“You turn off the highway near Žalec, take a right at the roundabout, then take the second turn towards Petrovče, continue straight into Liboje, near the ceramics factory on the left side you’ll see a sign saying Brnica 7 km. Before reaching the top of the hill you turn left at the chapel, go down and continue through the forest for the next 2 km, past the houses – watch out for chickens on the road – and when arriving to a dirt road, descend the steep path, and you’re there.” I received these instructions of how to get to Peter Koštrun’s home when going to visit the pedagogue, artist and photographer, who a few years ago had moved to a tranquil, if somewhat remote rural area. This fact might not be of importance if it did not play a crucial role in the essence of his artistic practice, which relates to nature in silence and all its antagonisms.
Intersections of pristine nature and cultural landscape, the impact of humans on the environment and the insignificance of the individual in relation to nature are central to the artist, something he usually applies in his art of photography, as well as other modes of visual expression. Even if Koštrun’s photographic motifs allude to archaism and romanticism, and are at first glance connected to the tradition of photographic pictorialism, they are in their essence distinctly modern, attached to the reality of the here and now. His expression is completely non-narrative in the classic sense of photographic representation, as the images do not tell a linear story, but are dedicated to visual language, which is (as opposed to the written word) always ambivalent and layered. His practice, however, is also two-tracked, comprising of both pre-designed composition, as well as that implemented in the field, such as momentary intuitive snapshots. The principles of the creator and hunter of images are constantly intertwined. His observations and recordings of his immediate surroundings are always subjective, but they also bear witness to the utterly universal phenomena of an individual’s life.
He began developing his artistic expression in the first years of the 21st century and has constantly and organically nurtured it ever since, which has most recently been reflected in the exhibition Premonition (Slutnja) at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Celje (13. 5.–26. 6. 2016). The exhibition covers the period between 2011 and 2016 and indicates a logical continuation of his practice, which began on the basis of documenting assumptions. Koštrun began his photographic career at a relatively early age, when shortly after graduating from secondary school (SŠOF) he became an apprentice at the Bobo photo agency where Srđan Živulović and Jože Suhadolnik used to work. He became the official photographer for the Slovenian Government and the Office of the President. He travelled the world for two years with various state delegations and recorded foreign political events. Yet while doing so, he got a taste of the raw reality of the photographic work. His photographs served as a visual record of events, while he himself never had any impact on their substantive context. The latter was dictated by the PR department.
Unhappy with the scope of photojournalism, he enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Ljubljana in 2001, where he was confronted by a wider spectrum of fine arts. Yet his endeavours were to remain multifaceted, since among other vocations he made his living as a photographer and photo editor for magazines Stop, Kaprica and Obrazi, and as a designer of theatre posters for the Šentjakob Theatre. During this time he also created his series entitled Silence I-IV (Tišina I-IV, 2003–2008), the first work with a strict continuity and exclusive authorial intent. The images presented everyday motifs of the periphery without particular temporal or spatial coordinates, only situations and objects in their sparse universal existence. The final part of the cycle Silence IV (Tišina IV), presented at the Photon Gallery in 2008, deviates from the uproarious and ambitious nature of the modern world and focuses on the glimpses of the dissimilar and tranquil; depleted images depicting traces of human presence, our encroachment into the environment, resulting in an ephemeral artistic design.
This period was extremely fruitful, as it was then that the foundations for many of the artist’s future works had been established. The six-part sequential photo entitled Fear of the End (Strah pred koncem, 2006), which shows a self-portrait sinking into water, formally linked to the tradition of conceptual art, while its content evokes the romantic discourse concerning the insignificance of the individual, opposed to the grandiosity of nature. The series Presence (Sedanjost, 2006–2007) presents the pastoral images of morning landscapes, where subtle milestones are drawn between human action and unspoiled nature. The work highlights universal themes, such as melancholy, loneliness and awareness of mortality, arising from the author’s deep reflections about the world, life philosophy and nature photography. To Koštrun, the photograph “represents the present, which does not exist in life, for at the very moment it occurs, it also disappears and becomes the past, and therefore (only) the photograph is that which can retrospectively eternalise the presence of a particular moment.”
