Alenka Pirman
Sculpture, December 1996, Vol. 15, Number 10, pp. 28-33

Sculpture in the new Central Europe - Slovenia
Let's Garden!

"There are many answers to the question about why to grow vegetables, maybe as many answers as there are vegetable gardens. No single answer is the right one for everybody. Some gardeners grow vegetables to avoid paying high store prices, or to get better vegetables than the same amount of money will buy at the market - fresher, tastier, picked at the peak of perfection, and served sometimes within minutes..."1

In Slovenia, instruction in "tending the garden" of art has been an exclusive domain of the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana since 1945. Out of the postwar pioneer work a respectful, but conservative and rigid, art school has arisen. As the only one in the whole country, this institution has surprisingly remained the main source for new up-and-coming Slovene artists for generations. In the beginning, the academy's sculpture department featured renowned and respected professors who were also commissioned to do most of the monuments glorifying the revolution. These works, however, were never brought to the monumental scale of other examples throughout the rest of the Yugoslavian republics.

One of the last ambitious public art projects in Slovenia was a monument to revolution, placed on the square in front of the People's Assembly in Ljubljana. The monumental sculpture commission went to Drago Tršar (born in 1927), a sculptor who belongs to the first generation of the academy's graduates, and who became the assistant professor at the same institution in 1960. Conceived in 1964, a sculpture - the central part of the monument - followed the principle of Tršar's small-scale work. Due to the autonomy of the sculpture, which was "unable to abandon the last traces of the figurative", Tršar's efforts were labeled by the local art critics as "abstract figurative art". In the monument, his main preoccupation was how to transfer the energy and dynamics of the "manifestants" and "demonstrants" (that is - the crowd), into the sculpture. Tršar stated for the media: "My aim was to present 'revolutionarity' of the Slovene nation in all its grandeur. In the left part of the sculpture, the efforts made during the war are represented; it is built linearly and has a peaceful character. The figures in it are composed with the changing of masses and rhythms. The right part of the sculpture, however, is more extensive, the figures are compressed and seethe towards the sky. In the vertical, the aim towards the better has been expressed..." (Delo, August 16, 1974)
Because of "objective reasons", however, the sculpture had to wait in the artist's studio for more than 10 years before being finally errected in 1975. Even today it represents a particular artistic statement which has been established by the artist as a "doctrine" at the academy for almost two decades. Nowadays, with no demand for big, revolutionary topics, Tršar continues to work on a smaller scale, concentrating on the formal aspects of sculpture. He regained attention in 1995 with an exhibition in the gallery of Cankarjev dom. His sculptures lost their sinister and dramatic look; in this exhibition Tršar played with the contrast of rough and polished surfaces. He has moved from "abstract figurative art" to "Modernist kitsch".

"...There is no single right way to grow a vegetable garden. The choice of what and where to plant is a highly personal one, reflecting the interests, knowledge, and imagination of the gardener. You may want your garden to be purely practical, or beautiful, or a mixture of both..."

At the time when Tršar's monument was erected, a new generation which broke with traditional academic principles has graduated. Although very different, its protagonists (Jiri Bezlaj, Matjaž Počivavšek, Duba Sambolec, Lujo Vodopivec, and others) shared a common interest in the achievements of high Modernism. They retained the concept of the object, propounded by William Tucker as "an ideal condition of the autonomy of a work of art contained within itself, according to its own order, with its own materials." The first public steps in their careers were marked by the activity of the ŠKUC Gallery, a new non-profit public space, which started introducing and promoting new concepts; its aim, however, was to penetrate into the established local art system.

Lujo Vodopivec (born in 1951) has been teaching at the academy's sculpture department since 1985 and has been exhibiting since 1975. He brought vital conceptual changes to the study of sculpture. His work has gone through several stages. In the '70s he made metal constructions, one of which was titled The Music for Bill Tucker (1986). In the first half of the '80s he created wooden and metal space-drawings, corresponding to the then-fashionable new image painting, and later he started developing composed sculptures. Their construction reminds the viewer of odd landscapes, machines, or furniture. A local critic defined these works as "a production of simulacra", a "territory for performing the artist's most personal and quotidian impulses, which derive as the consequences of the momentary, fragmented desires and games".

Vodopivec combines several materials such as Styrofoam, copper, bronze, and wood. The use of artificial, brightly colored material, on one hand, and traditional materials, on the other, creates an ambiguous situation in which, according to the artist, the works occur "somewhere else". Indeed, the personal stories, associations, obsessions, and admirations are hidden in the complex structure of his work; sometimes they appear as a rather insignificant detail, a readymade accessory, or as a "recycled" older work. For example, the use of Styrofoam in a shocking orange or pink color can, according to the artist, "shove the work from the sublime and real into an ice-cream parlor". The artist's affection for sweets and confectioneries can also be seen in his recent work, first shown in a group exhibition in Lithuania. A readymade antique ceramic vessel, once used in grocery stores, was erected on a pedestal. It was filled with chocolate bonbons and the visitors were asked to decide whether they preferred to take "a piece of art or a candy". In any case, the visitor got the same bonbon but he or she had to decide whether to eat it or keep it as "a piece of art".

The whole generation of younger sculptors (born in '50s and '60s) emerged with astoundingly articulated statements. The term "New Slovene Sculpture" has been used to point out this exceptional phenomenon. At first glance it appeared as if the concept, derived from Lacan's and Merleau-Ponty's theories, and, again, referring to the New British Sculpture, had emerged within a homogeneous artistic generation (Jože Barši, Mirko Bratuša, Roman Makše, Marjetica Potrč, and Dušan Zidar were considered to be its protagonists); the artists, however, took separate paths.

