The essay about phenomena of Grupa Junij, diverse artistic collective active in 1970-1985
First published in the catalogue of the Junij in June exhibition diplayed at Museum of Architecture and Design, Ljubljana (Month of Photography festival) and Korotan Gallery, Vienna (Eyes-On festival) in 2012! [cover photo: Metka Vergnion, Untitled, 1982]
In the time of political polarisation of the world, of the divide between the East and the West, non-aligned Yugoslavia was one of few potential meeting points of ideologically free artists. The first event to point in this direction in Ljubljana was the Graphic Art Biennial, but there were also various independent initiatives that drew energy from the sincere interest in establishing broad international connections. “Grupa Junij” undoubtedly represented an important milestone of non-institutional representation based on radical self-initiative. It was established in 1969 by a group of young artists in order to bring together similar creative impulses. Having just graduated at the Ljubljana Academy of Visual Art, they simply did not want to follow the dominant discourse of formalist expressionism as dictated by the Ljubljana school of graphic art, and were consequently pushed to the margins of the current art scene. But this only reinforced the group and in the following years made it expand its activities across national borders partly because of the recognition received abroad and partly because of the simple need to review their practices. The significance of “Grupa Junij” therefore surpassed the range of a homogenous art group.
Today, recent (local) art history seems to display very bipolar tendencies, because over the last 50 years it has recognised only two art discourses. The first is modernism, which through abstraction abandoned the realistic perception of the world and sought almost exclusively decorative formal solutions. The second is the trend based on the secular post-modernist principles, which through its practices aimed at deconstructing the modernist sublimity and restore the work of art in everyday life; this trend is connected with conceptualist practices and their successors, which today are part of the predominant art discourse. But this approach denies the diverse character of parallel, and the not necessarily mutually exclusive practices of 20th century art. The emergence of a third alternative seems to cause confusion in art history.
“Grupa Junij” adopted principles that follow the example of the successors of historical avant-gardes and created a constructive synthesis of different styles and trends. The main idea embraced by the group was the autonomy of art as such, freed of any political, academic, and aesthetic demands for pure styles and genres. During the period, in which modernist painting and sculpture prevailed, the members of “Grupa Junij” resorted to reproducible media, particularly the innovative use of photography, although there was a broad range of different forms of expression and media. Because of their diversity, the creative practices of the group cannot be generalised, however the common characteristic of a broad range of different artists gathered in “Grupa Junij” is connected with figuralism, narrative art, and a direct expression of a message. The group was highly sensitive to the socio-political events of that time, which it translated into a highly original artistic language without any reservations. Their works were steeped in the spirit of the 1970s and early 1980s, as well as topics such as ecology, global demography and the related side effects of accelerated urbanisation, alienation, militancy, repression by state institutions, and growing consumerism. These topics are still relevant today both in civil society and art. Instead of explicit content, what characterised the work of artists belonging to “Grupa Junij” was metaphor and poetry expressed in different forms particularly connected with photography as an autonomous medium or a tool for recording ephemeral actions. The exhibition therefore focuses on the use of photography, which is probably the most distinguishing segment of the group’s legacy.
Despite the fact that he was formally trained as a painter, Stane Jagodič, a founding member and the main ideologist of the group, saw immense creative potential in photography and its derivatives. During that period photography was still marginalised in visual art circles, which stubbornly insisted on classic (unique) media and were reluctant to admit any kind of technology (reproducibility) into the world of virtuoso craftsmanship. But the various applications of “modern expressive photography” are in fact “a handicraft,” and despite the support of contemporary technology demand a similar thought process to that giving rise to works of art.
To show the value of photography as a form of art, Jagodič in the preface to the catalogue of the “Grupa Junij” exhibition in 1982 (Slikarstvo, fotografija, umetnost – iz objavljenih in neobjavljenih zapisov 1970-1982) quoted Man Ray: “I am not a photographer of nature but of my own imagination.” This statement mirrors the gist of the message of the wider “Grupa Junij” with ever-changing but extensive membership (around 200); its members often relied on the principles of surrealism, according to which an artist paraphrases the real situation, as well as on constructivism and Dadaism. The practices of the group members, among whom we find many great names of contemporary art, clearly reveal an engaged awareness of the spirit of the time through poetic reinterpretation of reality, the important connecting element of which is the introduction of satire in serious topics and lofty formal solutions. The humour and (self-) irony represent a special constructional element of their expression.
Globally speaking, “Grupa Junij” proposed very topical solutions within inter-media art practices, which also resulted in a pioneering role of the group, and cannot be ignored. Their role is regarded as one of the first attempts of introducing curatorial principles in that period’s Slovenian and Yugoslav art scene. Namely, between 1977 and 1980 three major group exhibitions were held at the Jakopič Gallery, which were based on art historical thematic references and thus defined common constellations based on the values of form and content. These proto-curatorial self-initiatives are predecessors of the present universal artist who expresses part of his or her artistic tendencies through curatorial practices and theoretical discourses, while at the same time, due to the lack of institutional support, affirms what he or she maintains are neglected practices. In the period, during which it existed, “Grupa Junij” took full advantage of this possibility, which emerged due to the changing perception of art and the structure of cultural policy as a whole.
© Miha Colner, April 2012