilled. However, it is suggestive regarding the author’s frustrations and wishes that despite the blockage, one can reach the collections of the mentioned institutions through the side entrance. Although Empty will definitely be interpreted as a Situationistic story where the communication between the internal content and the curious audience – curators, passers-by, scientists, philosophers, etc. is prevented, Kopljar’s wish to be among the names on the other side of the concrete obstacle is an elementary particle that everything starts from. Then follow philosophical interpretations, symbolical assumptions and expert analyses on how empty is an important artefact in the recent discussions on the museum and its near future.

At the end of 2015, the London magazine Frieze conducted a survey on the function and form of museums in the next 25 years. Most answers were pessimistic, but some distinguished experts saw polygons for democratization of epic proportions in future buildings – similar to shopping centres. From a futuristic perspective, no work of art would make a significant difference in epic circumstances and Kopljar’s or any other person’s situation would be equally important or unimportant. Similar to anything else offered, i.e. in a permanent process. The difference was offered by Bice Curiger, the director of the Venice Biennale in 2011, when she tried to interpret museum exhibits using the paradigm of the sleeping beauty. Curiger believed that the kiss of an inspirational prince or a princess would wake them from their sleep. Although her story of the museum of the future calls for new forms of observation – with the help of algorithms and 3D presentations – the digression of the sleep is undoubtedly western and evokes the exhausted model of modernism. (The second digression: Charles Esche is an employee of Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven who says that the model of modernism is completely used up. As the current curator of the Biennale in Jakarta, he believes that the commercial logic of state collections will collapse in the next 25 years.)

Kopljar’s sealing of the institutions, without any illusions, bears the index of an exhausted model. Not in a negative sense, because it is a consequence of the commercial logics that new curators and cultural workers – all those who are close to Situationism and cultural production as the festival of democracy – have difficulties dealing with. In a futuristic and epic frame – so far utopian – the desire of the artist to drastically confront with the two museum institutions would be completely unnecessary. At the present moment, it functions as the tactics of making through the second or the side entrance into the museum. Everything else is metaphysical or a story that is hard to resist because of its powerful symbolical meaning and possible philosophical explanations.

One such story is definitely worthy of attention and clearly shows that Kopljar is an utterly disciplined cultural worker. He did an indexation of his work and carefully developed the concept of the empty both performatively and using the film medium. First he used the hammer to clear the galleries from unnecessary content, with the help of the audience. Then he was humbly kneeling in front of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with no desire to refer to the content hidden behind the attractive façade. At one moment, he also dug up a black hole (K16) into which he disappeared. Two indices later, his phosphorescent suit was emptied in an immediate vicinity of a forest creek (or a river?). The installation made of two concrete institutions (Tate Modern and MoMA) is accompanied by two film records in the galleries. They are both completely black and show the reflection of the candle flame on two different backgrounds – black plastic and the material used for the artist’s phosphorescent suit. The reflections are dimmed, especially on the background for the suit. In other words, the material that glowed with light in numerous performances under the index K20 greatly nullifies it. (Third digression: Before he crossed the thin line of death, the famous French writer Victor Hugo said that he saw black light.)

Just like Gordon Matta-Clark followed the black light and the posts of the homeless situated under Manhattan with his film camera four decades ago, Kopljar has recently symbolically worked on the decomposition (or emptying) of the content of great museums. There is no doubt that this is too big of a task and someone might make a spiteful comment that the old phrase – fight fire with fire is rather appropriate. The model of the exhausted modernism is good to provoke from within, using the same logic. There are a couple of unavoidable coincidences to indicate in the end. Kopljar and Clark are not connected only by the first initial, the fact that their tactics overlapped on the same screen in Labin in March 2016, or the fact that they used the film medium to search for the new background, walked through the dark tunnels or preferred demolition over building. Something that connects them the most might just be the wide background in front of and behind the Guggenheim Museum on which Kopljar was kneeling and under which Matta-Clark and his associates undertook an archaeological expedition only five years after Hans Haacke was banned from the museum because he explored the ownership relations of the real estate business in the city that never sleeps. The mentioned research and expeditions, although conducted at different times, clearly show that architecture is a completely specific situation. In that context, Clark’s term anarchitecture is still rather applicable (the scheme of narc-o-tecture also exists in the written legacy).