Dijamant velik poput hotela Ritz, the Croatian translation of a story by Francis Scott Fitzgerald (from the short story collection Tales of the Jazz Age from 1922), is to some extent awkward because the original title The Diamond as Big as the Ritz stresses the two poles of the comparison with the shortness of its words and provides a more direct impression of the story. The fantastic size of a jewel that lies beneath a hill is the source of wealth of one family, but also of a crime with which, for generations, they have concealed their discovery and possession of this jewel. This image of the title is what most impresses in this novella, much more than the detailed and somewhat ridiculous descriptions of the extravagant life of the jewel’s owners. Size is what we were confronted with when we visited the exhibition ‘Art is Beautiful’ by Ante Rašić in the Art Pavilion in Zagreb this autumn. Behind it stand manners of articulation which attempt to give the very essence, definition of different aspects and possibilities that are offered by what we call ‘art’. Fascination with size is merely the first layer, and a real artistic gem lies beneath.
To justify these statements, we will try to show how Rašić deals with size, and with the artistic expression he chose himself and which he has been following for quite some time now. Because proportions, as well as media of expression, are a matter of personal inclination on the part of an artist. A successful sculptor, creator of a tiny plastic artwork, will create a better work in several centimetres than an incapable sculptor will, who makes overdimensioned figures, and vice versa. A bridge across a brook is not less valuable than an ocean crossing if, of course, it is made supremely.
In order to perhaps better understand the sources of Rašić’s ‘enlargements’, let us remind ourselves for a moment of his work Nightmare (it is also mentioned by the catalogue author, Željko Marciuš), exhibited last year as part of the exhibition of works nominated for the T-HT Award. An enlarged cube that imitates marble on a pillow works with opposites of the impressions of hard and soft, with the impression of restlessness caused by nightmares. Something similar is found in Henry Fuseli’s painting Nightmare of 1781 in which a demon sits on the chest of a woman lying on a bed, again suggesting heaviness and stressing the contrast with her white gown and the bed, which represents a necessary requisite of, the then conventional eroticism in depicting a woman. It is Romanticism that may serve as a guideline for understanding Rašić’s work. Just like in the mentioned painting of Fuseli, his aim is not to reflect reality, but to create impressions. If an artist uses a fantastic imaginarium in the process or any deviation from everyday experience, it is due to the desire for a stronger, more direct impact on the recipient, the desire for direct utterance of artistic language. Romanticism talks (in opposition to widespread ‘scholastic’ attitudes) with its expression of form, much more than with contents. And so, Keats’s famous Ode on a Grecian Urn (published in 1820) brings the verse: ‘Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought,’ and a glance in the Art Pavilion, enriched with Rašić’s installations provokes us aesthetically, visually. While we attempt to grasp their huge proportions with our eyes (and mind), we are drawn into their story. A trap that large formats frequently set is their talkativeness – the problem is not only to say multum, non multus, but multum et (in) multus. Rašić has achieved Keats’s ‘silent form’: his sculptures leave the impression of being purified and this has been achieved either by their colouristic minimalism or by repetition of the same forms. Plays with possibilities of monumental expression which, because of the purely aesthetic aspiration of the artist, are not emptily rhetorical (as many works of contemporary artists are) are without any doubt related to Romanticism as well as to the avant-gardes of the 20th century in terms of the interaction of works with the audience and of attempting to reach people on a number of levels. Also, the very title of the exhibition, ‘Art is Beautiful’, offers the essential message of the artist’s philosophy of life that corresponds with the Romantic search for beauty in simplicity, monumentality, feelings that are ‘larger than life’ (poems by Lamartine, landscapes by Friedrich), and it is not very far from Kant’s thesis on beauty as disinterested liking, in other words, a special feeling not related to the meaning or social context of a work. The name of the exhibition is also in the spirit of the (today perhaps pathetic) ending of Keats’s already quoted poem: ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ This exhibition questions the possibilities of aesthetic experience in a contemporary manner and this in five installations – four in the Art Pavilion and one on the building of the Academy of Fine Arts.
