An artist on the borders between the Balkans and Central Europe is an actuator of impossible histories. This is about an actuator/protagonist, about impossible histories, about an artist. This is about Zagreb-based conceptual artist, painter, pre-poet, actionist and philosopher - Vlado Martek (b. 1951).
If Vlado Martek is a Western artist, in other words, if he is someone who acts (observes, chooses, re-designates, names, recombines, makes, exhibits, arranges) within the tradition of the new, he is so in a manner of Duchampean tradition. He is a grandson of Duchamp and a son of Mangelos, but he is also one who provokes and repays Duchamp and Mangelos for the obtained heritage (passed-down values, effects and responses of Duchampean art strategies of the ready-made, assemblage and behavioral conceptualization). This means that Martek is not only a disciple of Duchamp-ism and Mangelos-ism. Without him, as well as without Warhol or Jasper Johns, there is no Duchamp on the international art scene, and no Mangelos in the Croatian and Yugoslavia’s culture. This expresses a thesis that greatest influence on Duchamp and Mangelos, on the aura of Duchamp and Mangelos, came from those artists whose work originated from the works of the two. This further means that, at some point during the 20th-century art history, Martek was a condition of viewing and a condition of understanding, that is, of empathizing with the works of some historically preceding artists. And that is the Western story of intertwining histories which initiate one another, enhancing, overlapping, launching one another onto the currently relevant scene and which archive one another. In the art history of the West there is no innocence or naturalness. There are only intricate relations of conflicts undergoing an infinite increase in the intricacies, relocations, reflections and dispersions.
By Central European we understand a characteristic visual and semantic ambiguousness which is simultaneously given as a ‘speech’ involving different languages (those of images, verbalization, object-ness, textuality, politicalness, anarchism, mysticism or erotic fetishism). It is a marriage of the artist and the art, in which different languages are spoken: those of national cultures, regional territories, international codes, cross-sections of Slavic and Germanic cultures; distorting-mirror effects of capitalism, real or self-managing socialism occur, as well as dramatic transitions (transfer and re-modelling of the identity of symbol economy, of reality, products, consumption) of post-socialism. Therefore, Martek’s work provokes or supports – literally, invertedly, metaphorically or allegorically – entirely different figures such as Marx, Freud, Musil, Kafka, Wittgenstein, Lukacs. His works get shaped into the Central European code dually. Firstly, through the atmosphere. Martek’s work exists as a material order of present things (objects), as well as an uncertain atmosphere (climate, contextuality) of accumulated emotions, emotionalized symbols and their effects. These works are in some way a challenge to psychoanalysis. A transference or counter-transference seems to be expected between the work (written word, action, object, photograph, painting, installation, ready-made piece, collage) and the viewer or reader. A transference and counter-transference between the artist and the world seems to exist. The transference is initiation of the reality of unconscious. This is an atmosphere of richly layered, yet never natural or literal, symbols which hide more than they show. Secondly, the shaping takes place through space density. Martek’s artistic space is a dense space. It is full of objects, of life traces, of histories which are connected to it or which have passed by without touching it. The dense space is the space of Central Europe. There is no emptiness there, no hollow, no clear blank spot, no large empty and unconquered American space like in Pollock, Newman, Rothko or Walter de Maria. Everything is filled up like in the dense words of Kafka’s diaries, like in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus which endures without empty or decorative words in the density of currently elaborated thought that reflects worldly affairs, like in overlayering of voyeuristic traces of culture in the erotic collages by Karel Teige, or like in the density of joy sights within a surface in Klimt’s fatal pictures… The dense positioning of pictures and the dense space of Martek’s acts is a space where anxiety (melancholy, hopelessness, fatigue, repression) and joy (joy reaching the point of losing consciousness, joussance) are mutually intertwined, confronted, pushed and mirrored.
The Balkan aspect is revealed in anarchy, fragmentariness, equally precious humour and sublime seriousness, in an impossibility to gather all possibilities within a single sensible entity. Martek’s works are dispersed, many, mutually incomparable in a schismatic way (French: différend). His works are divided, they produce mutual re-connections, overlappings and annihilations, they repress one another, depriving art or politics of their public ‘votes’ (disenfranchisement), they look infantile and intellectual at the same time. His works talk, proclaiming and promising a new world, life and humanity at the top of their voice. Martek is a romantic and a cynic in the same place and at the same time. He demonstrates the power of an artist to confront the powers in his own creative controversies and paradoxes. Martek points to the radical combative relativity of the margin and the conservativism of the ruling center within national (Croatian) or multinational (former Yugoslavia’s) culture. He does this by imprinting himself into the cramped and narrow spaces of small cultures which do not permit ‘otherness’ as the Other One versus society, culture and art. He was the second line artist. This means that he was an artist who did not represent the public/ruling meta-discourse of Yugoslavia’s art - socialist art and its moderate modernistic estheticisms that had inherited a space dominated by social realism. However, he was not an artist who represented public meta-discourse of art in Croatia during the 1990’s either – that of national or dissident art of bourgeoisie and of by all means important folklore/naïve art. Martek is an artist who deals with geoesthetical issues, working with cultural and social contexts which surround him. Social contexts are the material of the artist’s re-modelling. His artistic contextualism faces the cynical contextualism of retro-avantgarde in the Slovenian group Irwin or the irony-handling contextuality of the conceptual art like that of the Serbian artist Raša Todosijević. He established language games with the living and the dead symbols of Yugoslav and Croatian culture in the post-socialist era.
Martek’s attitude to Eastern Europe or to the Eastern-European is both historical and esthetical. He empathized with the history of European avantgardes. He spoke in the loud voice of Mayakovski and read very closely from the dangerous proximity of Malevich; he most certainly recognized/understood the figures of Witkiewicz or Milan Knižak… He is not a genuine political Eastern-European man in the way Czech, Polish, Hungarian, Romanian or Bulgarian artists used to be between late 1940’s and the fall of Berlin Wall. He is quite close to them, but still an asymmetrical Other One. Martek enjoyed relative freedom and seeming mobility of the former self-management-practising Yugoslavia: he felt, understood and co-participated in the processes of international, i.e. Western, late modernism (conceptual art) and early postmodernism (non-expressionism).However, as – politically – an exceptionally sensitive and responsive being, he recognized and anticipated the boundaries of his world at the given historical moment: a world which was simultaneously Eastern Europe and the West, or, more accurately, something in between (the non-aligned countries as a dynamic existence in the cleavages of the world divided into blocs). During the 1970’s he identified a critical distance between the underground protagonists and the left-winged critical artists. During the 1980’s, he made out the tactical possibilities of deconstructive ironical and cynical seduction on the borders of late socialism. Martek preferred the open possibilities of ecstatic and fatalistic multiplication of views or standpoints in vagueness of post-socialist esthetics ant ethics during the 1990’s.
Martek’s drawings as images/collages and his images as texts/collages at this exhibition in Novi Sad were chosen as representative pieces which record the artist’s conceptualizations of understanding and experiences of his own existence in the world. By every one of his his “art works”, Martek points to shaping life itself within the world of traces left by everyday events, repression, religion, mysticism, materialism, economy, intimacy, exhibitionism, but also a lucid philosophical-artistic provocation of the seeming self-understanding of the world. Those are works which document the struggle between selfhood, the subject and the individual today and here, on the south-east of Europe in transition.
Translated from Serbian by: Zvezdana Šelmić