A visit with Nika Oblak and Primož Novak. Bright Monday morning, Ljubljana. A quiet neighborhood.
Nika greeted me at the door cheerfully as Primož came down the stairs wearing a shirt that read: “This is a Performance.” The three of us sat for coffee and biscotti at the table between the kitchen and the clean-lined, colorful living room.
On the wall to my left hung a photograph I recognized from their website, part of the series We Did This and That (2005). The artists photographed themselves in the act of accomplishing different listings from the Guinness Book of World Records, creating false testaments of staged record-breaking acts. In each shot, a large sign states the action documented, always formatted to say: “We did (this or that) for this photo,” emphasizing the superficial motivations behind these efforts—the completion of the most futile, laborious tasks only for the sake of recognition.
The worlds of contemporary art and popular culture share a common obsession with fame and success, belonging and individuality. Shortly after graduating from art school Nika and Primož started exploring this parallel, arriving at the Guinness World Record as a rich, relatable trope that could represent the more codified system of art world superlatives. Working against the pressure to perform the role of artist-genius, the collective made humor an integral part of their practice, as demonstrated by the satire of We Did This and That.
The artists highlight consumer relationships with media and the pursuit of celebrity through satirical reenactments, paying homage to cult classics of both cinema and contemporary art, like Pulp Fiction or Bruce Nauman’s Fountain. Often, they create pneumatic (operating with air pressure) sculptures that flip the transmission of media on its axel.
Lately, they’ve been fixated upon the production of Border Mover, an installation in which a physical screen moves in response to the force suggested by the video within it (namely, Primož pushing the frame using his head). Building upon earlier works, Border Mover manipulates relationships between the second and third dimension as well as between the program and the viewer. In comparison, predecessors such as Sisyphus Action (see below) are more jovial, colorful, and suggestive of relationships between body and machine: Here, mechanical parts are left uncovered, and the sculpture’s skin actually conforms to movements suggested by the video, stretched by motion outside of the frame. With a more simplified presentation, Border Mover will highlight the immediate response between the video of Primož’s looping action and its container, inviting the audience to dig deeper into the inverted notion that the media controls us.
I asked them about working as artists in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Evidently the scene is small, and there’s not much of a commercial art market. For years, the duo relied primarily on opportunities abroad to produce work at residencies, but since having kids and settling down, they’ve reconfigured a bit. Nika filled me in about their plan for an upcoming residency in Taiwan for which they will make a video installation in two rounds— Primož will go for a period to arrange the technical stuff, and Nika will follow after his return, to perform and put finishing touches on the video.
We talked about the legacy of regional artists from the 70s when Yugoslavia was a hotbed for performance art and otherwise avant-garde, and what it means to produce art in the absence of a good market. Liberating, frustrating. As you might find anyplace, in Slovenia certain expectations are imparted by the academy, like notions of genius and originality, but Nika and Primož reject these through collaboration and wit. Once you’re working as a team, Primož said, those pressures go away.