Clemens Krümmel. Between the Devil and Deep Blue Sea, text for the work Phantom Trades: Sea of People (Croatian Pavilion, 57th Venice Biennial)
In recent years, the installations Tina Gverović has created under different variations of the title “Sea of People” for different art spaces and cultural contexts bear witness to the indelible imprint that the Mediterranean, a specific natural, cultural and geopolitical environment has left on her personal life and the lives of those around her. Far from merely attempting to portray or to “pay homage” to this region of the world, she has aligned many parts of the knowledge and insights she has gained in her previous experimentation with the vocabulary, the grammar, the poetics of installation in order to make her experience aesthetically, emotionally and intellectually accessible and rewarding. Using the whole range of “old” and “new” media has been giving her working concepts, at a very basic level, the potential of a historical perspective. She has always practiced painting, drawing, printing, sculpture, video as interrelated, complementary means of expression and analysis that eschewed didacticism while at the same time elaborating complex gradations in her uses of materials, textures, shapes, levels of detail or referentiality.
“Phantom Trade,” the present part of Gverović’s installation project again consists of a stage-like platform, but this time – unlike in previous instances where she arranged her pictures in groups of displays approaching or reaching verticality – there are also scattered heaps of horizontally stacked blue and grey images. These are produced manually and through different printing procedures, countered in the exhibition space by large slabs of a heavy, stone-like material, which also serve as image-carriers. In their periphery, short video commentaries, sequences of gestures and words are presented that the artist associatively attaches to her images without there being the impression that were are given any direct “explanation”. The predominant colour is light grey and a softened indigo blue, a choice that Gverović, in one of her recent videos, relates to her interest in the chemistry of trades and the trades of chemicals that happened and still happen on the Mediterranean, especially those reflecting the history of imported and exported colour pigments; indigo may, in this perspective, be one of the most universally traded pigments assuming a vast variety of social, economic and symbolic significations. In this context, indigo comes to reference both the carrier (the sea) and the carried substance.
Although it is hard to imagine a time when the Mediterranean was not a vast, politically charged and contested space marked by violent conflicts, today’s specific imbalance of interests around the capitalist construct of a “Fortress Europe” appears to be of another kind. Decades have passed since a magisterial historical study like Fernand Braudel’s “Memory and the Mediterranean” was published, in which the authors opened his panoramic view by writing: „The best witness to the Mediterranean’s age-old past is the sea itself. This has to be said and said again; and the sea has to be seen and seen again. Simply looking at the Mediterranean cannot of course explain everything about a complicated past created by human agents, with varying doses of calculation, caprice and misadventure. But this is a sea that patiently recreates for us scenes from the past, breathing new life into them, locating them under a sky and in a landscape that we can see with our own eyes, a landscape and sky like those of long ago. A moment’s concentration or daydreaming, and that past comes back to life.“
It appears today as if historical geography has undergone processes of fragmentation that would forbid a psychologizing personalization of the Mediterranean such as Braudel’s. Like almost all other seas, it has been subjected to new, divergent spatial and temporal economies and politics – seafaring, the fishing industries, harbours and shipyards have come closer to extinction, and with them the social imaginaries of many generations and epochs. The drastically asymmetrical geopolitical power relations existing between the states bordering the sea today and the reshuffling of spheres of interest around them having built up an undertow forcing tens of thousands of desperate people across uncertain waters in order to survive may not even be unprecedented.
One aspect that may be considered new, though, is the way in which a full-fledged image industry is seemingly functioning to compete with notions and ideas expressed in written and spoken “official” and popular languages. To differentiate between clear-cut modes of grasping and representing, between, for instance, web-based news imagery, press reports and official bulletins, what is almost generally dubbed a “refugee crisis” in the Mediterranean region seems moot, when one considers the tenuous role not so much of images, but of imaginaries existing around the present phenomena of a what can be called a war of (and on) mobility, of and on moving from war-torn regions to relatively affluent and superficially more peaceful regions.
