Vlatka Horvat: Listening to What the Objects Want

Croatian-born, London-based artist Vlatka Horvat has been active for nearly two decades. She has presented her work across Europe, the US, and Asia. Her work involves sculpture, installation, performance, photography, and collage. It often deals with the subjects of physicality and space.

To understand the full dimension of Horvat’s work, though, is to enter the kinesthetic sphere. It’s a tactile world where one becomes aware of the body’s movement and the placement of objects in relationship to the spaces they inhabit. It’s also where psychological undertones of bodies become reflected in the context of liminal realities. These exchanges —between the physical and psychological— remain immaterial and unspoken in her work, but they produce a concrete merging of the physical and visual.

In a series of durational performances titled This Here and That There, for example, Horvat uses form and formlessness to implicate the presence and absence of bodies.

This Here and That There – Herrenhäuser Quartet, 2018
3-day performance at KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen, Hannover
Photo: Helge Krückeberg / KunstFestSpiele Herrenhausen

The performances for This Here and That There take place over 8 hours—the time of a normal workday. In Hannover, the performances spanned over several days. In the performance, the artist alternates through multiple arrangements of empty chairs that an attending audience might normally be sitting in. The arrangements sometimes follow straight lines, sometimes curves, and sometimes they form clusters. Without the audience, the performance appears at first contained by the roles of the performer, the chairs, and the space involved. That is, until realizing the audience is outside the frame of the performance, looking onward.

Although she doesn’t enter the onlookers’ space, Horvat seems to break through the fourth wall—maybe even going beyond it. This occurs through parallel association alone; with the onlookers implicated by the “missing” audience in the chairs. When the performer trying out variations, it’s as if they are trying to decode what the audience might experience had they been sitting in the chairs.

Further consideration suggests our initial understanding may no longer apply, as the action gives rise to questions like: “What is the right way to arrange an audience?” “What is the wrong way to arrange an audience?” “Who, or where, is the audience: the one implicated or the one looking on?”  “Isn’t the performer moving the chairs also the audience to the chairs?” “Are the chairs really for people, or are they objects to compose an image out of?”

This Here and That There (Los Angeles), 2010
8-hour performance in the Los Angeles River, presented by Outpost for Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Photo: Vincent Alpino

These lateral thought-processes are steps one often goes through when considering Horvat’s work. In a recent conversation, she explained how she intentionally makes things appear a bit off in her work; dysfunctional and containing “glitches”. Not only does she consider the experience of moving through space when planning her work, but the larger context of space involving the architecture and even outside as well. Questions like “what can you do?” or “what can’t you do?” are raised. These questions cause the viewer to form their own.

Like the relationship between the chairs and audience, there is often a familiar component that leads one into her work. These objects connect with the viewer and act as an anchor. But then again, there is often an absurd, otherwordly quality—like the ankle-deep water in This Here and That There—that separates the event from a familiar context. In this surreal setting, the conventions surrounding the work begin to strip away. The viewer becomes, like the artist arranging the chairs, an attendant to the objects within the spaces they are presented in.

This level of audience participation —where the audience experiences both a physical and imaginative integration into the work— is a common element in Horvat’s oeuvre. In a recent group show at the Kunsthalle Wien, for example, a work titled Balance Beam stands out. The work (which has appeared in various renditions over the years) includes some 100 found cylindrical or round objects placed along the length of three planks balanced precariously across the backs of four chairs. Being round, each of the objects has the immediate potential of rolling off the planks.

Balance Beam #0320, 2020
Wooden chairs, wooden beams, various round and tubular objects
Installation dimensions vary; approx 125 x 1500 x 56 cm (4 x 50 x 1.8 ft)

As Horvat describes the audience experiencing this work: the viewer’s body “became a part of the system keeping things in balance.” The viewer’s common response was to feel responsible for keeping the items from falling off the planks. The audience is now paying attention to the objects’ wants or needs.

In a different work from the Vienna show, a ladder hanging from a high-lofted skylight similarly implicated the viewer. Titled Above Us Only the Sky, the work’s placement suggests loftiness, light, ascension; even freedom or safety. For its haptic quality, the viewer naturally imagines their own position up on the ladder. Horvat, though, is quick to remind us that something amiss or awry here. As she explains:

“On the one hand, the ladder made of foam reminds you of a functional object you might encounter in that location; on the other hand, it’s as if the object has misunderstood how to be that thing “properly”: It’s understood a certain aspect of an emergency escape, it’s understood that it has to lead to the opening in the ceiling, but it has not understood that it needs to be made out of something solid that can sustain the weight of a human body and that it needs to be within reach.”

This “getting it wrong” on the objects’ part becomes another key for apprehending Horvat’s work. In tandem with its imaginary quality, the “unsuited” role of the object becomes another means of understanding the object’s limitations. It’s like combining Heidegger’s theory of tool-use as an extension of being with the hopes for revelatory meaning to come tumbling out of hats and boots for Samuel Beckett’s characters in Waiting for Godot. The effect is an experience that feels both profound and ridiculous at the same time.

