Slaven Tolj

Ever since my trip to Dubrovnik, I had been eager to meet one of that city’s most important artists – Slaven Tolj. Slaven is currently the director of the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Rijeka, a port city on the northern part of Croatia’s coast, about 600 kilometers away from Dubrovnik. Before I could meet him, I would travel from Dubrovnik and to Zagreb, before our schedules eventually lined up when I was in Ljubljana, Slovenia, a mere 100 kilometers from Rijeka. The meeting was well worth the wait.

Those who write about Slaven’s work invariably mention the fact that it is often connected with his home city of Dubrovnik. While that is true for many works, his oeuvre is in fact much more diverse, dealing with broader themes of war, survival, and individual existence. That said, his importance for the development of the performance and contemporary art scene in Dubrovnik cannot be overstated. I found it interesting that Slaven completed his studies in Sarajevo, as it was there that he was exposed to contemporary art practices directly, and was very much influenced by Jusuf Hadzifejsovic, one of the most well-known performance art practitioners from Bosnia. Bozidar Jurjevic, who is still active in Dubrovnik, was also in Sarajevo with him, and when the two returned to Dubrovnik at the end of the 1980s, they were joined by Montenegrin performance artist Ilja Soskic. Together, these artists, among others, developed a very vibrant scene of contemporary and performance art in this small but beautiful city that is otherwise known as the “pearl of the Adriatic.”

Back in Dubrovnik, the artists began by working on site-specific projects, before moving into the Otok Gallery, on Kovacka street, right in the center of the Old Town. Later, they moved to an empty space at Lazareti, a former quarantine house just on the edge of the Old Town and walled city.

Slaven told me that he started doing performances as a way of communicating more directly with people. Some of his earliest performances he did together with his wife at the time, Marija Grazio. For example, their 1990 performance Tal involved Slaven standing under the bell of Dubrovnik’s clock tower for twelve hours, from midnight until noon, while Marija stood in an atrium in the nearby Sponza Palace. While Slaven stood with replicas of the two “Zelenci” (the bronze statues, Maro and Baro, who hammer away at time) in the tower, Marija stood with the originals in the palace. After each toll of the bell, Marija would indicate her presence to Slaven using her voice. The physical distance was bridged by this auditory link; the two were both isolated and connected with one another across the city.

In 1993, the artist created another performance with Marija, this time in Helsinki; it was entitled Food for Survival. At the time, Sarajevo, Slaven’s former city, was under siege, just as Dubrovnik had been a few short years earlier. During that time, aid would be dropped on those cities in the form of dehydrated food products that could be made into a soup by adding water; the packet read “food for survival.” The two artists mixed the soup and covered their bodies with it, eating it off of one another. The two combine an act of desperation (consuming to survive) with an act of love, and the stark contrast between the two highlights the struggle for survival that the food embodies or represents.

Also related to the theme of war is the artist’s very poignant piece, Valencia-Dubrovnik-Valencia. In 1993, he came to Valencia straight from the war to participate in the Youth Biennale. Wearing multiple layers of clothes, he sewed black buttons on each layer, before removing them. When he got to his final layer – his own skin – he proceeded to sew a button onto his chest. Sewing a black button to one’s clothes is a Dalmatian tradition of mourning, and in the performance the artist paid homage to his friends and colleagues who died in the war. The artist inflicts pain on himself and in fact suffers for the loss of his loved ones.

Pain is a common element in much of the artist’s work, no more so than in the performance Nature & Society from 2002. Wearing a pair of antlers that the artist collected from his grandfather’s home, after he died, the artist proceeded to bang his head into a blank wall of the museum until the antlers broke apart. A blank slide was projected onto the wall, causing the artist to cast a shadow, which provided the effect that he was fighting with his own shadow. Antlers are in fact very sturdy, and it took a great deal of effort to break them; the artist even hurt his neck in the process. The performance was a way for the artist to “cleanse his family history,” as Slaven’s grandfather had taken the antlers from a package of official presents intended for Mussolini. It was also a very cathartic piece, much like one that followed, shortly after in 2003, which was Untitled, and performed just before the artist’s 40th birthday. Wrapping himself in a string of Christmas lights, which contained exactly 40 bulbs, the artist proceeded to switch each one off, one by one. He described this piece as an introspective one, bringing him back to darkness, back to innocence.

Slaven continues to push his body and emotions to the limits, and perhaps the most extreme case of this occurred at the Body and the East exhibition in New York City. His piece Exit Art, was a performance in which the artist attempted to embody the meeting place between East and West, by consuming one liter of vodka (from the East) and one liter of whisky (from the West). He did this in a matter of minutes – literally, as the performance only took 15. The artist recalls that he felt fine immediately afterward, got up from the table where he was seated, and after taking a few steps, he collapsed and recalls nothing further. The artist spent the next three days in a coma in New York City hospital. This short performance that attempted to bring East and West together nearly ended up dividing them, especially if the performance had turned fatal.

Slaven is an artist that is deeply sensitive to time and place, not to mention human relations. His performances are very deeply felt, both on the part of the artist and on the part of the viewer. In my experience of meeting him, I got the impression that he was a very deeply thoughtful and introspective person, with a lot to say about the world and its relationships. His artwork is very subtly and delicately crafted, and creates a sense of intimacy between artist and viewer. It may have been a long road to get from Dubrovnik to Rijeka, but it was well worth the trip to meet with Slaven.