SVETISLAV MARTINOVIC ‘ … White specks of stars here and there in the saddened sky, when the days we know are ending and the tumult of a new era is in the air.’

‘Gods, my Gods! How sad the earth…’ This rhetorical refrain, taken from Verdi’s opera Aida, is often used to symbolize the passage from life to death.  Bulgakov uses it at several crucial points of his famous satirical novel The Master and Margarita, where it is spoken by different characters. It also opens the last chapter of his book that describes the sweet relief of leaving life behind, abandoning the ‘mists of the earth, its swamps and rivers, to sink into the arms of death with a light heart’.  This is his most famous paragraph, written when he knew he was going to die of nephrosclerosis, the same disease which had killed his father at the same age. The light and the dark, the good and the evil are omnipresent in Bulgakov’s novel. This polarity often surfaces in the novel, as it does somehow in life today, catching one unawares and ending unexpectedly the nuances and harmonies of what was before. Such are the times we live in.  We are living in the end times.

Slavoj Zizek’s book, Living in the End Times, analyses the end of the world, aka the terminal crisis of global capitalism, at the hands of the four horsemen of the new and upcoming apocalypse. In this case they are his own version of the four heralds of Armageddon: ecological crisis, imbalance in the economic system, biogenetic revolution and exploding social divisions.

Svetislav Martinovic’s exhibition could easily be described as a visual testament that warns us of this impending crisis. Like all manifestos in the modern tradition, it is made up of strong words, simple and synthetic images, seriality, unlimited reproducibility, and modularity.  It consists of works on paper, watercolour images repeated, as in silkscreen prints, letters crowding surfaces with the tenacity of newspaper typescript, squares of light seeping through suburb-defining structures of modernist and modular condominiums.

There is an air of impending change, a storm brewing on the horizon, a heavy, turgid cloud threatening to let go of its watery burden to produce a deluge driving away the old dry debris left over from the old life that lies in its wake. They are paper reminders of the pre-digital era when everything was destined to decay were it not for mankind’s noble mission to restore and preserve. But they are also harbingers of the archives of the future, that hide, behind the enduring nature of the omnipotent Cloud, a fragile integrity, that, as Assange shows us, could easily and forever be compromised if falling into the wrong hands.

The title of the exhibition encapsulates all that is dark in the current times. I Can’t Breathe is derived from the heartbreaking last words of George Floyd, who was murdered in 2020 outside a grocery store in Minneapolis after police were called in on suspicion that he had used a counterfeit 20$ bill. Floyd was handcuffed face down in the street, an officer pressing his knee to Floyd’s neck for over 9 minutes, as Floyd repeatedly pleaded that he could not breathe. The officer kept his knee pressed on Floyd’s neck and back for the last two minutes when he lay motionless and without a pulse. I Can’t Breathe is the contemporary cry of Aida whose ‘prayer changes to a curse, tears to a crime and sighs to a fault, whose soul is lost in the dark night and who, in cruel anguish, will die’.

Floyd’s portrait features in multiplied succession in this show. He is a symbol of the suffering of people suffocated by racial and sexual prejudice, by an economic system that favours the rich and oppresses the poor, by indiscriminate overbuilding and by technologies that manipulate society. These works are stories of the night. Both art and activism, on the other hand, Svetislav seems to tell us through his work, are the ultimate media that can unmask the duplicity and bigotry of the world. Activism has the power to bring out the truth behind travesty and all things deceitful and Art contains the magic to conjure up spaces of lightness for Mankind to breathe.

Bulgakov’s four evil protagonists, his comic, satirical riders of the apocalypse, ride through the night out of the ending pages of the book. ‘Night overtook the cavalcade, spreading over them from above and scattering white specks of stars here and there in the saddened sky. Night was thickening, flying alongside the riders, grabbing at their cloaks and pulling them off, unmasking all illusions…and when the crimson full moon rose up to meet them from behind the edge of the forest, all illusions vanished and the magical, mutable clothing fell into the swamp and drowned in the mist.’

Svetislav’s paintings are just that. White specks of stars here and there in the saddened sky, when the days we know are ending and the tumult of a new era is in the air.

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Konrad Buhagiar