Publication of the booklet you have been holding in your hands has been inspired by a notorious fact that recent works of Croatian authors of prevalently younger generation – i.e. authors who have already done quite a number of collective presentations but not that many one-man shows, though (and these solos often display no more than one or few works) – ‘suffer’ from an epidemical disease nowadays, popularly called oblivion. Most artists’ presentations are poorly documented or fully undocumented and the result of this is lack of a systematic layout with all the necessary information in one place, for both the professionals and the public. Naturally, with no synergy it is not possible to view the author in full or place him properly within the contemporary Croatian art scene, and all this simply because one knows not when and where the author did whatever he did. In our effort to correct the ‘injustice’ inflicted upon the author, it is our hope that we shall compensate for the entropy that emerges from the character of the works themselves (ambiences, installations, slide-projections, video-projections, actions, and performances…).
Tomislav Brajnović belongs to younger generation of Croatian contemporary art, and his youth pours out of two springs: the first is merely chronological and refers to the year of birth (1965); the second is, on the other hand, associated with the fact that Brajnović started his professional, i.e. artistic education relatively late, and therefore – began to produce relatively late. At twenty-eight Brajnović is over with his first student year on the Academy (KABK) in Den Hague. What follows is the Art Academy in Zagreb (class of Prof. –uro Seder) from which he graduates in 1999, i.e. at the age of thirty-four, which is a year below the ‘European standard’ according to which young artist is considered to be an artist younger than thirty-five. However, Brajnović has had one-man shows since 1990 (Rovinj) and collective presentations since 1993 (Den Hague). He was part of the prestigious Zagreb Graphic Exhibition (in 1994), not to mention his previous shows in the eighties mostly related to Rovinj’s traditional art manifestations (Grizia, Art Colony).
The fact that he was embraced by art in an early age – though he lacked formal education – has everything to do with the artistic milieu he has been brought up in: not only his grandfather Željko Hegedušić), his father (Marčelo Brajnović) and his mother (Zvjezdana Hegedušić-Brajnović) are artists, but that is also the profession of his brother Petar and both of his sisters. It would be extremely difficult not to be an artist in such an environment. But it is not before exhibition in Pula in 1998 that Tomislav Brajnović became ‘what he is today’ and by which he shall be recognised now and onwards as an artist of distinctive aspirations and original expression. Nataša Šegota whose review was in the catalogue of that very exhibition said it was ‘the first author’s solo exhibition of greater significance’. She could anticipate even then that “Brajnović is an author whose art vision, exhibited to the public eyes over past few years, is very likely a good sign of what is to be a future artistic authority on our territories”. With a sensibility of well-informed art historian as well as art critic, Šegota could predict Brajnović’s indisputable position within the corpus of contemporary Croatian art from the very beginning. Why? Because precisely that exhibition has been Brajnović’s “penetration into language” where he accumulated all his two-year production (1997, 1998) in one place alone and presented himself as a thinking author of quite particular interests and way of expression – i.e. language. We can track down at least three sorts of author’s interest spheres from this ‘inauguration’ or ‘initiation’ exhibition, i.e. three basic modes of how he reacts to the environment (physical and social) and proper inner self (psyche and heritage), respectively.
To begin with, let us consider the author’s perception of his own persona as the upholder of the tradition, i.e. a person who knows how to pay homage (hommage) to his predecessors, whether they were spiritual or blood relatives. Among the spiritual kinsfolk, Brajnović picked up Ivan Kožarić and trifled with his name and his golden colour in the work named “Kožarić’s gold”. In his graduation thesis he did the same when he decided to reinterpret in painting the game form his mother’s family members had been playing long ago, rewriting their comments on the pieces of paper (Mother’s game, 1999 – Richter’s game for the patient under 20). The latter is the case where spiritual and blood connection overlapped (the Hegedušić family). Somewhat later, in 2003, at the time he was still living in London at the Central St. Martins College of Art (one-year postgraduate study) and after having performed a walk through London in a formal, typically English suit with a topper on his head (‘Walk Through London in a ‘Morning Suit’), Brajnović installed a text on the Internet called ‘Artist who does not pretend to be an English is not an artist at all’ which is a paraphrase of a famous work M. Stilinović had done some time before (‘Artist who does not speak English is no artist’), by which he paid homage to his older colleague, not hesitating to refer to him as an idol.
Above-said examples firmly confirm generally accepted view that neither modern nor contemporary art can manage without tradition, which has been – both in work and in words – proved by the greatest names of the world art scene. Moreover, in a manner of the most important world’s religious traditions (Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism), Brajnović (through the above-mentioned works) manifests his spiritual maturity in terms of humbleness those traditions teach and practice. Work titled “Mother’s game” partly leads us toward some sort of sentimentalism that has also been present in Brajnović’s work, and perhaps most obviously in work named ‘Euphemia’ (1999), designed as double slide-projection from the inside of an old Istrian stone cottage, demonstrating the author’s grandmother pouring maize porridge out of her bowl.
