A Journey through the Sublime Landscapes of Introspection
The artistic activity of different and opposing currents on the fine art scene in the mid-1980s, during the turbulent period of the agony of the common Yugoslav state and the approaching democratization of society, was particularly determined by the opposition between the neo-expressionism of the New Image and painting based on the concept of appropriating and recycling images. In this exceptionally tumultuous and in a way stimulating and sometimes extremely contradictory period of transformation of both society and the dominant ideology and values, every artistic activity was also a comment on and reference to the contemporaneous social reality with all its extremes, specificities and quick changes that relativized values and value systems.
The attempt to connect with and join the international currents and the aesthetics of the expressive in the creation of the New Image was opposed by an emphasis on the national and its thematization in the work of the IRWIN group. The emphasis on individualism, originality and personal mythologies in one segment stood in contrast to NSK’s collectivism and the appropriation or dictate of the motif. In this split and, in a way, also the complementary character of the two starting points, an extensive production of fine art was created, which led to a diverse, conceptually and aesthetically heterogeneous yet artistically stimulating and dynamic happening.
This setting, which was uniquely and originally complemented by abstraction based on the principles of questioning the spectator’s reception of the image (Bojan Gorenec, Sergej Kapus…), was characterized by an exceptionally dynamic, complex and, for the time and surrounding social circumstances and specifics, doubtlessly highly telling artistic articulation of the problematic substantive points in an antagonistic society as the period of self-management socialism drew to a close.
In the middle of the 1980s, the Veš slikar svoj dolg (V.S.S.D.) / Painter Do You Know Your Duty group suddenly and very decisively intervened in this intertwining of aesthetic and idealogical contradictions, oppositions and orientations. With its first installations in 1986 and 1987/88 at the Škuc Gallery in Ljubljana, it fundamentally shook and changed the course of the happening at the time. In many of its fundamental dimensions the operation of the V.S.S.D. group, consisting of Janez Jordan and Alen Ožbolt, was determined not only by their reflection on and a simultaneous total subordination of the entire art space, but also their subversion of the established ways of thinking and of tradition in its relation between the real (spectator’s) and the aesthetic space of an artwork.
The use of symbolically-loaded objects and forms (for example, a crown or a circle of thorns, nails and other fragments with strong connotations) complemented this artistic layering of numerous different levels of meaning and materiality – bare materiality, abstract play of patterns, symbols, figures and collages. The entirety of these intertwinements together with the multiplicity of various angles, views and constellations thus appeared as a diverse, exuberant, uncontrollable and almost messy compilation of fragments, bits and composite parts. Such was V.S.S.D.’s first installation in 1986 entitled Painter, Do You Know Your Duty I. at the Škuc Gallery, which gave the spectator the very strong impression of a forceful, uncontrollable explosion of forms, figures, matter, color and sound in space.
Here, we can talk about the total space of the installation, which, with its distinct feeling of an unfinished, processual whole, with its infinity, its all-encompassing formal diversity that washes over the spectator, and its extreme formal language, creates a feeling or, rather, the inevitable impression of a sublime space that is quite obvious and fundamentally shakes and overwhelms the spectator. This potentially infinite, diversified spatial arrangement of a formally exuberant eruption of forms, color, darkness, light reflected in broken mirrors and a collection of details, fragments and individual parts was conceived as a sublime space that fully permeated and employed all the spectator’s senses, filling them with a sort of distanced fascination.
The total occupation of all the rooms of the Škuc Gallery was the basis of a fairly large-scale installation that also overwhelmed the spectators by suggesting an infinitely extensive uncompleted space and a heterogeneous conglomerate of forms, fragments, casts, paintings, fire, sand, and glimmering reflections on broken mirrors. The relatively large gallery space, occupied entirely by the installation that suggested infinity or at least an extraordinary size or scope of the whole, was thus not uncharacteristic of the modernist suggestion of the sublime. Here the primary impression of the awe and the somewhat dubious feeling of total captivation by the infinite and the untamable is often at odds with the rather small size of the painting or sculpture that is intended to arouse such feelings of the sublime in the spectator.
