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Jasmina Fučkan | Slaven Tolj: Citius, Altius, Fortius

Dubrovnik-born artist Slaven Tolj has been taking over the active role in the local community since the late 1980s, when he started his activities as an organizer of numerous programs of Art radionice Lazareti in the circle within which, during the war years, the independent art scene was articulated. There are many reasons because of which he is inevitably marked as the artist of Dubrovnik. Dubrovnik is the fundamental topic of his artistic work in both senses, existential – as empirical starting point and symbolic – as a set of diverse antagonistic relationships in the intertwining of political decisions, corporate interests and civic needs. Over 24 years of artistic work, he proved himself as a committed advocate of engaged and multi-layered merging of artistic practice with the local context of everyday life and its problems. Tolj has articulated his themes in terms of open, immaterial focus in which visual art has been invited to address the political and social reality, its mass-media structure, but also its introspective fictionalization. From this selection of material stems the interweaving of genres in his works, along with the unconditional emphasis on performance, which can be subsumed under a comfortable label of multi-media art. However, maybe the most stable aegis he finds in the fluid domain of perceptual art, which has already been described by Janka Vukmir for the occasion of Tolj's participation on Documenta X in Kassel in 1997.1

What is exposed to view in the works of Slaven Tolj is often presented in the form which seeks further associative construction through perceptual participation of observers in achieving contextual insight. Museum's Permanent exhibition also seeks a close level of involvement from our visitors. In the foreground is stylistic art history adopted as an organizing principle of the exhibition cycle which focuses on the design-morphological quality of exhibits, craftsmanship of execution and differentiation of techniques of workmanship. In the background is the inevitable question to what extent it is capable to meet with the complexity that result from taking over the dual function – the presentation of the museum's holdings and the representation of the past, i.e. a culture of living in the past. Chasm that separates contemporary visitors from the time of the creation of certain objects is no smaller than the mutual separation of some exhibits within the same room. It is a void caused by the dissipation of the living time in the museum status of the object – a non-removable deficit which calls for compensation, providing a chance to
Present to enter with its own perception. Seeing as an outcome is the result of a two-sided process of viewing in which the position of observer and one's own attitudes in relation to the environment are perceived and perhaps rationalized, all of which concern the issue of one's own visibility as an observer. As noted above, Slaven Tolj is primarily the artist of Dubrovnik and was presented as such by the Czech curator Michal Kolechek, the author of Tolj's retrospective exhibition in the Emil Filla Gallery in the Czech city of Ústí nad Labem (2007), which has also been shown in the Budapest Ernst Museum (2009) and Arsenal gallery in Bialystok in Poland (2009).

It is impossible not to focus on that syntagm, despite the fact that he currently resides and works in Rijeka and in spite of my desire to avoid syntagm of such local denomination. Because language forms, just as social and art forms, cannot be certain in their own meaning. They are only cultural constructions through whose reaches we create our own life's or museum's stories. Tolj's story in the Permanent exhibition is constituted through multiform communication channels. Along with a sketchy indication of a fictitious golf game, which on the imaginary level transforms a static atmosphere of the museum displays into the dynamic network of sensed golf swings and visible "results", it is also a frame within which we also find original, but highly reduced extracts of media statements from the local politicians (as well as on current events), audio works and (in spite of expectations) and only one video work Game of Thrones (2012). A ground for a complex writing of a parallel hi-story of an art
activist establishes itself as s narrative and performative set in a chasm between fictive comparison and documentary transmission.

