Wandering between light and incomprehension Kopljar’s work has always contained codes of communication that do not get across somehow, or at least not completely. His work does not readily communicate rationally in plain language or through visual signs. What does get across, however, is the overriding content of his work, leaving the viewer with an effect, a feeling that is conveyed through the works’ physicality and imagery. It is similar, for example, to someone who does not understand Italian, but is nevertheless moved by a passionate recitation in that language. The content of Kopljar’s message is gauged through the sound and rhythm of its delivery. For when processing information, we do not rely solely on our rational faculty; other to our perceptual abilities are appealed to. In 1997, Zlatko Kopljar began working on a series of works which he named K (the acronym of “Constructions”, from the Croatian word Konstrukcija). Each construction (which is numbered to represent its chronological order in the series) is a statement of a complexity that is not to be readily decoded. K1, the first in the series, perfectly sets the tone of his performance; wearing surgical gloves at the front of an auditorium, a deaf-blind girl recites a message in sign language. When she prepares to recite it a second time, bright lights are flashed into the audience, temporarily blinding them. Once the girl has been accompanied off the stage, the audience goes to the lobby, where they can find the text she attempted to deliver, written in Braille: “This ridiculously theatrical and pathetic situation is only a necessity in which you are involved. It is my privilege to convey to you in the least adequate manner what is constantly devastating and permanently burdening me. This speech will surely not change anything. It is only certain that it will remind us of what we already know. The manner in which this is conveyed releases both you and me from momentarily needless responsibility. We do not have to think now, in this moment, about what I am talking about. The responsibility is due later. That is why everything looks like a deception and any possibility of rational communication is cancelled. Thereby our egos are also cancelled as well as the possibility to judge it immediately. The willful disturbance of any communication is what I do because I expect you to feel with your body, eyes, skin, feet, palms of your hands. I want you to feel. To ask yourselves: what has really happened? What has really been said? You will find the answer by yourselves when you come to somebody whom you have always thought in need of help and find out that he or she is the only one that can help you.” The content of this message and its means of delivery, after the fact, can be seen as a kind of manifesto of the artist’s practice; perhaps it stands as a symbol for the reading or experiencing of artworks – reality at large. If we concentrate solely on the rational, there may be a whole layer of experience we are missing out on. By abandoning the portion of communication that is intelligible to us, its materiality becomes acutely visible. By bringing us up close to incomprehension, the artist is allowing us to flex the muscle of “not-knowing”, from which new mental spaces can be born. The friction felt in incomprehension is often experienced by audiences less accustomed to contemporary art; in this case, the incomprehension is amplified to include even those familiar with it. The situation, however, is never without hope,
because the artist always provides an indication that the means to decode or understand can eventually be found. The viewer is placed in a position from which it is impossible to judge, an experience that may be uncomfortable at first, yet ultimately liberating. Kopljar acts out of perplexity towards the artistic and social status quo. His motivation stems from a discomfort, which he then uses to mould his work, as though it were an obdurate substance that he splits open in order to let the light spill out.
K9 Compassion K9 Compassion has several incarnations, composed of a series of identical performances the artist began working on during a 2003 residency at Franklin Furnace in New York. Wearing his usual, universal attire of a white shirt and a black suit, the artist kneels on a handkerchief in front of a significant landmark. The locations he chose – Wall Street, the Guggenheim Museum, the UN building, Times Square and even a China Town sidewalk and 8th Avenue – symbolize the power exerted by the cultural and economic dominance of the country he was visiting. The landmarks symbolize the hegemony of American culture that affects the artist’s world, even though he lives thousands of miles away. Hands by his side, head bowed, standing on his knees with a straight back, he poses as a beggar, a social outcast, who kneels to ask for food. Is the head bowed in shame, or could it be helpless rage? Is the kneeling figure praying, or is he in a trance? Does the pose represent awe or resignation? The figure’s silence, and complete lack of concern for the activity around him, does little more than compellingly raise these questions. The image of the comparatively diminutive figure facing these monolithic edifices (and, by association, the institutions they house and represent) could evoke despair – but in fact, it does the opposite. The artist’s stature (which, in a Belgian context is reminiscent of George Minne’s statues of kneeling, angelic, male youths) is not diminished; the figure does not become insignificant, he is not bowled over, nor is he run over by the passing traffic. Instead, the image is immensely powerful. The kneeling figure, in the artwork, becomes the actor and controller of the scene, the centre of attention around which everything evolves. The figure stands out in the speed of time because he is standing still. The work renews the persistence of the individual, and speaks of ways of regaining a dignified posture in a high-speed reality. In the viewer’s mind it triggers a sense of awe and ritual, aspects of life that have largely disappeared from contemporary living. As such, K9 is a radical, subversive work, achieved through poetic means. Moreover, one need only think of the economic collapse of 2009, which began in Wall Street and affected people’s livelihoods worldwide, to discern the prophetic quality of K9 Compassion. The material for the performances was further elaborated: Kopljar had software written that was based on his genetic data, and programmed to shift the pixels of each video frame to new locations within the same frame. This makes the video image of the performance become thoroughly scrambled and illegible. It means that decoding
