Socialism is synonymous with childhood

Artist Vlatka Horvat in Conversation with Andreas Stadler

AS: How did you experience the early war?

VH: Well, I didn’t experience the war first-hand. I came to the US in 1991 as a teenager through a student exchange program, so I was in the States when the war started. I was supposed to stay for only one year – it’s been 19 now. I returned to Croatia in 1992 for a few months before going back to the US, to Chicago, to go to university. The first ten years after Croatia’s independence, things were really tough – we had a far-right government, corruption in all aspects of life; the economy collapsed very quickly. There was a sense of precariousness everywhere. For my parents’ generation, their relationship to the past was very problematic since their whole lives from the mid-1940s on were now seen as a colossal mistake, something that one should distance oneself from and preferably erase from memory. The younger generation, on the other hand, felt this enormous tension and pressure; an acute uncertainty about the future.

AS: What has changed?

VH: As far as political and social realities go – pretty much everything. Religion became very central – suddenly everyone became religious, which after growing up in an agnostic atmosphere felt like a huge change. The new government aligned itself closely with the Catholic Church. This is still a big issue today. There was also a widespread “misremembering” of the past. Huge changes were instituted in language, too, with this idea that language is intrinsically tied to national identity and that we should try to go back to some supposedly “authentic” or “pure” version of Croatian. Anything that had anything to do with the past 45 years of socialism and Yugoslavia was on the chopping block at that time and had to be “corrected.”

One way in which this nationwide misremembering was enacted was via acts of renaming: everything was being changed, from the names of streets and squares to the names of institutions and agencies. My parents, for example, lived on a street called Brotherhood and Unity, which, of course, was a central concept in socialist Yugoslavia. In the early 90s, their street became Vlatko Maček Street, named after one of the “Great Croatian Men” (and, coincidentally, my namesake). For people living there, the changes perhaps felt more gradual, but for me, coming back once a year, every return felt like coming back to something you don’t really know anymore.

For the first ten years, all through the 90s, every time I went back in the summer, I would think, “This is rock bottom. It can’t get any worse,” and then the next year it would be worse still. Corruption was all-pervasive; everything got sold off – companies, natural resources – and a few people became very rich in this process, while the middle class shrank very fast. People working in this new private sector weren’t getting paid for months. Going to work every day and not getting paid for months was pretty much the norm. I remember being repeatedly amazed at how people managed to get by, to make do and pull through. Obviously, they had to be very creative.

As we are talking, Vlatka is showing us one of her earlier pieces. Called Restless, it is a single-take video from 2003, shot in an empty auditorium. The camera is positioned on the stage filming endless empty rows of chairs while the protagonist – the artist herself – is moving around this landscape of seats, repositioning herself over and over again, crawling from one row to another as though looking for the right place to sit, searching for the best seat, or the seat with the right vantage point.

Then the artist shows us a second video, Out On a Limb, shot in 2002 in her parents’ yard. It shows her standing on one foot on the limb of a tree, trying to balance. The footage is looped in such a way that it appears seamless; there is never a cut, so it depicts this severed leg in a permanent state of suspension, and extends this uncomfortable moment, without ever offering any relief.

AS: Do you feel kind of nostalgic thinking about socialism?

VH: Well… socialism is synonymous with childhood for me. I grew up as a “pioneer”, writing poems to Tito... It’s impossible to separate in my memory the experience of childhood and the experience of that particular era, and things that made up everyday life. For me it’s not about nostalgia, though – it’s about maintaining a perspective on what we did and appreciating what we lived through in a way that refuses to forget about it and move on just because a capitalist system was instated. I don’t yearn for the past… but I’m not interested in erasing it either.


VLATKA HORVAT  Visual artist; exhibitions of her work in renowned galleries around the world, including New York, London, and Tel Aviv; did residencies with Outpost for Contemporary Art in Los Angeles and the International Artists Studio Program in Stockholm; received Ph.D. from Roehampton University.