The Transformational, Transcendent Struggle in Croatian Art Duo TARWUK

MARCH 2021

This is a preview of an essay by Adam Lehrer, the full version of which will be in the upcoming print edition of BLOAT Magazine.

In the Croatian art duo TARWUK’s work, the unseen but omnipresent forces that present us with the challenges that drive us forward; risks of extinction, existential despair, survival, political development and decay, and otherwise; are materialize as totemic forms. TARWUK’s sculptures and broader mixed-media output, the disarray of the shapes and decay of their surfaces, allude to human beings as objects at the mercy of nature and history’s will. But in that conflict, TARWUK suggests, transformation and transcendence become possible. They depict humanity, civilization, and nature in an eternal struggle, vying for survival and supremacy. Without any struggle, is there any reason to exist? Doubtful.

If there is pessimism in TARWUK, it is a Schopenhauerian pessimism. That is, it’s imbued with a historic nobility; civilizations rise and fall, this work suggests, but the will of man persists. TARWUK’s work feels like an ode to the human capacity for survival against immense social disrepair and civilizational downfall. Its aesthetic, which would be too easy to slag off as simply dark or disquieting (even though, one-dimensionally, it is so), is actually one that celebrates survival as a philosophical concept. This isn’t political art, at least not in the way we think of political art now. It’s about something much broader and more universal. While TARWUK’s work could be interpreted as a speculative proposition of a bleak future – and indeed it flirts with the apocalyptic imagery of influences like HR Giger, Mad Max, and Blade Runner, to a degree – it appears more interested in the ways in which civilizational decay can propel human evolution and metamorphosis.

TARWUK (which is comprised of Croatian, New York-based artists Ivana Vukšić and Bruno Pogačnik Tremow, though they prefer that I refer to them collectively as “the entity” TARWUK)  is best understood as an entity, a concept, or even a “band name,” as Tremow described it in a recent interview broadcasted by The Brooklyn Rail. “TARWUK” is an attempt to incinerate the baggage of identity in the furnace of collective creative action. By adopting this “thing,” TARWUK, TARWUK generates a space for creative energy to metastasize outside the confines of market discourse and neoliberal homogenization. “TARWUK as a duo started as a union of the individuals, and through a merge has evolved to a singular entity with its own psyche,” says TARWUK. I think it’d be easy for a critic to say that in making this identity obscuration an aspect of its artistic bio, that TARWUK inadvertently perpetuates that which its methodology attempts to repudiate. But I choose to interpret it as a strategy for heightening subjective experiences of TARWUK’s work. Moreover, the practice mirrors the way TARWUK references its artists’ personal biographies while occulting them through fantastical speculative fictions.

Though both artists were born in Yugoslavia, they grew up in Croatia and lived through the Croatian War for Independence from the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. The war claimed 20,000 lives and created 50,000 refugees. TARWUK witnessed, quite literally, the death of an old civilization and the structuring of a new one. They have subsequently used this personal history as a conceptual basis for broader philosophical and aesthetic inquiry into subjects such as political dysfunction, scarcity, war, civilizational collapse, and extinction. But they also refuse to attach themselves to that history in efforts to stay open to the more universal implications of the themes in their work. “Trauma, violence, conflict and pain are omnipresent and become fetishized and glorified as explanations of the inexplicable,” says TARWUK. “We say no to the flat interpretation of the complex arrays of moments that shaped us.” In a kind of pseudo-Barthesian way, it is nigh impossible to not think about TARWUK’s childhoods when interpreting the violent themes implied in the work, but the associations with biography are occulted via transcendent images, enigmatic forms, and a sense of the ethereal or unseen. If the author isn’t exactly dead in the work, then he’s at the very least in the process of erasure.  

TARWUK’s most recent exhibition at Martos Gallery, Bijeg u noć, was the zenith of the duo’s output and creative philosophy up to this point. The show was a pandemonic sprawl, or what TARWUK calls an “anarchy of imagination,” that foregrounded the fragility of civilization, uncertain survival, and certain death as some of its thematic conceits. Mike Kelley, while aesthetically and philosophically unlike TARWUK, used installations in a way that presages TARWUK’s approach now, in that TARWUK uses disparate objects and wide ranging media to captivate its audience and imbue all its disparate art objects with an uncanny interconnectedness. It’s more an environment, a micro-universe maybe, and less an arrangement of forms, images, and objects. “Through an investigation of the archaeological and dystopian, a probing of the layering of civilizations, sifting its strata, its trauma, TARWUK arrive at a body which, in its exhumation-imagining, is also a landscape to explore,” says the show’s curator Bob Nickas in his essay for the show.

The painting SIGIL_EngV.5 was replete of the rigid lines and industrial allusions in the Constructivist paintings of Alexander Rodchenko, but its austere style is warped and perverted in the manner of the more abstract cubist painters of the early 20th Century. The painting simultaneously implies TARWUK’s socialist upbringing in meta narrative and an archetypal modern society in flux, or perhaps, ending as we know it. In the subversion of a historical modernist style, TARWUK signals the malleability of man. We can look back on our history, we can analyze it and extrapolate knowledge from it, so long as we acknowledge that what we live through is new, unique, and poses a singular set of problems that require a singular set of solutions. TARWUK’s paintings often treat historical styles as knowledge that can be used and built upon.