In V.S.S.D.’s production, the scope of the installation preserved the effect of the sublime one experiences when faced with certain extreme natural phenomena. It was precisely this visualization and recreation of natural effects that somehow mirror nature and its processes that were among the most distinct and fundamental desires of the group, which the artists also noted in their interviews and statements.1
To work as in nature served as the guiding ideal conception of the group’s numerous works and spatial installations in which the reinvention of natural forms was foregrounded with clear traces of the creative processes that drew on or repeated natural processes (fire, accumulation of layers through time, erosion of matter and similar). The combining and intertwining of various media, materials and techniques in V.S.S.D.’s work gave rise to rather extensive and complex installations. Their fundamental formal guidelines were a mimetic reinvention of elemental natural processes, the creation of forms from inert matter and a certain captivation with the vitality and fascination of natural forms. As the artists themselves wrote, their work puts “real nature in the place of the image and the image in the place of nature.”2
Their work, however, moves away from the model imitating and drawing on nature – it is beyond nature or above it, and in a position where the search for unique forms follows the principle of the equality of both poles, for, in the opinion of both artists, “art is in the place of nature and nature is in the place of art,” so they are synonymous and have the same forms.3 As a result, their approach is not based on following nature, not on explicitly taking it as their model, but is in line with the post-nature era – “nature can be transcended, abandoned, disappeared or destroyed – but ‘after’ it, art is still created.”4
V.S.S.D.’s work is thus not based on the imitation or repetition of nature’s creations, but is a sort of unsystematic, chaotic image of art used as a natural, elemental material with which the two artists create complex new totalities in their processes, installations and individual works. The purpose or use of these new configurations is, among other things, the illustration of art forms from the repertoire of past art, their eruptive compilation in the works of new nature, in art that functions in the (natural) way of a whole composed of art forms. Examples of this are a cycle of prints and relief works inspired by styles from the history of art, ranging from Gothic art to Art Nouveau.
V.S.S.D.’s first installations from their early period – the mid-1980s – were thus part of the exceptionally important, fundamental impulse of modern art to deny the merely beautiful, i.e. that which is related to perfection and harmony, and, on the contrary, to point out the sublime, somewhat threatening and disturbing but all-pervading and unstoppable feeling of pleasure in encountering a total, all-encompassing installation. The experience of the sublime places the spectators in a sort of ecstasy, of rapture, which enables them to evaluate and perceive the work beyond merely admiring perfection characteristic of the beautiful.5
This sublime feeling of the whole was joined by the fundamental characteristic of combining and accumulating various forms, materials and colors. Thus, these installations were some sort of conglomerates of sculptures, reliefs, casts, paintings, pigmented sand and cast metal objects that together formed an inseparable mixture of colors, forms and materials. One of the fundamental theoretical premises of the group was the concept of a highly saturated, formally effervescent total installation. This characteristic very tellingly manifests a sort of baroque hybrid proliferation of forms in the group’s oeuvre, forms that transcend and complement each other and overlap, constituting a sort of conglomerate of various formal, color and plastic values.
The installations entirely covered and subordinated the space, which preserved or reawakened the idea of a total occupation of space with a variegated creation of color, material, sculpture and paintings. Thus, a sort of eccentric, anamorphic hall of mirrors was created, in which a set of different views, reflections and paths somehow enchanted the spectators, engaging them in the totality of the diverse formal elements of the installation, which aroused a sublime feeling of an infinite and all-encompassing whole. And yet it seems that here “there simply is no point from which the ‘real’ image would appear,”6 the real image of this anamorphosis, the infinite play of reflections and images, without the original and a real object.
Constitutive for a proper understanding of the entire project was the spectator’s path through a bog of signs, objects, sculptures and other things that completely saturated the space. It was precisely this experience of temporal movement, a sort of temporal space in which the spectator’s captivation by forms and objects took place, that formed the experience consisting of the placement, arrangement and objects that confronted and surprised the audience with an unexpected situation. Such an experience did not aim primarily at creating artworks with a traditional autonomous status, since the numerous parts, fragmented individual elements and also paintings or sculptures were merely composite parts of the installation’s all-encompassing totality.7
The theatricality of these totalities of course runs contrary to the modernist foregrounding of the inseparable connection between the form and the spectator’s perception of its presence. For V.S.S.D.’s installations came across as scenes of a dramatic happening abandoned just moments ago, stages overflowing with scenery that had remained without the actors and were then left to the spectator’s tour and viewing. In this, V.S.S.D.’s operation was quite in accord with the tendencies of the contemporaneous art installations elsewhere, since the characteristic theatricality – the abandoned stage and the spectator witness to an abandoned scene or a stage left without its actors – was also one of the fundamental aesthetic elements of other prominent installation artists of the time, and not unlike the theoretical principles of Ilya Kabakov.
