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Glas umjetnika
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Glas umjetnika / I Am The Mouth: Works from Central and Eastern European Artists from Art Collection Telekom; Muzej suvremene umjetnosti (Museum of Contemporary Art), Zagreb, Croatia; January 19th-March 18th, 2018

Review by Deirdre M. Smith, Doctoral candidate, University of Texas – Austin

Entrance to Glas umjetnika with Agnieszka Polska’s I Am The Mouth (2014). Photo courtesy of Muzej suvremene umjetnosti, Zagreb.

Visitors to Glas umjetnika (in Croatian, Voice of the Artist) immediately glimpse the work that gives the exhibition part of its title, Agnieszka Polska’s I Am The Mouth (2014). The video depicts saturated red lips hovering as if suspended in clear, rippling water. The lips appear to pronounce a series of phrases in a languid, breathy voice (which is, in fact, the artist's). Polska’s words elliptically conjure ideas about culture and the limits of language. The poetics of the artwork seem to function, therefore, as an introduction to the logic of the exhibition. Glas umjetnika contains decipherable themes and questions presented nonlinearly and untethered to a straightforward narrative or message.

The exhibition features works by fifty contemporary artists and art collectives from countries across eastern Europe and the Balkan region. Curating such a multitude into a lucid presentation is a challenge. The exhibition's scale can be fatiguing and its scope occasionally incoherent, but Glas umjetnika rewards patience. The exhibition's forms and ideas flow together associatively and weave an impression of related aspects of contemporary life and practice.

On the first floor, in the center of one gallery, is Petrit Halilaj’s Special Edition (ex-Natural History Museum of Kosovo) (2013), a selection of small photos of biological specimens and taxidermied animals. The Natural History Museum in Priština, Kosovo was open from 1951 until 2001 when, following the war in Kosovo from 1998-1999, the displays were removed and the space became the Ethnographic Museum of Kosovo. Halilaj negotiated permission to explore the collection of the erstwhile museum, and has presented items from it in several subsequent exhibitions. Aesthetically curious on its own, Special Edition’s connections to war and erasure enrich the work, explaining the affect of sadness that seems to surround it. As in other works on display, the politics may not be overt, but once intuited or explained assume emotional gravity.

Elsewhere in the same gallery is Petra Feriancová’s Series Creator: From the Archives of O. Ferianc, New Breeds 1949-1952 (2008), a collection of 112 mostly black and white photographs depicting strikingly winsome carrier pigeons. Images like these were exchanged by hobbyists and breeders across the Eastern Bloc, and were once owned by the artist’s grandfather. These two works by Feriancová and Halilaj reverberate with signifiers of history, the natural world, birds, and archival strategies.

Glas umjetnika’s oblique take on the perennial question of art’s role in society underscores that the representation of history remains among the contemporary artist’s primary, and most urgent, tasks. In the exhibition, the figurative voice of the artist appears uniquely qualified to relate stories and memories that might otherwise be ignored or forgotten.

Deirdre M. Smith is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. She specializes in the art and art world of the 1960s and 1970s, particularly in the Balkans, the role of the artist in society, and the history of labor.