Vlatka Horvat on Representing Croatia at the 60th Venice Biennale

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to artists and curators exhibiting in and curating the various national pavilions of the 2024 Venice Biennale, the responses to which will be published daily in the leadup to and during the Venice Biennale, which runs from 20 April – 24 November.

Vlatka Horvat is representing Croatia; the pavilion is in Cannaregio, Fabrica 33 (Calle Larga dei Boteri, Cannaregio 5063).

Photo: Hugo Glendinnning

ArtReview What do you think of when you think of Venice?

Vlatka Horvat I think of the instability of the built environment, of precarious structures and precarious conditions of living. I think of human ingenuity – people throughout history finding seemingly implausible solutions to survive and thrive, against the odds. The city as a site of fiction, where spaces might be opening and closing, where streets might rearrange themselves at night, where you walk on water, where your understanding of ‘how things work’ is upended… I think of meandering and lostness, of mindboggling beauty, and of a different experience of one’s body in space and time. I also think of the vulnerable ecosystems, the fraught relation between humans and the natural environment, of unsustainable tourism, rising sea levels.

AR What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?


My project for Venice, titled By the Means at Hand, is structured as a framework into which I’m inviting other people. Specifically, I have invited a large group of artist friends – from different countries around the world, based in different countries – who are all “foreigners” in places where they live (as am I), to contribute an artwork which reflects in some way on their diaspora experience. In exchange, I will send them a new work of mine produced in the pavilion, which doubles as my studio for the duration of the biennale. A key aspect of this artist exchange is that we don’t use the postal service or shipping companies, but instead, we try to piggyback on existing journeys by asking friends and acquaintances – curators, other artists, writers, technicians, etc. – who are already going to Venice for their own purposes to become informal couriers, delivering the artworks to the pavilion in their hand luggage.

Activating networks of artist friends, the Croatian Pavilion is envisioned as a site of convergence and a gathering of artists. The exhibition will take the form of a dynamic install that changes shape over time as new works by different artists arrive and my own works are sent back to them. The artworks will be shown alongside different traces of performative processes of encounter and exchange, including fragments of the journeys different works travelled, and the records of handovers between the artists and couriers who were entrusted with their delivery.

At its heart, By the Means at Hand is a project about friendship and trust, about solidarity and mutual support, and about community. It’s also about making do and finding ways to make things happen, by circumventing the official structures and systems in favour of the makeshift ones that are powered by people, and that rely on the goodwill and generosity of others. 

AR Why is the Venice Biennale still important, if at all? And what is the importance of showing there? Is it about visibility, inclusion, acknowledgement?

VH The structure of the Venice Biennale is problematic in many ways, starting with the idea of an artist could ever represent a nation. The framework of the national pavilions reinforces a view of the world defined by borders and nation states, implying that conditions of belonging and association work along the lines of national identity and citizenship. There’s also the biennale’s impact on the city of Venice, the incredible carbon footprint it produces via the travel and the shipping of artworks and materials, the astounding amount of resources it uses and waste it produces…

In its manifestation, my project for the Croatian Pavilion tries to foreground some of these problematics associated with the frame in which it sits. Our exhibition quietly pushes against the organizing principle of national pavilion representation – it’s a deeply collaborative project that includes a large number of artists from different countries, living in different countries. There is, as you suggest, a heightened visibility of one’s work in a context such as this one, and By the Means at Hand makes use of that visibility to flag certain things. Concretely, the project activates collective energy to make something happen, rather than serving a single-author position. It gives centre stage to solidarity, friendship, and mutual support as principles that bring and keep people together. By employing alternative means to get a large number of artworks to and from Venice, it encourages us to think of different ways of approaching logistics and the use of resources. The work celebrates the possibility of using materials that are ‘at hand’ and readily available, of piggybacking on travel and on other processes that are already happening. It also stages a series of collaborations across geographical distance, testing ways of working (and being) together, having a conversation, without necessarily being physically present in the same place. 

A certain contradiction at play here is not lost on me though: we are making use of the travel which is already happening and in doing so we are of course entangled in the situation we are trying to address. It is precisely because of the large scope of the Venice Biennale, and the large number of people traveling to Venice over the course of its eight months that a project of this nature can be pulled off. 

AR When you make artworks do you have a specific audience in mind?

VH I work with an awareness of context so the decisions I make in the work take on board different particularities of the place where the work will be encountered: the site’s architecture, its spatial properties, its historical and social context, its previous uses, as well as the socio-political and material conditions operating in and around it. An essential part of working for me is thinking about the ways in which the work might raise questions into a particular set of contexts and dynamics, about the propositions the work makes and how it makes them in regard to the viewer. When I’m making work, I’m often actively imagining the encounter between the work and the viewer, so part of my process involves me testing different possibilities, playing through different scenarios linked to how a viewer might encounter a work in space, through a particular frame of reading and understanding. That said, I don’t make work for specific groups of people, if that’s what you mean. In every context one hopes for a diversity of audience approaches, and a range of responses and ways of engaging with the work. No audience is a homogeneous mass; as every social grouping, it is a diverse mix of individuals who bring to the encounter with the work their very different – sometimes conflicting or contradictory – experiences, wants, assumptions, knowledges, sensibilities, and so on. So when I make work I try to be mindful of those complexities. Often what I want to put into a room are sets of questions, or open-ended propositions, tensions, and contradictions that audiences have to contend with in some way.

Vlatka Horvat, Venice (at Hand) #3, 2024, collage on inkjet photo

AR Do you think there is such a thing as national art? Or is all art universal? Is there something that defines your nation’s artistic traditions? And what is misunderstood or forgotten about your nation’s art history?