There is a number of obvious questions concerning the roles artists’ images can play in a climate in which very different images of the “situation” are frequently conflated, and here I mean a field of expressions that equalize the movement of (masses of) people with the movement of (masses of) water – and, not least, also with (masses of) information. Notoriously, the talk is of “waves” of immigration, of refugees, of asylum seekers, a metaphor that gains hazardous momentum not only through the recurring tendency of a “hatred of the masses” (or at least a suspicion and/or a prejudice against them) observable in economically affluent democracies – it also encounters the paradoxical fact that these metaphorical “waves” of people are risking every day to drown in literal waves.
Then there is the so-called “stream”, or “flood”, of images – an expression implying an excess of information, of mediatized images that is believed by many cultural critics to “swamp” the processing capacities of consumers. A flood, a wave is water in a forceful, directional movement. “Sea of People” is the title Tina Gverović has given to a number of recent installative works, leading up to her contribution to the Venice Biennial. “Sea of people” is a choice of words that not only avoids the by trend xenophobic implications of metaphors mentioned before, but grants the image of a mass of human beings a degree of positivity and dignity. The differentiated combination of words, gestures, materialities and images is at the core of Gverović’s aesthetic practice. As soon as one confronts oneself with the choices she has made in each of her installations, one can find a distinguishable sense of abstraction – mostly an abstraction from pre-existing media imagery and from historical artistic genres like landscape or history painting, but also one from a formal purity in existing concepts of painting and drawing. Her images in this work may, at first, appear like gestural renderings meant to expressively depict or allude to the sea, seen from a smaller distance, like the one her videos seem to suggest, they unfold a diverse and richly layered vocabulary alternating between likeness and abstraction that opens them up to a different level of interpretations. We find mark-making, translucent washes, imprints that become readable as made with pieces of clothing, gesturally painted passages, white interstitial areas – and clearly outlined, cutout-like shapes of human limbs; the impressions shift between registers of abstract modernist painting, ornamental arrangement, cartography and archeological preservation techniques like molds or frottages. All of these modes of image-making refrain from claiming substantiality. The pictures resist easy interpretations first of all by not only being pictures; slowly, but steadily the sense of a generous crossing of boundaries, but also of a ghost-like quality and fatality arises. Where are these images, what holds them, in this world?
Not only for its obvious technical difficulty, the depiction of the sea – a topology that the artist Allan Sekula has called a “Forgotten Space” – has produced some of the most characteristic turning points in early modern and modern art history. Early on, it has become a symbolically fraught potential space whose resilience against picturing produced “oceanic” imaginations of the Sublime – an imaginary space that came to stand for a crisis of visibility inside the unfolding of modernity’s programs of knowability. In the period between the French Revolution and 1870, history painting was transformed from being representational of a ruling instance to depicting events. Especially, Théodore Géricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa” of 1819 marks the beginning of a modern perspective in the depiction of that unreachable realm of the oceans. Its subject matter is not only the tragedy of a shipwreck that, caused by the captain’s incompetence, cost the lives of over a hundred people, with only 15 surviving, it is also the documentation of an international scandal, as the French monarchy tried everything to hush up the embarrassment of the incident. Géricault famously went to visit morgues in order to learn how to paint corpses and painstakingly studied survivor’s reports of the event, making this painting, still on display at the Louvre, a test case for the possibilities of artists assuming the role of investigators. As there were no technical means to provide visible evidence, art of the 19th century was forced to rely on oral and written accounts, supplemented by general knowledge like that of anatomy that could be acquired on land.
