Zlatko Wurzberg. Text for the artist book Constant Traveller (BOP Gallery, Zagreb, Croatia)
“I hate traveling and explorers” is the famed opening of the most famous of all travel books of the 20th century. More than fifty years ago, in his seminal Tristes Tropiques, the great French ethnologist Claude Lévi-Strauss, himself a centenarian today, signs the death sentence of travel as a picturesque adventure aimed at bringing now psychologically transmuted scents and spices of exotic lands into our mundane lives in sights and tales. No exotica can ever again be authentically experienced or mediated, not even by dedicated explorers. Once all the frontiers have been crossed, the place which has so far nourished our fantasies is suddenly within our reach and the disturbing, vertiginous and frightening myth of the unattainable is bound to disappear. The nearly hysterical excitement concomitant to conquering mountain peaks or reaching the poles – feats which once claimed both heroes and victims – may have still been possible in the early history of spaceflight or with the first men on the Moon, before those endeavors became perceived as science missions. Traveling has turned into a standard procedure liable to be repeated ad infinitum. Today, the love of travel and discovery may well be an almost imperative cultural need, but the impressions it channels are perceived as fixed and therefore somewhat neutral. The adventure and the experience one counts upon are pre-constructed by the very story of travel. Even the surprise of making new discoveries has become predictable. The availability of travel has banalized the world. The world is indifferent, never yielding to our desire, withholding the answer and reflecting only our own search of ourselves. As we travel, we move among the phantoms of our memory and culture.
This line of thinking might apply to Tina Gverović’s work if we were to focus solely on its iconographic facet, without giving the same amount of consideration to the way the work is displayed. Not only do we contemplate these pictures in different media (videos, installations, drawings, in books or on canvas), but they are also accessorized with props. The pictures are exhibited in showcases, on tables or shelves, as if this were a derivation of a cabinet of art organized in museum-style. The work is set in a spatial situation, deviating from the habitual, functional presentation of artwork, alluding, in the present case, at its specific interpretation. We should thus be careful to steer clear of critical approaches usually applied to this medium. Drawings or paintings are commonly displayed framed, behind glass or glass-free, separated from the surrounding space by some kind of edging. Once they’ve been exhibited with appropriate furnishings, the importance of the gallery wall is suddenly suppressed, negated even, in favor of the exhibition space – a social space understood as a point of contact between the work and its beholder – its public and spectators. It takes part in the artwork as the space of art itself – while turning into a space where one can contemplate and interpret the sense of the work, this space also takes part in producing its meaning. Here, a picture takes on the features of an object to be placed and archived, much like any museum material. In a museum, we look at paintings from a distance, from a fixed position in particular scenery: similarly, Tina Gverović’s paintings and drawings create their own environment, a private fiction set up for themselves and themselves alone. They are part of an ambient code which is to be contemplated and interpreted as a whole. This scenographic mapping turns the space into a theatre, staging the action, as well as the impression and the interpretation of the work. Travel is, therefore, not only the very content or simply one of the thematic elements of Tina Gverović’s works, but also the metaphor of her artistic method.
