Rick Poynor | Essays

Remember Picelj

Last week, while America headed home for Thanksgiving, I made a trip to Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, the northern part of Yugoslavia least affected by the country’s tragic break-up in the 1990s. I had been invited to join four other international judges – among them renowned Swiss designer Bruno Monguzzi – in the first Biennial of Slovene Visual Communication organised by the Brumen Foundation, which was founded early this year. I’m often surprised, watching design judges at work, by the speed with which so many entries are despatched. It seems almost to be a point of pride for some designers to whiz round the tables as fast as possible, refusing to be detained for even a moment by the self-evident rubbish served up by their misguided colleagues. But this time it was different. I have rarely seen such careful judging and perhaps it helps that we came as interested outsiders, with no local axes to grind. For once I finished the first round ahead of my colleagues, so I decided to take a walk.

The exhibition we were judging was held in the National Gallery next to Tivoli, the city’s park, and I headed in that direction. After walking through the trees for a few minutes I saw a house with a banner announcing an exhibition of work by Ivan Picelj. I had heard of Picelj – we featured a few of the Croatian designer’s pieces in Eye in 1997 – but it was by pure chance that I had come across his exhibition in what turned out to be the International Centre of Graphic Arts.

The display occupied nine elegant rooms. The only other person there was the attendant who sat behind a window, minding the catalogues. Picelj, like many designers, created art works, as well as commissioned designs, and the graphic prints on show covered the period 1957 to 2003. Some of them, dealing with Constructivism and its heritage, were arranged in series. One set carried the words “Remember Malevitch” in bold, red stencil lettering under images of black circles, squares and grids; another urged viewers to “Remember Rodtchenko”; another to “Remember Mondrian”.

Arranged in sequence around the walls, these pieces had considerable presence, but it’s not my purpose here to describe them in detail. I realise that, unless you come from the region, you are unlikely to have heard of Picelj, however distinguished his career. Today, supported by the huge reach of our media, we celebrate our design stars relentlessly for achievements which, if we could be objective, are often quite slender. Not for the first time on a visit to post-communist central Europe, it struck me, wandering through these empty rooms, how little the English-speaking world knows about the recent cultural history of this region. In Prague, over the summer, I was shown superb book covers, with abstract designs, created in the 1960s, which are completely unknown in our version of design history. In Zagreb, last winter, my host went out of her way to gain after-hours access to a little gallery to show me a stunning exhibition of 1970s conceptual posters by Boris Bucan. The sensation on these occasions is a mixture of delight at discovering the unexpected and embarrassment at your own profound ignorance, as you redraw the map in your head to take these findings into account.

All week, before travelling to Ljubljana, I had been thinking about nostalgia. I used the word too loosely perhaps in another post and one visitor took exception. Nostalgia is a sentimental yearning for some aspect of the past and we disapprove of it as a weakness. It suggests a moral failure to embrace the reality of the present with sufficient enthusiasm. Yet, at the same time, an understanding of history is also seen as a virtue and to enter history imaginatively you have to invest emotion as well as thought, and this investment can be poignant and pleasurable. Picelj’s prints, with their invocation of graphic tradition and requirement that we remember, embody a similar yearning. In these deserted rooms, belatedly encountering his work, I too felt a little melancholy. After a while, it occurred to me to look out of the window. A steep, tree-covered slope rose up high behind the house. It was blanketed with fallen leaves.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Graphic Design, History, Social Good

Comments [8]

Thank you for that beautifully written piece.

I found examples of Picelj's art works here.
Dave Parker

"The sensation on these occasions is a mixture of delight at discovering the unexpected and embarrassment at your own profound ignorance, as you redraw the map in your head to take these findings into account."

Rick, may I ask how you to comment on this experience as a judge of a design competition? How to you "judge" work, arriving as a foreigner, with so many historical, cultural and linguistic barriers?

I have judged work in many countries, some seemingly close (Canada) and others fundamentally alien (Taiwan). I always come home inspired, but also feeling like I had no business being there.

William Drenttel

Bill, the material we were judging was all recent work by Slovenian designers. The Brumen Foundation had made a point of inviting non-Slovenian judges because they thought we could be more objective and that this would remove the element of local design politics they feared might spoil this first Biennial. The other judges, apart from Bruno Monguzzi and me, were Jean-Francois Porchez from France, Bo Linnemann from Denmark, and Mieczyslaw Wasilewski from Poland.

The implication of bringing such a group together is that there are certain qualities in design, most likely formal qualities, that are transnational and accessible to all of us. Part of our task as judges was agreeing these common criteria and, as you'd expect, there were differences and disagreements along the way, though most of the time it went pretty smoothly.

There was also, as you say, the language barrier to negotiate. We asked the invigilators to translate copy-lines wherever it seemed essential and the judges took their time to look closely at things. Inevitably, though, you bring standards, values, knowledge and concerns from outside to the judging and this was what our hosts seemed to want in this case, so probably we sidestepped the deeper cultural issues that might have been at stake. I hope that in future they will have a mixture of national and international judges.