Almost precisely a century ago (and a century after Géricault’s painting), during the last years of World War One, photography and film were already the “new media” of the hour, but they were still incapable of grasping the reality of events on the sea. Winsor McCay, an extremely popular cartoonist, inventor of the ground-breaking “Little Nemo” fantasy picture stories, destined to work for the newspapers of media tycoon William Randolph Hearst, recognized the artistic and political realities of his time. He didn’t content himself with doing editorial illustrations that only allowed for pointed satirical comment, but (against the will of his boss) put a lot of effort into the invention of animated cartoons, where he only followed in the footsteps of predecessor Emile Cohl. After initial experiments with popularizing animation as a kind of extension and vivification of his cartoon characters, he become obsessed with the idea that this technique held the potential to become a medium of the future – as he believed it could provide a serious supplement to fill the imaginary space inaccessible to photographic technologies. Combined with an ambiguous talent for patriotic propaganda, this resulted in his animation film “The Sinking of the Lusitania” (1917/18) by which he sought to ”document” the German torpedoing of the passenger steamer “Lusitania” on May 1, 1915. This silent film is one the earliest modern examples of an attempt to face the crisis of history painting on the level of media-technological progress, and also to master the difficulties arising from a lack of adequate technology. What becomes visible there is the origin of the historical ideology of pictorial truth, which 3D animations still bear with them today: Only an object seen from all possible surrounding perspectives appears credible. The poly-perspectivism discovered by McCay was based on the assumption that truth and conceivability were apparently two sides of the same coin, and this led him to enthusiastically examine the three-dimensional representation of waves, the driving ship, the fish scared away by the torpedoes, the art-nouveau-like linear styling of the explosion and the slowly sinking ocean-liner and its passengers. Interspersed texts seem like echos of Géricault’s material verism. The artist also consulted the surviving witnesses – and presents this visually in a real-life action passage at the beginning of the animated film: “Mr. Beach giving Winsor McCay the details of the sinking – necessary for the work to follow.” The work is then characterized by its heroic quantities: “Twenty-five thousand drawings had to be made and photographed one at a time.” The mixture of artistic and non-artistic idioms that would become visible in “The Sinking of the Lusitania” had a place to start from: “The first work done was the moving sea” – which, tellingly, held on to the broadest abstraction available to the artist.
It makes only limited sense to view Tina Gverović’s work as a continuation of the line of art and media historical development sketched out here. Documentary film made with the most recent 4K imaging technology – like, for instance, “Leviathan”, shot in long stretches with a GoPro camera dangling from the side of a moving fish trawler –, or media-critical experiments like Philip Scheffner’s feature-length film “Havarie” (2016/17, based on a book by Merle Kröger), that takes its cue and entire material from a three-minute web video of a refugee boat taken from aboard an ocean liner – most of all manage to epitomize the aporia of “available” web images. If there is such a thing as a single genre rhetoric of contemporary exhibitions, a lingua franca that has been typically influencing the aesthetic of artworks presented on the occasion and in the context of the emerging global biennials movement, it must be the veristic first-person perspective of the video camera collecting and presenting visible evidence from sites and situations far remote or in some other way difficult to access. Like so many other historical instances of artistic methods implying visual realisms before, the habitualized, invasive use of “endlessly” extendable digital imaging has ended up under heavy scrutiny, not only by those deploring a loss of medium specificity or an encroachment on time resources available to viewers.
Gverović’s installation seemingly situates itself laterally to trajectories of media history and to claims of “actuality” that media news coverage offers. Her “projection screen” may best be sought in her viewers’ minds, bodies, and imaginations. It is perhaps her focus on space as an abstracted entity that appears to be the most arresting. With the varied elements of alternating media and methods, she creates a wide range of sensual responses, epitomized by the formal structure in and from which she creates. Reminiscent in part of minimalist or conceptual installation artworks such as Robert Morris’ “Scatter Pieces,” in which material, color, shape and position are united in an interlocking system of bodily and spatial experience, her own sense of detail and dimension is particularly remarkable. Never choosing the easy shift toward the monumental, the elements of her arrangements retain an intimate size easily relatable to the dimensions of the human body. By providing a gradual approach through different aesthetic and linguistic layers, she facilitates a shifting perception that at no time overpowers viewers with the prolonged immediacy of a spectacular, immersive performance. Perceptions are kept in a steady flow, building relations, following leads, diving into layers. The images are “staged,” placed on display as a superimposition that blocks the view on large portions of some of them. Here, associative potential is provided by triggering a sense of weight and quantity, allowing to be read as a pile of documents, as the visible result of a collapse, as haphazardly strewn image carriers, as the display of a quantitative development as in statistic methods of representation, and, depending on the felt dimensionality one brings to the experience, as an eroded surface of tiles or an uprising of tectonic plates.
