THE CURSED LAND OF JERNEJ FORBICI
Landscapes are one of the central subjects in the history of art. A tribute to the grandeur of a vast meadow, a depiction of an ominous cloudy sky overhanging a small town on a hillside, or a drawing of a placid cultivated field or, again, an inviting and meticulous visual description of an untamed and dense tropical forest, constitute recurring instances of a much broader category. The natural element represents one of the main fulcrums around which artistic discourse has developed over the centuries. This is because of the infinite curiosity that has always driven men to the imitation of nature, to the representation of its most striking views, which thus become usable, accessible and an everyday delight. In the continuous dynamic of appropriation that characterizes the relationship between human beings and nature, the act of marking has long constituted a powerful tool for asserting power.
Thus, from the settlement of the first human communities to the gigantic contemporary metropolis housing millions of inhabitants, passing through a history of hedges, furrows, fences, limits, gates and state boundaries, man has shaped space, making the natural land the first resource from which he assiduously draws. The construction of roads and infrastructure to serve human beings has provided greater convenience and vast and widespread connectivity, marking the land below indelibly. At the expense of natural landscapes, the distance between use and abuse has gradually shortened, making humans the primary cause of environmental deterioration. In a vicious and flawed cycle, the damage caused by human presence on nature inexorably worsens the human condition: on a regular basis, human communities become occasional victims of catastrophic events, which, after gaining just enough media exposure to generate a common sense of ephemeral outrage, soon fall back into a dusty storage. In this photo album kept on a high shelf of our collective memory, the events are catalogued by year and reported in a perspective that is oblivious to the depth of the event, fostering a greater breadth of overview for all those who, by luck or fate, were not directly affected by the effects of the events. For many of these individuals, it is easy to slide through the pages of this album in a detached and at times bored manner, in a noncommittal reading for one’s own use and consumption that contributes to making the subject feel more fortunate.
Immersed in a reality of ease, it becomes rare to understand the perspective of the other, even to the point of wondering: what becomes of the affected communities after the fading of memory and the yellowing of the newspapers pages? What is left for all the individuals who because of their geographic location are victims of the choices of unscrupulous executioners? How to call for help when there is no voice to prevail over the media din of loud images and scandalous news? Where this condition does not constitute a disastrous event but the ordinary state of affairs, the crime is commonly accepted as if it were one of the many unwanted effects of a pain-relieving pill. In this case, it is only possible to pay attention to the question if those who have had direct experience of these realities choose to shine a light on what has irreparably marked their existence.
Jernej Forbici was born in Maribor, Slovenia, in 1980, and the central focus of his artistic production is the disastrous effect of pollution resulting from human presence on the natural territory. In particular, his works tell the story of Kidričevo, a small town marked by the aluminum industry and the damaging effects of red mud, one of the waste materials generated in the processing of bauxite, so called because it counts iron oxide among its main components. This strongly alkaline substance is caustic and toxic to humans and the environment. The constant natural degradation resulting from human productive activity finds representation in the numerous projects by Forbici, who poses himself as a witness of a story without a happy ending.
There are numerous paintings, often monumental canvases that foster an immersive experience, in which the artist denounces the damaging presence of the red substance choking the vegetation below, without masking the close dependence of the catastrophic events on the human parasite that is its main architect. Thus it is that, in the depiction of a vast green meadow dotted with multiple colorful flowers, the visitor’s eye cannot help but linger on the ominous red wave that seems to gush out like blood from a wound inflicted on the ground.The work Newborn dead flowers takes the visitor on this terrifying journey on a ghost train that leads to a grim ending.
Mother Nature’s first tormentor is man himself, whom Forbici subtly condemns. Skillful in his manner, the artist does not directly denounce the human being, but denies his physical presence on the canvas, and lets the visitor draw the obvious conclusions. Through painting made of scratchy brushstrokes and sharp color overlays, Forbici depicts the tragic effects on the environment of human presence that is skillfully rendered through the deafening absence of man. Everything speaks of the human being, but what is given to the visitor is a landscape representation. Man is not hidden crouching behind the garbage piled in the field of the work Piles of Garbage, for in reality Forbici makes pollution the official spokesperson for the human being. The mark that man leaves.
Flowers are in Forbici’s artistic production the epitome of natural beauty par excellence: graceful and delicate, they constitute easy preys for those captivated by their appearance. But what to do, when even the last flower is torn off and the soil is no longer fertile? Man will be left with no choice but to surround himself with plastic flowers, equally attractive, but certainly without their bewitching scent. The artist gives his prophetic depiction of this scenario in FPF (Fake Plastic Flowers), where the flowers, standing in the foreground like many daggers stuck in the ground, have petals with unnatural hues.
The few remaining real flowers are dry, withered and have lost their corolla, in the green spaces around Kidričevo. Forbici, on the occasion of its Herbarium project, presented some of the few survivors in frames and vitrines illuminated by candles, making the exhibition space resemble a small cemetery. Crystallized in resin, the collection of flowers is made usable as in a sempiternal encyclopedia, memorializing their ancient biological variety, in a silent showcase bearing the effects of uncontrolled industrial production. However, although the evocative installation may remind one of the pages of an old book with colorful illustrations, Forbici’s is a far sadder work of subtle denunciation: the flowers, which he collects and catalogs with the help of two biologists so that his son Jakob may also one day admire them, are inevitably dead and, as a result, observable only from a display case. A physical barrier that sets a boundary, a sign that divides what is living from what is extinct, in an act of museification similar to that dedicated to the fossils of prehistoric animals.
Forbici’s is an admirable example of a career devoted to artistic activism, or as Tania Bruguera would call it, artivism, present in all his works, in which he chooses to create an edgy contrast between green fields and haloes of chemical waste. So that his artistic production constitutes a permanent mark in the development of art history and a denunciation that can be heard clearly above the ephemeral buzz of contemporaneity.