Remembrance Of Things Past

by Charles Merewether

“...the country I left does not exist any more.”

Over the past years Milenko Prvacki has been continuing and expanding what he began as a series of explorations many years back. This current exhibition of 22 works was produced during the last two years 2009-2011. Amidst them are included two new, unfinished series, Now you see It, now you don’t and Covered Up. In the following remarks, I should like to briefly suggest that, while these tacitly reference two earlier series, notably Ultimate Visual Dictionary (1999-2000) and Construction Site (2001-03), they belong to a larger engagement of what constitutes the subject of Prvacki’s practice.

While there is a variance from one to another in the recent work, there is also a thread of continuity between them.  We might say, all of them have been made in Singapore. And yet, I would argue that this thread is not simply determined by any immediate place or chronology that unites their production. Rather, there is a nagging sense of a process of building and destruction, of construction and erasure that unifies them. The logic of this order is not Singaporean per se, a country if not culture driven by the logic of productivity and orderly narrative. Rather, the very idea of logic, if this is even an accurate term of description, that drives the work of Prvacki harks back to a former life, to a country and world he poignantly remarks ‘does nor exist any more.’ It is in short a form of negative dialectic, a counter-logic which lies deeply buried in the shadow of an Enlightenment project. In such terms, there is no foundation on which one can depend. The ground is to be unearthed, exposing discontinuities across its surface of traces, shards, the residual remains. There is no no appeal that can be secure whether through a false sense of past unity or the wistful melancholy of nostalgia. Seen together, or even simply focusing on his most recent work, the work forms an uneasy echo of the past, an echo which is, strictly speaking, at once a copy of its source and yet, can be seen, heard and understood independently, autonomously without reference to anything except itself, its own being as is.

Some may argue that the language, shape and conceptual framework of Prvacki’s work had already been set at an earlier age. This would be a standard trope for reading an artist’s work. For instance, much has been made of this artist’s relation to his homeland, of his departure first to Romania and then to Singapore. This relation invokes the biographical as pivotal to an understanding of Prvacki’s practice, especially the idea of homeland (Yugoslavia/Serbia) of a broad social history (the Balkan wars) and of a cultural context (education/training). And yet, let me use this biographical referent here to disturb such a reading by noting Prvacki has also lived elsewhere for a long time, specifically in Singapore for the past twenty years. In fact, all of these four series of works, referred to above, have been produced over the past twelve years. We may ask what then of Singapore? Has it had no impact on the direction or form of his practice? The answer may well be best articulated, as suggested, through the concept of a negative dialectic. This would be a space of lack, of absence has opened, if not cleared, a space for his imaginative re-encounter rather than return to issues concerning his homeland etc. That is, the work would perform a relation to the past which is always already secondary, accomplished through the act of remembering. In other words, this is an act which occurs through, in part, an involuntary recover of memories that are themselves not necessarily continuous or logical in their occurrence, neither narrative in form nor chronological in sequence or even verifiable.  And while this re-encounter is productive, giving the past a form - visible in this case - it is also constructive. That is, not only retrieving memory as it flickers up like an old movie but, making sense of it in the process of its construction, as if like passing through a filter or lens that is directed by being of the present day, by the act of painting or drawing. We may even suggest here that repetition, if only instanced by the idea of a series, serves as a mnemonic device in shaping the impulse and direction of the art making as it happens now.

What is critical here is the subject of memory and the process of remembering. These two points are intertwined but are distinct. What happened and what we call memory are never the same. To lay emphasis on the process of remembering is critical precisely because it does not assume any fixed position. Rather, remembering emphasizes a process as much as, if not more, to do with now rather than then. Moreover, remembering and the process of its elaboration, if not its construction, are intimately linked. In this regard, this process is not an even, singular action but occurs over time. We may even say this process re-constructs the original which is itself increasingly lost to the vagaries of time. Twenty years later, what is the original to which we refer, when they occur as isolated incidents, images in our mind’s eye, jumbled together in regard to sequence or value. There is no order to these memories, they are scattered and involuntarily arise, return without control. We know better these days, in the wake of studies on trauma, that even these memories are informed by photographic documents, by stories told, articles read. Al these collapse, overlap, merge, inform one another through association. What then is the original, hard to grasp, lost as it is to time past. More specifically, as Prvacki remarks, the country he left no longer exists.  The work of art as viewed through his practice seeks to recover this loss, seeks to recover the process of its destruction and thereby tacitly, its existence, a place that once was.

In fact, arguably Prvacki has been struggling with images and objects in recent years. I would suggest that their status in his creative process has changed. It has been ten years from the ‘Construction Site’ series and arguably the formation of the painting itself challenges their appearance. Representational images appear if only to be pushed back, pushed back by waves of abstraction, as if like a sea that engulfs objects as they seek to wash ashore. We see objects surfacing, moving towards the shoreline only to be recaptured, swallowed up by the advancing relentless sea: Now You see it , Now You don’t (series, 2009) More recently, MP began a new series entitled Covered Up.  We may say in English language, there is perhaps an unintended ambiguity in the phrase referring to the idea of covering an object or something to protect it or for it not to be seen. This idea is captured in the colloquial term to ‘cover up’ meaning something that has been hidden from view, for instance a crime scene. And thirdly, by way of a parallel discourse, the term can refer to painting itself and more specifically, to the process of painting over that which has already been painted.

The artist offers a clue to both viewing and reading his work, offered as much to himself as to the audience through the use of titles. Of course, titles should be viewed as secondary to the appreciation of the work itself. However, they do offer a clue or perhaps, a wily distraction. The distinction in Prvacki’s case, is that often the titles, especially that pertaining to a series, are written into a work on canvas. Titles in his work serve to capture the essential and yet paradoxical character of the work. They do not only suggest a subject but, in fact, more importantly, the process of its formation as an image. This is not to suggest the title leads the way in the formation or ultimate significance of the work but, it does help crystalize a direction. Such a reading suggests the artwork needs to be viewed as a site for examination. We might even say metaphorically, a forensic site to be inspected. This is a form of land- scape that if inspected carefully reveals the construction work that has gone on, the various buildings, the vacant lots, and scattered objects and materials. This is the debris of history left behind, the remains of history’s destruction, the remembrance of things past now.