“Tout est pret. Au premier signal que vous nous enverrez de Trieste, tous se leveront en masse pour l'independence de la Hongrie
It is not hard to imagine that Tarwuk (the artist duo Bruno Pogaènik Wukodrakula and Ivana Vuk¹iæ) would be interested in the work of the Parisian museum dedicated to non-European civilizations. Musée du quai Branly was opened in 2006 as one of the largest ethnographic, that is, anthropological museums in the world. Artefacts from South and North America, Asia and Africa are stored in the depots of its attractive building: masks, weapons, amulets, statues, pottery, jewellery, in short, objects intended for everyday use in the life of extinct cultures. In 2015, on the occasion of the exhibition "Anatomy of a Masterpiece", magnetic resonance imaging was carried out on an anthropomorphic Songye wooden statue from Congo, believed to have been used for protection and healing of tribal members in the period from the 16th to 19th century. This standard medical procedure enabled the visitors to simultaneously gain insight into the composition of the statue, for example, revealing the parts covered in cloth, and uncover something previously unknown: the existence of a digestive tract, raising new questions in the research of Congolese culture.
The use of technology in research and preservation of museum artefacts is a common practice. X-rays have been in use for decades in the preservation of museum collections. In cases where the handling of objects could be potentially dangerous for their material integrity, technological innovations are, without hesitation, applied in museums. Today, 3D scanning and replicating museum artefacts are in wide use. The scans and replicas are generally used in further research and exhibited, while the original object is often stored far from an imposing human presence. Although ethnological and anthropological museum materials were originally a part of everyday life, belonging to what we call folk or tribal art, their social potential, metaphorically speaking, is today buried in dimmed and air-conditioned museum spaces.
I have no doubt in my mind that Tarwuk would also be seriously interested in the project dedicated to the anthropology of zoonosis, focusing on infectious diseases transmitted to humans from animals, led by the anthropologist Frédéric Keck studying the objects from the same Parisian museum. Do the artefacts from the museum collections still contain microbiological cultures from the time and place of their creation and use? Can we speak of a specific biosphere of these collections – microbes, bacteria or viruses – and how does it relate to our biosphere? Is it possible, for example, to extract the DNA of long-deceased users of objects, now stored in museums? Let's say, from a rug, comb or codpiece? Based on contemporary research, this possibility is not at all far-fetched. In other words, museum artefacts which are considered to be well-researched might contain knowledge invisible to traditional curatorial and scientific methods.
The exhibition, or better yet, the entrance of the art duo Tarwuk into the institutional structure of the Ethnographic Museum of Istria, that is, into the immediate surrounding of the museum's building, points to what we do not usually see during our regular or occasional visits to the museum, during our regular or occasional visits to Pazin. The Ethnographic Museum of Istria is not a typical colonial museum such as Musée du quai Branly in Paris, although their activities partially overlap. The museum in Pazin is an antipode to the Parisian museum; it is a museum which attempts to preserve the traces of life of historically colonized peoples. The museum's artefacts haven't been collected from different parts of the world, they do not need to be repatriated; they are already at home, but their function has been changed. Instead of being used by the local community, for hunting, feeding, housing, clothing, entertainment and communication, as they were in the past, in Pazin's ethnographic museum they fulfil the purpose of constructing national identities, as they do in most Croatian museums. However, in the focus of Tarwuk's work is not the museum as an institution, techniques or ethics of museum practices, although, through their intervention, they do touch upon all of the above. They are not concerned with the problematic ideologeme of ethnies, that is, national identity. In Pazin, Tarwuk is concerned with secondary cultural discourses (magic, the fantastic, genius loci, para-scientific practices, etc.), the remnants of one pre- or anti-modern culture residing in the corners of the modern world.
Museum materials can be preserved and occasionally displayed. In case of colonial museums, artefacts can be returned to their cultures of origin, but they can also be remediated, according to Clémentine Deliss, anthropologist and former director of the Museum of the World's Cultures in Frankfurt. What does this mean? Each museum artefact once belonged to a certain complex social structure, to one not entirely clear, but perceived totality of a lived culture. In a museum, that same object is reduced to its aesthetic, monetary or epistemological value. We cannot reanimate its magical fiction, the magical power of Songye sculpture from Congo, not even if we returned it to the same village – providing that we knew from which village it came and if it still existed – because the social relations, within which that sculpture had a clear role, have been radically changed or lost. The same applies to the Pazin’s museum materials: even if we were to make clothes on looms and spinning wheels, this process would take place in a different context. Perhaps the material integrity of museum artefacts would remain the same but their cultural and social significance would be changed. This is what an ideal remediation looks like: with the utter uncertainty in the final result, the incorporation of museum materials into everyday life as much as possible.