Explanation for spatial folds of semantic relationships probably shifts from primary activist position, which in Tolj's case involves efforts of registering endeavors and actions in ramified media system, which means that it is partially self-imposed as publicly exposed. The fact that the number of media reports about the artist's actions and activities exceeds the number of texts written about his artistic work, although a few curators and critics, such as Janka Vukmir, Antun Maračić and Ana Dević, have written very amply about him. We follow Tolj's statements through the media due to interest-motivated renewal of Lazareti which, despite completely non-transparent plans, has started on the initiative of the city authorities. He has been leading Srđ je naš! – a civic action and initiative, which loudly echoed by seeking out a referendum and which has been initiated as the opposition to the construction of the new golf course on Srđ, the only free surface for future urban expansion of the city. Tolj has clearly set his stand: Politicians placed their focus on the question "Are we for golf or not?", whereas the real question is "Are we for the City or not?!" Let us, therefore, return to the concept of a golf course which is suggested by the figures of players / politicians sketched on the walls and golf balls placed next to the exhibits so to bring to mind the played strokes. Results of strokes are sometimes successful and sometimes understood as errors, and the construction of such a perspective allows for sudden recognition of the museum exhibits in the form of bizarre, absurd and/or humorous manifestations of committed "damage". The idea of a golf course, inappropriate to the physical space over which it masters by provoking disturbance, metonymically outlines the terrain of Dubrovnik's situation and a new understanding of the sports motto faster, higher, stronger.
Walls, where once upon a time an inscription was carved Freedom is not sold even for all the treasures of this world, are now faced with demanding requirements for high achievements exactly in the sphere of monetary means through endurance tests in disciplines of sale and privatization.

Specificity of the method in the expansion of Permanent exhibition's spatial discourse to the topic of Dubrovnik stems from something that, in this context and conditionally, may be referred to as artistic archiving of media statements of politicians about the "golf" project on Srđ, over the last few years, and in disciplined selection and reduction of media material to the ambiguous fragments. Largely presented through barren sentence formulas with more potential, but also mutually exclusive interpretations, they represent the proverbial discourse that crisscrosses possible approaches to truth with their own positions of power. Thus, in addition to the intercession of golf as a guarantee of prosperity, stereotypes about rich clients or golf tourism in tourist regions result from a misunderstanding of ethics of sport and un-reasoned ideas for tourism development. Completely backward understandings awkwardly protrude, such as value can be expressed in numbers, freedom is based on the acquisition of property and critics of government are opponents of Croatian Constitution and the state.
Presented ascertainments (applied to the museum display cases) do not contribute to knowing but blur the vision in relation to the museum's exhibition space, as they present the imposed discursive grid, which militantly monitors and restricts viewing, respectively conditions the seeing of content. Metonymical relation is strengthened by this procedure; golf players have their speech and authentic voices which echo spatial dimension of Tolj's
imaginary world. A shadow of Dubrovnik hangs above the museum exhibits, under pressure of capitalist interests, reduced to cramped scenery of a tourist season.

Subject of Tolj's artistic interpretation is the process of social and media constructions of political and corporate interests through a combination of ambiguous narratives, operationalization of their power in the cultural politics and extreme reducibility to the capitulation of sanity before the policy of acquiring capital. The absurdity, but also the severity of the whole situation is pointed out with a soundtrack of legislative declamations on investments, which confirm paradoxical proportions of its reaches in declarative gesture of privatization of museum goods (tapestries) and their symbolical content, like an exposed theme of (four) seasons.

On this metonymically basis is a prepared scene for the performance of Dubrovnik's social drama expressed through three environmental situations. In the first video we find the video work entitled Game of Thrones, 2012, i.e. a clip of globally popular fantasy series, in which Tolj made a guest appearance as an extra during the filming in Dubrovnik. It is a scene of mass execution, which takes place in front of a series of „museum thrones",
baroque chairs and armchairs. Surpassing the meaning of materialized metaphor, word play transposed itself to a materialized and spaced figure in which museum exhibits become worthy document of a staged bloodshed. Imaginary image of an execution place is uncomfortably reflected in the impression of the ambient, transforming the convention of denied approach posted on tapestries into a convention of suspension of complaints to the set system rules. The only video work in the exhibition was not originally a performance, but simply adopted due to recognition of absurd twists in which intentional fictional scene establishes the actual reference to the loss of the possibility of establishing a constructive dialogue of citizens with city authorities. The situation of confronting citizens with positions of power of investors is written in the work that was originally created in the intimate spirit full of nostalgia. Installation Lučijeve stolice, 2006, from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik, consists of a series of damaged chairs from the cafe Libertina, which was a favorite gathering place for Dubrovnik art world and previously carried very different connotations. Tolj noticed a unique nature of damage, an unusual deliberation in correct repetitions of equal damage on all chairs. Damage done in a different context can be read as a signal that indicates the specific mentality of café's guests and the owner himself Luči Capurso, a sign that, as interpreted by Antun Maračić, talks of "... the enclave of humanity as a fault in the system of contemporaneity, which mercilessly devastates its own landscape using only the elements of the past, but in the form of
counterfeit decorative detail".2

