Milo Lazarevic

DEHUMANIZED SCULPTURE 


​ Since World War II, a number of Yugoslav sculptors have organized themselves into groups for the purposes of improving the welfare of the individual artists, establishing artistic standards, and sharing ideas. The largest and most well‑known organization of this type is the Federal Association of Artists. In addition, however, many small groups of approximately half a dozen artists have evolved in order to create environments receptive to discussion and exhibition of new works. Some groups have lasted only for the duration of a single exhibition, while others have remained close together for as long as ten years.
            The group calling itself "Biafra" holds a particular interest because of its peculiar relationship with Yugoslav society artistic tradition, as well as because of the character of its works. The group came into focus for the first time in 1970 and has stayed loyal to its original ideas through the present moment. It was formed in a demolished dormitory of the University of Zagreb by several poor art students who used the space for living quarters, a working studio, and show space. The conditions of this abandoned building were so desolate and impoverished that the group called itself "Biafra."
            Aside from the closeness through sharing common difficulties, the group was also united by its devotion to personal'and ideological issues. These students needed each other to reinforce their tenuous social position and to ward off loneliness. Already esteeming each other's work, they now had to concern themselves with the more practical aspects of professional loyalty and the question of whom they were trying to reach through their art. Their daily discussions about the purpose of artistic activities in society and their emotional closeness helped them adopt a s‑I‑MI‑Ilar artistic language which protested against injustice, oppression, alienation, and all other forms of dehumanization. They continue to react against the artistic status quo and the self‑serving concerns for material enrichment of the "socialist nouveau riche." They are enraged by the alienation of men from each other due to their subordination to technology. They have read extensively in history and philosophy and have drawn trenchant and satirical parallels between contemporary industrialized society and certain periods from the past. According to them, technology is not a human blessing, but a tool of the few to exploit the rest. They compare the position of technology today to that of the Church in the past, and accuse the Church also of manipulating the common man. Since temples and cathedrals were built with a grandeur beyond men's abilities to comprehend, the members of "Biafra" feel that the physical structure, monumentality and glitter of these buildings were purposely calculated to subordinate him. They also believe that indirectly, through those places of worship where people used to kneel in awe and fear of the invisible power of God, they were in actuality being manipulated by the few who upheld the religious institutions and claimed divine power for themselves. Today, this role that once belonged to the priest is held by the politician, the engineer, and the businessman. Instead of worshipping God, today we worship, among other powers, the spaceship, the computer, and the television, all of which possess power to manipulate human lives.
Viewing society from this critical standpoint, the members of "Biafra" transform their condemnation of the bureaucracy, corruption, and oppression that they see into art objects whose purpose is to enlighten and influence those people suffering the most. They feel that the effectiveness of their work is reduced when they exhibit in official museums and galleries; therefore, they show their sculptures in public environments, most of the time in the city slum areas. Instead of bringing people to their art, they attempt to bring art to the people.
The artistic expression of "Biafra" takes the form of a new style of figuration rather than of abstraction because they believe that the human form is most effective in reaching the common man who does not understand or appreciate the abstract art prevailing in contemporary culture. They are determined in their crusade against non‑figurative art, which they see as a self‑indulgence by artists who are locked within ,themselves and have neither regard for nor interest in others. Such abstract work, according to "Biafra," stresses'‑‑‑individuality and alienates viewers because it uses language unknown to the people it is trying to reach. These artists, on the other hand, try to convey their message through a very literal use of the human form without recourse to sentimentality. Stripping "beauty" from their art is their prerequisite for honesty and for avoiding the pitfalls of artistic illusion. "Biafra" attempts to examine the fundamental problems of contemporary civilization from the perspective of members of this society, rather than from that of detached outsiders commenting upon it.
            These artists feel that art does not have to be beautiful because life is not beautiful either; they are interested only in forms that reflect life as it actually is rather than how it should or might be. Consequently, they are either ignored or rejected by society; they have no private patrons nor any commercial value. But "Biafra" members are optimistic, believing that this ostracization actually enhances their effectiveness. They have the advantage of being able to work freely with no danger of capitulating to society's ruling classes.
            In their desire to thrust their work into actual, living space as opposed to placing it in hermetic, elitist environments, most of these artists have adopted the practice of placing their figures directly on the ground, with no base or pedestal to separate them from the viewer. Thus, the often seated or sprawled figures impinge on the viewer even more forcefully than their expressionistic portrayals alone would, the viewer is led to identify corporeally with these sculptures. It is interesting that the American "Photo‑Realist" sculptors Duane Hanson and John De Andrea also place their disturbingly life‑like figures directly on the ground, assaulting the viewer with their accessibility and use of the actual environment as the "artistic" one. Whereas these "PhotoRealist" artists aim, and achieve, the highest level of verisimilitude right down to a fine coating of individual body hairs, the goals and portrayals of the Biafra group are more expressionistic, like brutal caricatures rather than exact reproductions of social types. on first impression, it seems that Zarko Violic's placement of his Mr. Rudek (Fig. 25) on a high pedestal would demand respect from the viewer. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that Mr. Rudek looks not at us nor from any commanding posture, but rather looks over us with a perplexed and vacuous expression. From a pathetically sagging body, Mr. Rudek's head juts forward on a thin neck which belies the mass of the unarticulated body.
            With Mr. Rudek, Violic speaks his hatred for authority. Although playing no specific role, the figure assumes an oratorical stance. Somehow the figure suggests both the stupidity and ineffectuality of authority figures as well as the pathetic vulnerability of the masses.
