Tadej Pogačar’s Persistent Perversion of Institutional Critique

Tadej Pogačar, "Obisk/Visit II," 1993. Photo by Miha Skrlep.

Tadej Pogačar is a Slovenian artist who has been making work for over thirty years. For much of that period he has operated under the aegis of the P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E Museum of Contemporary Art, a self-organized artistic project that enacts an institutional critique by, in fact, enacting an institution. His retrospective at Ljubljana’s Moderna Galerija (Modern Art Museum) shows both a crucial direction for critical art, and the fate of cultural production in the post-Communist Balkans.

Pogačar’s exhibition is presented in three large galleries within the Galerija’s austerely elegant building, designed in 1948 by architect Edvard Ravnikar. It’s one that, like the art contained within, belies many stereotypes of Eastern European aesthetics. And this is the first lesson of Pogačar’s work: like that of many artists in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and ‘80s, his practice demonstrates the highest conceptual rigor. Inspired by the poetic or fictitious museums of Marcel Broodthaers, for instance, Pogačar founded the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1990, just as Yugoslavia and Slovenia were undergoing tremendous pressures during the transition to post-Communism. To found an institution amid the detritus of socialism is a perversely utopian, or at least hopeful, act.

Pogačar’s early works as P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E typically took the form of interventions into the artworld. Thus for the first Manifesta, in Rotterdam (1996), Pogačar selected photographs from the city’s art and natural history museums, adding his owns images and mounting them on a colored wall; he also requested hair samples from Manifesta’s curatorial team for DNA analysis. This interweaving of the aesthetic and the forensic continued with a brilliant intervention at the second Slovenian Triennial in 1997, where he set up a security system, and took fingerprints from museum visitors. But perhaps his most genius project along these lines came earlier, in 1994, when, as Slovenia was being re-organized for a neoliberal future, Pogačar worked at the Museum of the People’s Revolution, arranging various odds and ends, including abandoned pharmaceutical products, office furniture, and a photograph of Che Guevera (on a 1959 visit to Ljubljana). Layers of institutional, political, and national histories provide ripe material for Pogačar’s method. The slogan “Pure Beauty” is laid over Che’s photograph: Barbara Kruger’s method of culture-jamming results in post-Communist kitsch, as if to preview the advertising and corporate brands that now characterize public spaces in the former Yugoslavia.

As Pogačar clearly realizes, institutional critique has worn-out its welcome, or has, rather, been incorporated into the museum and galleries and art schools (and biennials and art fairs) such that its critique has been made moot. Every major museum wants an Andrea Fraser performance; Hans Haacke’s and Fred Wilson’s works have been inducted into the canon. In an era of community engagement and neoliberal attendance-boosting, reflexive strategies are just part of the game. A promising next step for institutional critique, then, can be seen in Pogačar’s work, which turns to other, putatively non-artistic institutions, from public schools to homeless shelters, from prostitutes’ rights groups to street economies.

For the Kings of the Street project (1994-1995), Pogačar met with homeless men and women, and devised an advertising campaign. A photograph of crossed hands was emblazoned with the slogan “kralji prihajajo!” (“the kings are coming!”). On a main street in Ljubljana, a large chair was set up and his homeless subjects were paid to sit. The site of poverty, the street, was transformed, however temporarily, into a royal chamber. The project itself was open-ended, determined in a process of dialogue with its rootless players.

More long-term, and with a global impact, has been CODE-RED, which began in 2001 when Pogačar was the Slovenian artist at the Venice Biennale. Working with the Committee for the Civil Rights of Prostitutes in northern Italy, Pogačar organized a Worldwide Congress of Sex Workers in Venice. Sex workers traveled from Asia, North America, and Europe (incredibly, funding was secured from a Venetian casino), and took part in a conference that culminated in a street performance and parade, as men and women carried red umbrellas to stroll by the houses of famous courtesans. As Pogačar noted at the time, sex-trade workers have often been depicted in art; but rarely are they permitted to participate in, and make it. Pogačar’s humanistic solidarity may, however, be a weak link in these projects, unlike those of Santiego Sierra, whose 160 cm line, for example, confronts the art viewer in a more unforgiving way with his (our) complicity.

Nonetheless, Pogačar has continued the CODE-RED project in other European centers, as well as New York and Brazil, where he worked with local “love hotels” to stage a prostitutes’ fashion show at the 27th Bienal de São Paulo. But his retrospective in Ljubljana does not neglect the aesthetic exhibition-scaled dimensions of this more activist art. Photography and objects from CODE-RED share space with vitrines displaying African artifacts. In Pogačar’s hands, the museum is a space for both collecting and performing, for works of art as well as the communities in which they are situated. Writing on his work, the Macedonian critic Suzana Milevska has argued that these recent strategies are an important shift away from the narcissism of institutional critique. Pogačar’s art now produces, she claims, “a solidarity that empowers weak institutions and individuals.” The prestige of the art fair or biennial is leveraged for the purposes of social justice.

A more modest project, the Street Economy series (2001-ongoing) is displayed with a purpose. Photographs show people selling shoes, DVDs, or pirated Louis Vuitton bags in Mexico, Venice, and Thailand. The objects are arranged discreetly, on cardboard or a blanket, to enable a quick grab, should the police arrive. Exhibition practices are important: photographs run down two walls, from one gallery to another. The street economy intervenes the museum space, a display interferes with architecture, and Pogačar, a veritable institution onto himself, continues the critique.

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