Just as there is no single Modernity, but many different Modernisms, in his recent work Marko Lulic´ has been exploring the manifestations of the Modernist spirit in postwar Yugoslavia.
Working from a series of case studies, he reveals how the supposedly universal aesthetics of modern art, architecture and design became invested with specific values in a country that created its own idiosyncratic version of socialism. Although Yugoslavia was part of the Soviet bloc and a one-party state, Tito, the head of that state, kept his distance from Moscow, established friendly relations with a range of other nations and ran the country's economy on relatively liberal principles. So, quite literally, for the many tourists who spent their summer on the beaches of the Adriatic, Yugoslavia represented the sunny side of socialism. Lulic´ was born in Yugoslavia and emigrated to Austria in his childhood, but his work goes beyond his own biographical links to the country of his birth. He delves into the contradictions of a system in which the combination of political and aesthetic avant-gardes promised revolution on a daily basis.
Modernity in Yu (2001-2), a project developed by Lulic´ over the course of several exhibitions, has as its central focus a series of sculptures in which the artist twists the triumphalist, formalist rhetoric of monuments erected to Yugoslavian partisan heroes into his own sculptural idiom. The pieces vary in size: some are large enough to fill a white cube, while others fit comfortably on a plinth. Most of the titles include the location of the original monument: Improved Partisan Monument (Jasenovac) (2002), for example, is a huge blossoming organic structure made from red chipboard; Improved Partisan Monument (Krusevo) (2002), a pink sphere with pneumatic protuberances, looks like a cross between a model for a space lab and a sex toy; and Improved Partisan Monument (Kragujevac) (2001) consists of two white beams that span the room diagonally and form a V shape - it could be seen as a geometric gesture of power and progress, but could equally well be joists from a collapsed apartment block.
Although these sculptures possess a strange beauty and humour, they are intrusive and out of place. There is something profoundly alienating about recasting a public monument as a private sculpture in a gallery space. To acknowledge in this way that the gallery is Modernism's last resort is to concede that the movement has lost not just its glory but also its legitimacy. Under socialism, as Thomas Trummer puts it, the Modernist monument 'didn't miss the art space', because the entire state was its showroom. 1 Its idealism and futurism were not at odds with reality, because in a perfect society real space and ideal space are one, and the future is now. The strangeness of Lulic´'s sculptures testifies to the breaking of this bond between the real and the ideal. There is a similar displacement at the level of symbolic content: the celebration of the figure of the partisan was central to the postwar reconstruction of Yugoslav nationalism. Lulic´ translates this collective cult into an individual partisan spirit of his own in subversive sculptural re-creations. Yet, although he deflates the heroism of Yugoslavia's taste for monuments, he doesn't ridicule the originals. He merely shifts the focus away from their representative function to the exuberant imagination invested in their making.
Design theorist Fedja Vukic has pointed out that the socialist state had to grapple with competing definitions of Modernism. 2 On one hand the state officially sanctioned the avant-garde, but on the other it barely tolerated - and in some cases actively rejected, as examples of capitalist degeneracy - the range of modern styles and designs to which Pop culture gave birth. Modernism thus became both the essence of socialism and its enemy. Lulic´'s sculpture Bife Tito (Tito Buffet, 2001) can be seen as playing on this ambivalence. The waist-high construction is a model of an elegantly curved modern motorway bridge, but it also functions as a cocktail bar. Symbolically the bridge represents an icon to national progress and the bar a fancy leisure product, an object of public pride and an allusion to the illicit private pleasures enjoyed by the party's higher echelons.
Other ways in which hedonist Pop Modernism lodged itself within socialist culture are explored in the video installation Schlamm (Mud, 2001), which also formed a component of Modernity in Yu. The piece consists of two videos projected on to two adjacent walls. One shows location shots from the fashionably Modernist Haludovo Hotel, built (with the financial support of Bob Guccione, founder of Penthouse magazine) in the 1970s on the island of Krk by the Croatian architect Boris Magas. For the other video Lulic´ asked friends to re-enact activities from the Yugoslav communist youth movement's holiday camps. These camps enjoyed enormous popularity as they gave teenagers from all over the Soviet bloc the chance to spend the summer in the south, making friends and enjoying the things that adolescents everywhere like doing. The video records teenagers playing sports, posing with buckets and spades and getting down to some serious mudbathing. The effect is to shatter the cliché of uptight, bureaucratic socialism and instead to highlight the emphasis on the body that tends to characterize secular culture. This was what allowed young people to create their own definition of progress and permitted someone like Guccione to pull off stunts he wouldn't have got away with on the opposite coast of the Adriatic in Catholic Italy.
Schlamm provided the starting-point for another, ongoing project, also based on the hallowed Haludovo Hotel. For the show 'Durch weichen Beton' (Through Soft Concrete) at the Grazer Kunstverein in 2002 Lulic´ rebuilt life-size models of details of the hotel's architecture. Hart und Weich Nr. 1 (Hard and Soft No. 1, 2002) was a coffered ceiling with protruding cubes made from mahogany-coloured laminated polystyrene, while Hart und Weich Nr. 2 (2002) reproduced the organically curved hotel swimming pool as a light blue, varnished wooden structure that filled the entire gallery space. For his subsequent exhibition 'Palace - Sweet Soldiers of the Cold War', at Johnen & Schöttle, Cologne, in 2003, he reconstructed the hotel entrance, in a work entitled Enter the System (Sucked Dry) (2002), the hotel bar, in First Floor (Klettern, dann runterschauen) (Climb, then Look Down, 2002), and two staircases suspended on strings in mid-air, in Abwärts (Upwards, 2002).
At both venues Lulic´ showed a video of the film Mi neprodajemo holivud (We Don't Sell Hollywood, 1973), by Jovan Acin and Dejan Karaklajic - a tongue-in-cheek report on the opening of the Haludovo. Framed by scantily clad Penthouse models, Guccione and a party official make speeches, with Guccione introducing his models as the 'peace corps' of the Cold War and declaring that the hotel is going to sell not Hollywood but Yugoslavia. Two worlds collide in a genuine clash of cultures, but everyone is happy. The socialist top brass and the hedonist entrepreneur get on just fine. Both know what it means to be a representative of the modern world. As Lulic´ dissects international Modernity into its many specific sub-Modernisms, it seems that the ideal of progress for the people was never at odds with the fashionable joys of the cosmopolitan jet set: they were both part of that revolution called Modernism.
1. Thomas Trummer, 'Die Historisierung der Zukunft' (Historicizing the Future), in Marko Lulic´, Modernity in Yu, Belgrade, 2002, p. 20.
2. Fedja Vukic, 'Modernity = "Avant-Gardeness" + "Modernism"!?', in Marko Lulic´, Modernity in Yu, Belgrade, 2002, pp. 67-74.