Edgelands, or the wilderness of Nikola Džafo’s ‘The Garden of Solstice Secrets’

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Nikola Dzafo, Everything Eats One Another, 2018.

The Garden of Solstice Secrets, the latest cycle of paintings by Nikola Džafo (Novi Sad, 1950),offers a condensed journey into the last four decades of the artist’s creative engagement. Through his characteristic layered compositions Džafo revisits the key stages of his career, with a focus on questions on sustained social and cultural ethics and responsibility of art and art history. In that sense, The Garden of Solstice Secretsfollows from the Džafo’s post-Expressionist phase during the 80s, the socially engaged performance work from the 90s (Led Art, The Reconstruction of Crime in the Balkans, Kunstlager), the multimedia Rabbit cycles (Art Garden, Whence Hides the Rabbit?, The Hare Who Ate the Museum, Lepus in Fabula), his social and artistic collaboration with the Art Clinic (changed to the Shock Cooperative  from 2013), the exhibition Departure Into White, the collective drawing sessions with artists, colleagues and pupils of the Special needs school “Milan Petrović” in Novi Sad, the citations and collective drawing actions with other authors,all of it interlaced with his lasting interest in the creative synergy of nature.

InThe Garden of Solstice Secretsthe scene is set at the artist’s own garden, transformed into a blooming jungle of nutritious and toxic entanglements where shoots of lillies, clusters of brugmansia or a thick foliage of absinthe-green foliage cover the traces of death and destruction. Summer comes as a celebration and a foreboding, renewal and remembrance. Much like his alter ego the Rabbit, the artist poses infinite riddles that connect art and life.

Like the British nature writers Robert Macfarlane or Richard Jeffries, Nikola Džafo is an edgelander.  Like they, he inhabits a space at the fringe of a city, nestled within his lush rambling garden minutes away from arable fields of Banat, Bačka and Srem – three regions divided up by roads and hedgerows, tree lanes and military borders. The coveted loamy soil of Vojvodina’s plains saw pooling and vacating of settlers since the Bronze Age, Romans and Byzantians, Ottomans and Habsburgs, the South Slavs but also the Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Krashovani, Ukrainians, Slovaks, Bulgarians, Czechs, Jews, Romani… Džafo grew up with the countryside at his doorstep, reading the liminal areas and seemingly boundless horizons within this complicatedly criss-crossed terrain. This was the landscape with an aesthetic flexible enough to hold all of its contrasts in a close proximity, weathering the cycles of time and history.

Džafo started out as a painter in Novi Sad and then in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. During the 1980s, his painterly sensibility inclined towards citations from the socially engaged art of the early twentieth century, adopting the spiky angularity of the German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Georg Grosz or Otto Dix. Some of his early works, like the tryptich Kirchner’s Wings(1984), attempted to create a continuity between the stern clothed figures of Kirchner’s Five Women on the Street(1913) and the flamboyance of the middle panel with its two embracing women surrounded by the cascade of all-seeing peacock eyes. The contrast between eroticism and formalism, so representative of the bonheur and the anxiety of the Yugoslav 80s, continues in increasingly menacing key in later works such as Guards are predicting misfortune(1986). Dark uniformed guards so alike that they could be a mirrored reflection of each other, their faces reminiscent of blank-eyed masks (a frequent trope by Kirchner, Nolde or Ensor), stand above a pale female nude, reclined on a colourful bed of spikes that seem to feed off it like open stork’s beaks. The misfortune predicted by this polyptich, or by the Icy Rainsfrom 1989. which depicts naked sailors handsomely standing guard over a central mutilated body in a stance deeply evocative of Kirchner’s The Soldier Bathfrom 1915. – that long-awaited and feared misfortune came to pass over the protracted years of civil war that again split Yugoslavia and Vojvodina along their micro-ethnic fissures. The unspecified calamity that hovered over Džafo’s dense, tree-like figures throughout the 80s took form during the 1990s, fuelling his work with heightened elementalism and urgent social and artistic activism. One of the latest works from the 80s that still references the Expressionists is Provoker of Feelings (1990), a collage filled with harmonious lyricism and beauty, made from garbage found in his studio and stacked on the surface of like an upright streetscape, skillfully Cubist, packed with remorse over art’s unfulfilled promise.

