Visitors to Günter Grass Gallery in Gdańsk currently have the opportunity to enjoy an exhibition of works by Croatian artists. Surprisingly enough, these artists do not share any particular aspect of their works. What they do share is the space they work in. All of them use workshops located in the former Žitnjak primary school and present works at the gallery there. Žitnjak is an exceptional place combining studios and an art gallery, and is based on the concept of the periphery, understood not only as the physical location, but also as a characteristic feature of artistic choices and ideas.
The title of the exhibition presented in Gdańsk is “The Center of the Periphery – Artists from Žitnjak Ateliers in Zagreb’’. Admittedly, the event is entirely consistent with the concept of the periphery we have just mentioned. This idea is reflected in the lack of a strictly defined programme and any central theme around which narration would be built. Instead, the exhibition presents works by a representative group of artists. Visitors should not expect any coherent storytelling, but rather an opportunity to get insight into individual works by artists using totally different motives and techniques.
We had the pleasure to speak with one of the project coordinators, Marta Wróblewska. She told us where the idea for such an exhibition came from and whether it was more difficult for the curator to organise an exhibition without a specific programme than to prepare an exhibition presenting defined themes and motives.
Anna Dziuba: “The Center of Periphery’’ presents works by Croatian artists working in Žitnjak Ateliers in Zagreb. This is a rare opportunity for Polish audiences to take a closer look at works by exceptional artists. Tell us how the idea for such an exhibition came about?
Marta Wróblewska: When it comes to my work as a curator, all ideas relating to my exhibitions have an interesting background. Professionally I am a curator of modern art events, but my education made me an art historian and I follow this path with true passion. My job-related tasks include being up to date with phenomena and events on the international art scene. This, again, is what fascinates me. For me, the most exciting way to become familiar with what is going on in art is by visiting big and well-known events, such as the Venice Biennale. In 2013 in Venice I discovered splendid works by Kata Mijatović, which were presented in the Croatian pavilion. What really made a huge impression on me and was the thing I could not forget was Kata’s project “Dream Archive”. Two years passed and I met Kata in person during a studio visit in Zagreb. This visit was part of the European project “The People’s Smart Sculpture” in which Gdańsk City Gallery participated. Overall, twelve institutions participated in this project and among them was a Croatian institution, which introduced the best local artists to us.
This is how in 2016 we managed to invite Kata and her partner, artist and performer, Zoran Pavelić, to Gdańsk. Both artists presented their projects during the annual Gdańsk City Gallery Grassomania festival. Kata introduced an installation based on her “Dream Archive” project, which enchanted me so much in Venice, and Zoran presented his performance “The Voice of Artist”. This was the moment we decided to continue our collaboration and prepare interdisciplinary, large-scale exhibitions which would introduce contemporary Croatian artists to polish audiences and vice versa. I suppose our exhibition is the very first one of this kind in Poland. Nonetheless, it is a pioneering endeavour among art events in Gdańsk.
A.D.: Do you think it was easier to prepare this exhibition than other exhibitions because it does not have any programme or central theme? Or maybe it is the other way round and you needed to put in some extra effort? What do you think about the exhibition itself? Doesn’t the lack of programme and narration make the exhibition less appealing to the audience?
M.W.: Personally I am used to visiting exhibitions based on a certain concept. This is also the strategy I use in my work as a curator. For this reason, the collective exhibitions at Günter Grass Gallery in Gdańsk usually revolve around a defined topic, which our visitors can easily identify. When looking for topics to present, we very often think about the patron of our gallery. His works and artistic achievements became the starting point for our activities and artistic creations on numerous occasions.
Contrary to our usual practice, in the case of the current exhibition our Croatian coordinators and we decided to give the stage to individual artists. Doing so, we aligned ourselves with the programme of the group of artists working and sharing the space in Ateliers Żitnjak. The second reason we adopted this unusual approach is the fact that this is the first presentation of the work of Croatian artists in Poland on such a large scale. Therefore, I felt that I should not define one obligatory topic, but rather approach the event as the monographic presentation of Croatian modern art by a group of selected artists. After placing all works in the exhibition space, we were astonished to discover that it is not mandatory to have a specific central theme. An exhibition can form a coherent whole even without dominant motives. It turned out that the choices by artists as to which works to present at the collective exhibition in Gdańsk were not random. Thanks to this, our exhibition is very coherent from the visual and aesthetic point of view, despite the great variety of techniques and means of expression used by artists.
Anyway, I think that visitors who like narration and storytelling will find for themselves certain recurring motives, which multiple artists are fascinated with. Among such motives are journeys (understood both as the physical change of location and mental journeys) or self-analysis of works and artistic activities, often sprinkled with irony and humour.
A.D.: What do your visitors make of this kind of exhibition? Does the audience perceive presented works differently because they do not revolve around any common theme? Perhaps the lack of a defined theme helps the viewer interpret the works themselves? Is it easier to interact with works when you are not forced to refer to a certain topic all over again?
M.W.: In general, the perception of a given exhibition always depends on the degree to which visitors are open-minded. In order to foster the correct attitude I often tell a certain story through my exhibitions. I also attach great importance to descriptions, which are added to every work. They facilitate interpretation, enable understanding and present additional contexts which may be crucial for a viewer. This time everything is different. I did not assume the role of a storyteller, but I let the participating twelve artists do this job themselves. Each of them invites visitors to his/her own realm of creativity and shares things he/she finds fascinating. In my opinion, this is a rare but fantastic opportunity for the audience to experience art on very different levels and with a plethora of emotions accompanying them every step of the way. They can see art presented from various perspectives at one exhibition, which does not happen too often at art events.
A.D.: AŽ Gallery is an exceptional place combining workshops and an art gallery and is based on the concept of the periphery, understood not only as the physical location but also as a characteristic feature of artistic choices and ideas. Isn’t it slightly risky for the artists to present their works at the gallery? Aren’t they afraid of having the category of unconventional artists always working outside of the mainstream and constantly trying to be different “assigned” to them?
M.W.: I have the impression that to some extent the periphery is present in activities of every artist. It can manifest itself as unusual, increased sensitivity to surrounding reality, but also in artworks themselves, which may be very unconventional. If we look at the context of creating many interesting, untypical pieces, we would notice that places far from the centre usually play a crucial role in the creative process. Often we would not expect peripheral locations to be so important for artistic activities but, surprisingly, that is what happens in many cases. The concept of the periphery can be understood in many different ways, not only as a physical location. We can distinguish the periphery in relation to attitudes, outlooks and beliefs, which would be defined as the departure from canons and mediocrity. This applies to art, social life and politics, and certainly boosts creativity. The periphery understood that way does not pigeonhole artists by any means. Overall, I do not think that it is possible to pigeonhole a really good artist.
Interviewed by Anna Dziuba
Translated by Joanna Pietrak
Edited by Maggie Kuzan
”The Center of the Periphery – Artists from Žitnjak Ateliers in Zagreb’’
Günter Grass Gallery in Gdańsk
04/09/2018 – 25/11/2018