Veš slikar svoj dolg (V.S.S.D., Painter Do You Know Your Duty) was the name of a tandem of artists Janez Jordan and Alen Ožbolt; remaining individually anonymous, they conceived V.S.S.D. as an independent entity (also expressing themselves in the first person singular in interviews and texts), as an “expanded subject” transcending with its collective anonymous work the “autopoetics” prevalent in art at the time, particularly in painting. The two artists began working together in 1983 producing street graffiti; their first public presentation came in 1986 with the now iconic exhibition at the Škuc Gallery Veš slikar svoj dolg (Painter Do You Know Your Duty), a title they subsequently adopted as their name. V.S.S.D. was active between 1985 and 1995, when the collaboration came to an end and V.S.S.D. ceased to exist as an artistic subject.
V.S.S.D. presented a new, radically different approach to the concept of a work of art from the outset. This was evident on many levels: in the unconventional take on the media of painting and sculpture, clearly leaving behind the long-lasting modernist considerations related to the limits of a medium and its autonomy; in the artwork being determined by the place and time of its presentation; in the art work/act being an intense, total perceptional and bodily experience; and especially in the relation between image and nature. A V.S.S.D. work was a total work of art, Gesamtkunstwerk, also described as a total environment, or later more often as a spatial painting. In it, V.S.S.D. took over the entire exhibition space as the field of the creative act, staging a spectacular scene in a vast array of diverse techniques and materials (paintings on a variety of supports, sand, clay, wax, broken glass, pigments, wrought iron, cast metal, cotton wool, cobwebs, spray paint, fire…), a space saturated with an unpredictable “iconography” that the viewers entered as a metaphorical borderline space between nature and image, or the natural environment and its deliberate simulation, reality and illusion, mirror image and the distortion of the image.
This kind of expression was centrally marked by anamorphosis, a deceptive, distorted, evasive image that can, under certain conditions, nonetheless be seen as correct, true, real, communicative. However, there is a twist in V.S.S.D.’s use of anamorphosis: there actually is no point of view that would bring together the chaotic, decentered “spatial painting” and give it a definable meaning. The image is a conglomerate of myriad effects, perspectives and impressions breaking up and rearranging the view from the combinations of countless meanings without some central point that could bestow a pacifying sense to the whole. V.S.S.D. gave its works and projects enigmatic, ambiguous titles, and wrote accompanying texts to the exhibitions that were not interpretations of the works, but autonomous material, albeit interdependent with the artworks. The special place occupied by text, its extraordinary significance in V.S.S.D.’s oeuvre, is also specific of the artist, as is the nature of the texts: highly unusual, verbally saturated, overflowing, like some blasphemous catechisms about art and last things (a selection of them was published in The Word of a Painting (Book): (Selected) Words, Statements, Texts 1984–1995).
This concept of a work of art coincided with the postmodernist paradigm of art and all that it entailed (decentering of the subject, failure of great ideas and master narratives, the simulacrum theory). In terms of its innovative expansion of an artwork to encompass the exhibition space, it was an early manifestation of the global phenomenon of spatial or installation art in our region.
The most outstanding projects/exhibitions V.S.S.D. presented in its slightly over a decade of work include V.S.S.D. II (1987/88, Škuc Gallery), The Painting of a Painting (1990/91), Sand in Your Eyes (1991), The Anatomy (Anamorphosis) of Flame (1991/92), Red Sea (Red Planet) (1992/93), It is Completed. The Future is Something Redundant (1993, Vienna), Look into the Eyes (1993, Aperto, Venice Biennale), Look into the Chaos (1991/92), Reading Room (1994), (Thou, Thine) Thee. White-Eye (1994), (About) the Soul (1994), and the final V.S.S.D. project, The Painting of a Painting II (1995, Venice Biennale). In these and other projects, V.S.S.D. developed a complex, ramified, heterogeneous structure of content and form, most frequently cyclically returning to the basic issues broached at the outset, approaching them from a different angle or reevaluating, reaffirming or abandoning them. This was not a linear progress based on the logic of development or progression; rather, it was a rhizomatic growth, an entanglement allowing temporal transitions, the past in place of the future, nature in place of the image, meaning invested in an image that conceals more than it reveals (absence in the visible, desire in the object) – interpretation of this work is interminable, since virtually every single V.S.S.D. work stems from some past pre-image and has the potential to grow into countless future ones. V.S.S.D. once said: “Back to the past, back to the self. The search (for the self) is a (self) appropriation. Where are my memories, where are – eloquent images. There is no reason for me to have a feeling of permanence: everything moves – is movable, changeable and transitory. The future does not exist.”
Trying to compose a taxonomy of V.S.S.D.’s images seems beside the point, even our chronological classification is but a makeshift aid hoping to convey how densely interwoven V.S.S.D.’s works, forms and issues are. Any attempt to discern the inner structure, the origin of the “motifs” or formal qualities that would, at least apparently, explain this production, can be misleading, since no one view is final (much less “true”, “correct” or “real,” regardless of the impression of the high drama or fatefulness it may give); it is always multiplied in an endless permutation of mirror images, illusions, ornaments, bravura in drawing, a surfeit of motifs, an abundance of materials which eventually wanes to a fragile, ephemeral drawing in sand… Probably the most radical and final gesture of anamorphic fusion of image and nature was accomplished by V.S.S.D. in 1990 with Burning Painting: the burning of a painting transformed it into an elusive play of flames, even though this act meant its destruction.
In the relatively short time of its work, V.S.S.D. created an exceptionally complex, heteronomous and dramatically fascinating universe of the image, elevating it in spectacular scenes to the status of an all-encompassing, total painterly-sculptural-artistic experience, and addressing through this production the (still) central issues of contemporary art: form, the gaze, the body, and matter.
