Marijan Crtalic is from Sisek, Croatia, a small factory town about 30 miles from Zagreb. Once a bustling worker’s town, the city has been in gradual decline since the end of the socialist period and the breakup of Yugoslavia. One focus of the artist’s current work is to try to revitalize the once strong cultural scene present in that town. The artist told me that under socialism, the factory and its workers were very much part of the cultural life in Sisek, with artists and laborers coming together to create public sculpture for the town, and cultural, educational and sport activities as part of the factory’s program. Nowadays, nothing much happens there, the artists tells me. And this is not an uncommon story in Eastern Europe.
Much of the artist’s work is focused on his own individual identity as an artist, both in general and in contemporary Croatia, as well as the current socio-political climate in his country. While often he comments specifically on the local situation, the issues that he deals with are far-reaching and could also be universally applied. For example, in a performance that he did together with fellow Croatian artist Marko Markvic, Possibilities of Resistance, the artist gives a speech about the current political situation in his home town, citing the meager pay for artists in his country and the mis-use of public funds by government officials. While giving his speech, he is doing exercises – stretches, push-ups – and eventually he starts shadow boxing, until he reaches the point of exhaustion and falls down. He talks about the fact that artists “must be ready to fight and beg” to be an artist in today’s world. While specific local events had inspired this particular performance, artists everywhere nowadays feel similar economic pressures in the global economy, and corruption is surely not unique to Croatia.
Perhaps it is because possibilities of becoming a successful artist today are so few and far between that Marijan decided to simply proclaim himself to be one – or at least to create that impression. In his 2009 performance, In the Company of a Famous Creative Artist, he walked around the city together with a “bodyguard” (played by fellow artist Sinisa Labrovic), gave autographs, and posed for pictures. In his performance, he created his own fanfare and paparazzi, so much so that passersby on the street fell for the ruse. He even mentioned that he overheard people thinking aloud that he was a famous actor or Nobel Prize winner.
Sometimes, however, there is no way out of this serious situation, and in the performance Exit Option, he demonstrates this by painting a door on the wall with a paintbrush dipped in water, after which he runs into the wall, attempting to run through it. The piece recalls Slaven Tolj’s Nature and Society, when he repeatedly rammed his head into the wall while wearing antlers. Marijan even demonstrates quite literally how suffocating the current situation can be in Political Breathing, where he places a plastic bag over his head and begins talking about his work. As his speech carries on, he gradually begins to choke, illustrating the nominal free speech given in contemporary Croatian society. Drawing from his own personal experiences, the artist is aware that if you say the wrong thing publicly, you could lose your job or much more.
The artist strikes a balance between a lament of the current situation and an attempt to make things better. In a project called Communication Games for example, he established a video link between Belgrade and Zagreb, aiming to rekindle the brotherly love that had been lost between the two nations during the wars. And in conjunction with his work related to Sisek, he has given lectures for the workers there in the hope of re-establishing the cultural scene. In Living Dead, a project that he worked on from 2003-2006, he scraped the dead skin from his head in the shower every day, recorded that action, and collected the dead skin together in a ball, effectively creating a DNA map of himself, by preserving the excess of materials from the artist’s mind. While some have identified this piece as pointing to a crisis in identity, it seems clear from Marijan’s work that he knows exactly who he is, and where he comes from.