19.05.2017. - 10.06.2017.

Kristian Kožul, Forensic Perpetuality, 19.5. - 10.6. 2017.

Kristian Kožul has graduated from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany. His works have been exhibited in various group exhibitions, the more recent being the International Program (PSY1, New York, USA, 2005), Criss-Cross (Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, Croatia, 2007), Boys Craft, (Haifa Museum, Haifa, Israel, 2008), Summer Camp, (Exile, Berlin, Germany, 2010), Bandits, Pirates & Outlaws, (Lost Coast Culture Machine, Fort Bragg, USA, 2010), B-B-B-BAD, (Anna Kustera Gallery, New York, USA, 2011). His latest works have also been exhibited in solo shows in institutions such as Lauba House, Museum of Contemporary Art (Zagreb, Croatia), Art Salon (Celje, Slovenia), Kibla Gallery (Maribor, Slovenia), Minoriten Galerien (Graz, Austria), TZR Gallery (Duesseldorf, Germany), Anhava Gallery (Helsinki, Finland), Goff+Rosenthal and Pablo’s Birthday (New York, USA). He started collaborating with Damir Žižić in 2013. They exhibited in solo exhibitions in Gallery Karas and in Lauba House in Zagreb, Croatia (2014). They won the third T-HT@MSU.HR award, Museum of Contemporary Art (Zagreb, Croatia, 2014). Kristian Kožul is a member of the Croatian Association of Artists. He lives and works in Zagreb, Croatia.

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In the book “Mengele's Skull: The Advent of a Forensic Aesthetics” translated into Croatian in 2012, Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman present a genealogy of forensic aesthetics. Basing their book on the international hunt for the surviving Nazi criminals, they note one event which indicated a number of changes that forensics – the archaeology of modern day history, as it is also called – has introduced into the field of jurisprudence, case law and contemporary culture in general. The event in question relates to verifying the identity of a person buried at a cemetery in a small Brazilian town near São Paulo. Namely, it had to be determined if the excavated remains belong to the notorious Nazi war criminal, Josef Mengele. The identification process was entrusted to an international team of scientists and experts in the field of forensic anthropology, radiology, dentistry, chemistry etc. Experts in handwriting analysis, and those specialized in photography, documents and clothing forensics were also invited to the São Paulo's Legal Medical Institute, with the objective to determine the identity of the excavated remains and, thereby, bring the investigation to a close. “It is up to you, the scientists, to reach the final verdict,” stated the Brazilian police commissioner in 1985. This was the first time, as Keenan and Weizman note, that scientists were the key witnesses in a war crimes trial. In the courtrooms throughout the world, human bones were given a voice by forensic experts. A forensic expert was their mouthpiece, told their stories. He determined their age and gender; he could discover diseases which afflicted them, locate traumatic episodes, reconstruct dietary habits, reveal the cause of death, etc. Personification, such a common occurrence in forensic anthropology, resulting in the belief that people, unlike bones, could not be trusted, transformed bones into a kind of super-subjects.

This was how forensic anthropology defined a new cultural sensibility, changing in turn our understanding and representation of political conflicts. Human remains still carry the traces of a living subject which cannot be so easily erased. When they appeared in court, they did not just alter the court proceedings, but carried a number of implications for the field of ethics, aesthetics, politics etc. However, in order to enable the change of the paradigm of war crimes and their appropriate sentencing by the often hermetic scientific discourse, it was necessary to introduce something recognizable to the public in the relationship between a forensic object and the mediating scientific discourse, some sign which would connect these factors and achieve a social consensus. In Mengele’s case, it was a photograph which served this function, as Keenan and Weizman claim. Namely, the German forensic expert and photographer Richard Helmer superimposed the photograph of Mengele’s face with his alleged skull, with a help of a special device. With the appearance of this particular photograph, the whole process, which Keenan and Weizman call forensic aesthetics, came to a close. It was concluded, with the highest degree of probability available to the forensic method, that the skull belonged to Mengele. On the other hand, it was due to this image, this one particular photograph, that the wider public came to accept the results of scientific work and the conclusion of the court proceedings.