Since the end of V.S.S.D. in 1995, Alen Ožbolt has been pursuing a solo artistic career. While essentially growing out of the basic aesthetic and topical premises of V.S.S.D., Ožbolt’s profuse solo oeuvre has broader dimensions, broaching issues already addressed in V.S.S.D. work and expanding on them. Initially, the artist’s transition to solo work was marked by the trauma of rupture with, denial of, or distancing from the work and heritage of V.S.S.D., which, however, has since become a “working history,” constructive ground for formulating new artistic concepts and ideas.
One of the central subjects in Ožbolt’s art is, first and foremost, a continuation and an increase in the potential of the spatial painting or a spatially conceived work of art. The basic premise here is that such a work of art necessarily determines its space of existence upon its every realization, only for the duration of that realization, exclusively and bindingly. This is a further development of the proposition that the precondition for a work of art is defining the space for art. Whether reinventing the use of sand in new ways or employing other materials, such as wax, paper, or a million (former Slovene) one-tolar coins, Ožbolt’s spatial paintings are limited in time with their unique, one-off gallery installations. This introduces into the core concept of such an artwork its (short) duration, its transience, its physical, material (and also symbolic and metaphorical) vulnerability, fragility and terminability. Creating an inner space proper to the artwork (e.g. in Sleepwalker, 1996, The Sower, 2001, Edge, 2002, Open and Closed, 2003) also addresses the issue of the autonomy of the artwork (in contemporary art, often considered an issue of crossing the line between the autonomy of art and its actual impact on the world), which in Ožbolt’s work turns out to be an interpretively ambiguous (and materially subtle) thematization of the social space of art. The issue of the edge is thus not merely the issue of the material edge of an artwork in the modernist tradition, but always also the issue of creating (and transcending) the edge or limit of the artwork’s context, the institutional space of art and its social, structural and political position.
Another key basis of Ožbolt’s art is the material and the matter of an artwork: their cause-and-effect links with the form and the way this changes, evolves, metamorphoses, “lives”; and their functional and intuitive interdependence with the space and the body. Most of Ožbolt’s works/projects are characterized by an exceptional diversity of materials and his physical, hands-on working of them, his “artisanal” approach to producing incredible, suggestively fascinating or repulsive forms (e.g. The Life of Forms project, 1998–2011, or Entartete Kunst, 2017). The expressiveness of matter itself – never understood in a conceptually tautological way by Ožbolt, but neither merely in a sublime metaphorical way – is crucial for the genesis of his work and ideas; his works’ suggestive material manifestations allow them to avoid semantic pitfalls and mechanisms of metaphor. This is probably the reason this type of “untamed matter” – often in relation to physicality, to the physical production and the bodily perception of his work – has in Ožbolt’s case been linked with a Bataillesque “base materialism” and its potential for subversive emancipation through primary matter.
Furthermore, the matter is the generator of the artwork’s potential on yet another level for Ožbolt: in the shift in the cause-and-effect links between matter and form. While usually the former determines the latter, the opposite is frequently the case in Ožbolt’s works, culminating in the representation of a substance precisely due to its form, its traces, its (natural but artificially, artistically enabled, that is, mediated and thus in reality un-natural, formed) manifestation. Already in the V.S.S.D. period, certain works were ultimately completed with flames; Ožbolt initiates situations where fire, water or air in-spire the image, which subsequently – after having been completed with the artist’s manual intervention – becomes the artwork at some point (e.g. paintings in the Before and After series, 1995–98, Aerobium (Breathing and Air Studies), 1999, From Up Close, From Far Away, 1998–2004, or the suggestive environment Black Cloud, White Matter and Fake Fires, 2018).
At first glance, Alen Ožbolt’s works often appear to stand in contrast with the trends and tendencies in contemporary art, an impression that is not misleading, at least not insofar as they lack any unequivocal reference to contemporary mediatized reality or do not come close to the sphere of contemporary art that pursues emancipation through (or at least fascination with) alternative uses of technology and science and/or renounces the art object for the sake of process, discourse or event. Of course, this does not mean that Ožbolt’s works cannot be interpreted as reaching the horizon beyond art; indeed, his works do not preclude such a reading of context, while Ožbolt’s texts accompanying his exhibition clearly refer to the contemporary social context of (his) art.
All of this notwithstanding, Ožbolt’s installations, images, works, paintings-sculptures, sculptures-paintings, objects, acquiring all manner of diverse, undreamt-of forms in their “lives,” seem to manifest themselves elsewhere, in the spaces of the absence of the image, in edge spaces, where speech, faced with matter, fails, be it in an impermanent sand drawing or in the mute impenetrability of tar (“what we see on screens,” to paraphrase the title of an Ožbolt text), also still in the parallel medium of text and, above all, where the object of art resists the gaze. A key experience of Ožbolt’s art seems to be that the artwork is defined by a gaze that is barred (that can never see the image in its entirety, that can never be filled with it), which is the only way to keep the desire alive, since what is seen always also includes what is absent and what cannot be truly encompassed (“A view of a material form is always partial and incomplete,” A.O.). All of the above comes together in one of the most multilayered and authentic artistic oeuvres in Slovene art.
Exhibition curated by Martina Vovk.
Alen Ožbolt: Vie des formes, Loža Gallery, Koper, 2011 and several re-installment of the exhibition in 2019. Photo: Jaka Jeraša
Second exhibition of the V.S.S.D., Painter Do You Know Your Duty, Škuc Gallery, 1986/87. Photo: Miha Škerlep