People are standing on the wooded slopes of Dotrščina park, their faces turned up towards the late September sunshine. Some gaze into the canopy of leaves; most have closed their eyes, feeling the air and the warmth on skin. As the sun moves, so do they, finding a new patch of light to stand in. They are still as the trees. No one speaks. Half an hour passes.
Then they relax. Quiet voices start to be heard. Footsteps on the mulch. The moment has passed, and the rhythms and preoccupations of everyday life return. The art has passed too, its only trace a handful of photographs and the memories of a hundred people.
‘Osunčana mjesta’ (Sunlit Spots) is the latest temporary artwork to be created for the Dotrščina Virtual Museum, which Saša Šimpraga has been curating since 2012. Šimpraga is a historian and artist who works with the material and immaterial fabric of Zagreb, capital of Croatia and his home. In writing, online and public interventions, he highlights the ambiguous and conflictual meanings laid on the city. His work is engaged, a form of resistance to the political revisionism that has destroyed many memorials of the recent past in Croatia. It is also participatory, enacting solidarity to draw attention to forgotten histories and other ways of living the city, together.
During the Second World War, the Nazi-supported government in Croatia waged a savage war against its enemies, real and perceived. Hundreds of thousands died at the hands of the Ustaše militia and security forces. At the time Dotrščina park lay on the edge of Zagreb and it proved a convenient killing ground. Between 1941 and 1945 some 7,000 people were brought here for execution; the unclaimed dead were subsequently buried under the trees. Beneath its green tranquillity, Dotrščina is a vast crime scene, a history marked by its designation in the 1960s as a Memorial Park, and the installation of several sculptures by major Croatian artists. Since the brutal disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, the park has been neglected and it is little used today. Its story does not suit contemporary narratives, and it is frequently defaced by neo-Nazi and nationalist graffiti.
Saša Šimpraga, who lives nearby, conceived the Dotrščina Virtual Museum as a way to draw attention to this important site and to help protect its memory. For more than five years, generally without sanction or support, he has worked with like-minded people to create a series of artistic works in the park. Help has also come from two private citizens and a non-state entity, to finance the website and a small budget for the annual open call to artists. The interventions have included a record of the names of those who were killed here, performative work and temporary sculptures by contemporary artists such as Slaven Tolj. Visits by school parties have been discreetly hosted, and an annual Memorial Run connects some of the site’s present users with its tragic past. As befits a virtual museum, these transitory interventions are archived online.
The latest work, Sunlit Spots, was conceived by Zoran Pavelić, and publicised by distributing postcards inviting people to come to the park on 23 September 2017 and take part in the event. The artists had expected 15 or 20 of their friends, but about a hundred people gathered on an afternoon when, providentially, the autumn sun dappled the trees. Exactly 75 years ago, an 18 year old resitstance member called Ivan Grguric had been brought here, shot and buried. Among those present in 2017, was his nephew, who recalled a keen gymnast who had just finished school when war engulfed him.
‘The work is an open idea whose meaning is specified by the location, the very place of performance. It consists of people who ‘stand in the light’ in the Dotrščina Memorial Park, and, in this symbolic way, pay tribute to those who may have been standing in the same places and were tragically killed. Leaving the shady place in the sunshine is an important part of the work highlighting clearly the contrasting categories of light and shadow that speak of the general principles of human freedom. Freedom is always a choice of light, and this selection is confirmed by the participants. The performance of each of them is not just giving honour, but also confirmation of that personal selection.’
Sunlit Spots, and the Dotrščina Virtual Museum of which it is part, shows that art can be at once urgent and timeless, serious and approachable, evanescent and visceral. There is no distinction here between artist and participant: there is no audience. There is only an invitation to choose the light. This moving, powerful piece, in a place where right and wrong are aggressively contested, continues the long tradition of non-violent resistance, which helped bring the end of Communism in Europe. It is a courageous instance of engaged art that values the actual vulnerability of human beings above political rhetoric.
Not everything in art or in life can be seen in terms of black and white. But some can, and some must.
The following links provide more information about Dotrščina Virtual Museum, the art works and the Memorial Park. They are in Croatian (except where indicated), but all include images that need no translation.
- Virtualni muzej Dotrščina – Facebook page
- Virtualni muzej Dotrščina – Project website
- Viz Kultura – Article by Jelena Pašić about ‘Sunlit Spots’
- Pogledaj – Information about the current open call for a temporary memorial artistic intervention for Dotrščina Memorial Park – Deadline 21 April 2018
- Documenta – information about the 2017 open call for a temporary memorial artistic intervention for Dotrščina Memorial Park in Zagreb (in English)
- Balkanist – ‘A Visit to Zagreb’s Antifascist Dotršćina Memorial Park’ (in English)
- Dotršćina – The history of the site (in English)
All photos by Katarina Zlatec, courtesy Dotrščina Virtual Museum