and reading this mediated image is entirely dependent on the artist’s DNA, or, if you like, his very existence. (Franklin Furnace’s Martha Wilson remarked at the time that K9 represents a first in performance art it was the first time that the image of human body was so comprehensively digitalised.) The artist, in other words, has turned his individual DNA coding into the matrix for the work’s agency. The projection is followed by the monologue from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Nostalgia (1983), featuring Erland Josephson: My ancestor’s voice is speaking inside of me. I cannot live simultaneously in my head and in my body. That is why I cannot be only one person. I am capable of feeling myself in innumerable things at the same time. The true evil of our times lies in the fact that there are no more great teachers. The path of our hearts is covered with shadows. It is necessary to listen to the voices that seem useless; the humming of insects has to get into the heads taken by long, infested tubes, exhausting schools, swords, social habits. The ears and eyes of all of us have to be filled by the ideas that were at the beginning of the great dream; somebody has to scream that we shall construct the pyramids; it doesn’t mater if we won’t do it in the end. The desire has to be nourished. We have to stretch the soul in all directions, as if it is a sheet spread to infinity. If you want the world to move forward we have to hold each other’s hands. We have to mingle, the so called sane and the so called insane. Hey, you sane ones, what does your sanity mean? All eyes of the world are looking into the abyss into which we are to precipitate. We don’t need the freedom if you have no courage to look us in our faces, eat with us, drink with us, sleep with us. That is just how those who have brought the world to the edge of catastrophe are called. Man, listen to the water, fire and then ashes inside yourself. And to the bones in the ashes. Bones and ashes. Where am I when I am not in the reality or in my imagination? I propose a new agreement with the world: from now the sun will shine at night and it will snow in August. The society has to be united again and not fragmented. It would be enough to observe nature to understand that life is simple and that it is necessary to return to its origins. To the point where you have taken the wrong turn. We should return to the fundamental forms of life, without polluting the water. What is this world like when a madman has to tell you to be ashamed? Oh, mother, oh, mother! The air is that light thing circling around your head, becoming clearer when you laugh. Describing Kopljar’s K13 and K14 videos is like giving an account of a dream. Actions and situations are juxtaposed in such a way that they appear incongruous. The settings in the forest, or in a city suburb in the dark of night, come close to archetypes that correspond with the inner workings of the human psyche, yet they also appear familiar in an everyday sense. Most of Kopljar’s videos are wordless, and confront the viewer with the silent figure of the artist engaging in activities we cannot fully comprehend. We are invited to join the artist’s contemplation and wait to see what arises out of the experience. K12 shows two videos, the first of which is an after-event. The artist’s body is hanging in a tree after an (apparently) successful suicide, and in the foreground we see a picnic table with remnants of a party, left behind by the audience who enjoyed a drink as they took in the spectacle. The glittering sound of the birdsong, which at certain points rises to high levels of intensity, and an occasional static on the image, are the only variants that disturb the intoxicating constancy of the scene.
In the second video, we see the artist again, this time alive and well, in his same black suit and white shirt. He is kneeling, now deeper in the forest, engaged in the profound, marvelling contemplation of a white luminous sphere. The disembodied, circling view of the camera draws near and moves away like a hovering witness, along with the rise and fall of the ever-present birdsong. It renders the scene idyllic and could suggest that what we see is the viewpoint of the birds, or that of some all-seeing being of nature. Although both videos are time-based, the lack of any linear, narrative development throws the viewer back upon their expectations. Each single, visual statement is put to the viewer to contemplate, as if they are part of a puzzle that even the artist himself does not comprehend. K13 starts in the same forest, darker this time, faintly illuminated by an otherworldly glow, coming from an unidentified source. We can clearly see the artist step between the trees. He is wearing a light-reflective suit. The ball of light is also seen again, lying on a bed of leaves. The only sounds now are breaking branches made by the artist with each step on the forest floor. The artist, transformed, appears to have absorbed the light he was contemplating in K12. He now appears to be giving light himself. His slow walk up the slope in the forest leads to a tower of light. The narrow, high tower is in fact an active light-bulb testing station. It is an architectural oddity, a remnant from the socialist age, located on the outskirts of Zagreb. It consists of a solid core enveloped in glass, as if the building’s sole intention is to illuminate. It is this aspect the artist has picked out; the building as lighthouse. Through the windows, the light temperatures visible in the compartments on the different floors shift from light pink to pale-blue. The artist, in his luminous suit, surveys the scene, as if the building were a giant incubator of the light bulbs themselves, as if he were willing them to create light. The whole piece thus becomes a giant metaphor for (spiritual) illumination. Tangential thoughts of Thomas Ellison’s 1952 novel The Invisible Man come to mind. The main character could not be seen for who he was, and instead was only visible as whatever people projected onto him. (The novel deals metaphorically with racial politics in the United States.) The prologue situates the character in the basement room with 1,369 light-bulbs using stolen electricity. (In 1999, Jeff Wall created the work After 'Invisible Man' by Ralph Ellison, the Prologue 1999-2000, which was based on this novelistic image.) The character states: "Without light I am not only invisible, but formless as well." In contrast, the light in this video piece seems to be about an inner light that is equally necessary for our survival. The artist does not embrace a particular religion or creed. The progression is kept to a bare minimum of elements, which are so pared-down, they tell their own story. The forest is, by its very nature, a symbol of change and it represents the dark, uncontrollable principle of the subconscious, and thus generally represents femininity and motherhood (through the forest’s unkempt, rampant fertility). It is a place at the edge of society one retreats to in order to work through inner darkness. Light emerging out of darkness is an almost universal metaphor for spiritual transformation, and the manly, luminous tower takes this to the extreme. The light-bulbs in the tower, all buzzing at different frequencies, evoke the patina of old science fiction aesthetic. Tarkovsky’s 1972 film Solaris also comes to mind, yet that film is about the inability of the crew of a spaceship to communicate with members of another species, whereas here the story seems to be about our own (in)ability to connect with ourselves.