Another source for consideration is the work of an author whom Horvat references, George Perec. She mentions his book Species of Spaces and Other Pieces when talking about ideas of “looking more stupidly” and the “infraordinary” (the latter, a term Perec uses to describe the ordinary and habitual aspects of everyday life).

In Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, Parec encourages us to “question our teaspoons” more. He gives us also a litany of inventories listing all the objects contained in the rooms, buildings, streets, cities, and countrysides surrounding him in his environment. What Perec seems to be asking us—like Horvat—is to scrutinize what is ordinary and pay closer attention to the objects in our world, using a different sense of awareness. This brings us closer to accepting the reality of our clumsy embodiment as well as our dependency on mundane material objects. “Looking more stupidly” could also help us “unknow” what we think we know about the things we are familiar with; liberating and allowing us to take in a new “pluriverse” containing things that were always there, but we might never have noticed.

Horvat illustrates a clearer sense of these ideas in an installation presented at the 53rd October Salon in Belgrade in 2012, titled Door to Door. The work involved the removal of several doors from rooms inside the Geozavod building where the exhibition was held. After collecting the doors, she installed them sprawling across the three rooms she was given to show in.

A majority of the doors were concentrated in the middle room, while the remaining spilling out into the adjacent rooms on either side. From one end of the installation to the other —and ignoring the walls in between— the doors connected the rooms, as the title suggests, from “Door to Door”.

Door to Door, 2012
Reclaimed doors – site-specific installation for the 53rd October Salon, Belgrade, Serbia
Installation dimensions vary
Door to Door, 2012
Reclaimed doors – site-specific installation for the 53rd October Salon, Belgrade, Serbia
Installation dimensions vary

As Horvat explained, all the doors were missing their handles and hardware, thus starting off dysfunctional at the outset. By removing them, their dysfunction was further highlighted, as did pilling them up vertically to block the middle room.

Visitors wouldn’t have realized an intervention had occurred until passing through each of the doorless rooms and reaching her installation on the 3rd floor. The act of displacement would have delayed the viewers’ realization of what happened and caused them to reflect back on the spaces they had encountered moments before.

On the subject of doors, Perec gives us a bit more to consider regarding objects that separate spaces and the position they place us outside the threshold:

“We protect ourselves, we barricade ourselves in. Doors stop and separate. The door breaks space in two, splits it, prevents osmosis, imposes a partition. On one side, me and my place, the private, the domestic (a space overfilled with my possessions: my bed, my carpet, my table, my typewriter, my books, my odd copies of the Nouvelle Revue Française); on the other side, other people, the world, the public, politics. You can’t simply let yourself slide from one into the other, can’t pass from one to the other, neither in one direction nor in the other. You have to have the password, have to cross the threshold, have to show your credentials, have to communicate, just as the prisoner communicates with the world outside. Talk about the doors…”

George Perec, ‘Doors’, from the chapter ‘The Apartment’ in Species of Spaces and Other Pieces (1974)

Returning to Horvat’s work, where the viewer is both an onlooker at the periphery, as well as implicated as a participant, it seems we are invited to consider all—as well as none of— these things. The middle space then, like the pomegranate, the camera lens, and the measuring tape on top of the plank in Balance Beam, gives us space to enter the picture, to scrutinize our experience, and to rhetorically “question our teaspoons”.

In her photographic collage work, Horvat addresses the relationship between physical space and the body with no less clarity. In a series from 2017 titled End in Sight, the artist performs the slight gesture of cutting a piece of the photograph and sliding it over to “repair” (or connect) the line of the horizon; concealing the subject’s head or face in the process. On one hand, this concealment seems like a rejection of the figure’s identity. Yet, on the other, the image’s final resolution reveals a mended horizon line of the landscape with the figure happening to be in the way. We might further consider the figure becoming folded or merged into their environment in a flattened layer.

With End in Sight, something Horvat earlier said about the physical exhibition space equally applies here to the 2D image:

“Where does the body end and the room begin? And where does the room end and the world outside begin?”

Like the doors in Door to Door, the mending of the landscape in End in Sight joins the bookends of the body and the space of the world surrounding it.  Here, the object becomes a surrogate for the body, and the body becomes a surrogate for space. As this space alludes to a world tangential to it, this unseen world becomes something implicated here, inside.

This reveals the entry into the world of Horvat’s work, where it’s not what we know that leads us in, it’s the not knowing about what we know that allows us to discover it. These threads are all pulled together—becoming preserved in memory as the arrangement coalesces, the performance culminates, and the space is eventually cleared. As we move on, our bodies, our objects, and our rooms recall what we witnessed in her work earlier.

—Ian Pedigo

All images ©Vlatka Horvat, unless otherwise noted

Vlatka Horvat (1974 in Čakovec, Croatia) works across sculpture, installation, drawing, performance, photography, and writing. Her work is presented internationally in a variety of contexts – in museums and galleries, theater and dance festivals, and in public space. After 20 years in the US, she currently lives in London.

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