Symbolic Capital of the 1920s


The Pharmacy (Apoteka in Croatian) was covered as a distinctive location within our artistic scene features last week on our website. Matija Debeljuh obtained the location of the abandoned pharmacy, which dates back to the 1920s, from the city of Vodnjan for the purpose of an art studio. The space was opened by an exhibition program entitled ‘Kabinet’, headed by curator Branka Benčić. We interviewed the curator and our first question was how the idea to expand the location’s purpose came about, and what led to the collaboration that formed this project?

The conversion of the old “pharmacy” in Vodnjan opened up new possibilities of creating a location for cultural purposes. For the past 4-5 years, the city of Vodnjan has held the practice of granting abandoned city spaces to artists as their working spaces – ateliers. Last year the space of the abandoned pharmacy was granted to the visual artist Matija Debeljuh and he decided to open it up for the public and invited me to collaborate in terms of the concept and realization of the program. A part of the Pharmacy stayed on as Matija Debeljuh’s studio.

Matija and have been collaborating for years now on his independent exhibitions and other projects – group exhibitions and screening programs, I know his work quite well and we keep in touch regularly, we’re both collaborators and friends, he is familiar with my curatorial work, we hold congruous thoughts on contemporary art, the local scene, and cultural policies. We understand each other well, and this collaboration is a logical development of our discussions, reviews, and talks, namely, the possibility of joint activities, in terms of supporting certain artists, opinions or ideas we represent, as well as an opportunity for more intensive and systematic visibility.

In the description of the Kabinet’s activities, it’s stated that the program is “focused on research of the location as a place of artistic imagination, how a set of complex relationships and the matter of memories, history, nostalgia are reflected in overviews of interiors and the net of complex relations they incur.” To what extent have the distinctive features of the Pharmacy determined its program activities?

The specialness of the location was the main determinant around which the outline of the program concept was developed for this first i.e. “zero” year. Various contexts, conditions, circumstances were important during the contemplation stage of the program, as well as the awareness that we’re temporarily using a public space that belongs to the citizens as well as gratitude for this opportunity, were all important aspects. The pharmacy isn’t a neutral white cube, it has its history, memory, patina, symbolic capital. In addition, I found the possibility of meaningfully planning the annual program highly interesting, within which certain programs will be able to function, and wasn’t a mere set or collection of exhibitions, which is frequently the case in gallery exhibition programs. The Pharmacy program is gathered around the “cabinet” and represents a turning point, moving away from the direct interest of the theme of the city conveying lassitude and an inflation of low-quality work. We’ll be talking about transformations, conceptualizations of various relationships and positions, spatial concepts as metaphors or territories of research on different relationships in the social field, as well as the need for researching spaces as places of art reflection in a different way. The main points of interest are comprehension of contemporary art and giving back to the community we live in.

Kabinet 1 has been inaugurated into the group exhibition of Lala Raščić (A Load From the Inside) and Kristijan Kožul (Salveta/Napkin, from the Matij Debeljuh set (Sliparija – Rebus 9). The works are about spatial construction, its historical, psychological, allegorical, and mythological values. As the location of the exhibition itself isn’t neutral, what kinds of relations have been established between the space of artistic imagination and the location of the Pharmacy?

In addition to the aforementioned Matija Debeljuh’s work he’s also realized a “made-to-measure” set of photos where he documented the original state of the Pharmacy upon entering the premises. These photos will be constantly on view, available in the foyer, serving as a reminder. The program line will attempt to point out the particular bond of pictures (photos, film, video) and designed scenes, spaces/architecture, through various art positions, and the meaning they produce shaping the way subjectivity is designed in spatial frameworks, as well as the psychological and symbolic quality of architecture, and the relationships among the designed ambiance, either imaginary, real or artificial (misanscene, scenography) that become places of transforming meaning. At the same time being reminiscent of and pointing out the place we’re currently located in, thus attracting attention to the place we’re in.

The narrative that the works of these three artists are developing is centered on intertwining of social and spatial constructions, works whose artistic value and quality sets the standard for those around them. A dual-channel video installation by Lala Raščić engages an atmosphere where the performance takes place, the Vienna apartment of the Freud family, which the Sigmund Freud Museum in Vienna preserves in photographic form to keep it from fading into oblivion. Kristian Kožul channels the scenery via photographic representation and theatricity of the constructed salon scene, which seems as if it’s disclosing the set-up of a historical museum that keeps cartography secrets and conspiracies of our social and political area, while Matija Debeljuh’s photos are structured like a mosaic and resemble a rebus, with their entwinement of details – items, customs, myths and legends of the Istrian peninsula, emphasizing the allegorical meanings and representing the visual research as a study for the film.

Although the Pharmacy’s program is moving away from current city topics, the Pharmacy itself establishes a model of interesting cultural practices, which we have touched upon in the interview. These practices have an impact on the city of Vodnjan and its surrounding region. Can you please tell us a few words about the Pharmacy and its proximity to the local scene and the wider community?

We hold that everybody profits from the Pharmacy area – Vodnjan and Istria, artists, the cultural scene, the general public, along with Matija and myself – in terms of work opportunities. The situation is, to quote Jerry Maguire – “Help me help you”.

The location is important for work, it provides visibility. As an independent curator without a permanent space for work I am very well acquainted with this.

We can view the Pharmacy as a small cultural multiplex – it’s a place of artistic production, a meeting place of interpretation and presentation of contemporary art. It is positioned as a new subject of cultural politics. Along with the visual arts establishment on the Peninsula, which is comprised of galleries around cultural institutions, a series of individual initiatives takes place – from the existing Studio ‘Golo Brdo’ /Naked Mountian/, the Makin Gallery, followed by the photographer and artist SofijaSilvia, who opened the Singular Gallery in Pula last week, artists Šumonja-Pauletta-Tea Bičić are about to open a joint gallery, and the Pharmacy – these are all new places of cultural visibility which create tectonic shifts on the local scene impossible to ignore.