This is not the first time that Kristijan Kožul critically addresses social issues, regardless of whether they arise from local particularities or globalization phenomena. In this return of the real – to paraphrase Hal Foster’s book – Kožul, in addition to several other artists (for example, Ines Krasić and Ivan Fijolić) occupies quite a unique position within the Croatian art scene fixated on general questions on the nature of art and various generic formalisms for the last couple of decades. Kožul’s deviation from the tradition of conceptual and post-conceptual art can be traced to the very beginning of his career. The turn introduced by conceptual art was based on two principles: abolishing the representational function of art and delegitimizing the artist as an agent of social consciousness, as an exceptional individual who, based on his experiences, provided critical insight into both private and public phenomena and problems. Conceptual art was interested in the general and non-specific; it had no interest in painting, sculpture, photography etc. as such, but in the artistic itself. In Kožul’s oeuvre we encounter an opposing tendency to convey personal and social tensions through the medium of sculpture, installation, video and photography. Thus, in the exhibition “Zone of Morality” held in the Museum of Contemporary art in Zagreb in 2006, Kožul offered one possible way of representing private and social paradoxes through the medium of sculpture, that is, through a spatial installation. For instance, Kožul represents the phenomena of childhood and growing up, and the associated popular psychoanalytic concepts, such as the Oedipus complex, castration and trauma, via a juxtaposition of recognizable but conflicting signs: a baby cot and a baby highchair complemented with S and M iconography. Correspondingly, Kožul represents the phenomena of mass religiosity and traditional culture which, after Croatia declared independence, gained prominence in social discourse, via objects constructed from mass produced goods; e.g. from a plastic cemetery lantern which, carried by the tides of free market economy, made wax candles almost entirely obsolete and became, in a way, a national symbol. In the exhibition “Misinterpretations”, held in Lauba in Zagreb in 2012, Kožul used a sculptural object and photography. The object which was later photographed and in this form exhibited in the gallery, was actually a miniaturized theatrical scene staged as “a crime scene”, a well-known motif in popular TV shows and films. The objective of the photographs of the staged “crime scene” was to critically address certain problems in Croatian society: the popularity of various conspiracy theories, the phenomenon of the new Gastarbeiter (migrant worker), the increasing importance of the tourism industry etc.

Kožul’s inclination “to imagery drawn from the unsterilized realm of popular culture” – to cite a passage from Rosalind Krauss’s text dedicated to Claes Oldenburg – received immediate recognition in art criticism. It seems that this inclination deterred Kožul from all modes of formalism in art and postmodern meta-positions, simultaneously directing him toward the tradition of pop-art, surrealism and Dadaism. Although these three art movements have their apparent differences, they are connected in regard to giving primacy to content over form, insisting on the current relevance of the presented themes and motifs; in other words, insisting on the importance of artistic representation of their respective societies. They give primacy to conundrums, ambivalence and irony over the postulates and definitions of/in art, preferring to provoke the public rather than patronize them.

However, in certain aspects, Kožul’s work significantly differs from all three movements. Although he shares the awareness of the importance of popular culture with pop-art and the need for the artist to be engaged in an incessant cultural semiosis without pretentious detachment, Kožul attempts to change and reshape every sign in order to leave a visible individual trace, which is in opposition with the proclaimed impersonal approach of the main tendency in pop-art. On the other hand, in relation to surrealism and especially Dadaism, what characterizes Kožul’s work is not so much the extensive citation of contemporary culture’s signs and their arbitrary montage, in which they appear unprocessed, exposing the act of representation as a temporary constellation which can fall apart any moment, but rather the effort of conjoining various signs in an amalgam, into a visual aphorism which succinctly, with all the risks this entails, represents a certain phenomenon.