The nineties signalled a long break in Džafo’s painting. The ensuing civil war forces the artist to consider the inability of art to cross over into the real world, so as a response he compresses the process of art-making into objects and actions whose materiality closely communicate the social and historic rift. The ensuing decade, spent in numerous conceptual collective actions intended to disturb, provoke, expose and document various daily acts of betrayal and crisis, was channeled through the group Led Art[1]and projects Reconstruction of the Crime[2],The Museum of the Rabbit, Art Klinikaand Šok Zadruga,all of which he was a founding and key member. “Reconstruction of crime: Eight Lives of the tomcat Šaban”(1994) is an example of an absurdist faux-documentary performance that contains Džafo’s feelings for the tragic life of the tomcat Šaban who, like the artist himself, is an edgelander and hedge-walker; it also alerts the viewer that the human crimes have seeped further into the natural world. This was a different wilderness, with different rules; the one in which everything ate one another.

During the NATO air strikes at the military targets in Yugoslavia, on 27. May 1999, Nikola Džafo paints all his canvases white (the exhibition and performance Departure into white). The essay by Mirjana Peitler-Selakov argues that Džafo felt that his painterly work has ended, and that this Foucauldian “death of author” presents a new window through which the viewer can observe the train of historic causalities.[3]

Why, then, this return to painting? Have the conditions changed? Or does the artist feel that we can still learn something from painting?

For Džafo, a step towards painting is not a step away from cultural and social critique. After the 90s his art has undergone synaptic reprogramming, not unlike that which brain undertakes when reprogramming the connections of the nervous system by finding new pathways for the flow of information. By the end of the 2010s, his recurring character Rabbit[4]appears in performance and installation work, and with the cycles Lepus in Fabula and Dinner for Rabbitit almost exclusively appears on canvas. The Garden of Solstice Secrets, 2018, signals renewal of seasons and renewal of hope in the restorative power of art, metaphorically and subjectively linking the cycles of nature with the cycles of anthropocentric evil.

In the series of paintings Dinner for Rabbit, we find oversized rabbits snacking on pastiches from classical pastoral paintings; in The Garden of Solstice Secrets the rabbits are borrowed from the Dutch Golden Age paintings, where they are hung as hunting trophy. Borrowed from the game painters Jan Fyt, Jan (Joannis) Weenix and the etchings by Francisco Goya, the rabbits are victims of carefully crafted tableaux of unusual game trophies popular in the courts of eighteen- and nineteen-century art patrons. While their continued presence still evokes existential crises, the relationship to power has shifted from the defiance of the regime to the aimless sacrificial death. Ironically, it is their death that fed the artists who painted them (through courtly commissions of such motives): in Where is Aloisia the citation comes from Juan Miró’s The Table (Still Life With Rabbit)from 1920, where the artist paints his own dinner table. The grey “landscape” in the background is the hidden Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s Still Life With a Hare (cca. 1730).

Ample citations and fabulism carried over from the previous Rabbit cycles obscure and overpaint a patchwork of pseudo-documentary shots of reconstructed crime scenes. In From Picasso’s Planter (Brugmansia), the first layer of the panting is an attempt at a forensic reconstruction of a familicide in Novi Sad, reconstructed by the artist through a series of photographs involving props and actors. The sketches based on the photgraphs were then overlayed with charcoal drawings of the hung hares, and finally both the “real” and “art” crimes were overpainted with the motif of an overgrown Brugmansia plant. The beauty of these toxic flowers covers and temporarily postpones the revelation of evil underneath.