Kabakov’s highly insightful thinking is surprisingly close to the theatrical and all-encompassing installations of the kind that V.S.S.D. introduced to the Slovene art space. According to Kabakov’s criteria, a total installation is comparable to the notion of a stage space whose fourth wall closes behind the spectator. It is accessible only from within and cannot be viewed from a neutral standpoint.8 Such a total experience of space and an installation that encompasses and completely subordinates the spectator in a comprehensively conceived, all-encompassing space definitively characterized V.S.S.D.’s first spatial installations. The totality of the all-pervasive experience of space served as the foundation on which to place and assemble a set of individual parts and pieces into a whole.
On the other hand, the 1992/93 installation Red Sea (Red Planet) saw spectators walk around it and face its totality as external observers that had before them a sculpture, a relief and a painting. In this, the historical experience of both the relation between painting and sculpture, their competition and mutual defining, and the modernist search for the essence of one or another medium was quite clearly realized. The sand installations of the time thus clearly referred to the complex or the ensemble of aesthetic and art-critical definitions and determinations of both media, of sculpture and painting, which in this cycle of V.S.S.D.’s installations were combined in a uniform whole. Their former competition or paragone was transcended with a synthetic whole that, in the spatial painting, succeeded in complementing the characteristics of both media, which thus became inseparably connected. The search for the specifics of individual media, which was characteristic of modernism, was in V.S.S.D.’s work replaced by an integral permeation of painting and sculpture in an all-encompassing installation.
Michel Foucault once wrote that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea.9 If we apply this far-reaching claim to Alen Ožbolt’s installations we can say that the world of forms is what has left a few patterns on the shore – at least until the next wave arrives. Ožbolt seems to have set himself the difficult task of preserving the impression of a primal, pristine, wild and almost uncontrollable form in the sand, which in its infinite fragility and vulnerability seems inaccessible and lofty.
This he transferred to the field of art and, together with Janez Jordan, termed it spatial painting. It reveals an endless variation of patterns of a variegated, pristine imagination able to exhibit the impression of uniqueness and unrepeatability in a relatively narrow space. The whole gives us the impression that we are witness to a remnant that is both ancient and contemporary at the same time, currently unrepeatable and eternal in its variations. These installations, however, are actually unrepeatable, since what remains after the exhibitions close is merely matter, documents and photos, records of a form irreversibly erased by the wave of time.
Ožbolt’s works include something that remains elusive and indescribable, not unlike a pattern that we accidentally see in a natural form. This always demands Gombrich’s “beholder’s share,” which triggers an infinite play of variations, transformations and searches for something behind the surface appearance, which is also the origin of the elusive possibilities of change.
Such diverse and formally heterogeneous patterns in pigmented sand are sometimes reminiscent of the undulation of psychical energy, the unnoticeable, but sometimes also fateful impulses of our unconscious, which numerous theoreticians claim was colonized by the mass media and entertainment industry a long time ago. The patterns follow one another as the remnants of the waves of unconscious mechanisms that, from the depths of the psyche, try to inscribe themselves in the self and remain there; and it is probably precisely the abstract, seemingly natural form that enables us to evade the mass of images and information that we willingly or unwillingly accumulate in our experience with the entertainment industry and its mass culture.
One of the most effective visual procedures or principles introduced by V.S.S.D. was the spatial concept of an installation’s total occupation of a gallery, in which the space as a whole was fully subordinated to a uniform ambient concept called spatial painting. In it, the bearers of meaning, conceived outside the usual mimetic frameworks, were color and the ornamental pattern. The latter suggested the natural formative procedures involved in the creation of the ornament, which was also the work of a well thought-out poetic graphic scheme and a kind of attempt at repeating the forms that are created without a conscious intention as a consequence of unconscious patterns.
This duality between, on the one hand, a sophisticated graphic volition that produced a set of refined colorful and ornamental spatial paintings and patterns and, on the other, the form itself that preserved and tried to suggest the spontaneous power of nature, which unintentionally creates forms, gave rise to quite original forms. In them, we can also identify mimetically recognizable figures or see only a fragment of an infinite, seemingly automatic creation of patterns. These forms co-exist in two areas: they are a sort of mirror of the natural process of creating forms, but also a part of the long history of ornaments in fine arts, which often assumed the liminal (or completely independent) function of an art form.
With his 2001 installation at the Kapelica Gallery in Ljubljana entitled The Sower 1,000.000, Ožbolt entered a completely new area, while at the same time preserving a sense of continuity, especially a visual continuity, with his previous work or installations. The exceptionally extensive associational structure that every spectator of the installation encountered indicates the artist’s shift to his engagement in the contemporaneous topical ideological and aesthetic notions and ideas. As one of the fundamental works of Slovene modernism and, at the same time, a painting that distinctly thematizes the question of the national and its specifics, Grohar’s The Sower became, in its numerous interpretations, paraphrases, transpositions and placements in this or that political and ideological context, a motif with a unique aesthetic and ideological charge.
