Reflections on a trail of blazing light

Kate Christina Mayne / 2020

In an upstairs gallery of MSU, Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art, honey floods over a smallish, solid-steel, rectangular prism. The light reflects off the volume, through the faintly golden substance, and lends the sculpture an air of a sumptuous jewel. This combination of fluid and solid substance overrides any thoughts of minimalism that might be tacked onto it: the properties of honey suggest the touch of a finger or a fleck of dust could desecrate its presence. The two materials are distinct, yet both have their own relationship to fluidity, if at different temperatures. We might be forgiven for wondering if some kind of alchemical exercise were at hand. It has no title. Onlookers have very little concrete reference to go by, other than the object itself, which just lies there, basking in inquisitive, inexplicable beauty. 

For all the frankness of the artistic gesture, the sculpture is one of the more hermetic pieces in Zlatko Kopljar’s retrospective, which relies less on sequence than we might expect from the form. The choice was made to eschew the dictates of chronology. Instead, a much looser approach was taken based on how the works co-exist. The exhibition displays key works from the artist’s output over the past 25 years, bearing witness to an artistic voice that has a fourfold expression: Kopljar trained as a painter, but has consistently worked with sculpture, performance, photography and video. Such an overview encourages an analysis of correlation and makes an appraisal of constituent parts possible. The mute, gleaming object just described that we encounter halfway through the exhibition, is as good an entry point as any. Through it, we can seek access to the practice from a state of not-knowing. 

The sculpture, Untitled (1990), as it turns out, is the earliest piece in the show. It was made when Zlatko Kopljar was still an art student in Venice. Honey is of course reminiscent of Joseph Beuys (1921-1986), whose work and life had an influence on the young artist. Beuys had pronounced ideas about the meaning, energy or charge of materials; in one installation, bubbling vats of fat stood alongside pipes through which he pumped honey, which ran through a building nearby where students gathered to dream of new ways to organize society. Beuys associated honey with wax, that malleable substance, which he likened to the creative spirit. His ideas regarding democracy and his claim that “Everything in life is art” with calls for a social sculpture spoke to the young Croatian artist. In “Dank an Wilhelm Lehmbruck”, the final lecture-performance Joseph Beuys gave before his death in 1986, he spoke of how he “heard” a photograph of a sculpture by Lehmbruck in a brochure tell him to “Schutze die Flamme”[1],to protect the flame and keep it alight. This, Beuys said, is what led him to become an artist. Perhaps a similar transmission took place from Beuys’ legacy into Kopljar’s practice, like a current of compassion passing from the elder artist’s to the younger’s creative bloodstream. 

Around the honey-coated sculpture’s plinth we see some fluff on the floor: this must have accidentally migrated upstairs, drawn up maybe by a flux of electrons: downstairs a giant needle rests in a heap of feathers. The materials of Mastodont (1995) are as incongruous as honey on steel, yet they too appear to be in harmonious proportion, as if the proverbial question, whether a pound of steel is heavier than a pound of feathers, had been finally laid to rest in a bed of down. 

Kopljar soon moved beyond the influences of his student days. Artists do, but, like the work of Beuys, his practice does continually take to task the question of what it means to be an artist, what its impact on society can be, and how audiences engage with art. The issue of audience participation is made acute in the work Panta Rhei(1993), a metal plate on the floor that has a live charge of 15,000 volts running through it. An electric shock is more likely to be lethal, depending on its duration, and its point of entry: for example, if it comes through the arm, it has a greater likelihood of being lethal, as it is more likely to reach the heart. Placing such an artwork in a gallery challenges the whole undertaking of public display. Museum guards become the guardians of the safety of anyone who comes near it. Everyone in the space, even the most stubborn doubting Thomas who might be tempted to test whether it really is charged, becomes complicit in a joint agreement to not transgress the safe limits.

On a wall nearby hangs the work Hearts (1993), six solid steel casts of a human heart, mounted on floppy discs – those reservoirs of digital memory that became obsolete at such a surprising rate. Kopljar made it during Croatia’s war of independence. He cast one heart for each of the six states of former Yugoslavia. In a later work[2]the artist commemorated his own father who was killed in that same war, with a marking on the road near the border between Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. The work was quickly erased by passing cars driving over it. Despite all that is lost, life continues.