In the largest work in the series Everything eats one another,[5]the crime scene is overtaken by a large green shrub of helleborus. Among foliage lie two dead hares (cited Jan Fyt’s Bagged Hare and Game Fowl, 1642, and Game and Hunting Gear Discovered By A Cat, 1640). The scene is witnessed by the figure of a boy drawn on the right margin, a citation from the paintingLittle Philosopher(1887) by Serbian painter Uroš Predić[6]. While Predić’s boy is caught contemplating death upon discovering a horse’ skull, his twin in Everything eats one anotherfinds it one hundred years later, musing over the yet unresolved chain of violence buried within the middle panel. What kind of future lies ahead after all these crimes come to light? It is poignant that this figure, an echo of the familiar Predić’s masterpiece, makes an appearance in the year when Serbian National Museum reopens after the closure of fifteen years. What fresh insight may lead the viewer upon encountering this buried cultural heritage? Under the boy’s feet is a small Kirchneresque group of figures, whereas the bottom left margin echoes Džafo’s Ice rains(1989). The cat ponders, reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland; the bird at the bottom section seems to land on fire in spite of the garden hose nearby; firebugs (Pirrhocoris apterus) crawl all over the painting, suggesting the peak of spring. The vague celebratory majesticity is exacerbated by the draped bunting, itself a precise citation from Gabriel Rico’s The Funny Raster, 2017,[7]blended with rich foliage with a hidden diamond in its centre (Richard Bernstein, Diamond, 1977). It is clear that this complex self- and art history referential work doesn’t drip citations to show artistic eloquence but because each fragment of the puzzle contains an information about the disappearance of a specific artistic identity in the midst of the appearance of something larger and more menacing. The sailors belong to 1989, the year of the fall of the Berlin Wall that also marked the beginning of end of Yugoslavia; the siege of Dubrovnik happened two years later. Is it conceivable that Predić’s Little Philosopherhad the foresight from its perch in the nineteenth century, or at least that Džafo finds it impossible to unsee these events as interlinked. As the title suggests, everything eats and annihilates one another throughout the course of (art) history.[8]

The citations guide the eye onwards: in the airy composition of Hemerocallis fulva (two yellow chairs), Chardin’s hares are overpainted with the clumps of titulary plant and the two yellow chairs which belong to the artist and his wife. In Firebugs…the dead figure outlined at the crime scene is overpainted with Goya’s rabbits, which in turn are overpainted by spider flowers (Cleoma), and in From Picasso’s Planter (Brugmansia) the tomatoes are transplanted quite literally from Picasso’s Tomato Plant(1944), and firebugs march across and tie together the territory of nearly all of the paintings of the series.

In one of his preparatory notes Džafo wrote “Little Red Riding Hood” next to a photocopy of the firebugs, signalling a possible connection with the painting The Wolf strolls with Little Red Riding Hood, But He Is Not A True Friend. The long title, itself a quote from the controversial household embroideries that doubled as moral lessons for young housewives, signals a threat veiled as humour. The work features a large central panel with a double-exposure charcoal drawing of a wolf’s head / crowning of baby at birth (vagina dentata?), surrounded by watercoloured obstetric instruments dyed in particularly sugary shade of pink. Hidden among the instruments at the bottom panel are several animals drawn as by a child’s hand, and a small soldier, also childlike in stature and manner of execution. What do these creatures represent? Are they here to witness the birth of the child, to protect Red Riding Hood from her (female) fate, or to point at something that can only be perceived from a child’s point of view? Childrenare never interested in sentimental rendering of nature, instead finding pleasure in the miniature worlds close to their eye level (bird’s nests, a colony of ants). For them, the magnitude of scale is no merit by which to judge the natural world. Thus monumentality can be perceived in a single petal, and a character of great importance could be represented with just a few strokes of pencil. These lightly sketched characters are all of great importance, carried over from a child’s memory and perspective. Like the fire engines that periodically battle with the great injustice at Rembrandt’s Crossing, they sometimes win and sometimes lose; the painting remains open-ended for as long as the artist has the power to summon their absolute innocence.