Perhaps this approach is best embodied in Kožul’s sculpture Gop1 (2011). It is a persiflage of a baroque bust. Instead of baroque nobility presented in all the grandeur characteristic of that time, Kožul situates a riot cop in full combat gear on top of a plinth. The bust is entirely black, cast in glossy resin, so its surface glow lends it the glamour of a baroque bust. The gas mask covering the cop’s face, the blackness of the sculpture, as well as the origin of such a baroque art expression, are intertextual references possibly referring to the 1968 student riots in Paris, especially the graphic representations of these riots so avidly described by Vera Horvat Pintarić. The semiosis, however, does not end there: in the sublime representation of the cop’s bust we can recognize every other cop featured in mass media, appearing on our screens and, thereby, in our everyday lives dressed in his immaculately designed and functional uniform. The sculpture also exhibits a certain ambivalence. What if behind the slightly turned head of the bust or the cop’s mask-covered face lies pain and sorrow, rather than pride? Ambivalence is inherent to the function of the police state apparatus: for example, when does police threaten civil liberties, and when does it protect them? There is a whole range of questions embodied in one sculpture, whose power of representation is entirely reliant on the semiosis in contemporary art and culture.

The same logic runs throughout Kožul’s oeuvre: preserving the ability to speak out on social issues within the representational framework of visual arts. In this regard, Kožul’s work could be associated with yet another art movement, namely, with Neue Sachlichkeit (this German modern realist art movement is translated as the New Objectivity). Contemporary with Dada and surrealism, the New Objectivity, attempted to engage with turbulent social events, conversely, through traditional representational media of painting, sculpture and graphic design. In comparison to Neue Sachlichkeit, Kožul expands the iconography characteristic for the interwar industrialization process of European cities (the bourgeoisie, clergy, proletariat, poverty, etc.) with the dominant phenomena of neoliberal capitalism (globalization, tourism, nationalism, mass media, mass religiosity etc.)

In this exhibition, Kožul tackles yet another source of social tension. His works focus on the victims of mass genocide or political conflicts which, since the beginning of the 20th century, have been taking their toll on not only Croatian or ex-Yugoslav societies, but also on other European, South American and Asian nations. If there is a photograph which managed to transform forensic anthropology – basically an obscure scientific discipline – into a relevant social practice, is there a photograph, or better yet, photographs which represent the obstruction of forensic analysis, sporadic or consistent attempts of political elites to hinder or to put a stop to a painstaking process of discovering the truth about missing persons? If Helmer’s photograph marked the beginning of a scientific approach to political conflicts in the second half of the 20th century, is there an image which could mark the intrusion of dilettantish enthusiasm into this sensitive social field? The question in forensic anthropology is not if political actors should be excluded from the process of discovering the truth about war crimes. In a standard process of forensic analysis, politics is the integral part of its beginning and end, that is, political actors act in accordance to expert results based on the principle of probability. The higher the probability, the more certain is the truth. Moreover, as Keenan and Weizman note, politics, as well as the judiciary, have a role to play exactly because there is no such thing as absolute probability. Politics should only be engaged in initiating and signalling the end of the process, and not in manipulating evidence, witnesses or bones. As it seems, Kožul exhibition attempts to represent the latter engagement, providing the image of this process of manipulation within the framework of art and art installation as a genre. Once again, complex social processes are represented succinctly, with the use of all the available metonymical and metaphorical potentials in the field of art. The desire to shock the viewer, to provoke a reaction and initiate the chain of semiosis, is also present. The sculptural object still has a privileged status. This time, it stands in antithesis to a standard forensic analysis: instead of clarity and precision, it embodies the obscurity of manipulation.

Among numerous attempts to define sculpture as a specific art genre, Rosalind Krauss’s hypothesis is, tentatively speaking, the most intriguing. Sculpture is, according to Krauss in “Passages in Modern Sculpture”, constantly forming an analogy with the human body. Therefore, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this exhibition is the unusual encounter of our bodies with an artistic representation of unidentified remains of other bodies. It might well be that the chain of semiosis is broken due to that uncomfortable feeling, that vague inkling: “This could have been you. (K. Štefančić)