History, architecture, performance: On Zlatko Kopljar’s body of work

Ory Dessau / 2019

In 2002 Zlatko Kopljar blocked the main entrance to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb. He did so with a twelve-ton block of reinforced concrete, corresponding in size to the measurements of the building’s doorway. Titled K4(1998–2002), the action was part of the group exhibition Here Tomorrow, in which curator Roxana Marcoci offered an examination of the contemporary Croatian art scene seven years after the end of the war in former Yugoslavia. However, since it kept the museum closed and inaccessible, the protective concrete shield of Kopljar’s K4implied that even in 2002 the war was not over yet. By sealing its entrance Kopljar referred to the museum as if situated in a stage prior to demolition. He marked the museum’s building as a future ruin among already existing ruins. Likewise, Kopljar’s sealed entrance also suggested that the premises were being purged, purified of the near past sediments and ghosts of the war.  

From an art-historical perspective, K4partially anchored Kopljar’s practice within the context of institutional critique, in affinity to artists such as Michael Asher and Hans Haacke, whose work exposed the underlying foundations on which the museum, the institutional space of art, was culturally established as an immaterial, timeless, transparent domain of intrinsic aesthetic values. In K4, Kopljar defamiliarized the museum. He grounded it in a material reality, turning it from an ideal spatiality into a physical, modifiable entity. As a result, the museum became an accentuation of a threshold, an open passage between inside and outside, between aesthetics and politics, art and life. Paradoxically, rather than a strict dividing line, Kopljar’s blockade served as a bi-directional conductor, reconnecting the museum to its surroundings, rendering it permeable.  

Kopljar’s version of institutional critique is neither deconstructive nor politically programmatic; it is personal and poetic. Kopljar is not an artist who tackles ‘the ideology of the white cube.’ His critique of the museum as a conventional cultural construct is in fact a means to reflect on his status as an artist. WithK4Kopljar focuses on his split identity as both an insider and outsider caught between processes of inclusion and exclusion. At the same time, his action can also be regarded as a symbolic, yet aggressive gesture of appropriation, by ways of which Kopljar claimed the museum, making it his own when controlling the entrance to the building.    

From 2003 to 2005, Kopljar’s architectural interventions extended into a series of performative actions during which the artist was kneeling motionlessly in front of various buildings of political-economic-cultural significance scattered throughout the city of New York. K9 Compassion(2004), for example, is a series of large-scale photographs where the artist is seen from the back, his head bowed down, as he kneels in front of world dominance institutes, e.g., the New York Stock Exchange, the Guggenheim Museum, and the United Nations Headquarters. In K9 CompassionKopljar put his faith in the hegemonic world order of American imperialism recognized with the above-mentioned buildings. Seemingly praying, he demonstrated his inferiority in relation to these institutes, identifying himself as their derivative, their captive. In light of this, K9 Compassion is perceivable as a subtle expression of Stockholm syndrome condition testifying to the psychological alliance developed by Kopljar towards his captor, i.e., towards the system, the structure, the order, which he and his art are subjected to and imprisoned by. 

K9 Compassionincorporated Kopljar’s art as an anonymous passive function of the buildings in front of which he was kneeling. Yet, it also incorporated these buildings and the order they incarnate as participants in Kopljar’s oeuvre. The series endowed the artist and his art with a virtue; with the ability to sanctify, elevate, redeem. More than an image of an individual worshiping, the attributes of Kopljar’s performative action in K9 Compassionmetaphorically defined the everyday life of the metropolis in which he was kneeling as a form of all-encompassing worship. 