Compositionally the most complex work of the series, Rembrandt’s Crossing, started with the middle panel’s reconstruction of a scene from Rembrandt’s engraving The Monk in Corn, 1646, placed at the axis of an equilateral cross, overlayed with the St Andrew’s Cross. The movement of subsequent paintings/erasures followed the patterns of various historic crosses, resembling a chess game of human resistance and suffering. The direction of small fire engines (citations from Džafo’s own childhood drawings) and marching soldiers (Georg Grosz, Civilisation marching on, 1936) anticlockwise suggests a tetragammadion, whereas the dark silhouettes in the central panel (Nikolai Ivanovich Dormidont’s musicians and the Gustave Courbet’s poor) move in the opposite direction. The coffin (Djordje Andrejevic Kun, miners from The Map of Bloody Gold II) emerges from a light whitewash together with the fire engines, leaving the central scene with its bodies frantically embracing in a sequence of almost abstract vectors, a perpetuum mobileengine of the entire painting.

Influenced by the automatic assemblages and collages of the surrealism[9], the cadaver exquisand the nonacademic collective art actions and activist performances of the 90s, Džafo’s approach to painting appears to be without a desire for objective singularity. Instead, each painting offers multiple points of view, sometimes painted atop one another, expressing fragmented multifocal subjectivity. His subject(s) are carefully pre-conceptualised but derive as much importance from the process of layering, whitewashing, erasure, addition and substraction, and a provocative accident, thus creating a perspective plane without a single line of sight, thus liberating the viewer from the authoritative voice of the artist.

The citations which often drive the composition belong to the symbiosis of interest in national, pan-national and international art history, exposing the artist’s thoughts about his own locus, place, role and consideration of art through the edgelander’s point of view. After the loss of future of the nineties and the ensuing revival of the regional national art scenes, Džafo’s citations (by memory and through filters of reference materials) ask some important questions about what next for the memories grown in a splintered, bordered vacuum.

As Robert Macfarlane writes in remembrance of Peter Davidson’s study The Last of the Light: “twilight is best thought of less as a period of time and more as a ‘territory’; a ‘territory of melancholy and revenants, longings and regrets’. For the only certainty of twilight is that it will end. The completion of the scene is also its annihilation. The earth will continue to rotate upon its axis, the sun will fall further below the horizon, the light slip from the last things, until finally it can be said that night has come.”[10]

Džafo’s interest in nature is never dreamlike or sentimental but always reverts back to its human component. The dramatic contrast between the vulnerable human subject versus the strong forces of nature and/or culture, preferred by the Romantics, is here replaced with a more complex view, where the treachery of human existence appears as if magnetised by nature, within the ecology of the suburbia, the marginalia of fringes of the city, where petty violence blends into the continuity of changing seasons. The tensions that stem from this mise-en-scène are not a part of the unseen or the unconscious, but belong to the world that lies visibly around us. Unseen merely means something that has been willingly overlooked.

 

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[1]“Led” means ice in Serbian and in Croatian; Led Art suggests reflection on a moment frozen in time by witnessing, mirroring and preservation. The Belgrade-Novi Sad group Led Art performed a large number of collective actions from the first performance in Belgrade, Frozen Artin 1993, until 2003. Frozen Artwas held in a freezer truck in front of Dom Omladine with the commentary “The new societal conditions are interpreted like a change in the physical state of water”, evoking “a delicate line separating death and hibernation, physical destruction and frozen state that enables long-term survival, but also the agony of dying” (Jovan Despotovic, “Frozen reality: Led Art – activism of the nineties in Serbia”, published in Džafo, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, Novi Sad 2011.) Led Art was a symbolic engaged testimony of the time when Serbia was declaring not to be in a war, against all evidence of the reality. Other protest art actions similarly focused on drawing public attention and reaction. Other members of Led Art included Gabriela Pejević, Dragoslav Krnajski, Suzana Jovanović, Dragan Živančević, Slobodan Vilček, Nebojša Milikić, Goran Denić, Srđan Veljović,Vesna Grginčević,  Predrag Kočović, Ratko Vučinić. More about the group’s activities can be found in Led Art – Documents of Time 1993-2003, MMC Led Art, Novi Sad, 2004, and Džafo, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, Novi Sad 2011.