The sculptures, or installations in this exhibition impact our sense of aesthetics in several ways. The installation Eggo (Ja – ja in Croatian) shows a floor covered with eggs. Along with the play of words (‘ja’ – the Croatian first person singular personal pronoun and ‘jaja’ the Croatian plural for ‘egg’), the work also plays with perception. Visitors are invited to walk on the eggs (in the play of words, walking on eggs, ‘jaja’, or walking on their ‘ja’ meaning ‘I’) and while they may not look like real eggs, they still look as fragile as real ones, so that when we stand on them, we cannot resist the impression they will break. The field of eggs under our feet partly glitters at places and if all the lights were on, one could read the word ‘love’ over the entire surface, which suggests appearance and disappearance, a creation that has for its symbol both eggs (natural incubators) and the very love from which different high quality (artistic and other) works come into being. The play creates our reaction in terms of visual and sensory by means of expectations (in similar manner as Nightmare by the same author does). Vilayanur Subramanian Ramachandran, a neuroscientist, who in his work tries to find some regularities that manage aesthetic reactions in our brains lists certain rules in his article ‘The Science of Art’ from 1999 and among them we can read many tendencies displayed in the work of Rašić – the mentioned game with perception, the pleasant impact of contrast, looking for a unique point of view, but also evading the same point as a kind of ‘elusiveness’ and immeasurability of space (such as is apostrophized by multiplication of identical shapes in this installation or, even more prominently, within The Oval Sculpture), balance, proportions, and even metaphoric nature of art (the word play in the name of this work, for example). All these ‘regularities’ can be applied to the work Eggo as well as other exhibits. What Ramachandran postulates is the possibility to define beautiful on the basis of natural-science research. ‘Art is Beautiful’ offers the same in practice – it does not talk about beautiful, but shows it directly, taking into consideration the effect of art on our brain. Aesthetic experience is a special reaction of the brain which in no way occurs when one is thinking about social problems ‘of the here and now’ as many contemporary theories of art would like to show, jarring our ears with quasi-engagement and pseudo-philosophy. Art is simply beautiful, regardless of such attitudes and, actually, of bad art that wants to say the opposite.
Perhaps the most socially topical work is On the Edge, set on the Academy of Fine Arts building in Zagreb. Apart from representing an urban installation exposed to the gaze of a much wider audience than is the case with installations in the Art Pavilion (with the assumption that passers-by do look up, which is what they do more and more rarely), it is impossible to exclude the metaphor of the wooden artist’s mannequin (and on the building of the Academy on top of that) on the edge of a narrow pipe as the marginal position of traditional painting and art in general today. Balancing the wooden male model against the massive building refreshes the dilapidated and empty façade by contrasting its small mass to the large edifice, as well as by the dynamic slightly arch-like form. It covers a large section of empty space between the two buildings and visually frames this in-between space.
A similar playing with space occurs in perceptively the most complex installation The Oval Sculpture: large pipes protrude from holes in a wall of the Pavilion (their arrangement reminds one of Fontana’s oval canvasses, hence the title, although this impression is lost in the work). In the irregular arrangement, they conquer and completely fill both the space of a Pavilion wing and the visual field of the observer: they impress with their unusual articulation of space that is planned, contemplated, but also elusive. Challenged to walk near the sculpture, we are to some extent provoked by the irregular instalment of tubes, but we cannot get rid of the impression that everything was planned. Lucio Fontana used to cut canvasses thus ‘deepening’ what was called ‘the space of painting’ in his peculiar way (as the counterpart to the term ‘painted space’ which refers to an illusionary presentation of depth in a painting). Rašić fills the very space with contemplated ‘lines of force’ which dynamize it, very measuredly and unaggressively, in spite of their seemingly irregular directions of stretching. Every now and then, one tube falls and is lifted with the aid of an electric motor as an addition to the idea of ‘method in madness’ (as Shakespeare would say).
The author gives the name A Historicist Cabinet of Wonders to the enlargement of the Lošinj Apoxyomenos to nine and half metres and covering it with mirrors thus alluding to the exhibition space of the Pavilion, as well as to ancient cabinets of wonders, predecessors of various museums. The views that are reflected from the sculpture reveal the aspirations of the author – play of a number of possible points of view, perceptions, of the visual. The enlarged ancient sculpture suggests measure and the ancient ideal of beauty. Since all ancient sculptures were made to seem harmonious, according to the measure that resulted from evolutionally acquired human proportions (therefore, the great ancient Greek sophist Protagoras is often quoted as saying ‘Man is measure of all things’), the artist tries to contain the idea of measure that is pleasant to us in this overdimensioned sculpture: this is the measure after which the Pavilion is also made (and any other architecture) therefore by setting a huge ancient sculpture inside, the artist connects classical with historicist aspirations, in contrast to many who (even today) accuse this architectural style as falsely monumental and pompous. Size itself, we repeat, cannot be perceived as a positive or negative characteristic. This work also implies interaction with visitors in the same way the other exhibited works do: while walking around the sculpture we can see changing reflections, flashes of light on it (depending on the time of the day), and beneath, a print is emphasized which repeats the radial structure of the Pavilion’s floor marquetry with stressed thick black contours of shapes on a white background. Taking over and simplifying the space that participates in the reception of the artwork in it make this installation a postmodernist play with tradition and elements of form, almost a mannerist invention.
The work that gives the title to the exhibition, Art is Beautiful, consists of large barrels with colours (water based, with glue) spilled over the floor which create rather regular, although uncontrolled, shapes over which visitors can walk. The colours are pure and do not mix due to their physical features, and they perhaps provide the author’s final credo about true art, readable through the entire exhibition. Art comes into being seemingly as an accident, but in truth, it is planned, contemplated, and above all beautiful, because it responds to the needs of the human brain where it provokes positive aesthetic reactions. More than that, it is pointless to look for.