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August 2022

Field Notes: Vladimir Nikolić, Serbian Pavilion, and Tomo Savić-Gecan, Croatian Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale

Toby Üpson

Tomo Savić-Gecan, Untitled (Croatian Pavilion), 2022. Installation view, Croatian Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Photo: Toby Üpson.

Vladimir Nikolić, A Document (detail), 2022. Multiscreen 4K video (11000 × 2100 pixels), 2 minutes 16 seconds. Installation view, “Walking with Water,” Serbian Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Photo: Toby Üpson.

Tomo Savić-Gecan, Untitled (Croatian Pavilion), 2022. Installation view, Croatian Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Photo: Toby Üpson.

Even through the slightest of gestures, the sublime can be revealed in the everyday. Amid the bustle of the 59th Venice Biennale, two seemingly simple pavilions caught my eye with their refined pairing of technology and visual subtlety. Contrary to practices that foreground computery spectacle, Vladimir Nikolić, at the Serbian Pavilion, and Tomo Savić-Gecan, at the Croatian Pavilion, elegantly deploy technology as medium and method, questioning the perception of our contemporary digital reality and the conception of what works at “the intersection of art and technology” can be.

The Serbian Pavilion exhibition “Walking with Water” features two quiet works by Nikolić, both achieving a sublime effect through the artist’s painterly rendering of different bodies of water. 800m (2019), a monumental video project reaching toward the pavilion’s ceiling, depicts the artist swimming up and down the length of an Agnes Martin-esque swimming pool, rupturing the still surface of the scene with his corporal presence. In the multichannel video projection A Document (2022), eighteen kilometers of midnight blue and azure Adriatic swells writhe, silently melding in and out of one another beneath a solemn blue sky. Lacking any extraneous details—no boats, no beaches, nor birds hovering—and showing instead two horizontal planes of sea and sky, A Document illuminates the rear wall of the narrow pavilion. Recalling modernist painting—think the crashing waves of Courbet and the transcendental juxtapositions of Rothko or Newman—this video projection records the artist’s pursuit to picture the experience of being in an “absolute space,” here, a formalist space outside of a reality shaped by cognitive, colonial, or capitalist perspectives that also condition bodily experiences of space and time.

Vladimir Nikolić, A Document (detail), 2022. Multiscreen 4K video (11000 × 2100 pixels), 2 minutes 16 seconds. Installation view, “Walking with Water,” Serbian Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022. Photo: Toby Üpson.

Filmed on three synchronized cameras surveying a 120-degree view of the Donkova Seka, a shoal off the coast of Montenegro, what A Document fails to record is the sky and sea harmonized as a “zero state,” that is, the climatic event when an absence of wind smooths the sea’s surface, transforming it from an undulating jitter into a flat blue mirror. Rather than picture this stillness, the video pairs a flat sky above and behind a vast moving ocean, accentuating the sense of depth experienced through the human eye and representing, for now, the impossibility of experiencing such an absolute space. Keeping true to modernist practices that challenge optical technologies and perspectives tempered by external devices, Nikolić uses the formalities of the moving image to push the reality of this scene to hyperreal ends.

Nikolić has a history of working with ideas fundamental to and, indeed, works of art by avant-garde modernists, seeing these as practices that refuse linear ideas of perspective, which confine the body to dualistic notions of vertical and horizontal space. In his 2009 4K-video work Painting, for example, Nikolić playfully reproduced canonical works of geometric abstraction by artists such as El Lissitzky and Malevich by holding painted cardboard shapes over himself as a camera recorded his performance of “painting” from above. Nikolić’s focus is on process and mechanics, specifically how the medium of video can be recast as a painterly tool rather than a narrative one to reanimate avant-garde practices that push the boundaries of form whilst also highlighting art’s complicity with technologies that direct human optical experience.

A Document, like Painting, employs 4K video and panoramic projection to engage the limits of human perception. Immersed in the crisp sea-and-sky scene, I noticed delicate air bubbles gently riding the crest of each wave’s rise and fall, an odd detail that lends this pure optical experience an ephemeral haptic quality, as if Nikolić’s seascape was a watercolor wash rather than a high-definition recording. Nikolić’s work questioning image regimes through the history of modernism fits within an ideological framework that critiques what “Walking with Water” curator Biljana Ćirić describes in her curatorial draft as “a neoliberal logic of expansion.” [1]1
Biljana Ćirić and Vladimir Nikolić, curatorial draft, “Walking with Water,” Serbian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.
By positioning the viewer within this shimmering space, Nikolić not only pushes us into a direct encounter with the natural sublime, but troubles the optical ideals that have come to direct our worldview in an age of ever-increasing technological dependence.

