The Arctic Circle

Iconoclasm and the Pardon for Visual Pleasure

by Iva Kovač

Tomislav Brajnović, a Croatian contemporary/conceptual artist of the younger generation, goes to the far north of Norway to create a series of works entitled The Arctic Circle. He goes to the fiords of Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago which is only a thousand kilometres south of the North Pole, as part of New York’s The Farm Foundation residence programme that takes artists and scientists to a place whose inaccessibility and punishing climate impose many restrictions on the lives and work of the artists.
This residence, like many other similar programmes, sets a framework theme which oftentimes, as in this particular case, is a mere platitude – the issue of global warming. Brajnović officially proposes a symbolic intervention in the Arctic ecosystem which could (in reality) become practicable only after intensive warming. The melting of the ice would, in theory, enable two seedlings of olive trees which he brings with him from Istria to potentially take root and grow. However, the formal restrictions imposed by Norwegian law, despite the fact that the intervention is highly hypothetical, prevent the author from going through with his work in its original form. The irony of this restriction becomes even greater when we are reminded that probably Svarbald’s only landmark is the so called Global Seeds Vault – a vault safekeeping all known seeds, a sort of a Noah’s Arc for plants with precisely such purpose: to ensure the growth of new life in case of a cataclysm. Out of this foiled attempt at individual contribution Brajnović devised his video entitled Peace, documenting the destruction of the olive tree seedling. Contrasting the olive tree as a symbol of peace with the act of its destruction (by means of a large lump of coal being thrown over the frozen seedling) and entitling his work Peace he creates a simple contradiction. He pursues this style in a series of photographs entitled Greed, Fire, History and Speed in line with the words with which he briefly intervenes on the snow and puts them in correlation with the remnants of former settlements – a mining colony built there for coal exploitation which was speedily built and became dilapidated equally fast at the end of the previous century. By contrasting the failed industrialisation attempt and the words which underline Brajnović’s critical attitude towards positivist progress, he gradually leads us towards his extremely interesting and visually impressive videos recorded at the residence. Through these Brajnović slowly gives himself to the colossal landscape around him. Aware of the necessity to expose the methods of those whom their alleged admiration for the primitive and aboriginal never stopped from subjugating them both economically and politically, he does not lose himself in the iconoclastic effects of criticism that prevent all enjoyment, thus most frequently preventing creativity. Although one’s indulgence to pleasure is often interpreted as conscious neglect of one’s own environment, it would not hurt to mention Rancière’s pardon for the aesthetic which came about in the context of the grand critical exploits and his claim that the potential for emancipation lies precisely in the view according to which all spectators are equal. It is the unceremonious neglect of political reality and the focus on the aesthetic that open up a potential for true emancipation. 
In his video entitled Genesis Brajnović repeats words from the Book of Genesis in order to record (and perhaps create) what we see before us. After the firmament of heaven and earth had been divided, once night and day were divided, we were given the opportunity to see and create. The frame shows nothing but a radio from which the voice of Tomislav Brajnović suggests to us that all possibilities remain open.

Beside the Genesis is the video entitled Flag. It consists of a barely moving frame in which a flag carrying the inscription Yahweh flutters in the wind, its pole rammed into the frozen snow, as if signifying a claimed property. This reference to colonisation is nevertheless diminished as the flag has no specific meaning. Because the word Yahweh rather than the word God is used, the associations within the cultural environment where the work is exhibited are drawn back to the distant past and myth, and although religion is extensively used as a means for economic and political gains, the allusion here is rejected, made overly pre-modern – to the time before the national states emerged. In terms of ideas, we relate the Flag video with Genesis and read it as a locus of potentiality.
The video entitled Ego-trip came into being on the basis of its name-sake series of photo-performances where, in various environments, Brajnović himself appears in a black suit which, in addition to warning about a situation of formal significance, also emphasises or exaggerates that same significance to the point of absurd by beaming the light installation attached to his suit directly into his face. At Svarbald Brajnović wears his Ego-trip suit and, thus illuminated, he now puts himself in a film. The camera circles around an anchored ship at dusk and at times catches glimpses of Brajnović’s illuminated figure. Ego-trip has always been documented at dusk. In the photo-performances series we read this as a technical necessity arising from the fact that at that time of day it is sufficiently light to distinguish the background yet it is sufficiently dark to see that Brajnović is illuminated. However, it seems that in the video this is no decision but rather the only option. The footage of an empty ship floating at anchor in the majestic landscape of the Arctic Circle evinces a frame from an epic film. The title is justified solely by the use of the same suit he uses in the Ego-trip series but the ego is lost to nature which now surrounds it. The monumentality evincing romantic heroes no longer bears expansionist connotations because countless times we have been forewarned of the dangers lurking behind the escape into the ulterior and because of the confidence that Brajnović inspires owing to his already demonstrated autonomy from individual established ideologies. 
It seems that Brajnović has a sovereign grip on the monumental, eternal topics. Still, it is worth emphasising that these eternal topics in his works are not Eurocentric as was the case in modernism. Equally building upon the traditions of modernism, the avant-garde and neo-avant-garde alike, using methods of appropriation, comparison, quotations and similar conceptualist approaches, he leaves room for openness. Brajnović’s openness is closely linked to our time in which, with a degree of scepticism, we still revisit the deconstructed idealisms of the past, re-evaluating, for instance, the exploring expeditions from the time when we as a species strove to find finitude.

Text by Iva Kovač, published in a catalog for exhibition “Flags” at Museum of Contemporary Art Skopje, Macedonia 2011, and in art magazine “Likovne Besede”, Ljubljana, Slovenia 2011. The text was written at the “Writing a Text on a Contemporary Art Exhibition” workshop run by Petja Grafenauer as part of the World of Art school of contemporary art of the SCCA Institute, Ljubljana.

 


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