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Cars, Kisses & Afterlife

Nikola Vrljić

Nikola Vrljic Cars, Kisses And Afterlife Trotoar Photo Bosnic+dorotic Websize 30
Nikola Vrljic Cars, Kisses And Afterlife Trotoar Photo Bosnic+dorotic Websize 10
Nikola Vrljic Cars, Kisses And Afterlife Trotoar Photo Bosnic+dorotic Websize 13
Nikola Vrljic Cars, Kisses And Afterlife Trotoar Photo Bosnic+dorotic Websize 03
Nikola Vrljic Cars, Kisses And Afterlife Trotoar Photo Bosnic+dorotic Websize 25

Art, Death and the Beyond

On matters of life and its potential, it seems Nikola Vrljić’s ambitions reach beyond the material world. I am, of course, referring to ambitions underlying the content of his new series on the meaning of life, with motifs of car crashes, living skeletons and skulls, through which the artist shapes and paints his own contribution to the symbolic field of the hereafter, a constant human obsession since the dawn of time. In the past our Christian worldview, forever stuck between bodily desires and the impending darkness of death, has resorted to the popular artistic genres of the memento mori, vanitas and danse macabre in order to, in a particularly sombre manner, express the exclusively human cognisance of the fleetingness of life and, indeed, of all matter. In the contemporary era, the enduring fear and abhorrence of death that skulls and living skeletons emanate have been injected with a dose of commercialisation, entertainment, thrill and calculated subversiveness, which have a great variety of possible uses, from high fashion and art to pop culture and finally to thuggish and mercenary signage. All of this only lends further support to the initial thesis about the transitory nature of life, particularly of its joys and meaning and, above all, of the human ability to reflect on it.

Nikola Vrljić is, of course, aware of all this. His approach to the complex iconography and history of the motifs seems light-hearted and carefree. We might call it youthful, were it not for the fact that we are speaking of an accomplished artist with a constantly advancing career; a professor, a husband and a father, in other words a functioning member of society who has every reason for concern while, in a symbolic discourse, making fun of suppressed fears of sudden death caused by behaviours inconsistent with the norms of bourgeois society. In this, however, Vrljić’s is completely consistent; his work has always integrated praiseworthy artistic performance with a leaning towards the non-typical, the ugly, crass, phantasmagoric and grotesque; all of which is, nevertheless, thoroughly convincing and lifelike in execution. Nikola Vrljić is, first and foremost, a visual artist, concerned with transforming his musings on the reality that surrounds him into art objects; what’s more, he accomplishes this using traditional art techniques. We find him sculpting in clay once more, as well as, and just as convincingly, using the fast medium of painting with diluted pigment on paper. However, not only does Vrljić demonstrate both his sculptural and his painterly competence at the same time and on the same subject, but his previously expressed inclination to colouristic effects in sculpture now, due to colouristic experiments with ceramic colours and the shine effects of glaze, results in colouristic explosions. It is important to note that Vrljić relies on colour rather more in sculpture than in painting, where he prefers monochromes and altogether more subdued colour tones. Paradoxically, the sculptures are painted over with colours so intense that they recall abstract expressionism, while the approach to painting is that of a sculptor dissolving leftover scraps of material in a solvent in order to roughly hold a fleeting vision in place, saving it from oblivion. It is, therefore, owing to this unexpected turn, this intertwining of disciplinary techniques, that a thematically coherent opus develops into a visually unpredictable and elaborate whole rich in tones and modulations. It is also worth noting that the demanding and intuitive technique of ceramics, which in our part of the world is forever relegated to the borderline decorative, in Vrljić’s work again ascends to the realm of fine art with a persuasiveness unseen since the work of Edith Merle or Milena Lah’s series The Holiness of Cities back in the final decades of the previous millennium. In any case, in both disciplines Vrljić has proven himself an artist with a wide grasp, untethered by details and minutia, that is to say description, who instead narrates through formally compact, enclosed forms that allow him to grab hold of the causes, the consequences and the otherworldly.

Even though, having seen his previous work, we are already familiar with Vrljić’s predilection for the bizarre and grotesque, this series nevertheless represents a resolute step further in that direction, in that it brings with it the question of whether anything more bizarre than this is even possible. Going back to the subject matter, for the purpose of giving structure or even possibly creating a sequence, we can organise the motifs of this series dedicated to transience or to the joys of life, whichever you prefer, into several categories. Let us begin with representations of car or motorcycle rides, a couple kissing while driving followed by a deathly collision of the vehicle with the ground after driving off the road, then the skulls and, finally, the most bizarre: skeletons behaving in an unseemly fashion. The series’ macabre dramatisation begins with scenes of car accidents or the events that immediately precede them, and ends with life after life. The genre of violent death in traffic is typical of the modern era as a metaphor for consumer society’s inevitable crash, and it has evolved with the accelerating development of means of transport, above all within the automotive industry, the car having been successfully used as a metaphor for individual freedom. Along with this ideological and commercial fantasy, both the artist’s and the audience’s imagination has been occupied with exposing the particular violence and destructiveness ushered in by affluent society, without parallel in any earlier time. We are past the point of natural hazards, the fraught fragility of the human body is emphasised by the collision with the metal husk of a man-made machine, a kind of delayed suicide. While Vrljić’s representations of crashes, without historical precedent in sculpture, still directly refer to contemporary reality and society by means of a humorous array of vehicle types — a convertible, a motorcycle, an SUV — the frisky cadavers and skulls, the most durable material parts of the human body, touch on traditional references to life in the beyond, the spiritual space for contemplation of life’s transience. With fireworks of colours and the shine of glazed skulls representing the most obvious points of departure from tradition, Vrljić paradoxically achieves the consciously gruesome effect and intention of the historical memento mori. On the other hand, with anecdotal representations of skeletons who have in their gestures, movements and hollow-eyed gaze been endowed with specific individuality, of individuals who although dead still enjoy sex, driving fast and relaxing in heated pools, and who would again give their lives for these pleasures, it would seem the artist calls for unhindered hedonism, before our time is up. The skeleton no longer serves as the transcendent messenger of death, but an ode to life, an individual for whom nothing human is alien, deviating just as cheekily from conventional norms as Van Gogh’s 1886 Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette did. Skeletons and the grinning face of death are no novelty in Croatian art, beginning with Šercar’s modern interpretation of the Dance of Death from 1985, Murtić’s numerous Cadavers painted in the 1990s as witnesses, victims and perpetrators of violent slaughter in the wars of the time, all the way to the painter of Vrljić’s own generation, Josip Tirić, and his recent paintings which, in their expression and colour scheme, seem to adopt the lushness and the hyperenergetic atmosphere of the Mexican Day of the Dead.

Vrljić’s series on death enjoying life is a cynical defence and a challenge to the frightful omnipresence of death, which corresponds particularly well with the current global imbalance and the succession of crises, and at the same time it is a call to life without fear, life at the core of which is an awareness of the impossibility of controlling destiny and an acceptance of the inevitability of death. If we recall that in 2007 Damien Hirst’s For the Love of God, a platinum cast of an 18th century skull encrusted with diamonds, announced the global stock market crash, and if we believe that artists do sense the future, is Vrljić’s series cause for concern? I suspect that his intention is to make us take a deep breath, step into the pool or the car, intertwine our tongues and live every moment as if it were our last, for it very well might be.
Text by Branko Franceschi

About the Artist & the Works