Edin Vejselović’s new exhibitions of painting and video, ‘Neretva Autoportret’, opened at the end of last week at Galerija Java on Titova. The front gallery space is filled with over half a dozen subtle and seductive ‘self-portraits’ of the famous river, which turn out to be an intriguing mixture of traditional landscape painting, land art and action art.
Critical to this exhibition’s realization was the carefully staged process by which the paintings were made. They were made in the open air by the river; the artist painstakingly tried to find the precise emerald tone for which the Neretva is famous, and then applied that to the canvas. Once this was done, these raw materials were put in the river, which acted upon them, in the manner of the River producing its own portrait; finished, the work was removed from the water, and made ready for the exhibition.
It would be possible to read this exhibition in terms of traditional landscape, but this would limit the scope of one’s response. The finished paintings- the triptych in the front space of the gallery really is captivating and invites repeated looking-certainly stand alongside other examples of contemporary landscape painting, such as those by John Virtue.
But traditional landscape painting, in its attempt to capture the ‘spirit of place’ or ‘the timeless spirit¬ual values of (whatever) nation’, fundamentally is about an individual artist ordering and composing nature, in order to impose his own (dis)ordered vision on the spectator. Quite the reverse is going on here. For sure, the River Neretva with its amazingly luminous colors at certain times of day, and with its central role in the different stages of BiH history, is a key marker of the contingent historical narratives and identities of this country; but, if anything, the artist reduces himself to a very mini¬mal role here. These works reveal an artist who wants us to focus on his subject and its contemporary situation, rather than on his own creative personality.
The nature of these compositions leaves chance and random circumstance playing as important a role in the finished work, as the artist himself. There is the sense that a good proportion of the artistic personality has been ‘washed away’ by the constant movement of the river. In this sense, it is possible to draw interesting parallels between these instances of landscape painting, and both Land Art – a direct intervention in nature then left to the mercy of natural processes following the departure of the artist (as practiced annually by Ars Kozara)- and site-specific performance. The process by which the paintings were made was, just as in performance art, documented carefully and preserved for the future. There is more than a sly echo of Jackson Pollock’s famous stripped-to-the-waist open-air ‘gesture painting’ in 50s America, and these contemporary photos of the artist at work on the river.
Traditional landscape art, if anything, is noted for its political conservatism. These landscapes have a much sharper critical edge to them. Vejselović’s work was sponsored in part by the local branch of the WWF, which is active in campaigning against future environmentally ruinous hydroelectric schemes on the river. In this sense, then, this show is a snapshot of the Neretva before it becomes a contested site of protest, perhaps a contrast between the ‘eternal’ nature of the river and the fleeting political forms of the day. This partnership between NGO, gallery and artists, we are told, is set to step up in the next year. If the results of this visually seductive, genre-crossing show are anything to go by, it will be an interesting relationship to watch develop.