The other paintings in the show, however, were more illusory and frightful, like “portals into ghastly dimensions.” as ArtForum critic Reilly Davidson well described them. (https://www.artforum.com/picks/tarwuk-84449). But I saw these images less as portals into dimensions beyond than as interpretations of concepts that are difficult to give language or visual interpretations to. Nickas described them as “worlds turned inside-out,” or “ectoplasmic landscapes,” and indeed they depicted an overwhelming phantasmagoria of forms and colors that never quite congealed as wholly recognizable forms. The paintings compressed the essence of history into the frame. Civilizations rise and fall, man evolves as it hurdles towards

The TARWUK paintings that have the most potent impact are those that resist simple narrative resolution and render life and survival as unknowable and tragically slippery concepts. Paintings like MRTISKLAAHLux_Armor__Lucis.MARIO.0, that recall the mystically abstract shapes of Hilma af Klint (who used painting as a way to commune with higher beings), suggest a pining for transcendence against civilizational disrepair, and MRTISKLAAH_LENT.666.W, that uses the text “LENT” (an obvious allusion to religious observation) to give what the duo describes as a kind of “religious seal” to thematically similar imagery. That spiritual pining for survival, the will to power, is the single most animating principle in TARWUK’s work. Without the threat of extinction there is no will to survive! Our very existence is contradictory, wouldn’t you say? TARWUK sculpts those contradictions as a cohesive image.

TARWUK’s sculptural work accepts death and extinction as a given. In that tension is beauty and transcendence, these TARWUK sculptures suggest. These are bodies shaped by civilizational traumas, looking for any reason to justify their perseverance. Among the sculptures at the Martos exhibition, KLOSKLAS_5T1ll43r3 was a large figurative structure of a female form adorned in tribal markings. Its head was disconnected from its neck and instead sat atop a mechanical appendage placed on its right shoulder; like the remnants of post-industrial society recycled to survive an economy of scarcity (and a bit resemblant of the art design in George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road), perhaps. A smaller female figure was placed in front of the sculpture’s groin, suggesting the possibility of rebirth and renewal. It was a depiction of struggle, an archetypal hero’s journey. Against the incontrovertible inevitability of our own demise, TARWUK’s work asks that you consider the marvels of our own survival. A sculpture like KLOSKLAS_divco/ZUBB32yeltenb was like a totem to, or a guardian of, whatever “secret knowledge” (to use a Lovecraftian term, if I may) the installation seems to hold about these unnamable existential conflicts.

“Post-apocalyptic” or “dystopian” are terms that are often thrown about where TARWUK’s work is considered. That’s mostly an accurate reading, but where TARWUK’s work separates itself from other artists dealing with this subject matter and this aesthetic is the fluidity with which they present these ideas. All of the work appears to represent states of flux. Decay. Metastasis. Spectral forms blur in and out of focus. Humanoid objects are subjugated by their environments and fight to transcend them.

As I’ve stated above, there’s a sense of struggle in TARWUK’s environments, but not in any narrow, grievance politicking, “activist-approved” manner of so much of the vulgar contemporary art currently being shown. This is an art of being caught between chaos and entropy on one end, and assimilation and adaptation on the other. In Means Without Ends: Notes on Politics, Giorgio Agamben writes that, “The status of refugee has always been considered a temporary condition that ought to lead either to naturalization or to repatriation..” But in TARWUK, humanity itself is rendered as a permanent state of refugeedom. It never exists within a frame of the solid and the comprehensive, but always within one of bedlam and mystery. With this, TARWUK conjures a universal trauma often left unacknowledged. Are these lofty ambitions perfectly realized in the work? No, not always. But the ambitions are there, and you can feel them. In a subversion of Plato’s conception of painting as a mirror, TARWUK uses art as a mirror to that which is omnipresent but mostly unseen, or at least difficult to depict; the duo’s sculptures, paintings and drawings seek collapse time and history, in a sense, and imbue past, present and future with the eternal conflict of survival and extinction, the constant undercurrents of history. I’ve taken a pessimistic stance towards contemporary art in the last few years. I’ve become disillusioned with its retreat from modernism, subservience to reductive politics, and its endorsement of the current regimes of power (I’ve even dared to write much of it off as propaganda). But in TARWUK, there is, at the very least, an intention of modernism. It’s not about political turmoil, it’s about inevitable obsoletion. TARWUK’s art has excited my enthusiasm for mysticism, philosophy, and the imagination. And god damn it: I’ve missed that feeling.

Adam Lehrer is a writer and an artist living in New York. He is the founder and co-host of the System of Systems podcast, and the founder and curator of the Safety Propaganda collaborative media platform.

As a writer, Lehrer covers topics such as contemporary art, horror fiction, noise and experimental music, cinema, and left politics. He has been published by Autre Magazine, Caesura Magazine, Numero Berlin, Mute Presence, The Quietus, Filthy Dreams, SSENSE, i-D, and more.

As an artist, Lehrer’s works with collage, photography, and video montage.