Jelena Pašić: Exhibition review – Weight at Gallery AŽ, 2021.
Writing his poetic-theoretical study on the ways we perceive and experience spaces, but also on how spaces shape our experience of the world, relationships and interactions, french philosopher Gaston Bachelard argued that there are two fundamental types of space: intimate space and outdoor space. This division creates a seemingly solid dialectical division into internal and external, into interior and exterior. Yet, in his major work, The Poetics of Space, Bachelard claims both of these opposing poles are essentially inseparable, interdependent. Without the external there is no internal, just as the internal – with all its symbolic matrix filled with concepts it connotes, such as intimacy, silence, protection and invisibility – does not exist unless we establish a boundary, a dividing line separating two binary concepts or two binary phenomena. To set this limit, however, according to Bachelard8, means to immerse oneself in the field of imagination, because the terms “internal” and “external” cannot be understood exclusively within their reciprocity; they are, on the contrary, interdependent and, in the words of the author, “united in identical expansion.”
The two spaces expand and contract, so – in the process and activities of such a poetic experience of the world – in the boundless spaciousness of the universe it is possible to experience harmony with the equally boundless intimate depth of being. “Giving an object its poetic space means giving it more space than it has in its objective and object characteristics,” Bachelard writes. In other words, the expansion of the intimate, the inner is possible even beyond the set boundaries that separate them. “It seems, therefore, that these two kinds of space – the space of intimacy and the space of the world – mix with their own ‘infinity’. Such a symbolic, poetic expansion of space that transcends or seemingly abolishes Euclidean laws and physical givens is a characteristic of the works of one of the most interesting domestic sculptors of the younger generation, Vladimir Novak. At his new exhibition at the AŽ Gallery in Zagreb, this author interrogates the notion of weight with three presented works, as the title of the exhibition says. “Weight” is understood not only as a physical, measurable quantity, but also as a symbolic field or, in Bachelard’s words, a poetic space in which common relations and real limitations are called into question. Symptomatically, at the entrance to the gallery located in the lobby of the former school in the industrial zone on the outskirts of Zagreb, where the art organization Ateliers Žitnjak has been operating for almost two decades, there is an inscription “Periphery Center”. Although this is an intervention carried out in 2009 by the artist Zoran Pavelić to point out the dichotomous and unequal relations between the center and the periphery, not only in geographical and urban terms, but also the power relations in the field of culture and art, with Vladimir’s exhibition Novak these words were given another layer of meaning. Namely, just as in Novak’s sculptures, so in the mentioned inscription, a new sphere emerges from the combination of disparate concepts, a new universe that transcends binary divisions.
Three exhibited sculptures, in one case a group of similar sculptures placed in the gallery space, materialized the sign of forces, the relationships of the objects, the material from which they have been made from, its mass and gravitational field, where individual elements of sculptures very graphically illustrate these forces or, on the contrary, they resist them and create a strange ambience that seemingly defies the laws of physics. The installation called “In / Out of Line” consists a metal pedestal with the mounted engine on it which sometimes lifts and strains, and sometimes relaxes and settles on the floor a long black strap hung on the opposite wall, otherwise used to secure the load, forming the layers of lines. In mechanically given movement and regular rhythms, two extremes alternate: the tension of the strap, which in a straight line stands parallel with the ground in just one second, and in the next moment this tension subsides and produces a concave curve in contact with the ground, again turning it into a rectilinear form. A work called “All in All,…”, a large, compact metal sculpture in the rectangular shape of a plate is placed with its side, narrower surface on supports with wheels. The relationship between load and support, mass and gravity is much more directly presented here, but the decision to place the monumental proportions in a more unstable way in relation to the pedestal creates a much more labile but impressive structure in which balance is fragile and its achievemen is possible in a specific, given position. The third segment of the exhibition consists of “Structures ¾”, three high metal panels placed on the walls around the gallery that break into the space with vertically placed surfaces resembling metal doors. Reflections of light are reflected on the polished surface of the metal, allowing the dark material to emphasize its still present quality of color texture. The grandiose forms of these sculptures, attached to the gallery walls, persistently insist on their autonomy and almost seem to deny the force of gravity.
Such research endeavors and the urge to experiment, to overcome the problem of balance and achieve dynamic harmony in sculpture are features of Novak’s artistic prose, and it is clear that he inherited this inclination from his mentor, Slavomir Drinković, whose sculptural forms were once criticized by art critic Ješa Denegri who claimed that they are “homogeneous in their apparent contradiction”, that “some energy always acts in these masses, some force is released which makes the mass alive, flexible, potentially mobile”. Inspired by the legacy of minimalism in sculpture, Novak contemplates and builds his works in a modern way, looking not only for optimal solutions and answers to construction problems he poses in the work process, but also thinking about what matter and object bring to a particular space – by its physical characteristics, as well as by its symbolic, semantic ones. It is not surprising, therefore, that he often realizes works as iterations, as modalities of possible answers to a posed problem or thesis. Thus, for example, “In / Out of Line” has been developed over the last three years, and was first presented at the Youth Salon in 2018, when it was awarded the Grand Prix under the title “≈ 30 Steps in Balance”. In 2017, he set up an ambient sculpture in the French Pavilion in Zagreb, which, following the postulates of land art and arte povera, places piles of long reed stalks in monumental and elegantly, minimalistically shaped metal containers. A combination of natural material, as a ready-made object taken over and placed in impressive installations, and a metal structures, organic and abstract, was set up next year in Osijek, where it symbolically referred to the ancient vitality of the river environment, and after that in Diocletian’s cellars in Split, on a site whose ancient origins gave the sculpture an almost archetypal expressive power.
Returning finally to Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space”, we could say that Novak is an author who expands space with his works – primarily in a conceptual sense, who seeks spatial poetry, and metaphorically transposes visitors to other, altered and alienated spaces, spaces of research and inventions. The shift occurs primarily in our imagination because, as Bachelard concludes, “we do not change the place, we change our own nature.”