In the setting of our exhibition this work is placed opposite the museum masterpiece – a desk by Belgian architect Henry van de Velde and in relation to it as imposed auditorium. However, museum exhibit connoted as a desk of an investor company in this sense, a symbol of corporate authority. Underlying assets of this trans-
position are the newspapers with reports on the referendum and the flag with the Olympic motto: citius, altius, forties under whose imperative capitalist exploitation of heritage is implemented, accompanied by destruction of sentimental attachment and citizens' life habits. Reducibility of Tolj's approach highlights the gaps as places rich in meaning and thus the impression of an empty desk stresses the idea of invisible and non-transparent
business that is going on smoothly in front of the eyes of the community. Exemption of citizens can be felt in the gaping voids of chairs, which embody physical infirmity of democratic efforts. Hopelessness is really an extreme anxiety which tracks real and metaphorical outcomes of Tolj's actions. The artistic experience of performance, inability is dissolved through the introspective reconciliation gestures of tensions between possibility and realization.

This is also the theme of performance Srđ je naš! (2013), which is presented in reduction as an audio recording and one documentary photograph, which sums up the outcome of dramatically guided situation. Twin indication of blocked communication between citizens and positions of power in aforementioned ambients presents repressed tensions, which are unable to articulate themselves in the appropriate expression of reconciliation. Catharsis is only possible on a personal level and is realized through individual metaphorical gesture of appropriation of public space of silence, as the individual burden of pain. Through dimension of fictionalization of physical experience or staging his death in video Game of Thrones, a fatal outcome of protagonist efforts is constituted on the panorama of imaginary Dubrovnik situated in the museum exhibition. At the same time, in the radical gesture of sewing on a badge with inscription Srđ je naš! on his bare chest, Tolj established a reference with the untitled performance performed in 1993 on Biennial of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean in Valencia in which, he gradually removed individual pieces of clothing each of which had a sewn on mourning button, which he then ripped off and sewed it on his bare chest. From this action a symbol of mourning (black ribbon) is placed on some of the museum display cases in the Permanent exhibition. Building on an earlier gesture of marking his body, this gesture carries a certain weight as a symbolic stigma of a wounded place. Display cases are silent protagonists of the museum world, and they bring documentary burden of political and social ghosts of our time to Tolj's drama – used mottos, statements and elaborations are numerous and are not solely related to Dubrovnik's situation. From the sketchy golf course to the vivid scene of suffering, museum stage has unveiled many manipulative deceptions: methods of capitalist worldview and routine of political games in drawing attention from the real problems to the idea of compromising hope of a better future . However, much more than that it has revealed the deception of language featured in the demand faster, higher, stronger, which in material interpretation of global capitalism is reduced to accumulation of goods through privatization. It is really a crucial question of the future with which meetings should be set step by step. Therefore race with destiny today requires a sports discipline in the spirit of adjustment to radical methods of survival, in which the Olympic virtues regain their ethical meanings.

1 Vukmir, Janka. Perceptual Art. Slaven Tolj. Meandar : SCCA, 1997
2 Maračić, Antun. Indukcija volje za promjenom. Zarez, IX/196/7, January 11, 2007, p. 20 - 21


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