In K13(2009) Kopljar’s architectural performance is carried to a new territory, in the framework of which a building is not only a physical, modifiable entity or a deconstructed cultural institute (K4), nor is it solely an element within a web of mapped elements or a constantly changing backdrop of a transformative action (K9), but is also an interaction between celestial and historical realities, an oscillation between different modes of being and representation. WithK13Kopljar’s practice expands from site-dependent interventions and performances-for-camera to experimental movie making. K13 is based on a row of opposites: darkness vs. light, forest vs. city, nature vs. culture. The movie begins with a sequence of night shots presenting details of a dark forest. Right after, the walking figure of Kopljar, dressed in a phosphorous white light suit, emerges from the dark, leading us to a white moon-like sphere which is placed on the ground, illuminated from within. Kopljar stares at the sphere for a short while before resuming his monotonic walk through the dreamy nocturnal setting of the forest. The light suit disconnects Kopljar’s glowing body from his darkened head. As he continues to walk, the sound of the dry leaves crunching beneath his shoes punctuates the audible silence of the night. The movement of the white light motive from Kopljar’s suit to the moon-like sphere is further stretched as the artist leaves the forest and heads towards the brightly radiant building of the Zagreb Light Bulb Factory (TEŽ), designed in 1960 by architect Lavoslav Horvat. Considered the Eastern entrance to the city, the building is a monument of modernist architecture and socialist Yugoslavia, throwing Kopljar back to his childhood years. It signifies a historical recollection, a memory that shines out of the dark. On the other hand, it is also a site of intense physical experience unfolding in time. The factory’s illuminated spaces take Kopljar’s glowing body out of itself, assimilating it in the light that spreads out of the bulbs they are filled with. The exchange between the building and the artist, the intermingling of the two light sources, amalgamates present-time sensations with past time memories, reality with hallucination, material properties with immaterial properties. 

In K19(2014) the building blocks of particular historical structures operate as conjunctions of multiple times and places circulating the “there and then” through the “here and now.” K19 is a group of brick columns. The bricks the work utilizes were manufactured during the Second World War by the prisoners of Jasenovac concentration camp located outside Zagreb. When the war ended, the people of the surrounding villages dismantled the camp and used its bricks to rebuild their houses. Kopljar continues the recycling of the bricks by recycling them once again as the building blocks of his columns. His recycling exercises the consequences of the Second World War as an ongoing rolling event that exceeds the boundaries of the time and place. 

The original display of K19 in Galerija Bacva, Zagreb, involved two crucial decisions executed by Kopljar. The first decision was to leave the exhibition space empty and erect the columns in the public area in front of the gallery’s building. By doing so, Kopljar injected the columns and the reality they stand for into the living fabric of the city. The second decision was to make the columns look as if unfinished. Kopljar left the upper part of the columns uneven, indicating a state of incompletion, of potential continuation.  

K20 Empty(2015) radicalizes Kopljar’s move in regard to the materiality of institutional architecture. The work consists of two concrete cast miniatures depicting the buildings of the two most significant museums in the world, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, and Tate Modern, London. In it, Kopljar alludes to and reinterprets aspects of earlier works. The concrete block that sealed one museum’s entrance in K4evolved in K20 Emptyinto two concrete blocks that minimize and petrify two other museums. Stuffing the two museums in concrete conceals their inner spaces and the works of art they are expected to display inside the cast blocks. In this sense, K20 Emptyis an iconoclastic act of emptying, evacuating. It changes the nature of the museum, transforming it from a site of display into a material, a shape, a depleted code. The illegible abstract footage seen on the two wall-mounted flat monitors that accompany the miniatures provides an additional intensification to the iconoclastic effect of the work. 

K20 Emptyalso echoes K9 compassion. Whereas K9 Compassionattempted to sanctify the institutes in front of which Kopljar was kneeling, K20 Emptyattempts to sanctify MoMA and Tate Modern, remolding them as miniature reliquaries, as components of a religious ritual. The association of MoMA and Tate Modern with sacred miniature reliquaries becomes fully apparent in Kopljar’s Reliquary(2018), where the two miniaturized museums of K20 Emptyare recast in galvanized metal which charges them in a reflective halo.

Chronologically, K20 Emptyfollows K19, and therefore, can be thought of as its optional conclusion. On the basis of which, the concrete cast blocks of K20 Emptyare the subsequent outcome of K19’s building blocks (the bricks of Jasenovac camp). In K19Kopljar introduces a dynamic mode of historical representation, a constellation of an insistent past and a redeemed present. In K20 Empty, this constellation of past and present is brought to a speculative future. In their miniaturized form, the two museums reappear as souvenirs, as possible reminders of history. By miniaturizing the two museums, the work seeks to signify their future disappearance as a past event. It responds to the destruction of the museums, featuring an image of both commemoration and annihilation.