[2]The actions titled Reconstructions of Crime in the Balkansstarted during the first half of the 1990s as a response to the state-sanctioned crimes. Itstarted with the all-day action Kunstlager – Living in Serbia, or Offence 2000, performed on the leap day, February 29. in the courtyard of the Catholic church in Novi Sad, partly fenced off with barbed wire. Kunstlagerstarted with an air raid siren and continued with actions such as cooking beans, haircutting, bowling with frozen balls, photoshoots against spells, etc. provoking awakening of public with “bread and games” within the extreme social circumstances.

[3]Mirjana Peitler-Selakov, “A Stay In the White or What Could Be Said Ten Years Later?”, Džafo, Museum of Contemporary Art Vojvodina, Novi Sad 2011., p. 97-112.

[4]Džafo’s anti-anthropocentric interest in rabbits started in his childhood; his family kept them as pets and for food. Live rabbits first appeared in the performance Art Vrt (1994) followed by a multitude of painterly, sculptural or incidental emanations in exhibitions Wherein Lies the Rabbit?(1997), The Rabbit Museum (1999), Lepus in Fabula (The Hare Who Ate The Museum, 2011), Dinner for Rabbit(2017). The Rabbit in Džafo’s work presents the collective voice through which the artist expresses discontent towards power, academism and conventionality. More about this can be found in Lidija Merenik and Sava Jovanović, “Zataškavanja pitanja velikih utopija”, Catalogue of 12th Biennale of art Pančevo, 2006, and Alexandra Lazar, “Dinner for Rabbit”, 2017, at http://www.supervizuelna.com/vecera-za-zeca/

[5]The work is titled after the short film by Rajko Grlić from 1971.

[6]Uroš Predić (1856-1953), considered one of the greatest Serbian painters, was famed for the historic works of Serb migrations and battles. Most of his works were held at the National Museum in Belgrade, which has opened to the public in 2018. after 15 years of closure.

[7]“Rico found these flags on the street, abandoned and dirty. The faded glory of the flags which at some point represented celebration made the artist question the way an object interacts with its surrounding. Gabriel Rico´s work takes a critical stance towards everyday consumption and the contradiction between object and material. From the very start these flags had been produced to have a short life only to be left when the party was over. Gabriel Rico redefines the purpose and esthetic significance of the flags and instead of being a symbol of festivities it becomes a melancholic art work which reflects upon oblivion with the string of flags forming an ambiguous smile.” Courtesy of Galeria OMR, Mexico and Gabriel Rico.

[8]Both Rico and Bernstein’s works can be purchased on the commercial art platform Artsy, and Jan Fyt’s still lives are copyright-free. Džafo’s work highlights the contrast between that which can not be bought versus that which can (the utopia and the solace of his garden, or the utopia of Yugoslavia).

[9]The surrealist movement in Yugoslavia, active from 1922-1932, produced a generation of poets and artists whose work was based on the premises of automatic text, collage, decalcomania, assemblage and photography, as well as the theoretical propositions of the avant-garde. The Yugoslav surrealists were close to Art Brut in examining the possibility of acting spontaneously and irrationally when creating, and were publishing their artistic and theoretical work in the almanac Nemoguće(L’Imposible) and the magazine Nadrealizam danas i ovde(Surrealism Here & Now).

[10]Robert Macfarlane, “The Blue Hours”, See All This MagazineNo. 4, Winter 2016-17.