Since 1992 Jože Barši has been teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts. Barši (born in 1955) has continued the study at the academy after graduating from the Faculty of Architecture. This experience enabled him to perceive and question the self-evident characteristics of the academic representational model of the human figure on one hand, and the achievements of Modernist sculpture on the other. From the beginning his work has been a melange of formal studies and peculiar pragmatism. On the top of tall Minimalist iron sculptures he installed mattresses (Klara Klausberger Production, 1993), and when he exhibited the work outdoors, he covered it with yellow transparent plastic (Klara Klausberger's Island, 1993) "in order to protect it from the rain". Barši's work embodies the boundaries between the artifact and the everyday object, or between art and everyday life. Nevertheless, there are no easy ways to do this; every formal change in Barši's work is connected to a personal experience and is a reflection of his position towards his artistic practice.
In 1995 Barši participated in the Istanbul Biennial. As is often the case with such exhibitions, during the first days his project was not working according to the original concept. In desperation, he started shoveling the soil which was originally supposed to be put onto a special table (the table arrived only at the last minute). This action became a metaphor for artistic failure, commonly concealed by artists. This fragmented but - paradoxically - monumental work suddenly changed character: from the idea of an art object it changed to a site-specific, dispersed installation. Barši's interest in exposing the hidden sides of life (such as failure) is present also in a series of simple works involving personal stories. In this series Barši confronted found chairs, actually belonging to people, with ones that he made by hand. Each was a simple stool, hung from the wall, so that its function was lost. Each was accompanied by dates, which functioned as titles. These simple, minimal operations loaded everyday pieces of furniture with emotion and insecurity inferred from the sinister character of the dates, which seemed to signifying the beginning and the end. The use of wall paint intensified viewers' feelings of connection to the chairs by changing the museum character of the work into an almost domestic experience.

Barši has focused primarily on the "everyday" or even marginal aspects of contemporary artisitic practice. In 1993 he conceived his first newspaper, titled Klara Klausberger and subtitled Newspaper for Sculpture, Architecture, and Advertising, and published an issue to accompany his personal exhibition. It was intended as a response to expensive, glossy catalogues. It didn't speak about his work; the articles by other authors spoke about the issues that interested him at that time. This new form of advertising turned out to be ideal for expressing the everyday phenomenon noticed by a sculptor. The magazine (the last issue was published in November 1995) has thus become part of Barši's endeavour to place art into everyday life.

"How important, then, are gardening directions? And how important is instinct? The answer is that both are of value but mostly when combined with another crucial factor: experience. Use the instructions and measurements (dates, pounds, and inches) as reference points - places to begin and revisit as needed - but make all the adjustments necessary for your own climate and soil."

During his studies at the academy, Damijan Kracina (born in 1970) received "gardening directions" from all three sculptors presented in this article. His "adjustments" show already in his experiments at the academy: the formal aspect of the work and the medium itself were chosen according to the artist's semantic intentions. In his installation, TV (1995) - first shown at the Biennial of Young Mediterranean Artists at the Museum of Modern Art in Rijeka, Croatia - Kracina showed a hyper-realistic self-portrait gazing into seven lit "television" screens which were placed on the floor. On the screens were frozen images of dead run-over cats from the streets. The work exposes the paradoxical effect of the television media. With the static, frozen character of this tragic sight, Kracina manipulates the gallery visitor - a latent TV viewer - who is prepared to invest more emotion here than while watching the everyday bloody violence depicted on television war reports.

In a subsequent work, Kracina again used frozen images: a series of enlarged photographs of several trout species. These were installed on the gallery's walls and lit from behind. The installation provoked the sensation of the gallery as an aquarium. However, in the "Natura Naturans" exhibition, held in the Museo di storia naturale (Natural History Museum) in Trieste, the situation was quite different. The lit trout boxes were placed above the vitrines with different species of actual preserved fish. This site-specific installation exposed the contrast between dead animals with preserved bodies (the vitrines) and living animals, frozen in their movement (the photos).

For some years now Kracina has been obsessed also with the extinct Tasmanian tiger. In the video installation, titled Thylacinus cynocephalus (1996) (the Latin name for the animal) - shown at the City Gallery in Piran, he juxtaposed the recorded documentary image of the last animal - filmed in captivity in 1936 - with the empty cage. On its sandy floor, the tiger's traces could be seen. This pathetic contrast reflected the double captivity: although it is frozen and forever present through the electronic media, the animal itself is absent, nonexistent.

In Kracina's work we seek in vain for the reflection upon the Modernist postulates. He is more concerned about the extinction of the animal species than about the extinction of sculpture as a medium. But at the same time, he is questioning the role and function of art itself. PROVOKART, the informal artistic group of which Damijan Kracina is a founding member, is currently preparing for an adventurous Australian invasion, during which Kracina is planning a "safari" to search for the extinct marsupial.

For this article I have chosen a particular "slice" of contemporary sculpture in Slovenia. This walk through several generations of sculptors and educators enables us to perceive that there are very different concepts constituting the phenomenon of "contemporary Slovene sculpture" (whether we like it or not). It shows also how the perception of the medium itself has been changing. The academic frame of sculpture has loosened - from abstract figurative art to recycled Modernist sculptures, from Conceptual sculpture to media-bin.
The gardening quotes used in this article, by Jože Barši, remind us that, in fact, the "biosphere" of Slovene sculpture is fertile and diverse. Therefore - let's garden!

1 Walter L. Doty, All abbout Vegetables (cited in a work by sculptor Jože Barši)