            Miro Vuco has placed his ravaged figure The Dogman (Fig. 26) directly in our space, in a little clearing in a field. The life‑size dimensions and common ground of the figure cause the viewer to identify with it. In exorcising all beauty from this brutalized figure, Vuco leads the observer to question his own manner of existence. The Dogman strides through our space with aggressive indifference, with a slit‑eyed impassive facial expression and with his hands shoved into his pockets. The figure is like a scarecrow come to life, his face muddied as if from direct, corporeal contact with human abasement. The viewer is shocked not only by the distasteful portrayal, but also by the personal fears he stimulates. The anonymous figure he represents assumes startling specificity in this rendering, and invites the viewer to consider the socialand personal implications of his existence.
            The grotesque human form Untitled (Fig. 27) by Stjepan Gracan portrays the ultimate degree of human degradation. Stepping on and into our space, the naked figure unavoidably accosts us. His emaciated, pathetic body implicitly turns his environment into the wilderness of the biblical Expulsion which his nakedness and shame evoke, although the shocking ugliness and overt pain of the figure transgress any conventional interpretation of that theme. Like some kind of plaster‑cast taken of a victim of disaster come to life, this hideous figure cannot be ignored, simultaneously alienating and touching the viewer.
            Valerije Michielli's Target (Fig. 28) is even more deformed, as if it were literally decomposing. The focal point of the battered figure is its headless shoulders. The body, chewed and charred as if by some holocaust, seems to try to remain erect by spreading its spindly legs and flinging its arms outward despite its decapitated condition. Target recalls Rodin's Walking Man of 1878 both in form and universal identity; Rodin's figure is a study for his St. John the Baptist and Michielli's figure, for all its implications of some modern disaster, evokes the crucifixion in its posture.
            Less dramatic but equally expressive is Stanko Jancic's Waiting (Fig. 29). Like Grucols and Vacan's figures, the seated figure occupies our space by actually sitting on the ground against a wall. His knees drawn up to support his elbows, his head resting against his hands, the figure conveys a passive, resigned hopelessness. Recalling the anonymous homeless, often alcoholic wretches that one often passes by on the street, this figure forces the viewer to contemplate what in actuality he usually uneasily ignores. Faceless due to the hat pulled down over his eyes, the figure seems withdrawn into himself protectively, yet accosts the viewer all the more affectingly by this pathetic self‑effacement.
            In Watching Television (Fig. 30), Durdica Zanoski takes a conventionally neutral domestic situation and invests it with disturbing emotional connotations. Once again invading the viewer's space, the bulky figure sits on an actual chair before an imaginary television set. His body inert both formally and representationally, the figure's face is screwed up into a grimace of concentration whose squinting, almost closed eyes belie his attitude of attention. The figure seems to have relinquished its humanity, its vitality, to a process which seems to stultify rather than enlighten.
            Transfusion (Fig. 31) by Ratko Petric is a literal portrayal of "brainwashing": a human brain made of polyester sits within an unidentifiable technological device where its core is penetrated by and attached to a welter of plastic tubes. Petric's work graphically conveys the dangers he perceives in technology and bureaucracy, which he believes to be the most serious enemies of the individual. In Transfusion, the human brain itself is victimized by technology, which of course is under the control of bureaucracy. Petric is making a scathing statement not only on the nature of indoctrination, but more significantly on the horrifying brutality that can result when technology designs the shape of reason.
            Petric believes that technology has manifested practical advantages in the political, social, and economic areas of life, but becomes cancerous when it invades the realms of aesthetics and human values. He accepts technology's material contribution to art via new, industrial materials but he decries its impact upon the artist's creativity and spirit when it dictates to him.
            Bureaucracy per se is another object of Petric's attack. The Bureaucrat (Fig. 32) is a sculpture revolutionary in subject, style, and intent. The swollen, masculine arm laced with prominent veins is an embodiment of the brute strength of this form of government ‑­the hand has been reduced to a club‑like form analogous to the instrument it grasps, having lost its human form and sensitivity. The arm is also a parody of the universal symbol of socialist society formulated to depict the strength and solidarity of the working class. In Petric's depiction, bureaucracy is a human sledgehammer that functions without a mind ‑‑ Kafka was no more explicit in describing the dangers of the system.     
       Ritual (Fig. 33) represents the epitome of human indignity. This anonymous factory‑worker, alienated by technological mass production has only the toilet as a place for escape. Without even a door, due to the management's desire to avoid the waste of precious man‑hours, the toilet retains a place in the worker's daily life. Petric's masturbator shocks us not only by his activity but through the humiliation portrayed in his relinquishing all privacy even in fulfilling his basic drives. His thrown‑back head is an analogue to his sex organ and is expressionistically overrun by the mouth and teeth to convey how his brutalized condition has reduced him to his animal drives. Although violently expressive, Petric's work is the antithesis of rhetorical sculpture in its depiction of this most private and unaesthetic activity. Even at this moment, his solitude is threatened by invasion: his hand on his pants suggests his readiness to clothe himself at a second's notice.
​             This last sculpture is perhaps the embodiment of "Biafrals" characteristically explicit expressionistic portrayal of the anonymous man who suffers most in modern society. Depicted with aggressive realism rendered all the more shocking through its expressionistic features, these human figures confront us as directly as possible by occupying our own space, purposely transgressing the traditional physical and aesthetic distance between art and life for expressive effect. Reminiscent of both the cast‑plaster forms from life made by the contemporary American sculptor George Segal and the microscopically‑realistic figures manufactured by the "Photo‑Realist" sculptors, these works surpass either in their aggressive attack upon the viewer and their expression of outrage at the human condition.