While travel is usually perceived solely in terms of space, both travelers and travel literature tell us of its simultaneous involvement in both space and time. (Claude Lévi-Strauss couples those with social hierarchy, further complexifying the issue.) In this context, let us simply focus on two famous examples of this connection. The first would be Sigmund Freud’s obsessive travels to Rome, which can be seen as the junction point of analysis of dreams, archaeology and the unconscious, with Rome epitomizing a place where there are no clear-cut boundary between the past and the present. The second is a roughly coincident journey undertaken by the historian Aby Warburg to New Mexico and Arizona, and his sojourn with the Hopi Indians in Black Mesa, the remotest point of American civilization. Warburg realizes that the farther away he moves from Western culture, the farther back he goes into its past – as if spatial distancing had become a metaphor for a return to the past. To quote the French interpreter of Warburg’s journey Philippe-Alain Michaud – “traveling is a metaphor for anamnesis”. This may help us understand the role of travel in terms of the central feature of Tina Gverovic’s artistic practice – the incursion of time into the space of representation. The point is not in using time-based media (video, sound, theatre), but rather in setting up the idea of a story by visual means, or in other words, the idea of discourse by means of an image. The idea of a story is, moreover, inseparable from the idea of time. It is not to be apprehended through perceiving any individual image, shape or object, but rather through observing it as a synoptic image where individual works interconnect and where a single glance may supply multiple data at once, and we can subsequently give them some kind of reverberation in our mind. All parts of the work – drawing, painting, video, installation and other props – appear simultaneously both as things and as signs. They are the signifier and the signified, the means and the symbol, all wrapped into one. The canvas paintings, drawings or prints originally are replicas of photographs, which makes them not only representations of things but also symbolic images, while they may elsewhere turn into prop-pictures – for instance in video work. Images refer to the mental world (and thus relate to temporary states of mind or sensation), as well as to the world of things (for example, in their documentary quality). We thus create an image half way between fiction and reality – something that really exists because we can see it, while also referring to our realm of the imaginary or the subconscious. These categories have brought us into the field of the imaginary as discussed by Jean-Paul Sartre, and we should thus heed his warning: “The mental image cannot be studied on its own. The realm of images and the realm of objects are not separate entities. On the contrary, any given object, whether presented by means of external perception or emerging in the mind’s eye, can function both as present reality and as an image, depending on the chosen point of reference. The two realms, the imaginary and the real, are made up of the very same objects, and only their groupings and their interpretations vary. What defines both realms, the imaginary and the real, is the mind’s attitude.”
The least we can glean from this analysis is that the relation between the image and its object grows dim while meaning turns ambiguous depending on the very stance we take toward these works and the way we apprehend them. Each observer posits a different possible meaning according to any personal baggage of complex impressions and emotions they infallibly fall back upon, even as they try to contemplate the work objectively. Moreover, the reality mediated by images in Tina Gverović’s work invariably belongs to the past, to some distant exotic lands; there is either a trait of strangeness, or the representation is schematized, so we perceive it as fictional rather than as documentary. Rather than taking an analytical or a theoretical approach, in order to interpret the plurality of sense thus generated, one should resort to some kind of narration.
In fact, taking a closer look at the works exhibited here, we might define a logical scheme of their analogies, contrasts and sequence; we might find and explain their references and their sources. For instance, the drawings bring forth images issued from picturalist photography or film – in other words, from something originally recorded as fiction. Here, light takes center stage while shapes are crammed up in half-shadow; light on a soft haze is the formative element of the landscape, and the images are seen from a human outlook. On the other hand, the print image in a light box is a distant panoramic view of an ice bound landscape overhung by a cloud of heavy black smoke. Next, the video presents us with a similar game of gradual transformation of content and its sense, constantly zapping back and forth between the fictional and the documentary: a specific discourse (supposedly a documentary interview) is scripted and read by an actress from a drawing sheet (a prop in this case), but in documentary situations (kitchen, café, etc.). Every situation has a different lightning scheme, and the color of light may evoke a different ambiance or emotional state (sky, grass, water, indifference, etc.) The schematized model of a lighthouse in a mirror installation functions as a replica of a souvenir from a particular place, as well as a double metaphor of attraction and rejection between the gaze and the reflection. However, all this is mere conjecture about the nature of the image rather than its description, the ambiguities of which, as stated earlier, could only be related by some kind of story. Which might begin like this:
“A strange – disturbing road. The only high road I have ever traveled, meandering so that – even if everything around it were to disappear, together with all the encounters and dangers it may hold in store – with crepuscular thickets and fear – it would still engrave its imprint into my memory like a diamond cutting glass. We take it as we might take to the high seas. Across three hundred leagues of blurry landscape, running alone, without any junctions or connections, like a thin line, stretched out, bleached by the sun, rotten with fallen leaves, the road unravels in my memory the luminous trace of a path where the foot treads hesitantly through the grass on a moonlit night, as if I had followed it between its night-clad banks from end to end through an endless black forest.” (Julien Gracq, from La presqu’île)