It's such a cool event, and I have to say, it makes me proud to live in a country that celebrates its cultural institutions. On my way home, I saw tramloads of parents and their kids streaming into the nearby Technical Museum. That's the kind of excitement I'd like to see museums creating year round.
Over dinner, D and I took a look at the program to decide which museums we wanted to visit. Surprisingly, one of the smallest museums in Zagreb, the Typhlological Museum, had organized one of the most interesting programs: plays put on by a drama groups for the blind and deaf, a performance by a blind didgeridoo musician, a painting demonstration by blind and deaf artist Kristijan Bezuh, and a concert put on by a popular local band. We spent about a half an hour there watching a couple of performances, and then we walked to nearby HDLU, the Croatian Association of Fine Artists.
There, in the central exhibition space, several artists were demonstrating their crafts: a petite girl with her hair pulled into a loose ponytail shaped a block of stone with a hammer and chisel; a red-haired woman skillfully formed delicate clay pots; a woman clad in black pressed prints of the building, itself a cultural monument, for visitors.
Upstairs, we found a collection of carefully arranged bric-a-brac. This was the work of Trokut ("triangle" in Croatian), an artist who rarely exhibits, but who has become something of a legend in Croatia.
I had met him, briefly, earlier in the day. He wore a long, black trench coat and a hat. His unkempt beard trembled, slightly, when he asked me for a lighter. When I replied that I didn't have one, he coolly looked away, completely uninterested in anything else I might have to offer.
I loved his work. I went home and told D about it. "Yep, that's Trokut's trash," he replied, after I described a garden gnome trapped in a birdcage. "That's what he does. I know him – we used to fight over junk."
You see, twice a year, everyone in Zagreb piles all of their unused possessions on the sidewalks to be disposed of or claimed by someone else. D used to love to look through that stuff, apparently. And so did Trokut. Occasionally, they would converse (and argue) about the goods.
As I walked through the exhibition, looking at Trokut's trash (which collectively forms his massive "Antimuseum"), I tried to pinpoint why I like it so much.
First of all, I liked how everything was arranged so precisely. We're not talking piles of trash, but very carefully curated trash, displayed with sensitivity to composition and color.
Secondly, there just something that's so attractive about old, weathered objects from yesteryear – the kind of stuff you'd find at an antiques market or in a cabinet of curiosity. I would say that this attraction to junk, especially enigmatic and uniquely juxtaposed junk, is a distinctly modern sensibility with regard to art history.
In his book Mad Love, Andre Breton remembers wandering through a flea market Giacometti, looking at strange objects until each man finds one that speaks to him. The work of other modern artists, such as Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, also demonstrates an interest in pairing disused objects to communicate some concept, vague or variable as it might be.
I immediately thought of Cornell while looking at Trokut's work, no doubt because of his use of birdcages, taxidermy, weathered wood, and soft colors.
And as Duchamp is considered the father of the readymade, it's all too easy to find a relationship between his work and that of any artist who picks up a non-art object and calls it art. But looking at Trokut's work, I think there's more of a connection there than the use of found objects.
At the very least, Trokut seems to be quoting art history. Compare, for example, Trokut's Poj ptica pjevica (Birdsong songbird) and his untitled stone egg incised by a saw, and Duchamp's Why Not Sneeze, Rose Selavy?
The latter is a birdcage filled with a thermometer, a cuttlebone, and marble sawed into tiny blocks resembling sugar cubes. Not only is there some sort of subtle play going on with the titles and the contents of these three works of art (the sneeze and the thermometer, the birdsong and the gunshot, the gunshot and the sneeze), but there's also a connection between the marble cubes and the cut marble egg (perhaps it is the imagined source of the cubes?), and a shared interest in playing with perception.
Trokut's work is rich with conceptual interplay. A sign that reads "kantina" hangs above paint-covered cafeteria trays. The phrase "Museum duck" is scrawled on an inventory tag hanging around a kitschy wooden sculpture of a waterfowl, while its taxidermy, museum-worthy counterpart stands nearby.
I'm not really sure what Trokut would say about all of this. I have the feeling he wouldn't much like such comparisons. "I speak reluctantly, but artists and art really don't interest me, and it's for this reason that I happened to become even an anti-historian of art," he once said.
I always feel a little funny pulling out the Duchamp card when talking about another artist's work, especially when the artist subscribes to a policy of anti-art, anti-museums, and anti-art history. But I think it's also important to recognize and consider the forces that inform an artist's work, whether they mean for it to or not. Trokut can claim that he is an anti-historian of art, but even that stance, and the idea of anti-art itself, can be attributed to the dadaists and to Duchamp.
Of course, I think it's safe to say that my interpretations of his work hinge upon my own interests. I'm a modernist. I'm familiar with Duchamp and Cornell and the surrealists. That I would see what I'm familiar with in another artist's work makes sense.
So, why do I like Trokut's art? I like it because it looks good and it nods to modernism. And it does so cleverly.
If you're in Zagreb, go see it and tell me what you think! The exhibition is up all weekend at HDLU.