Memory is a permeable field. The chronological distance taking us progressively further from certain events, places and people who we try to keep in our memory, dissolves the images we carry within us. We fill the vacated space with subsequent experiences, and memories we borrow and take over from other sources. One of my frailest early memories, one I have since more or less consciously been adding to, is that of a first visit to a circus. Almost entirely it is built on assumptions: what did the tent look like, was it big, how did the sand smell, did the clowns’ act make me laugh (or scared), what exotic animals did I see… The foggy concept breaks up into countless facets of images from which the clearest and most reliable is the one of me being photographed with a baby chimp dressed in child’s clothes. The feeling of my happiness combined with the jerks of a panic-stricken animal trying to free itself from my grasp, is probably the only authentic memory I have of this event. Everything else I have worked over and made up for with stories of others, movie scenes, elements of popular culture and assumptions about what a visit to the circus should be like. All this might seem ephemeral and of little consequence, but out of these dim recollections arises the most striking impression of a place and an event, which then gradually grows into a general idea of a much wider range of meaning – of spectacle, show, foolery, excess, magic, joy, fear…
Because of the lack of recollection, the circus has, unlike firmly rooted and seemingly more important ideas of other places, remained one liable assumption – the metaphor for risk and responsibility in creating my own reality and its laws. Since the age of the Romantics, artists have readily reached for the (sur)reality and inconsistency of that wondrous world. They identified themselves and the state of art in general with buffoons, street performers and clowns, those hyperbolic and intentionally deformed characters who, until recently were amusing audiences in circus arenas. Nikola Vrljić’s sculpture studio has, in the last three years, turned into one such arena. By what appears to me a completely spontaneous process, an untypical troupe came together: one character would, by a seemingly random logic, call upon the next. The first to come on stage were the strongmen, large nude fellows, resembling animals because of their robust postures, for instance a sluggish bear. Gradually people separated from the beasts – along came a sullen lad Radovan and a sneering monkey Rene, who in his rampage while riding a pug seems more like the entertained than the entertainer. Standing out from all the male figures is a vigorous woman acrobat, hovering graciously in the air. And the clown you wonder, where is he? In rolls the skull of Yorick, predecessor of a court jester. It even laughs. Nikola is also part of the group, although grown smaller as a portrayal of the alarmed feeling of self in the circus (subconsciously artistic) context. This is a clear representation of moaning through use of disproportion, which is then appropriated by the formative language of representation of the entire circus troupe. The grotesque, made even more apparent in the drawings, which go deeper into the oneiric, erotic, monstrous and provocative, evokes the question of bringing certain assumptions to their limits. Balance, feeling of security in oneself and others, perception of validity of one’s own aesthetic and ethic calling. The circus epiphany of art and the artist, that is the critique of middle class repute and the ‘orderliness’ of middle class life, is doubled by the process of self-criticism, embodied in the dwarfish self-portrait, and lead against his own ‘aesthetic’ calling. Persistence on the disproportion of the body in a way confirms it as a new harmony: the paradox of recognizing harmony in its negation. At last, all begins and ends with the issue of the body. It remains, after all, stripped and deprived of all circus props, typical outfit, and so released from the necessity of taking over a role and an identity. Body itself becomes the prop. The course of directing the play is, in certain measure, left to the spectator and his fascination with the corpulent, monumental bodies, which in their excessiveness still haven’t lost the credibility of involvement with their interior. The bodies, bound by the tangibly exciting coat of epidermis, are sometimes masked, their heads can change as needed (sculpture by the ironic title New balance), their faces carry the colors of the national emblem, they are dropped into the submissive posture of a toad, who is at the same time folded but also ready to lunge, maybe even attack suddenly On entering the circus tent, it is difficult to distinguish to which point a certain reflection is deformed in the distorting mirror, and to which point it is authentic.
A circus spectacle assumingly gives a reflection of the society and all its ailments, with the possibility of cathartic relief or at least a momentary break from the stress and banality of everyday, which isn’t given the right to be self-explanatory. The circus is actually a slippery slope for any kind of final conclusion – is it a charade, a sham or reality, are we dealing with innocent fun or something more serious, possibly grave and threatening? At our disposal are only assumptions. For instance, the platform with feet without their statue is the idea of a statue that is not there, a past monument, for who knows what has happened to it since its erection? On the other hand, we can see it as an announcement of something yet to happen. Or, if we accept the argument of an invisible man, invisible, impossible sculpture, maybe it is happening as we speak. The exhibited theatrics reveal a circus which alludes and associates much more than it communicates through linear narration. The enlarged and distorted realism of the body does not pertain to an unambiguous view of reality, the balance of which it seemingly disturbs. The experience of the mystery of circus is the experience of the discomfort of life. It is dealt with through laughter, directed foremost to oneself. It dissolves the constructs of our own (elevated) position while questioning conceptual short-cuts and metaphors of false solace.
The Circus! was exhibited in:
Sculpture Museum Glyptotheque HAZU, Zagreb, Croatia in 2014
Diocletian’s Palace, HULU, Split, Croatia in 2014
City Gallery Labin, Labin, Croatia in 2014
Oranžerija Gallery, City Museum, Vukovar, Croatia 2014