‘What interests me, and what I try to talk about, is what I call ‘’small memory”. This is what differentiates us from one another. The great memory can be found in history books, but the hoard of small bits of knowledge that each one of us has accumulated makes up what we are.

                                                                                            Christian Boltanski[i]

To recollect… To remember. What does it mean? To Joan Gibbons, the author of the study Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance, “memory is one of the most vital of our faculties, the apparatus that allows for recognition (re-cognition) without which the powers of cognition itself remain transient and unframed.” However, that apparatus is intrinsically mutable, unstable and unreliable, frequently responsible for inaccurate re-construction of events or facts that are subsequently presented as credible. Even if, instead of linguistic, it refers to visual documents as ‘evidence’ of credibility, the method of recording an event lest we forget, as well as exhibiting those recordings in a public space may be subject to manipulation and fabrication of false memory. With regard to this, Gibbons points out that “it is not so much the reliability or fallibility of memory that is at stake today but the way that memory is harnessed and deployed in the negotiations of life, from the ‘little’ moments and events of the private and the everyday to those ‘grander’ moments and events of formalized and public occasions.”  

Whichever the case may be (inevitably making allowances for the third possibility of combining them), what leaves a trace in every process of recollection – particularly the one regarding positive and happy moments and events – is a sweet and bitter taste of nostalgia. That taste is ambivalent since it oscillates between a feeling of satisfaction and dissatisfaction that memory generates – to the extent in which recalling the past ensures short-lived, ephemeral fulfillment to the person remembering something nice, while at the same time underscoring emptiness, the irretrievable loss of the moment gone. And, owing to the awakened consciousness of that lost moment gone forever and irreplaceable, memory sets a boundary where there is despair: the self-defense mechanism identified in psychology as a way of establishing distance from unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Why? Because by doing so, the irretrievable moment is not accepted as such but subjected to the (self-)delusional process of substitution, thus replacing it with something else, less valuable but idealized through subsequent rationalization and presented in the best possible light: ‘sweet lemon’, as a consolation…

What could this mechanism of distancing, restriction or defense related to the irretrievable loss mean in terms of the individual and the collective, the local and the global sense, viewed from the current ‘infected’ perspective, when we are aware it is imperative to maintain physical distance between people in the age of pandemics? And, in what way does contemporary art respond to a state of emergency imposing restrictions on physical contact aimed at preventing the virus from spreading, as they claim?

Can artists replace the feeling of personal loss (hypertrophied by repetitive memories of people, spaces and events from the closest, intimate, family environment) with a public exhibition format, the one in which the very exhibition becomes the embodiment of the self-defense mechanism while the artist attempts, but this time in front of the audience, to rationalize anew the frustration related to a personal loss – the failure of his own memory to reincarnate and retrieve something that has been lost forever, whose place has now been occupied by something else (for instance, the solemn allegory of a ‘sweet lemon’, embodied by a gilded floating object in a simulated altar-niche)?

A new solo exhibition by Ivan Šuković, entitled SWEET LEMON, inspired by the already mentioned situation, is a quiet and specific defense mechanism against the kind of defense mechanism he calls into question, subjecting it to public scrutiny, openly and undeterred by distance (or failure).

The first segment comprises a monolithic sculpture. It has been modelled after the territory Šuković recorded with a drone. That territory, in one part of Podgorica, was not randomly selected but is highly relevant to his growing up. Having been recorded, the same territory was digitally marked, ‘broken down into shots’ by means of satellite software provided by three-dimensional image processing. The three-dimensional virtual model was subsequently materialized in real space by means of a modern computer numerical control – the CNC machine. The newly-created sculpture depicts the exact territory, which has been previously shot and processed, and which evokes in the author all the sentiments, memories and closeness that marked his childhood and the early years of adolescence in the family environment in Podgorica.

