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.    

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The power and vulnerability of the firefly

Sanja Cvetnić / 2019

The fate of each artist is situated somewhere between the oft-cited words of Martha Graham, “No artist is ahead of his time. He is the time. It is just that others are behind the time”, and, perhaps even more well-known, and certainly more enduring, is the Old Testament wisdom – “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun”(Eccl. 1:9): this reflects the fates of artists who have been cursed and of those who have been divinized. Zlatko Kopljar (1962) is one of those artists who most profoundly experiences both fateful points, as well as the tension between both statements concerning artistic and human existence. In a quick survey of his oeuvre, if we filter by the key words of “time” and “artist”, many of his works apply. We encounter these elements in an art installation (1993) named after an inscription engraved on a metallic plate, Panta rhei (Τα Πάντα ῥεῖ), in which the beginning of one ofthe most famous Greek philosophical sentences is reinforced by the high voltage with which the work is charged and in an abstract video, K9 (2003), to which the artist’s own DNA forms the key. We see the topics “time” and “artist” in the tableaux vivantsportraying a company of “dead” painters in a series of photographic portraits of colleagues, maverick artists all, in K11(2007). And we find these elements in the striking stills from the performance K16(2012), in which Kopljar, dressed in his silver, phosphorescent suit, digs himself a deep grave that slowly swallows him up, along with the light that reflects off  his silver suit, glowing to the end, like a big firefly in the darkness.

In his body of work, the main art strategies are performative rituals (scarifications, memories, bowing, giving) by which he explores the limits and semantic knots that typify the time and place in which he lives. These strategies seldom have any private or intimate meaning – unlike K6, an intervention out-of-doors, whereby he stencilled an outline on the asphalt to mark the spot where his father was killed in Slavonski Brod with the numbers “23091992” in a compressed computer font beneath the rectangle, which denoted the date and the place where his father died on September 23, 1992. His works usually have a more universal meaning. Zlatko Kopljar executed the dramatic, collective performance in final shots of the film K17in New York City (2012), whereby he depicted a group of deprived-looking people standing in a row, connected with a rope they are holding with their teeth: this is a commentary on the preceding and final shot in which the film exposes loneliness, the conscious personal loneliness (but not that alone) surrounded by the heaving life of New York City with its multiracial population, iconic yellow cabs, graphic billboards and other attractions that are assimilated into the simulacrum of urban society. In this sense, Nataša Lah (2014) interpreted Kopljar’s art mission, in the context of the urban installation K19(five monumental brick menhirs that bear witness to the concentration camps):

… to answer the question about the encounter between subjective and collective memories in an artwork is only possible in a readymade reality of an interpretation, that is, in a ‘secondary discourse of commentary’ which opens up a new context for the understanding of the old worlds and translates new worlds in the language of old world experiences.[1]   

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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. 

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Zlatko Kopljar / Random Empty

Marko Golub / 2017

I do not think I know another contemporary Croatian artist whose works evoke a feeling of terror with such ease. As far as I know, Zlatko Kopljar does not like to interpret his works and even when he does so, he never analyses their particular elements or reveals hidden allusions, except those that are explicitly laid in front of the viewer and are more or less universally graspable. However, from his very first to his most recent, his works resist any unambiguous interpretation; they do not presume the viewer’s intellectual receptiveness, but immerse them into an intensive experience of things such as impotence, anxiety, the feeling of guilt and responsibility, the impossibility to communicate, loneliness, deafening silence, unbearable noise, fear, the proximity of death, sadness, anger, compassion, redemption and the likes. Kopljar has developed his whole career around receptiveness to strong emotions, conditions and presentiments, materialising it outside his own self by using a wide range of media from performances, gestures, video works, objects, poetic utterances, sound, narration and the combination of all those, but never has he – except in one case, the case of “compassion” – explicitly named them.

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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.

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