In Panta Rhei, that metal plate on the floor, the electrical current passes through water-filled, cut-out letters that spell out the claim attributed to the Greek philosopher Heraclitus:You can never step in the same stream twice. This work was motivated by the artist’s concern for the state of his country and the damages it suffered during the war, but it could apply to any situation of conflict. It’s as if the work is suggesting that any attempts at societal recovery from war should be couched in extreme caution. 

A similar ambivalence is present in the video Love Shot(1996), which documents a performance in which the artist engraved a bullet’s case with the word LOVE in three languages. It begins in a room where the artist examines the bullet, then puts it in the upper pocket of his jacket. A car journey ensues: the editing of the footage, punctuated by snippets of changing songs on the radio, gives a sense of the distance travelled. Once he reaches a safe spot outside the city, the artist is greeted by his audience. He is handed a rifle. The artist loads the weapon, raises it to his shoulder and fires. Even though it looks like a straightforward gesture, a crack in the night to mark the end of the war, it is a double-edged sword: the bullet is real, and, were it not for the artist’s scrupulous aim, the bullet could still be lethal. In Croatian, the word for the tip of a bullet translates as “kernel” or “grain”. The work may strike us as a sincere gesture of hope, and yet it is also marks a bitter reality. Writing words on weapons has been a bellicose human instinct since antiquity. During WWII, it became common practice for US and British squadrons to daub kind words infused with sarcasm onto bombs, whereby they for example wished Hitler a Happy Easter, or warned the Japanese of a special gift in retaliation for Pearl Harbour. It happens in more recent times, too: following the attacks in Paris in 2015, when the U.S. military in retaliation prepared to bomb ISIS strongholds in Syria, photographs circulated of bombs that featured the phrase “From Paris with Love” in flourished handwriting. 

Zlatko Kopljar does not speak directly to the world. In an early performance, K2(1997), he writes words on individual sheets of paper, spelling out the declaration that he is an artist who wants to change the world. He tears up the papers, one by one, before taking a sledgehammer to the pristine walls of the gallery where his audience stand assembled. When the audience join in with smaller hammers, this iconoclastic gesture results in what looks like a collective feeling of relief and exhilaration. In the much-commented photographic series K9 Compassion, Kopljar kneels before the Guggenheim and other seats of cultural, financial and political power. The artist’s head is bowed, his back towards the camera in a posture as much of reverence as silent rage or opposition. Blocking the entrance to Zagreb’s museum of contemporary art in K4 (1998-2002), with a 12-tonne block of concrete is another of the artist’s notable gestures, by which he creates meaning through blockage and diversion. 

A more subtle – though equally disturbing – evocation of blocked access is prominent in the video of the performance K1[3](1997), in which a deaf and blind woman uses sign language to spell out a text before an uninitiated audience. Understanding what she is spelling out – in a language she herself does not normally use – is the reserve of those who understand sign language. As she is about to repeat her speech, the audience is temporarily blinded by two bright flashes. This presents a further conundrum: any chance of learning by repetition is interrupted. Upon leaving the auditorium, the audience finds the text just performed typed out in braille, equally inaccessible to the seeing. This reversal of roles recalls H.G. Wells’ short story, The Country of the Blind [4], in which a seeing protagonist strays into an isolated valley in the Andes and becomes entirely dependent on its blind population, who consider his talk of vision as a sign of madness. Not understanding the signs in the performance then again has its beauty too, since it highlights the structure and rhythms of verbal expression and the poignancy of the performer’s presence. This could pass us by if we were fully engaged in deciphering the text’s literal meaning. 

The lustre of the early sculpture prefigures the more recent sculptures in the installation K20 Empty (2015), including two solid concrete models of MOMA and Tate Modern. Both cultural beacons feature towers that rise to a sharp point, an expression of vertical aspiration, which spreads to the artists from all over the world who flock to visit them. Many aspire for their work to be included in them. At the same time, there comes a point in any artist’s life that an inkling sinks in of the sheer influence, behind-the-scenes endorsement, and luck required to be acknowledged in these hallowed halls, which is likely to leave any thoughtful person deeply ambivalent. Ory Dessau rightly points out that these solid models of museums communicate exclusion: the sculptures are literally impenetrable. Concrete doesn not even conduct heat or electricity. A video monitor nearby offers a possible glimmer of hope: the image focuses on an undefined surface: it resembles human skin, but transpires to be the low-tech light of a candle flame reflecting off a sheet of plastic. 