Some characteristics of that terrain, the selected actions and situations, including the situations encountered during the drone shooting, are now exhibited in the second segment of the exhibition, in the form of deep relief which bears resemblance to the former experiments with inner perforations leading to glass engravings in the project For the Sake of Recollection and Remembrance. Why deep relief? Because both engravings and deep relief carvings require a sort of closeness with the person creating them, but also with the spectator. In relation to this, Šuković said during our conversation:

Once something is over, the process of forgetting begins. The gaps are filled with various constructions. This is why I selected deep relief. It is also something that has never “departed from” a two-dimensional space to become something completely three-dimensional – it always remains levitating on that surface, mild and requiring the spectator to engage in interaction, so that it could become prominent and communicate the information that it contains. In these artworks I presented the content important to me, which defies oblivion: on the one hand, autobiographical landscapes which allude to closeness (which is so questionable nowadays) and, on the other hand, discovered photographs whose archive potential complements that questionability. I chose some of those photos to transpose their outlines to the deep relief itself.

Landscapes carved in deep relief are depicted as desolate, with reason. When the artist’s family lived on that exact terrain about thirty years ago, it looked different: it was characterized by vitality and functionality, because someone lived there and there was infrastructure. Due to a change in circumstances, everything has changed in the meantime: there is nothing there any more, apart from the abandoned buildings looking like some industrial artifacts. Not a single industrial or residential facility has been built there in the meantime: it was a case of letting nature take its course. In addition to landscapes, deep relief carvings also display perfectly simple situations Šuković reproduced from the old family photographs, which present fragments of the situations and actions from his life from an earlier period (his small, personal, ambient experience, recorded in the atmosphere of a garden, a yard, a terrace at the seaside, etc.) – the life he MISSES now.

The third segment of the exhibition comprises the object in the form of a sacral motif, owing to Šuković’s fascination with perspective in the works of Italian Renaissance painter Piero della Francesca, ‘borrowed’ from Montefeltro Altarpiece. In an iconographic sense, it represents a sacra conversazione dominated by the Virgin enthroned and the sleeping Child in the middle, surrounded by a host of angels and saints, in the presence of a kneeling donor (Federico da Montefeltro) in the right lower corner. What makes this painting famous is placed in the upper register, in which there seems to be an ostrich egg floating, suspended from the apse shell. 

In this work, Šuković suggests to the visitors of his exhibition a symbolic perspective through a ”monumental” small object which, placed in a simulated sacral wall cell, appears to be floating in that micro sacral space – but also in ”purgatory”, whose function does not cease with our hope the state of viral contamination ends, but which also pertains to the spiritual serenity of the body oppressed by a sense of guilt and a need for redemption. If for no other reason, then for the ecological holocaust we do nothing to stop. In character with the allegory and the leitmotif of the exhibition, Šuković’s visitors face an object similar to ‘the egg’ from the Renaissance painting, whatever its original meaning was. Uninhibited by all the potential interpretations, he takes a subjective perspective, seeing it as an element that brings a sense of ease into our lives, the way those contemporary paintings do through Boltanski’s vanitas, showcasing the fragility of life as a phenomenon hanging by a thread of destiny separating it from death, but also bringing it closer to it. In accordance with this, the ambivalent ease of life and death has been embodied by a hyper- realistic ceramic lemon, truly gilded, so that an intentional monumental value could be ascribed to its negligible size.

Do you consider the golden lemon as a “sweet” call for rethinking the meaning of the “ease” of living and dying in circumstances compounded by the pandemic – and the distance it imposes? Where there is closeness, there is memory too, Šuković would say, and where there is distance, there is also resistance. Let us defy OBLIVION. At least until we all die, whatever we die of…

Marko Stamenković

art historian

[1] See: “What interests me is what I call ‘small memory’: Boltanski’s tribute to the dead awaits you in the MACBA galleries”, MACBA Museum of Contemporary Art of Barcelona Website (n.d.), https://www.macba.cat/en/art-artists/collectables/christian-boltanski

[2] Joan Gibbons, Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance,
London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2007., 1.

[3] The video artwork in question, not included in the current exhibition, was presented for the first time in 2017 under the title ‘’Displacement’’ and shown at the exhibition On the Spot, where the artist, in the form of an installation, contrasted the photographs depicting certain family events from his childhood, taken on authentic locations, with the projection of sound video recordings showing the current situation in the places of previously depicted events.

[4] See: Sebastian Bock, “The “Egg” of the Pala Montefeltro by Piero della Francesca and its symbolic meaning”, Universitätsarchiv Heidelberg, 2002. http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/volltextserver/3123/1/PieroEgg.pdf