The Croatian artist David Maljkovic intentionally makes conceptual work that is thornily difficult, but deeply intellectually satisfying. His installations, which frequently incorporate a wide range of media, encourage their viewers to get lost and destabilized in his stylized spaces, which provocatively challenge traditional perceptions of art. Film and its history is a recurring element in these room-filling pieces, but he frequently encourages his audience to reread preexisting, familiar works—such as Orson Welles's 1962 film The Trial, examined in in Maljkovic's acclaimed series Recalling Frames—in unexpected new sociological contexts. (At times, Maljkovic even asks his viewers to reread his own works in alien contexts.)
Now, in his current exhibition at Metro Pictures, running through October 19, Maljković continues his explorations of art's purpose, memory, and perception with several new installations. We spoke with Maljkovic about how he conceives his complex installations, why his traditional training remains relevant to his avant-garde installations, and why he is drawn to making politicized art with what he calls "fictional" elements.
You're from Croatia, and it seems like your work is in dialogue with your homeland's history, particularly in terms of the political and cultural upheavals of the 1950s and '60s. Why do you so frequently return to this history in your art?
I think some of my works deal with this history, especially some early works, like Scene for a New Heritage or Images With Their Own Shadow. But I also think there are also many works that aren’t dealing with that, like Out of Projection, which I produced in France, for example. I think, for the most part, my work has more general questions about the artist’s practice. History certainly has some relevance, but I don't think history or art history is the focal point.
There's no question, though, that artists do respond to their surroundings in their art. When they do, their art becomes more significant, even exotic. But this kind of thing always becomes too important to critics. Instead, it's better to think about the artist's practice. I think that the choice of critics to focus on Croatian history in my work is the main cause of misreadings of my installations.
Would you say, then, that the use of history in your work is of secondary importance to your formal experiments?
Yeah, exploring history just happens in the process of elaboration of certain surroundings. I’m not representative of any kind of history. To be a representative of history would be strange.
Your new exhibition includes installations that employ a vast range of media, from film to collages to even photographs of sculptures. You've said that these installations tend to use collages and photography as a guide to reaching a larger concept. Can you talk a little about your process for making an installation?
I think of the way I use media as being symbolic of my practice as a whole—I can’t define my artistic practice using just one medium. Before I select which medium I'm going to use, I always have a two-dimensional starting point—usually, it's a sketch, or maybe a storyboard if I'm doing a film—and I use my training as a traditional painter for that. The two-dimensional work is always present in my installations because the more abstract ideas came out of it. Only after I make the two-dimensional basis do I select the medium of the work. I always try to select the most proper medium for the topic or the content that I’m interested in at the moment.
You said you had training as a traditional painter. When did you decide you wanted to start moving out of painting and begin doing installations?
Well, it was never just a decision to paint or not to paint. I thought of it as a situation in which I decided to bring more fictional elements into my work. With paintings, I couldn't bring in any fictional elements because paintings have a very defined form. Painting is an illusion itself. To try to add some fictional element into the paintings wasn’t going to work, for me. I don’t want to say it’s never going to work, because some artists may find more success with it. But for me, adding that to the paintings just wasn’t going to work, so I began using installations as a way of incorporating fiction into my art.
I saw that a frequent reference point in your work is EXAT-51, an avant-garde art group working in the '50s in Croatia that wanted to shape its environment using experimental approaches.
Yes, Experimental Atelier. I actually did one work with one of the members before he died—I shot one my films in Vjenceslav Richter's studio, and I did his last interview there. I looked at the failures of Richter's work; I then chose his failures to be the subject of the interview. I subtitled the interview—because, of course, he’s speaking Croatian—and I put the subtitles on a blank screen. Then these images of his studio pop up. I was shooting at night because I only wanted to highlight the most important elements in his studio: his works. I filmed young adults in the studio against these objects. When they open their mouths, you not only hear the sound of the projector, but you also hear the sound from the interview. It was all about failure, to me. I was also looking at the ways the studio becomes form. I was less interested in the history of EXAT-51 here than in Richter's own particular case, though.
You’ve said in an interview that when you stand in front of the World War II monument designed by Vojin Bakić, you’re transported to the year 2045, which is 100 years after the war concluded. I’ve also read that a lot of your work takes place in the future, somewhere between 2045 and 2063. The latter date is the centennial of Croatia’s constitution. Why is this idea of the future important to your work?
This, again, relates to the whole issue of heritage in my work. You're specifically talking about Scenes for a New Heritage, for which I used Bakić’s monument in Petrova Gora. In that film, I was thinking less about heritage and the future than I was about the monument, specifically. I started to research in 2003, then I shot the first part in 2004, and I finished the second and the third parts in 2006. It was kind of a project. I couldn’t just jump in and jump out of doing it.
Scenes for a New Heritage was really important because the mountain range of Petrova Gora is historically a political hotbed. A king died in battle there, and during the second World War it was again a major battle site. Then, in ‘90s, when there was war between the Serbians and Croatians, it was again a really political place. But this object itself, the monument that was built for the victims of World War II, is really special.
