Pasko Burdelez is a gardener. I have to admit, I can’t recall meeting or knowing about an artist who works as a gardener, and I found this aspect of his life intriguing. I think that this choice of occupation, however, relates to his work in a very significant way. A garden is something that most homes or buildings have; even most apartment buildings in the city have a meager piece of land that allows a bit of green, and perhaps some flowers, into the city. A garden is one of those things that is just there, and taken for granted. It rarely makes a loud or radical statement (unless that is the aim), and often sits peacefully in the background, enhancing our environment and providing a pleasing view. It is something we can closely inspect if we want to, or just appreciate for its subtle beauty if not. Pasko’s art works in a similar way. Each of his works are modest statements that don’t overwhelm the viewer or try to hit him over the head with its shocking or pronounced statement. In fact, the artist tells me that while he does feel he has something to communicate, he doesn’t want to preach. He doesn’t feel that art is any more or less important than any other aspect of life, and that is why he tries not to make any overt or aggressive statements with his. As he told me, the most radical work one can do is in the garden; it isn’t possible to do really radical work in art anymore, because nowadays it is simply expected.
The artist doesn’t have any official academic artistic training. Rather, he studied and was mentored by one of Dubrovnik’s leading contemporary artists, Slaven Tolj. He attended a workshop at the contemporary art center led by Tolj, which is where he began experimenting with performance and installation. His work responds to the local situation and issues, and the artist often uses his own body as the medium to deliver his message. For example, in Bread, from 2009, the artist’s body becomes the incubator for a simple food item that we consume every day. In this short performance, the artist consumes some spoonfuls of flour and drinks a glass of water, which will combine to resemble bread in his stomach. The artist denies any religious meaning in the performance, and instead says that it represents what he feels should be one’s approach to life – a focus on the seemingly simple, little things, as opposed to a more superficial way of life that is focused on non-essentials. After all, what could be more essential than bread? In Pasko’s view, religion only brings unhappiness nowadays, and the recent wars in the former Yugoslav countries are testament to that. Dubrovnik was hit particularly hard by the war, and it goes without saying that all those who lived through the siege were significantly affected by the destruction of the city, including that city’s artists.
One way that Pasko tried to deal with religion in his work was to place it underground – literally. In 2009, he placed an installation in the garden of the Museum of Modern Art in Dubrovnik consisting of a speaker in the bushes, from which the bells of the cathedral rang out, and in the drainpipe, from which one could hear the Azan, or the Islamic Call to Prayer. In 2009, the artist hung himself from the cross, simulating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, but this time using cellophane tape. Instead of facing the viewer, however, the artist turns his back on him. This is not meant as a sacrilegious move, but is rather the artist’s signature way of not imposing himself too much on the viewer. Pasko tells me that once, religion offered a hope of salvation to people, but nowadays, it is often we, the people, who are in the role of the victim, with less and less hope of any deliverance from everyday pain and suffering. His 2002 piece, Hansel and Gretel demonstrates the fact that people no longer have the same regard for religion. The artist noticed a set of dumpsters behind an apartment building that were arranged in what looked like a sanctuary. He kneeled down before them, as if praying, and this short performance was documented on video. He commented that people hardly noticed this, and continued to put their trash in the bins as usual.
As a gardener, it should come as no surprise that the artist has a strong connection with the earth. He incorporates the natural elements into his work as well, and sometimes they come into his work in ways that are beyond the artist’s control. For example, his piece Weather Tomorrow Like Today’s, from 2009, presents a recorded loop of the radio announcer telling listeners that there will be no change in the weather. In my experience in Dubrovnik, that seems to usually be the case. At least in summer, every day is a picture-perfect beautiful day. For the artist, however, he uses this statement to refer to the art world, which also never changes. An artist stumbles on a style and then employs that in his work endlessly. Despite the radio announcer’s pronouncements, however, on the opening night of his exhibition, Pasko Burdelez: At the Museum, in February, 2009, Dubrovnik was hit by a freak snowstorm, and many of the guests, in a city not used to such inclement weather, were unable to attend. Pasko described this as “the happiest moment in his life,” as the irony of the situation demonstrated quite eloquently the fact that we are not in control of our everyday lives or surroundings, that no matter what we have planned, Mother Nature always has her own ideas.
In order to get even closer to nature, the artist submerged himself in the earth. He did this first in Venice, when he was one of several artists to represent Croatia at the Biennale, and then again at a performance in Zagreb. He commented that putting your head in the earth and attempting to continue breathing, and living, changes one’s way of thinking. Firstly, it is calming, as you try to communicate with the earth in a way other than the rational. But then, as you struggle to breathe (the artist tells me that you can survive for around 15 minutes in this way), you become aware of the limits and borders of your body, as it encounters the border of the earth.
For the artist who doesn’t want to make any great imposition on his viewers, he presented them with a statement, that he, himself (as an artist) is useless. Using a stamp from the hotel whose garden he tends, the artist stamped his back with the word “write off” (reshod), which is used by the hotel when a bedsheet or towel is too damaged to be used for guests. It is stamped and then repurposed as a cleaning rag or other inconsequential object. The artist, then, makes himself “damaged” and only marginally useful to society.
The artist, in his modesty, tries to create art with the most minimal gesture, in an attempt to see if it is possible to make ‘nothing’ at all. An example of this is his garden rake, which he brought into the gallery space and left leaning against the wall. The object remained unlabeled and uncommented on, but in doing this act, as an artist, and moving this everyday object into the gallery space, of course it was noticed, and of course it changed the simple garden rake immediately into a work of art. Pasko is aware of the strong resonance with Duchamp’s work that this piece has, but attempts to continue the French artist’s experiments nevertheless. Context, the artist notes, changes everything.
And it is perhaps for this reason that Pasko prefers to work in his garden, where he can create radical works of art that go undetected, and don’t disturb anyone. When we met, Pasko told me about his conversations with people in their gardens, and how relaxed they are there. It is perhaps in the garden that the artist can be at peace with the questions that remain unresolved in his art.