The second Brajnović’s ‘movens’, easily found in his first solo exhibition, is his prompt reaction to the social setting, whether it pointed to the current state and situation or freshest up-to-date events. This group encloses works such as “Eagle-Adler I and II” (both made in 1998), “After Tito”, “Tito” (1998) and “Shizma-Mobil” (1998). The latter demonstrated figures of the Pope and patriarch rotating and replacing one another constantly in a window display of a gallery, which provoked quite a public scandal at the time. Brajnović has perhaps been most famous for this kind of provocative works that are less than desirable in any regime or ideological system. If we go by the same line of interest in his work and follow it further on until the present day, we stumble across a work titled “A wonder of Croatian naive art” (1998) that displayed a shining box on which the title’s cut out letters were stuck on, which all pointed to the ruralization tendency of the contemporary art of the time and its retrograde regression at the expense of live and vital modernity. Then, a solo exhibition in City Gallery of Zagreb followed in 1999: it displayed only one installation called “Revolution is not envisaged by Law” whose subject was pretty profane and it concerned legal regulation of Zagreb soccer club’s name, i.e. either Dinamo or Croatia. In 2000 he wanted to disclose a true face of Roman Empire by a series of inscriptions set up in Pula (“Theatre of Crime” in front of the Arena; “Triumphal Arch of Genocide” in front of the Triumphal Arch of Sergijevci, etc.). Then, there was a lead coated box that kept changing in its rotating part one word of the text that read “In God/ Allah we trust” for another (in 2003). Many similar works followed, but we shall stop ourselves here. These examples unmistakably point to the wide variety of Brajnović’s interests: he treats equally dead and far away past of some thousand years ago, unable to harm anyone anymore (ancient Rome), and up-to-date events fresh out of the newspaper columns, ready to be an object of artistic interest and activity.
By equal treatment of ancient history and the latest events, Brajnović actually draws attention to the same matrix used now and then by ideological systems in order to manipulate, but, what’s more, through his reinterpretation of historical events he reveals the present manipulation of the past as well.
And last but not least, there’s the third series that diagnoses a cryptogrammic (or let’s say cryptographic, cryptologic, cryptomnesiac) spirit and character of Brajnović’s works and interest, which is romantically interwoven into the girdle of subconscious memories, personal history and contemporary events, whatever. In his ‘first solo exhibition of greater significance’, we can recognise these works by their characteristic titles as ‘Reambulation’, ‘Revelation’ or ‘Reminiscence’ (all made in 1997), and they deal with the author himself, with his ancestors and their (mutual) history, but also with the end of the world (Armageddon) according to the Bible. Lead coated box objects that emit fire-coloured light from their centre and laterally, suggest a secret only partly revealed. The box is a coffer, an Ark of the Covenant hiding the first and the last secrets of the world; but then, it is also a wrapped up message ready to travel through time in order to reveal at the right time the mysteries it keeps and takes along to the consecrated, to the ones who know. On the one hand, leaden box layer protects the objects lest external forces penetrate into the interior, its protective coat is a shield against the atomic radiation (Noah’s Ark) in the case of Armageddon; on the other, it protects the unconsecrated from the perils hidden by the Secret.
Among all romantically criptogrammic works, we are to single out the most recent one – the Greenhouse – dated 2003, and produced in London during the author’s stay at one-year study programme. What author displays here is an entire microcosm of wonder, beauty and admiration for his own experience, prejudices and space (whether geographical, cultural, social, etc). The Greenhouse demonstrated artificially created (‘London’) fog ( Brajnović was later informed that the fog was no longer a problem to the city), slow motion audio recording of British anthem ‘God save the King’, slow motion video recording of a walk through London in formal ‘morning suit’ ( afore-mentioned work ), and various objects that Brajnović had bought or came across while in London. On this project, author himself has to say the following: “The Greenhouse project started as a site-specific installation in the garden of the house in which I lived while in London. The greenhouse served me as a symbol of typically English place, container of time and my own experiences, expectations and understanding of what England really was. I pictured ‘a work’ that could gradually be developed throughout an entire year by visiting street stands, second-hand shops, identifying and searching for things down the streets, and practising a theoretical research at the same time”
Complete private and personal cosmogony was built into and sealed up behind these glass structures that Brajnović carried over in Croatia and exhibited in Miroslav Kraljević Gallery in Zagreb in 2004. Indeed, the Greenhouse symbolically functions as an ‘English place’, as author states himself, a place so independent of climatic conditions and particularities of the northern islands that it allows subtropical flora to flourish on the north of Europe; it is a place of English leisure time and hobbies, a place that the British have taken and snatched away from the others. There’s a slight bitterness, a poignant condemnation and pungent irony in the work, because: there he is, a Croatian artist, scrutinising through a glass and lenses lives and habits of those who had once explored and oppressed the others. If we go any further by this line of association, we shall recall the Paxton’s (architect) Crystal Palace in London from its world’s exhibition in 1851, the master-piece of proto-modern architecture that had materialized the dream of gothic architects on mutual interfusion of external and internal space and on fully permeable wall membrane that gives a look into the house when built. Thus, Brajnović’s Greenhouse is some sort of exhibitionistic act – like every exhibition finally is – as it lets the looks of strangers go through his innermost feelings. Let us bring into memory manneristic Wunderkammern – literally ‘wonder-chambers’, otherwise Cabinets of Curiosities – which are in their own way proto-museums, and which were once resurrected by postmodernist art practice of the eighties as containers of objects found and processed, objet-trouve (made an art by the artist’s will) and artefacts; then Gesamtkunstwerk which is a fusion of all available artistic medias (what Brajnović actually did with the Greenhouse), and finally Duchamp, styles and movements originator, with his trunks where he amassed most of the stuff that he had created.