This project was two things. It first posed the question of what happens to a form when its ideology is gone. When that happens, a form is just a form—it stands really lonely because it doesn’t have any more public support. There are no visitors from schools, and no organizations come to see it. And the second issue was this futuristic element. I’m not really quite as interested in the latter, but it was something I thought to explore because it’s a monument with so much history to it. But I wasn’t really as interested in the history, so I put everything in what I like to call “upcoming time,” the empty space of the future. Somehow, doing all that was able to release all this heaviness. In that way, the monument began to take on a fictional element. Of course, these kind of things bring an energy to your artist’s practice.
As you've mentioned many times, film is really important to your work. Why does film make an appearance in your work so often?
Actually, I really like video works—ones on mini TVs—but when I need to have a little more structure to the images, I’ll use things 16mm film. It was kind of instinctual to branch out from the paintings into film. The image and the composition were all visual aspects. They seemed to signify moving images in the artist’s practice in such a natural way. In that sense, you have the same problems in painting that you do in film. How do you compose a work, and how do you depict time? You have to answer that in both film and painting, and for me, it was just natural to make the shift. Of course, you do need time to learn the process and the language, and of course, I do work with professional editors and cameramen.
One of your more celebrated series, Recalling Frames, takes a deliberately low-tech approach. It uses the sound of the camera moving, and that's something you continually do, even in your new exhibition. Yet there's a contrast in your work, because that low-tech sound is redone with new technology. For example, in Undated—a film from your new exhibition, in which Ivan Kozaric sculpts an aluminum ball—you shot on HD, but then in postproduction, you transferred it to 16mm film. It seems like there’s a dialogue between old technology and new technology.
Yes, it’s a lot of dialogue between these two principles. When I did Recalling Frames, I based it on Orson Welles’s The Trial, which was shot partially on location in Zagreb. For that project, I first did some photography. I chose some stills from the film, and then I produced original photography based on that scene. I went to the spot where the film was shot, and I photographed that location as it looked in the present day. I then made collages that combined the film stock and my photographs. I did cutouts directly on the film negative, and I created a dialogue between scenes from the movie and the present day location.
I also took the sound from Welles’s movie, selecting from moments where there was not much dialogue, but there was a lot of a screaming. The film was based on a book by Kafka, so the film is heavy, and I really tried to get at its weightiness. The recalling element was really important for me because you have to draw a comparison between the film and the photographs, between the past and the present. I also added the soundtrack, and in the computer, I manipulated the film so that it would appear as though it were breathing and flickering.
What makes you want to bring these old technologies into a new age?
It’s not a statement about media or anything like that. For this work, for example, I felt like it was more important to work on film, so I chose film. And in this latest exhibition, I used cartoon characters from the ‘60s for Afterform, and it wouldn’t have really made sense to transfer them onto 16mm film. I work in a particular medium because I feel that it's suited to my content. There's nothing about making old technologies new again, but sometimes that transformation does bring out the more soft aspects of older media.
You’ve spoken a lot about Croatia. This July, it acceded to the European Union as the 28th member. Is that going to change your work at all?
I’m not sure. It’s a political gesture, so I’m not really sure how much that has to do with my work. But maybe it will have implications for art in general. Maybe it’ll make shipping artwork from Croatia a little easier. Most things probably won’t change though.
What artists have inspired you the most?
That’s a difficult question. I’m not sure my work is always inspired by a certain artist. I like some artists’ work, but I don’t know if their work has actually influenced my own. When I was studying, I really liked some Russian painters, like David Burliuk. That was an interesting beginning for me.
We could also talk about some contemporary colleagues. I like their principles, and I like the way they’re working and thinking. Their practices may not be so close to my way of thinking, but I respect how those artists are working. I really like Pawel Althamer from Poland. There’s something really structured and truthful going on in his work. His works’ aesthetic elements are really nice, and he’s working really nicely with real situations that surround him. I also really liked the last exhibition of Kai Althoff at Gladstone Gallery because of the way his films were presented.
Is there anything you collect yourself?
I don't really collect much artwork, but sometimes, I like to buy furniture when I go traveling. I do have some art, though. I have a small work by Dennis Adams, for example. But I certainly don't have a collecting obsession. I think to be a collector, you need that kind of diagnosis. There needs to be a need to have things. I’m not sure I have that diagnosis.
Are you working on anything now?
I was pretty busy with the exhibition that's up now at Metro Pictures, but now I’m going to finish a traveling exhibition called "Sources in the Air." It started at the Van Abbemuseum last year, and then it went off to the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Now, it’s going to the GAMeC in Bergamon. All three exhibitions are mostly the same works from the last ten years. I don't like to call them retrospectives, but I guess you could say that that's what they are. In the end, the three exhibitions have been three different experiences for me. After those three exhibitions, I’ll probably do some sort of continuation of those experiences using art.