Some may be familiar with David Maljkovic’s tripartite video, “Scenes for a New Heritage,” shown in early 2007 in one of P.S.1’s project spaces. That video – about a group of Croatian “heritage seekers” coming to a Yugoslav-era high modernist war memorial half a century into the future – seemed to have a strange resonance even with viewers not specifically familiar with its historical particularities. Maljkovic’s most recent solo exhibition at Metro Pictures in New York, on view from 17 January through 21 February, burrows into similar ground, exploring the legacy of the Yugoslav socialist project.
The artist constantly references various mid-20th century practices of a thoroughly progressive thrust. Take “Images With Their Own Shadows,” a motion picture piece composed of experimental film extracts and a subtitled interview with architect Vjenceslav Richter, who in the 1950s was a principle member of the EXAT 51 group — a collective of Croatian artists making work somewhere between the legacy of Russian constructivism and a more Western modernism. Richter, whose voice we hear against a black screen, says as much: he recounts his bewilderment on hearing from a colleague of the striking formal similarities between his own experiments at the time and the French sculptor François Morellet, then working in Paris and relatively isolated from the Croatian scene. When Richter’s colleague tells him that he isn’t the only one working with “spheres,” he laughs off his friend’s distress.
Of all the national actors that once constituted Eastern Europe’s socialist turn, Yugoslavia was something of an anomaly. Josip Broz Tito, the country’s central political protagonist, made it so, by developing and maintaining what would become a strict autonomy from the Soviet Union. Yugoslav artists too, enjoyed greater freedom than their Soviet contemporaries, and many by the mid 1950s were working against the socialist realism pervading much of the Communist world at the time.
Much of this history is schematized in a text published by Zagreb’s Galerija Nova in conjunction with Metro Pictures on occasion of Maljkovic’s exhibition. And herein lies what could be an entry point to that curiously titled show, “Retired Compositions,” in which it’s precisely out of retirement that Maljkovic seems to take the various 1950s and 60s forms he calls forth. In the short 16mm film “Retired Form,” for example, we see several people contemplating a 1968 abstract sculpture by Vojin Bakic. In the film the sun reflects strongly off the piece’s shiny surface and leaves areas of Maljkovic’s frame washed out with light. In several collages nearby, we see what looks like the same hard edges of the modernist sculpture transposed from its public resting place into idyllic landscape photographs of coastal and mountain scenes.
This nuanced deployment of historical forms eclipses the rehearsal of any mid-century Yugoslav or Croatian specificity. The work may originate there, but its sight is always beyond. What the artist seems to attempt to show instead is a collection of divergent modernisms, moving between several American and European poles. These are all developments that weave their way through the work of Maljkovic and his historical subjects, but essentially remain of a spirit — a commitment to experimentation, collectivism, social accountability, and ideological autonomy — rather than of any single style, form, or originating influence.
The devastating history of Yugoslavia following the Soviet Union’s collapse is one that needs no recounting here. And, if an internationalism like the one described — political and aesthetic — still exists in the sphere of visual art, it’s one guided by the gently persistent and self-affirming politics of market forces and cultural funding. Maljkovic, while operating within this context, is constantly drawing our attention to moments beyond its perimeters and influence. In a post-Soviet period marked by extensively resurgent nationalisms the world over, looking back at these moments can indeed have an alienating effect. Like the spectators looking at Bakic’s sculpture in “Retired Form,” we encounter certain historical avant-gardes undecided if they are from a doomed past or a time yet to come.
Image: “Images With Their Own Shadows.” Courtesy Metro Pictures