Another line of interest that Brajnović keeps following cannot pass unnoticed: religion. Let us only begin with “Shizma-mobil”, “Revelation”, and “Theatre of Crime” (a sign in front of Arena in Pula where Christians were once thrown to lions’ jaws), then “Temple of the Dead Gods” (2000), where a sign was set up in front of August’s temple also in Pula and then, for instance, “Obelisk” (2000) that compared the power of Vatican and Washington, or the work named “Arbre Magique” (2000) that dealt with the icons of our every-day life (rosaries, soccer clubs flags, pendants hanged upon the inside rear-view mirror of a car ) simultaneously quoting the Bible (in English): ‘You shall not bow down to any images”.
Religious discourse is part of the family and educational heritage and its variants are affirmative and critical simultaneously, but finally and always it has been the starting point and goal of Brajnović’s overall creative efforts in terms of his research for primeval and spiritual experience and meaning.
Janka Vukmir, (who signed the text for the catalogue of Brajnović’s solo exhibition in the County museum in Rovinj, 2000), made an acute observation that T. Brajnović was “one of the artists who explicitly plunge into the critique of society, politics, authority… mainly through confrontation of the dualities, comparison, parallelization of the realities and different historical eras, confrontation and superposition.”
We should add several other methodological patterns of which the first is a ‘method of deceit’, i.e. denunciation (after being detected) of reality, a method used by Slovenian group “IRWIN” in the middle and by the end of the eighties of the last century, who claimed that one thing could be explained by means of the other same thing (their well-known poster for ‘Dan mladosti’ had a poster from fascism era as a template). Similar did Brajnović demonstrate in his work/ exhibition “All those structures” (SC Gallery, Zagreb, 2001) where he played recorded speeches of Pavelić, Tito and Tuđman as well as reactions of the masses, thus mixing orators with the audience, through which he vividly explained ‘the sameness’ of political and ideological manipulation of different historical and ideological eras.
The second is the method of system(s) penetration. In Italy of the eighties (again!), this case went by name of ‘Arte parasita’. In Brajnovic’s work this method encloses, for instance, a series of “Urban picnics, 2001-2002” (along the highway, on Zrinjevac, at Andy Warhol’s exhibition in ‘Umjetnicki paviljon’, on the 36th ‘Zagrebački salon’, etc; all performed in Zagreb), or setting up signs in the waiting-room of the railway station that have absolutely nothing to do with the place itself (South Station, Boston, 2000), or “Apartheid” (1999) where he toys with the passage of the airport’s customs service (separate customs service passage for EU members and non EU members), or daily newspapers that Brajnović calls ‘public exhibition site’. In addition, sometimes he employs a method of distinct and emphasized contrasts, easily detected in some of his previously mentioned works, with the purpose of confusing and surprising the spectator with unexpectedness, i.e. with being ‘inadequately’ placed into an inadequate space (like “Urban picnics”, “South Station”, etc.).
Within the context of expressiveness and conspicuousness, we can conclude that Tomislav Brajnović is an author who discusses social, ideological, political issues, issues related to religion (church), authority, power, manipulation, collective myths and conventions, social rites and prejudices, consumerist view of life, media, commercials and propaganda; an author who questions relationships of public and private, society and individual, institution and individual, etc. His approach to those issues has been soberly analytical, critical and ultra engaged, his strategies mainly ‘descriptive and narrative’ (R. Šimunović), his language relatively simplified, pure, well-considered and polished , and message precise, subtle and refined.
However, under this surface layer there is another depth of Brajnović that pursues eternal philosophical themes of ethics, morality and/ or faith, relationship between material and spiritual; he makes an almost impossible effort in wish to extract some spiritual substance out of the turmoil of daily and secular events. In any case, through his works that constantly develop, mutually interconnect and intertwine, build up or supplement one another (like the Brajnović’s family house on Golo Brdo in Rovinjsko selo ), Brajnović gives a try to decode and define his own identity and his soul that is partly his own inner self and partly a sum of all the other layers, generally termed society, history, culture, civilisation, state, nation, etc.
Afore-stated quest for primeval spiritual experience and meaning (essentiality) toward which Brajnović aspires actually moulds his artistic view and life-style that will most certainly leave a deep trace in contemporary Croatian art.
Text by Berislav Valušek, published in exhibition catalogues in Rovinj and Opatija, Croatia in 2004.