The degree of literalness, one feels, is shifting with the polymorphism of sculptural, spatial, painterly formations one can detect and recognize – without feeling the need to come to one particular diagnosis. Gverović’s gestures that can be seen in the recent videos add to the impression of a light, poetic attitude behind the whole negotiation of space that is a multi-part installation like this: Almost overly precise in their pointing out and following parts and areas in her pictures, she speaks freely of her own associations, but in such a manner that one does not feel coerced to follow them to the letter. Speaking about the blue pigment she has variously worked into the surface, she says: “I’m thinking of chemical foundations of painting, its spatial and haptic possibilities”. From time to time, these observations are attaining a state of self-referentiality, as, for example, when she moves her right lower arm and hand into the picture to point to one of the free-floating arms or legs visible in it. There, when we are reminded of the artist’s body as part of the “whole picture”, the “sea of people” suddenly appears less like a metaphor and more like a possible literal situation – with parts of human bodies, parts of their clothes floating, sinking, resurfacing in an ocean – and with apocalyptic potential. The tectonic layering, which may invite further nautical associations with romanticist paintings like Caspar David Friedrich’s “Sea of Ice (The Wreck of Hope)” (1823/24), a ruin as romantic as an abandoned archeological site, speaks of internal pressures on the inside of this work, the topological thought that sets in – continents seen moving from afar – dramatizes the arrangement on the stage of the installation and fills the space with imagined lines of influence, of cause and effect.
The sheer weight of the heavier “counter-pieces” that Gverović provides in the installation offers a play with different dimensions of “gravity” – also readable in the sense of “gravitas”, seriousness. The gesture of placing a painting in a horizontal position inside the exhibition space, the “waste” of images hiding other images ostensibly diminish the dignity of the art objects on display, but actually add to the fluidity and apparent mutability of the installation that draws its energy from methods like adaption or mimicry that work as triggers or connecting threads. Time enters through an evocation of the changing tides when diverse and complementary techniques and procedures are employed: Tracing, molding, imprinting, layering all represent different expressive strategies, but also different temporalities. The individual images are formally as much reminiscent of photograms as they are of crudely improvised prints. As in the photo-based image spread that the artist has created for her recent publication, the installation and its framing in the video parts remain suspended in non-specificity, keep a ghost-like neutrality to a certain degree.
Gverović asserts that current movements of people may be somehow similar to this, but does not fall into the traps of case-study concretism or illustrative reportage style. Distances are kept, most of all on the visual level, semi-transparency avoids the individualisation displayed in current newspaper and web imagery. What is actually depicted or hinted at may not even be the catastrophic shipwreck I have deciphered and related to current refugee crises as well as to the conspicuous placement of this topic in modern art history, in a mode of thinking that could have found its model as a metaphor for existence in cultural history – like it can be found, for instance, in Hans Blumenberg’s “Shipwreck with Spectator” (1979). Balancing concretion and abstraction, referentiality and autonomy, the aesthetic and the ethic, Tina Gverovic’s installations activate all parts and layers of the viewers sensitivity, a bodily perception that doesn’t end with an illusionistic evocation of “the sea”, but leads from a centered, yet multi-layered and fragmentary waterscape to those outer limits where each exhibition space engages with the outside world.