The identification of this motif with the world of money, which, according to Ožbolt’s words in the brochure accompanying the exhibitions, is a “universal measuring system” with which we also value and evaluate people, is the transposition of this motif from the world of the supposedly archetypal, primordial, rural metaphors into the world of contemporary financial transactions, a world in which everything has a monetary value. As Ožbolt himself wrote, money is the “material of expression and at the same time the content of the project,” which, with the appropriation of the motif of the sower, assumed numerous unimagined ideological and political connotations.
What is characteristic of Ožbolt’s creative world is the fact that he again managed to transpose the idea that, in the graphic sense, might have remained at the level of illustrating a concept into the field of autonomous visuality. The spectators of the installation at the Kapelica Gallery thus encountered a shining spatial painting that, in addition to its visual, sensual attraction and exceptional graphic solution, also included numerous conceptual threads that were quite evident throughout and confronted the spectator with numerous questions about the value of the whole, expressed either in terms of money, which was the basic material, or in terms of the value of an effective graphic configuration. The focus here was on questions about both the evaluation of art and the measure of ethical principles, national symbolism, ideological concepts and numerous other mental notions with which we are constantly preoccupied but are (too) often motivated by the motor that was also the material with which Ožbolt created an unforgettable spatial painting.
Already during his time in V.S.S.D. – during the last two decades of the 20th century – Alen Ožbolt’s work was definitively founded on an integral, quite original approach to the gallery space. In it, the artist found a basis for an arrangement that totally subordinates the exhibition spaces and refers to the institutional, ideological and aesthetic value they carry in the art world. The installations were thus conceived as spatial paintings, spatial and color combinations of various materials spread throughout the gallery which, through the intertwining of colors, forms and lines, created a complex space in which the spectator’s perception of the artwork was in tune with the multilayered, integral effect of the spatial installation.
In this, Ožbolt’s work was one of the first in Slovenia that consciously proceeded from the principle that an installation in a gallery space should work such that the spectator’s perception of the work is not limited to encountering an individual artwork, a painting or a sculpture, but rather that the spectator’s path through the gallery should be determined by an integral, multi-media and all-round subordination to a uniform perception of the space and the total work of art in it.
His 2003 exhibition at the Moderna galerija / the Museum of Modern Art in Ljubljana entitled Edge, Crying Game, Double, Encore referred to more fundamental questions related to art and illusion that emerged with the contemporary conception of art. It addressed the question of framing, the delimitation of an artwork and its placement in a gallery space as a metaphorical delimitation between illusion and reality, artistic fiction and the everyday or, in short, art and life. The aesthetic limit between the world in a painting and the spectator’s real environment has (since it was finally established in the 15th century) repeatedly been the object of thematizations, transgressions and an ambiguous erasing of borders, introducing various ambiguities and polysemy into the spectator’s perception of an artwork.
The question of the parerga – that which surrounds the artwork, its framework or the surrounding ornament – was constantly thematized in the painting practice of the modern age. The various approaches that determined the procedures of delimitation, the meanings, the relations between the surrounding motif, the still life in the foreground of the painting, for example, and the main scene hidden in the background, and the various levels of reality given in the fiction of the painted illusion – all these questions occupied the artists’ imagination, in which the intertwining of the fictive, the illusionist and the real and the delimitation between them were one of the main starting points for questions related to reality, the world and life.
In this vein, Alen Ožbolt’s installation at the Moderna galerija also questions the limits and delimitations between art and the everyday. The artist’s approach here, however, differs from the thematization of everyday life in contemporary art in one essential element – that is, in Ožbolt searching for the dividing line between art and life based on the delimitation between an artwork and the gallery space that symbolizes the social space in which the artist’s statement is placed. As in V.S.S.D.’s early installations, the gallery space lost its characteristic white cube features and neutral institutional framework, for Ožbolt tackled the questions of its co-participation in the constitution of an artwork, its aesthetic and institutional contribution to a seemingly autonomous art form, which it is only intended to present.
An example of this approach is Edge, which deals with the questions of the delimitation between fiction and reality, between the illusion within the frame and the real world of the spectator. Ožbolt subverts this relation that is usually determined by the frame of the painting, the edge that separates the two worlds, the world of illusion and the world of reality, so that the edge becomes the form, which is at the same time the content and the delimitation of the work. The edge becomes the work itself, the form that extends into the corners of the gallery space, which it thus confines.