In K14, the artist is still wearing the same luminescent suit, as he moves further out into the world, into Sopnica Jelkovec, a pre-constructed district of Zagreb that was originally slated to become an affordable housing area for young people. Over the years, the project passed through the hands of various property developers and political administrations, but it was eventually left unfinished. Currently, Sopnica Jelkovec is an ambiguous place; the flats that were built in the area were rented out at preferential rates to ethnic minorities and other groups of society that share little in common. Lacking social infrastructure, and adequate public transport, the district remains isolated at the edge of the city. In the video, again filmed at night, the artist appears in these streets, wearing a conspicuous, light-giving suit. Bands of youths march by, two by two. Poetry of alienation and solitude is recited. Like a younger brother of James Lee Byars, the artist passes by, as if his presence could serve to illuminate the social questions raised by the new district. At the same time, the piece poses the enduring question of the artistâ€™s function in todayâ€™s society. It is a question the artist continues to ask through the various forms he deploys, and he does so with dogged persistence. Kate Mayne
K14 includes poetry that the artist specially commissioned
one dot, red, over there, blinking, no, not blinking, flickering, no, not flickering, immobile, no, not standing, does it make a sound, could it hum, does it hum, brim, immobile, it's not light, it's not reflection, nothing comes in, only dot, red, stands in onset, standing and outgoing, moves away, comes in, flickers inflowing in itself, into the wind, flowing of dead air, echo, white, always white, like a feather on a breeze, like a needle in a sphere it rolls, slides, flicks, seesaws, stumbling and rising, drawing close to windowless panels, it will open up, split apart, red, like a grid, like a passage by itself, walls not dividing, walls not closing in, windows without walls, a dome without pillars, narrowing and dissipating, growing into a dot and now drizzles, from one end of this square to the other, when I stand here the edge is not there near me, the edge is not there with me, here without me, but it comes back, approaches, and then it flickers, red, for a moment, echoes, unrolls in ribbons, standing still, like a line, a stroke without a sound, blinking and it is not a dot, no beginning, it won't stop, it couldn't stop
can I hear myself, can you hear him, nobody speaks, no talking, haven't heard them, do you listen, they couldn't hear them, I forget you like a wall in front of a sound, encircled cause it will ring, ringing after them, it rings, it will ring behind him, emptied out, doesn't hear, they couldn't hear, doesn't hear himself â€“ he came over fields, in darkness, following dusk, tall grasses thinning out, a hundred paces before a dike, in front of him then, now must be over there, there should be an overpass, he withdrew slowly with dusk like before, then grows into a chain of street lamps, like a fence, like a panel over grid of light, like a moat they buried later on, covered over to bring it deeper, to earth again, in earth, without soil, it rises now and sinks in thick air â€“ if you make one step forward, and then step back, if you shift your weight from one leg to another, unnoticeably, cause nobody will hear, if you look back for a moment, if he bends and quickly rises, he couldn't be at the same place, it's not your place, someone else would stand behind him, are you standing behind me, where are you
in me, to mutter, for myself, not to say, he didn't say, didn't look, didn't stop, in himself, if he hesitates now, if he stops, who will stop then, in his tracks, who was there, to shrink into a dot, not moving, pull behind you, in one stroke, from above, always from above, over him, where he couldn't look, in himself, without thoughts, feelings, close down, you have to close yourself, can't protect yourself, like in a sphere, it always comes sideways, like a look you haven't given, it reflects, in itself, it will see you, it stares cause you couldn't see it, like when you feverishly wish and have to think of something else, whose thought forbade him to stop then, in himself, you haven't stopped, he couldn't stop, and all the time something in you must always go on, cause it won't go there, it couldn't come there, one shouldn't be there, won't come back, shouldn't stop in his tracks, in himself, breaking out of him, instantly, like a dot, withdraws and tears him apart, fast, faster, when he wouldn't look, when he finally turns around not to see, it will close down, it will fold onto him, silently, with a bang, noiselessly, without a sound, it comes down, came down beneath him, in me