In Reliquary (2018), the two museum models are more celebratory: here they are cast in bronze and therefore hollow. They have a silvery-gold patina that has been polished to a gleam. They present a different, perhaps more cynical slant, as the title likens them to objects of worship. Nonetheless, they exert an irresistible attraction: the models are extremely beautiful. Their sleek forms convey a stillness and grace that is at odds with the models’ undertone. Their luscious appearance underscores one of the cultural quandaries of our times: how do we exhibit the best humanity has to offer, whilst ensuring the scope is wide enough to ensure everyone’s right to be seen are respected and none are excluded? And could the models, in both their concrete and lustrous bronze guises, be leaning both ways? Is it possible for artists and engaged audiences to feel a genuine sense of awe and enjoyment by the instances of human creativity these institutions present and preserve, and, at the same time, to hold a deeply critical stance regarding how these institutions are funded and governed? 

A larger model in the exhibition has the shape of an open-ended tunnel. In the larger, life-size sculpture it represents, people will be able to walk into it at both ends. Advancing into the shaft, they will become enveloped by darkness, until they come to what feels like a wall, which has a vertical slit from top to bottom. The opening onto the tunnel’s other side, its mirror image, is so narrow, it would not really be possible to see who is standing in other side of the tunnel. Only light and sound would pass through to give people on both sides a notion of the other’s presence. 

The British painter Michael Simpson makes paintings of leper squints, or hagioscopes, the apertures in medieval church walls that were designed to allow lepers – social outcasts – to witness mass at the altar without the risk of contaminating the rest of the congregation. In his paintings, Simpson paints steps and ladders that lead up to and, cruelly, fall just short of the openings. Since the apertures are black painted surfaces, we are left guessing what might lie beyond them. Such is the nature of painting[5]. It is a practice that raises all manner of questions, about faith, life, death and dynamics of social exclusion. In Kopljar’s sculpture, which has the title K22 Failure (2019) – these issues arise too. But here the opening is physically present and, although it may be seen as a paradigm for the failure of communication, in which each person stands enclosed by their own limitations, it is not entirely without hope: after all, the people on both sides languish in the same state of exclusion. The work may create isolation, but can also provide grounds for empathy, understanding, inclusion.

Starting with K13 (2009), video is used less as a documentation of performance than as a construction in its own right. This new shift flips Zlatko Kopljar’s artistic practice from the physical plane onto the reflective surface of the screen, a world of light and shadow. In them, Kopljar inhabits a character dressed in a reflective suit. The being or entity does not speak, except sometimes through the disembodied voices of frantic poets. The figure’s suit throws back any light that shines directly upon it: the camera registers it as an optical, white blaze. In essence, the man’s clothes create a hole in the image, for wherever the suit goes, only light is projected. 

InK13 (2009) we follow the man’s progression from the depths of the forest to a tower that overlooks Zagreb, where lightbulbs are tested[6]. He looks at the flickering bulbs, flashing on and off, as if he is willing them to hatch, like chicks in an incubator. It is easy for us to see in this walking, watching figure a character that is not just physically, but also philosophically or spiritually illuminated. Every single element in the videos – the sound, movement, sequence, pace of editing, narrative arcs, and even the viewer’s attention – conspires in the whole. Although video unfolds in time, this is no linear experience. If we further consider that it is the suit – not the person wearing it – that is illuminated, we can conclude that the figure is borne along by extraordinary means: he shines and is visible only through the light cast upon him, by the technical set-up of the video and, by extension, the gaze of the viewer. 

In the video K18[7](2014), the man in the suit has all but disappeared: we hear the words of a poet in a raging commentary interspersed with guttural sounds. They accompany slow-moving images of a burbling stream, as the camera pans across roots and moss that line the crumbling bank. Ink-black branches and the silvery sky reflect in the swirling stream: shapes form and disintegrate before we have a chance to divine in them any pareidolic charms, as if they are Rorschach tests adjusted to the pace of the twenty first century. The man in the suit is eventually seen, lying face-down in the undergrowth. Before we can decide whether he is alive or no longer living, the camera moves on, to an upright screen: the rectangle is of the same radiant substance as the reflective suit. Is it a reference to the screens that so heavily determine our present-day existence? Or has the camera, and the editing that guides us so gently, brought us to a symbol for the sublime, unknowable potential of human creativity? This screen-within-a-screen, shining bright, that forms a hole in the projection, seems to be showing us a point of exit. 