Due to a number of economic, political and cultural issues, such a remediation is not achievable. However, by creating a space for everything that has been excluded from the conservative ideology of selection, preservation and exhibition display, it is possible to re-actualize museum artefacts into contemporaneity. The role of contemporary artists in this endeavour is crucial and no less important than the role played by medical sciences or modern technology in museums.
The collaboration between the Ethnographic Museum of Istria and Tarwuk, in my opinion, exemplifies this. Unlimited access to the museum materials, alterations to the exhibition display, access to depots and documentation was provided to the artists. Each segment of the institution passed, in a way, through Tarwuk's dual body: eyes watched, hands touched, bodies sensed, mind thought; sounds, smells, shapes, colours and the content of the museum and its surrounding are the roots of their intervention. Won't their advanced visual culture react differently to objects that have become a bit dull to the visitors, and all-too-familiar to the curators? What does Tarwuk see that we don't in the aesthetic objects such as a spinning wheel, bagpipes or a fishing net? Although void of their original status, can it be that the museum objects lost their productive power? Don't they wield any emotional influence on sensitive viewers? What if, with time, in a society with a completely different material culture, their power changed and became magical, instead of practical? Isn't it possible that personal familial relations, an important component of Tarwuk's artwork, have reawaken in the museum dedicated to close social relations, such as blood ties embodied in the institution of family or tribe? Surrounded by the remains of extinct communities, doesn't Tarwuk renew their own? What is the connection between Verne's "Mathias Sandorf" and the video game "Starcraft II", whose virtual aesthetic is integral to the video work displayed at the exhibition? Both instances deal with the destiny of the main protagonist, both are adventure stories with fantastic elements, but perhaps literary knowledge isn't entirely sufficient.
There is an interesting paradox. The permanent exhibition displays of ethnological and anthropological museums are filled with tools, clothes, shoes, instruments; things intended to be worn and used by hands, feet, mouth, genitalia, that is – the human body – but the body seems to be absent from the exhibition. The exhibition dummies further emphasize this paradox. So much organic material in that space – leather, wool, invisible microbes etc. – and so little of human flesh. Didn't the artists notice that? Doesn't their anthropomorphic sculpture in the museum in Pazin appear differently than in the white cubical space of a gallery? Surrounded by objects intended for the human body, is the productive power of this sculpture only aesthetic or does it draw something invisible, something additional from a space unrelated to the world of contemporary art?
Clémentine Deliss, with her moto "The museum is sick", under which she took over the management of the Frankfurt museum, tried to metaphorically draw attention on several issues. The first one is related to the change in the museum practice cause by Claude Lévi-Strauss's presentation at the Council of UNESCO in 1954. Namely, he expressed his concerns about the accumulation of objects in museums' depots. Since the second half of the 20th century, according to Lévi-Strauss, museum objects have started to lose their importance in education and research (while on the subject, the Ethnographic Museum of Istria was founded in 1962). During the second half of the 20th century, only the art market profited from the exotic artefacts frenzy. The alternative was the turn to non-material heritage, an event which brought the politics of museum work closer to contemporary life. The second issue also pertains to material objects. From the moment their environment changed and they ended up in a museum, the objects had to be protected and preserved indefinitely, preferably forever. For this purpose, most of them were treated with chemicals among which, in the case of earliest acquisitions, with life-threatening substances (arsenic). If we count in the invisible microbiology of museum collections, the metaphor of sickness evoking the image of a patient and a doctor becomes even more effective. Gloves which museum workers put on before handling objects, however, do not signify a fixed distribution of roles.
Remediating the museums materials is actually reanimating the forgotten signs of culture, "returning them into circulation", "into real life", "here and now". Despite so many artefacts dedicated to protection and healing, the museum is still sick, but I can already see Tarwuk's performance on my computer screen, resembling a shamanic dance, a performance so idiosyncratic that it evokes some accidentally recorded and forgotten practice in the museum archives, whose meaning remains unknown.