Like Nikolić, Tomo Savić-Gecan, the artist behind this year’s Croatian Pavilion, also works with the legacy of modernist structures, troubling in Venice the sanctity of the white cube and extractive world systems borne from technological mediation. Savić-Gecan’s project, Untitled (Croatian Pavilion), builds on previous works that critique systems of communication and control by translating seemingly random encounters into spatial actions. For example, for his work Untitled, 2005—displayed at the Croatian Pavilion for the 51st Venice Biennale—the artist programmed a public swimming pool in Tallinn to respond to the number of visitors entering the W139 artist-run space in Amsterdam, changing the temperature of the pool as the number of visitors fluctuated. By establishing this digital connection, the artist not only challenged notions of spatial division but dissolved fundamental ideas of the art space’s neutrality. Savić-Gecan’s project for this year’s Biennale leans into his practice of establishing technological networks and is presented not in a physical pavilion but rather on a digital billboard in the window of a fishing-supply-computer store, via a bold yellow poster, and as an itinerant performance. In this way, the work makes physical invisible regimes of power.

Tomo Savić-Gecan, Untitled (Croatian Pavilion), 2022.

On the face of things, Untitled (Croatian Pavilion) is a minimal performance. Programmed daily across any of the national pavilions in the Giardini and the Arsenale, the serendipitous formalities of the performance have developed through a collaborative process of user-experience research, qualitative data analysis, and machine learning. What can be described as the pavilion’s elevator pitch perhaps provides the best overview of the project:

Every day for the duration of the 59th edition of the Venice Biennale of Art, the lead story from a different, randomly selected global news source provides the data that feeds an artificial intelligence algorithm, which in turn prescribes the time, location, duration, movements, and thoughts of a group of five performers in the city of Venice to constitute Tomo Savić-Gecan’s Untiled (Croatian Pavilion), 2022.

On June 25, this randomly selected lead story was titled “Fatal prescription,” published in the Malaysian newspaper The Star. Fed into the project’s artificial intelligence algorithm, this “news blood”—to riff off curator Elena Filipovic’s practical breakdown of the project in the pavilion’s catalog—resulted in five performances across the Biennale. I witnessed three in the Giardini, at the Polish, Romanian, and Estonian pavilions, and each followed a similar pattern, lasting exactly seven minutes and thirty-two seconds. Savić-Gecan rejects documentation, and so what follows here is a compilation of notes gesturing to the performance:

One-by-one they arrive
Dressed in tourist garbs with disinterested gazes
A black headphone dancing from each left ear
So subtle. You would not know to look

Five peruse as individuals
Sojourn with slow twists
Heads and necks, look and look and look and
Blink
Breathing in the art that surrounds

One arm, and then another’s, breaks passive peering
Stretch. Fingers hyper-posed
Shoulder pop
Torso twist
Stop
Soft journeys, as elegant turns as honeysuckle drifts, continue

Near outside, these five grow together
In the round, front to back, in Romanesque frieze
Arms glide back. Hands meet and grasp
Together, upper bodies advance
Rebalance
Dissolve

Indiscreet turns once more
Exit, one-by-one

Rather than a script illustrating The Star’s story, the message received by each performer on June 25 was a set of algorithmically determined rules. Trained on global news stories from the last twelve months, the artificial intelligence at the heart of Untitled (Croatian Pavilion) translates ephemeral information (news) into physical actions (labor) to be performed. Made in collaboration with choreographer Irma Omerzo, the hieroglyphic poses that form these actions developed from research into the day-to-day movements of museumgoers. This user-experience data gives the slight stretches, bodily twists, and extra-ordinary perusing of the performers an uncanny quality. Witnessing the flow of the performance, I was drawn to its moments of contorted stillness. To me, these movements—Shoulder pop / Torso twist / Stop—eerily echo bodies frozen on buffering screens, evidence of our devices’ inadequacy to operate according to the expected standards of the internet. If museums are spaces of discipline—a term denoting both a branch of knowledge and a practice of punishment—what I glean from these glitchy errors echoes one of the key tenets of Untitled (Croatian Pavilion), as outlined by Filipovic: “a reflection of what it means to be a human at a moment when digital technologies are revolutionizing our lives.”

In an era in which we forgo privacy and autonomy for a life of digital ease, we have never been more surveilled. Monitored by our devices, applications and the corporations behind them, our data has not only become currency but also directs our bodily ways of being in the world. As with his critique of art’s neutrality, by transforming seemingly detached flows of information into fugitive performances, Savić-Gecan’s project, like Nikolić’s, articulates the ways in which technology mediates this reengineering of human behavior. But rather than being writ in the spectacular, both Nikolić and Savić-Gecan enunciate their critical positions in a tone more elegant than a shout, affording time and space to move beyond the parameters of the digitally informed world.

Toby Üpson is an art writer currently based in London. His research revolves around ideas of realities and how these (so often framed as “this”) can be mediated and consumed, and indeed, mediated and consumed otherwise. Often drawn to cultural phenomena that afford associative or serendipitous readings, Üpson utilizes close writing as a practice to abound linear understandings of the systems we live with and through. Üpson is currently studying Writing at the Royal College of Art, where his master’s dissertation uses ekphrasis and critical memoir to assemble a counterintuitive reading of Yves Saint Laurent’s first masculine perfume Pour Homme (1971).

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