It was this particular work that held the door wide open for the author in gaining wider international acclaim, which culminated with its presentation at the Paris Photo fair (2010) and later by getting included in the group exhibition Sense of Space. The European Landscape Photography (2012) at the Bozar Museum in Brussels, designed by British curator Liz Wells, presented the rich tradition of landscape motifs in European art. In this context, Koštrun’s works were shown in their true light, as they are at various levels (also) connected to the current state of mind, space and time, as well as to ecology and the individual’s position in society. Even more aberrant projects are devoted to related themes, such as the documentary Polaroid series Instant, Instant (2009), which bypasses contemporary generic vernacular photography, and the monumental spatial installation Monument to Consumerism (Spomenik potrošništvu, 2008), which he designed together with Jure Legac in Reims, France.
Yet his practice could easily be labelled as escapism, for instead of engaging in criticism of societal structures, he refuses to co/operate in them. Such an intimate form of expressing dissatisfaction occurs when the protagonists feel helpless and disarmed to the point when they resort to boycotting social codes and expectations. Thus the exhibition Premonition is, in terms of expression of the author’s messages regarding society, perhaps the most political in nature, even if calculated to fit into the author’s micro viewpoint.
The cover photo thus adequately summarises the feel of the entire exhibition. A large format image, developed in a darkroom, shows an undefined snowy mass, which requires a cerebral way of viewing it. The observer must apply his own judgement when creating a mental narrative of what he sees. The hilly landscape with a lake in the foreground turns out to be a pile of manure, which after a longer period of observation the author had captured in specific weather conditions and lighting. On the one hand, the pile of manure hints to the protest poem by Srečko Kosovel Kons. 5, while on the other hand it is partially possible to recognize the indisputable fact that manure as a by-product of farming is one of the most ominous ecological destroyers of our planet. This photo, inter alia, highlights the absurd perception of the countryside and farming, which most people perceive within the context of it being connected with nature, yet agriculture is in present times also to a large extent part of the industrial sector, inflicting devastating long-term effects on the environment.
The photograph is then covered with a screaming red glaze, which indicates a substantial degree of discomfort, apocalyptic visions and pomposity. Yet to the author, the red personifies the light found in a darkroom, therefore returning the photographs into their original or prenatal state. The photographs (the exhibition includes a significant number of those being discussed) were attributed with an indisputable unique expression, for they may no longer be physically reproduced. However, another key novelty should be pointed out: the exhibition has become an autonomous medium of expression. Premonition is not a completed photographic series, but connects a variety of artefacts, new and old photos, and objects into a cohesive whole. Therefore, the exhibition has become an inimitable and unique medium that changes with every new constellation.
Among the exhibition’s diverse elements, a remarkable photo can be found in the series Last Time (Zadnji čas, 2011), one of those destined to become iconic. The image shows a quiet, yet ominous and morbid landscape, with a line of scarecrows in the foreground, which is, contrary to the pastoral tradition, extremely post-apocalyptic, like a battlefield after a devastating war or an ash-covered Earth. The exhibition, in addition to a few carefully selected and implemented designs and objects, also showed fleeting images that the author had shot on his mobile phone during his daily commutes. Motifs of advertisements on the back of lorries expose his attitude toward the visual cacophony of the language used in the advertisement industry, his attitude toward everyday propaganda.
Interpretations of Koštrun’s works and his entire opus are therefore undeniably multifaceted and open to different interpretations and readings, although all share a common meditative stillness and sense of solitariness. This is perhaps the exact reason why the repeated motifs of early mornings might be the best antithesis to the modern world. Privacy in the sterile world of today represents a commodity, which has to be paid for, as it allows (at least temporary) escape from a world where everyone is against everyone else. Yet the world cannot be rewound, a fact Koštrun himself is very aware of, which is why he does not moralise nor does he preach through his works, but simply shows things as they are, multifaceted and ambivalent. The author places his own decision to withdraw to the outskirts into his relationship with the world and keeps returning to his authorial treatment of various peripherals, physical or mental. Even though his works, because of their motifs, often pass into the realm of the sublime, they nevertheless very realistically discuss nature, which has, even after all the interventions during the anthropocene era, managed to withhold and survive. Perhaps his (dark) premonition focuses exclusively on the human species, which has historically proven to be more vulnerable than the almighty force we call nature.
Translated by Tom Smith.