Iconoclasm or the Absolution of Visual Pleasure. Tomislav Brajnović in Alkatraz Gallery

by Iva Kovač

At the Expedition_Ego exhibition, Tomislav Brajnović, a conceptual Croatian artist of the younger generation, presents a series of works The Arctic Circle and Ego Trip, selected in cooperation with the curators Saša Nabergoj and Sonja Zavrtanik.

The Ego Trip series is presented through five of the numerous photographs taken by Brajnović as he travelled around the world in collaboration with other artists and passers-by. In the photographs, the artist appears in a black suit which, in addition to highlighting a formal occasion, also emphasises or exaggerates this fact to the point of absurdity by beaming a light installation attached to his suit directly into his face. In his Ego Trip suit, Brajnović is photographed at different locations, so the series includes two photographs taken in the fjords of the Norwegian Svalbald archipelago, which lies only 1,000 kilometres south of the North Pole. In addition to these photographs, the entire Arctic Circle series was created in the northernmost part of Norway, where Brajnović travelled during his Farm Foundation residency from New York, which took artists and scientists to places whose remoteness and harsh climate imposed many limitations on their life and work. Like many others, this residency addresses a subject which often turns into a cliché: the issue of global warming. At first, Brajnović suggested a symbolic intervention in the Arctic ecosystem, which could be carried out in reality only with intense warming. The melting of ice would theoretically enable the rooting and potential growth of two olive tree seedlings which he took from his native Istria. Norwegian law prevented the realisation of the work in its original format. The irony of the prohibition is even greater in view of the fact that probably the only notable feature at Svalbald is the so-called Global Seed Vault, a seed bank where practically every known seed is kept – a Noah’s Ark of seeds, whose purpose is to enable the development of new life in the event of a cataclysm. From this failed attempt at an individual contribution, Brajnović created a video entitled Peace, which documents the destruction of one of the seedlings. Comparing the olive tree – a symbol of peace – with the act of destruction (throwing a large lump of coal onto the frozen seedling) and entitling the work Peace creates a simple contradiction. He pursues this style in a series of photographs entitled Greed, Fire, History and Speed, using the words with which he briefly intervenes in the snow and putting them in correlation with the remnants of former settlements – a mining colony built for coal exploitation, which was hastily built, but perished equally rapidly at the beginning of the previous century. By contrasting the failed attempt at industrialisation and the words which underline Brajnović’s critical attitude to positivist progress, he gradually leads us towards his extremely interesting and visually impressive videos recorded at the residence. Through these examples, Brajnović slowly gives himself to the immense surrounding landscape. Aware of the urgency of exposing the methods of those who, while admiring the primitive and indigenous, did not fail to subjugate them both economically and politically, he does not lose himself in the iconoclastic effects of criticism that prevent all identification, thus most frequently preventing creativity. Although one’s indulgence in pleasure is often interpreted as consciously ignoring one’s own environment, Rancière’s examination of the aesthetic should be noted, emerging in the context of grand critical exploits, arguing that the potential for emancipation lies precisely in the belief that all spectators are equal. It is the reckless neglect of political reality and the focus on the aesthetic that opens up a potential for true emancipation.

In the video entitled Genesis, Brajnović repeats words from the Book of Genesis in order to record (or perhaps create) what we see before us. Following the separation of the heavens and the earth, and night from day, we were given the opportunity to see and create. The frame shows only a radio receiver from which the voice of Tomislav Brajnović addresses us, suggesting that all possibilities remain open.

Video work Flag consists of a barely moving frame in which a flag bearing the inscription “Yahweh” flutters in the wind, its pole rammed into the frozen snow, as if signifying a claim to a 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 into the distant past and myth. Thus, despite religion being extensively used for economic and political gain, the allusion here is rejected, made overly pre-modern, dating to the time before the emergence of nation states. Due to the positioning of the work in the Expedition_Ego, the flag is associated with Genesis and understood as a place of opportunity.

For the video Ego Trip, which is based on the Ego Trip photographic performance, Brajnović dresses in the Ego Trip suit again and, lit by the special light, includes himself in the film. The camera circles around a ship at anchor, capturing Brajnović lit in the dusk. Ego Trip is always documented at sunset, which is seen as a technical prerequisite for photographic performances, as this part of the day is bright enough for distinguishing background, but dark enough for the illuminated Brajnović to emerge. It seems that the video is not about making choices, but taking advantage of the only option. The footage of the empty ship sailing in the majestic Arctic environment seems like a shot from an epic film. The title is justified solely by the use of the same suit as he uses in the Ego Trip series, but the ego is lost in surrounding nature. The monumentality reminiscent of Romantic heroes no longer has political expansionist connotations, because we have been warned countless times of the dangers lurking behind the escape into another world and because of the confidence that Brajnović inspires owing to his already demonstrated autonomy from individual established ideologies.

It seems that Brajnović very convincingly tackles monumental, eternal topics. However, it needs to be stressed that these are not as Euro-centric as they were during Modernism. By referring in an equal way to the traditions of Modernism, the avant-guardes and neo-avant-guardes, using appropriation, comparison, quotations and similar conceptual approaches, he leaves room for indeterminacy. His indeterminacy is closely linked to present times, when we, equipped with a certain level of scepticism, return to the deconstructed ideals of the past via re-evaluating, e.g. research expeditions, like in the days when we as a species looked toward an end in the future with a positivist approach.

First published: Iva Kovač, “Iconoclasm or the absolution of visual pleasure, Tomislav Brajnović in Alkatraz Gallery”, Artwords, No. 94 (Winter 2011), pp. 77–80.