Already during his time in V.S.S.D., one of the main areas of Ožbolt’s artistic credo was precisely the question of the creation and the development of forms, the question of their seemingly quite autonomous graphic perfection, on the one hand, and the numerous metaphorical dimensions and allusions to the spontaneous, uncontrolled creation of natural forms on the border between a mimetic imitation of nature and an abstract, dynamic pattern, on the other. The metaphorical world in which Ožbolt’s work moved included the questions of the simulacra and the original, the primal natural form and a gallery space saturated with color and form as a civilizational enclave in which an autonomous art form with all its theoretical substance and an exuberant, seemingly chaotic world of color, lines and forms intertwine. The spatial paintings created in this way were among the first consistently realized art installations in Slovenia.
His numerous paintings in pigmented sand illustrated in an original way this spatial, multilayered determination of Ožbolt’s work. With their exuberant, diverse pattern that unfolded and revealed a dynamic intertwining of lines and forms before the spectator, the fragile, subtle drawings in sand always preserved the double character of an illusion of the natural and the spontaneous, on the one hand, and the thought-out features and artificial calligraphy of ornamental forms in sand. These installations created the impression that they somehow grew from the ground, that they were the product of a natural process, but at the same time they revealed their character of an artful, well-conceived play of forms.
Sower 1,000,000 at the Kapelica Gallery signaled a new approach that connected the principle of the spatial painting with everyday material – coins – whose metaphorical use in the field of art, that is, in a gallery installation, opened numerous metaphorical dimensions of this unavoidable component of our lives. With his interpretation, Ožbolt gave it the mark of both a sublime and shiny motor of our lives and everyday trivial materiality.
His 2003 installation at the Miklova Hiša Gallery in Ribnica entitled Open and Closed was another in a series of variations that, with their impression of distance from the everyday world, created the sense of a sort of asylum for the abstract graphic imagination, which seems inexhaustible in the case of this artist. Ožbolt thus explores art as a setting, an institutionally determined way of seeing the world confined by the space of a gallery.
It was precisely the thematizing and examining of these limits, the edges between two worlds, that were among the main topics of Edge, Crying Game, Double, Encore at the Moderna galerija. As mentioned, Ožbolt thereby referred to the principles in the historical justification of the self-referential in the procedures of illusion that repeatedly thematized their own ways of representation and the delimitation between art and the everyday. The two areas can also intertwine, while the limit between the spectator’s real world and the space of art or illusion, the so-called aesthetical limit between the two worlds, thus shifts and dissipates into the entire space, which becomes the setting of a game, a stage for complex responses and confrontations between space and the edge, frame and illusion, reality and fiction.
The Life of Forms, his 2011 exhibition first mounted at the Loža Gallery in Koper, certainly has a special place in Alen Ožbolt’s oeuvre. An incredible arrangement of a seemingly infinite set of forms in manifold frames and systems of presentation presented spectators with a sort of a dictionary of forms that “are not fixed, they are non-static and change (disappear/emerge) because their time or relations are not clearly defined, frozen and stopped.”10 The classification and arrangement of the impossible and the placement of an unconfined multitude of forms, materials, colors etc. in the visual field are described in the artist’s text in the catalogue, in which the following are listed as criteria: “recycled, reflective and relational forms. Bodily, fleshy and emotional forms. And also weak, fragile, poor, ragged forms.”
In this asylum for all sorts of forms, the classification system is elusive, undeterminable, subordinated to the seemingly illogical rules that actually place before the spectator a system beyond function and intended purpose. Thus, the most telling is the comparison with a cabinet of curiosities, Kunstkammer, from the early modern age, when the classifications of a seemingly scientific systematic scheme were semantically duplicated with personal memories.11 The question “What is a sculpture?”, which the artist poses in the catalogue, does not receive an unambiguous unequivocal answer with the forms in this series, but suggests an infinite wealth of variations, transformations and changes, various creation processes and materials.
Systematization based on a personal, intuitive table also contributed to the creation of X (Game End, End Game) at the GalerijaGallery in Ljubljana in 2018. The exhibition illustrated, in a visually highly effective way, the systematics of fragments, of individual bits that were placed in a colorful table that was exceptionally fascinating in view of its formal and color values, a system whose final result was indicated by the title of the exhibition – an end game, when the sum of the individual units amounts to nothing, the inevitable conclusion to a definite end.
Despite this, the game in Alen Ožbolt’s work continues in new variations and metamorphoses of objects, complementing and enriching the archive of images, graphic solutions and achievements at a time that favors fast and shiny electronic images over the disappearing pattern in the sand.
Translated by Maja Lovrenov