VH I don’t think of art in national terms. And at the same time I don’t think of art – or anything else – as being universal. 

Art of course is not made in a vacuum; it’s produced in specific contexts and under specific conditions. The processes of making, exhibiting, and encountering it are all entangled in the complex sets of dynamics operating in the culture. So art reflects its context, but it can also do more than that; it can effect and shape the social imaginary and the sense of what is possible in the setting within which it is situated.

What I am aware of is that my work is informed by, and grows out of or in a dialogue with, certain traditions, certain conversations, certain histories. I wouldn’t be the artist I am without the legacy of Yugoslavia and the conceptual and performance practices that came from there in the mid-twentieth century. And at the same time, I’ve been lucky to work and study in other places, to broaden the sets of references and approaches I might draw on – I lived in the US for twenty years, and in the UK for the last thirteen… so through that and through travel and other encounters, I feel like I’m drawing on a wide range of practices and understandings. And I think many artists work in this way. What constitutes the work comes from a very personal and diverse set of references and knowledges; it’s not that you’re an articulation or product of a nation. 

Universality has a trickier, complex history. I’m on board with the idea that we have things in common, that there are shared truths and experiences, but at the same time I’m also attuned to difference, to the ways in which our particular experiences can make us see, understand, and act in the world in different ways. For me the tensions that come from difference, the nuance, and conversation around different understandings and possibilities is as important as any notion of a shared experience. 

In terms of my ‘nation’s artistic traditions’, the ones that are most relevant to my practice and ways of working are the legacies of conceptual art, feminist art and performance, and various collaborative efforts of artists and artist collectives from the 1960s and the 70s, often working in self-organized structures with limited resources and limited infrastructural support. These efforts and legacies we cannot talk about without talking about the history of the larger region, as these historical practices operated in a different national frame, of what used to be Yugoslavia.

AR If someone were to visit your nation, what three things would you recommend they see or read in order to understand it better?

VH I’m not sure that such a limited number of things would necessarily help someone understand a nation better. As with every nation, Croatia is full of contradictions and inconsistencies. It abounds with different historical interpretations and different takes on its own position and identity, and there are stark regional differences within the country itself. An additional complexity is of course that people of my generation and older were born and formed in another country and another system (in Yugoslavia, in socialism). For me, an understanding of the current situation would need to account in some way for the history and the legacies of that other entity. 

Things I would recommend reading or looking at are some the things that have formed my own relation to the place I come from. They might not help one understand it, but they may help ‘complexify’ it. In any case, the texts I’m thinking of don’t so much refer to a “nation” as an entity; rather, they speak of the lived experience of particular people or groups of people in these parts. It’s all difference, all nuance for me. No generalities. 

I would say, read the poetry of Josip Pupačić, Antun Branko Šimić, Danijel Dragojević, Olja Savičević Ivančević, Grigor Vitez, Gustav Krklec, and the books of Dubravka Ugrešić, Janko Polić Kamov, and Kristian Novak. Listen to Međimurska popevka, the atonal folksong from the Međimurje region, where I come from, for a sense of the endless sorrow and endless sadness.

AR Which other artists have influenced or inspired you?

VH If I were to single out something that was extremely influential for my developing a certain sensibility as an artist, it would be animation: cartoons like Osvaldo Cavandoli’s La Linea, the Czechoslovak stop-motion series …a je to!, Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings, Professor Balthasar… I grew up watching amazing animation, especially animation coming out of the Czech studios – artists like Jan Švankmajer and Jiří Trnka – with its matter-of-fact mixing of the humorous and the horrific, and its frequent treatment of the absurd as the ordinary and the ordinary as remarkable.

Thinking of influences, I don’t tend to think of artists separate from writers, filmmakers, performance makers… So in no particular order: Mladen Stilinović, Vlado Martek, Francesca Woodman, Ana Mendieta, Clarice Lispector, Samuel Beckett, Georges Perec, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Chantal Akerman, Kathy Acker, Donald Barthelme, Gertrude Stein, Tomislav Gotovac, Goran Trbuljak, Hanna Hoch, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Jiří Kovanda, Bas Jan Ader, Želimir Žilnik, John Smith, Hannah Wilke, and the performance collectives Forced Entertainment, Goat Island, Lucky Pierre, and The Wooster Group. And, of course, many more contemporary artist colleagues and friends, and my partner Tim Etchells, with whom I’ve been having an over-twenty-year-long conversation about art (and other things) on a daily basis.

AR What, other than your own work, are you looking forward to seeing while you are in Venice?

VH I’m excited to see the works of close to 200 artists who have accepted my invitation to contribute to our project for the Croatian Pavilion, which will be arriving in Venice over the course of the biennale.

Elsewhere, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Adriano Pedrosa’s main exhibition, as well as the Czech and Slovak, Kosovar, Austrian, and British pavilions. Some projects curated by dear friends are high on my list – a retrospective of Robert Indiana, The Sweet Mystery, curated by Matthew Lyons; a five-day programme titled When Solidarity is Not a Metaphor, curated by Nataša Petrešin-Bachelez; and the Catalan collateral project curated by Filipa Ramos. South West Bank – Landworks, Collective Action and Sound, a project featuring work of Palestinian artists from the West Bank, is an absolutely essential one to support, as the voices of Palestinian artists and organizations need to be amplified in these kinds of visible contexts. I’m also keen to visit The Artists at Risk Pavilion, focusing on the work of artists whose activities are situated at the cross-section of art and human rights, and to attend ecology-related program of talks, The Gathering into the Maelstrom, curated by Sale Docks and Institute of Radical Imagination, which is running over the opening weekend at Sale Docks. 

The 60th Venice Biennale, 20 April – 24 November

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