Tomo Savić-Gecan’s quiet, extreme re-examination of art making

If you’re hoping for a glimpse of the Croatian artist’s work at the 59th Venice Biennale, look everywhere but the Croatian Pavilion

Tomo Savić-Gecan at CERN, Geneva, 2017. © 2017-2022 CERN. Photo: Sophia Elizabeth Bennett

If you’re visiting the Venice Biennale this year and want to see the work of Tomo Savić-Gecan representing Croatia at the iconic event, here’s a tip: look everywhere but the Croatian Pavilion. This venue will likely be closed or at least empty. Instead, Savić-Gecan’s project will unpredictably settle in other pavilions and exhibition spaces, and you can experience it without even realizing it. Four times a day, five performers receive instructions from an AI algorithm – which in turn responds to information in the main story of a randomly selected news outlet somewhere on the planet – on where to position themselves and how long to stay there, how to move, even what to do must think. You will not scream or dance; Expect subtle but not entirely natural movements like tilting your head, pretending to touch a wall, or moving in slow motion: people perhaps powered by artificial rulers.

The artist never circulates documentation or representations of his works of art, but always describes each of his projects in a concise sentence as its “image”. This is Tomo Savić-Gecan’s picture Untitled (Croatian Pavilion)2022

If you want, you can cheat a little by visiting an information kiosk on Via Garibaldi, where someone will tell you where the performances are taking place that day. Or you drift through the Biennale and hope to see something. But if you don’t see anything, it doesn’t mean that in some way you didn’t participate in Savić-Gecan’s Untitled (Croatian Pavilion) (2022) – all of the Dutch-Croatian artist’s work since he left art school in Milan in the mid-1990s has been virtually untitled – and just seeing something doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve experienced his artwork. If that sounds contradictory, bear with me and buckle up. Savić-Gecan’s practice is one of the most subtle – an apt word – extreme reconsiderations of the practice of making art that you are likely to find today. In some ways it overlaps with classic 1960s conceptual strategies of dematerialization, as his art is not primarily object-based or permanent; and yet it is also strongly materialistic (it takes people, places, all sorts of other things). The fact that there are no illustrations for this article – Savić-Gecan’s preference in catalogs, magazines and elsewhere is a blank space where an image should be, or caption describing how the artwork works – does not mean that in his art there is there is nothing to see, but sometimes there is not much and often you feel like you are in the wrong place. Instead, there is another place to think about.

For example: 17 years ago, when Savić-Gecan performed at the Venice Biennale earlier, he presented a line of text on a gallery wall telling the viewer about a relationship between the number of visitors entering an art space in Amsterdam and the number of visitors informed temperature of a public swimming pool in Tallinn. Also in 2005, Savić-Gecan “exhibited” in a Brussels gallery by removing the front glass, sending it to Slovenia to be powdered and turned into 150 glasses, and these in turn offered as drinking vessels for the exhibition. By this point he had been using reductive, evasive gestures for a decade. In 1994 he covered a gallery entrance in Ljubljana with a white wall; In 1996, he cordoned off a Cleveland showroom with warning tape. For institutional exhibitions in 2011 and 2020, all calls received by the curator triggered changes in the temperature of the gallery space. Such interventions border on infinity; In 2006, visitors to Austin, Texas learned that Savić-Gecan had collaborated with a Dutch art magazine to publish an issue that was exactly 1mm smaller than their usual size. The spectators were meanwhile in an American city a little more than 8,000 kilometers away.

This is the image for Tomo Savić-Gecan’s project at the 2012 Taipei Biennale

So you are prompted to ask who has the art experience. The answer, in ontological terms, flip-flops. Whoever keeps the art magazine in Amsterdam is not standing in the exhibition in Austin and pondering the philosophical ideas of Savić-Gecan. In this way, and in various ways, the artist has created the possibility of creating works of art that are impossible to fully experience (and therefore, by no means irrelevant, even commercialized as a document) – some of his works tend to be gone by the time you show up . In 2005, Savić-Gecan participated in a group show in Brooklyn, for which he used a hidden gizmo to record visitors’ entrances and exits; two years later, he used this information to customize the controls of a thermostat on another show he was on. and then, a decade later, he used the data again on a different thermostat in a different gallery to set the humidity level in the room. Hands up if you’ve seen all of these shows. If so, maybe Savić-Gecan will use the information again, in a show you’ll miss.

Anyway, that’s just part of it. Savić-Gecan also eludes the process of interpreting his work. It is a self-erasure that is an extension, as Savić-Gecan appropriately opens up and at the same time destabilizes the readings of his art. He encourages curators to spread their own interpretations, and in the process something fundamental – the “truth” of what his art means – will seemingly escape, dissolve. Instead, the art is populated by the beliefs of the respective curators; and then again that of the viewers. As with some of his projects, the art becomes a delimited empty space. It could be, as the pavilion’s curator Elena Filipovic has suggested, that “the exhibition” may not be the name for a place and duration to show anything at all, but instead the name for a place where a audience comes together both individually and collectively to create an aesthetic experience’.

This is the image for Tomo Savić-Gecan’s participation in the 2005 Venice Biennale

The more one thinks about Savić-Gecan’s art, the stronger the contradictions become and confront each other. Sometimes it feels like there’s nothing to see; and yet the work takes up space (and time). On the other hand, the creator – or initiator – of the art refuses to have it documented, so once the timeframe is up, it’s gone. On the other hand, it can be revived, albeit differently. It would be foolish to miss the playfulness, the absolute seriousness and the constant inventiveness in all of this. After all, Savić-Gecan is – as far as I know – the only artist who took a sample of air from a gallery in Amsterdam and sent it to the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) in Geneva, where it was then turned into antimatter. In this case, is the art the air, the antimatter, the process, the idea? Make a choice and Untitled (2018) slips through your fingers.

Untitled (Croatian Pavilion) participates in all intersections of Savić-Gecan’s art. Of course, it is also open to curatorial interpretation. To me, Filipovic phrased the project in technological terms: not only did she blast the concept of a national pavilion, but she also said: “It comments on the strange and insidious ways in which technology increasingly controls us (and our passive acceptance of it), but Also, in our own time after the truth it is an incredible commentary on the news and its relation to power, nationality, distribution channels, etc. As compelling as this view may be, it is of course Filipovic’s opinion only, which in turn is a structural part of the work represents. The latter is waiting to be filled in by the viewers who see it, who in turn think of those who experience it as a rumor, which may not be a lesser form of reception. And of course, if you see someone moving a little robotically in one country pavilion this year, that means you’re not standing in another country pavilion and seeing a different artist. At that moment Savić-Gecan and his art slipped back into freedom.

From the April 2022 issue of ArtReview

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