Every design competition is flawed in some way and, if I continue to take part, it's because, like you, I find the opportunity to review a lot of unfamiliar work very stimulating and inspiring.
Rick Poynor

For / Against
This line of reasoning about award shows seems hypocritical. Why participate in an activity that is "flawed," for the reward of being stimulated and inspired? While I've never been invited to judge an award show, if I received the same invitation Rick did and knew about the Committee's desire to garner objective and "sans-political" judges, I would reconsider. I would reconsider because judges acting in a "value free" manner are perpetuating a system that serves itself and the design stars it so relentlessly celebrates with their slender achievements. Despite the Committee's intention, the joke's on them because as Rick points out, even though they asked you to side step political issues, you cannot turn off that switch. Impossible.

I have been considering this issue since noticing Bruce Mau's claims that one should not enter design competitions. Don't enter award competitions? Really?! Why does he already have so many awards himself? He's won numerous awards including a 2003 IIDEX/NeoCon Canada Award for work in Textiles. He just won this and his manifesto is dated 1998! And what about competitions granting you more work as the prize? Like the "competition to design Downsview Park on the site of de-militarized grounds in Toronto." Is this okay? If the award competition awards you more work, is this okay?

How can one occupy both sides of the coin? Why does Mau have the luxury of being for and against? Rebel and opportunist? And now I see that judges are acting in a similar manner---conscious of the flaws in award competitions, but participating anyway. Should those called to judge simply protest? Refuse to judge? Would this shut down the system? Will we see an A.C.F.T.F. (Awards Competition First Things First) in the near future? Doubtful, because it would shut down advertising revenue.

I've never entered award competitions, because I've felt my work was not up to its standards. But now I'm not sure they even have standards.

Jason A. Tselentis

These are interesting points, Jason, but in the case of ordinary design competitions which are not about winning a specific commission, I think you overstate the case just a tad. I'd love to hear you tell Bruno Monguzzi, a designer of the greatest integrity, in my view, that he doesn't have standards. I participate as a judge in one or sometimes two competitions a year. I usually accept these invitations because, as a journalist and writer, I want to acquaint myself with new work, people and circumstances, and this is a good way to make contacts and find things out.

Yes, design competitions are often flawed, but I did say flawed and not utterly misguided and valueless or irredeemably corrupt. Many human situations contain flaws and in the case of most design competitions, I don't see these limitations as being so dubious, egregious or morally reprehensible as to demand a refusal to take part in judging them under any circumstances.

In the case of Slovenia, these new awards are a way of building a sense of community and common purpose among designers and attempting to gain public awareness for what designers have to offer. The Biennial received newspaper and TV coverage and the shortlisted work - some 200 pieces - is now on display in the National Gallery. This seems a reasonable aim to me and I was glad to be asked to take part in the event.
Rick Poynor

Thank you for bringing these deeper issues to light, Rick. As a journalist, the competitions provide an environment with unique purpose---acquainting you with new work, people, and so forth. A designer would be just as interested in such exposure. And as far as Mr. Monguzzi is concerned, I've never met the man, but would be honored to. In no way have I nor would I judge his standards. How can I? All I've been exposed to is his work. That's not enough. That's not enough to tell me anything.
Jason A. Tselentis

To bring this conversation back to its original topic —

"it struck me, wandering through these empty rooms, how little the English-speaking world knows about the recent cultural history of [other] region[s]."

There is a wonderful piece in the Times Literary Supplement (September 5, 2003) by Amit Chaudhuri that discusses this subject from a literary point of view: "Travels in the subculture of Modernity: East Coast attitudes to other literatures." Here, an English novelist, writing in English for an English literary journal, discusses his experiece teaching non-European literature to graduate students at Columbia University in New York City.

His conclusion: "I found largely missing ... the tolerance, and even the encouragement, of the obscure and the difficult."

One quotation especially harkens back to Rick Poynor's original post, attacking contemporary modernism about culture as: "...a cultural consumption, the sort of cultural activity that might have existed three or four decades ago, and even earlier: the intersection of café leisure with reading and writing, the confluence of bistros and bookshops. It brought with it a wide-eyed provincialism, a deep ignorance of cultural movements elsewhere in the world, while being convinced one was at the centre of it, and an odd self-congratulation that comes when you are not so much in the midst of a cultural efflorescence as consuming the idea of one."
William Drenttel

I'd like to go back to some questions raised by Jason.
I can understand the Bruce Mau example, but still seems to me he's right. At least I see it as a concerned standpoint; graphic/communication design is far too large. I believe in certain things, wich I translate into my work, that is shown in a contest wich meets a jury that may not believe in the same things.
My work is not appreciated and I may not enter another contest again.
In his case, he doesn't have to fear a jury. His pretty much sure of himself, even if he lose.
About Rick's story, I find it to be more entusiastic, than having a couple of designers that doesn't really care about updating themselves, and most probably would pass on Picelj or any other.

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