In the video K17(2012), which is set in New York city, the man in the luminescent suit walks through a curving tunnel. The frame trembles with the shudders of a passing subway train. As headlights speed past, oblong stripes of light stretch out through shutters. In the next scene, he pauses in a crowd of pedestrians at an intersection, standing quite still. The world rushes round him like water flows around a rock in a river. He looks straight into the camera, and his eyes draw us into his contemplation. 

A later scene shows a line-up of individuals who are holding up a length of yellow cord with their teeth. This unnatural set-up – too strange to understand – is a re-enactment of a game the Gestapo played during WWII[8]. A group of Jews in a Polish village were rounded up and forced to keep the cord in their mouths at the same height, at pain of death, so they had to adjust their varying heights to keep the cord in a straight line. When they got the line straight, they were gunned down anyway. In K17, the re-enactment of this tragic drill, of enforced uniformity and abject terror, was performed by people who had nearly all come from all over the world to New York City to attend artist residencies. They brought their aspirations and dreams to a country where the mainstream climate – like many other places, it should be said – is unfortunately becoming increasingly insular. 

Later, the man in the reflective suit shows up on a silver New York rooftop. Flat roofs in New York City are often painted with an aluminium coating for protection, as it reflects sunlight and heat which would otherwise cause the bitumen to become brittle and leak. But the man in the reflective suit finds little to protect him in these silver surroundings. As if in shame, he stands in a corner with his back to the camera. In the final shot he leans his head against a silver post, but the contrast in lighting of the reflective suit makes it look as if his head is missing. 

It is chilling to realize that the systems of power that recur in Zlatko Kopljar’s work – that rule our cultural, political and economic worlds and are so fundamental to our shared human experience – continue to be so deeply afflicted by the lingering scars of ideologies of institutionalised terror. Kopljar’s work serves as a reminder that they should continue to be memorialized, so we never forget, and remain forever vigilant. 

With a remarkable consistency, in a variety of forms, Zlatko Kopljar’s practice has for 25 years been probing the open wounds of society’s past and the present. But, rather than proclaiming a black and white truth, the work allows us to sit with complexity. This can in itself be healing, and offers at least a chance of transcendence. In his works, Kopljar expresses a position of understanding and powerlessness that reaches us like a shock to the heart. At the same time, the artist’s considerate handling of form reveals a gentleness that in itself, is reluctantly optimistic. For all the bitter truths Kopljar’s work touches on, the artist manages to impart hope in equal measure. 

[1]“‘Alles ist Skulptur!’ rief mir quasi dieses Bild (von einem Werk von Wilhelm Lehmbruck) zu (…) und ich hörte: ‘Schütze die Flamme!'” Die letzte Rede von Joseph Beuys, gehalten im Lehmbruck-Museum in Duisburg am 12.1.1986.A video with English subtitles can be found at:

[2]K6 (2000), insert page number in catalogue

[3]It is the first in the artist’s series of Constructions, the code Kopljar uses to identify those works which are so multi-layered they would be at the risk of being hemmed in by a more denotative title – much as a classical composer might use the word Opus to number his compositions.

[4]The Country of the Blindrelates the account of a man who strays into a village in the Andes that is hermetically sealed from the outside world, where all the inhabitants are blind. He lives with the villagers, asking them: “Has no one told you, ‘In the Country of the Blind the One-Eyed Man is King?'” They respond that he should stop talking such madness. Eventually they decide that his curious claims of vision are caused by the two protrusions in his face and plot to remove his eyes in order to cure him. 

Cfr. The Country of the Blind, and Other Stories by H. G. Wells, pub. Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1911;

[5]Michael Simpson: Paintings and Drawings 1989 – 2019Hardcover– 1 Nov 2019by Craig Burnett (Author, Editor), Barry Schwabsky(Author), Michael Simpson(Author, Artist), Jennifer Sliwka(Author), Mark Wallinger(Author), Jess Fletcher(Editor)

[6]Cf. O. Dessau, p. XX; K.Mayne, Wandering Between Light and Incomprehension, p. 104, The Reality of the Lowest Rank, Luc Tuymans: A Vision on Central Europe, pub. Ludion, 2010. 

[7]Poem by Miloš Đurđević, recital by Ernesto Cozar Estrella. 

[8]P. 123, Topography of Terror. Gestapo, SS and Reich Security Main Office on Wilhelm- and Prinz-Albrecht-Straße. A Documentation Catalogue to accompany the presentation of the same name, Publisher: Stiftung Topographie des Terrors, represented by Prof. Andreas Nachama, Berlin 2010, 8th. revised edition, 2017, 432 p., ISBN 978-3-941772-17-5