World of Con­cep­tual Mu­se­ums

En­ter the zany world of con­cep­tual mu­se­ums – fea­tur­ing failed love af­fairs, doomed in­ven­tions and ter­ri­ble art

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Front Page - BY TIM HULSE PHO­TOGRAPHED BY DOMENICO PUGLIESE

IN A QUIET COR­NER OF A MUSEUM stands a white plinth on which sits a 30-cen­time­tre-long, mul­ti­coloured cater­pil­lar made of felt. Some of its legs are miss­ing and lie for­lornly next to it. Close to it is a card on which are printed the fol­low­ing words: “I had this big, truly big love, a long-dis­tance re­la­tion­ship, Sara­jevo– Za­greb. It lasted for 20 months. Of course, we dreamt of a life to­gether and with that in mind I bought this huge cater­pil­lar. Ev­ery time we would see each other, we would tear off one leg.

“When we ran out of legs to tear, that would be the time to start a life to­gether. But nat­u­rally, as is of­ten the case with great loves, the re­la­tion­ship broke and so the cater­pil­lar did not be­come a com­plete in­valid af­ter all.”

The cater­pil­lar and its ac­com­pa­ny­ing sad tale is one of just over a hun­dred ex­hibits in the Museum of Bro­ken Re­la­tion­ships, a time cap­sule of ill-fated af­fairs con­tained in a few small rooms in Za­greb, Croa­tia’s cap­i­tal city.

Each ob­ject on dis­play tells a story. Some­times it’s very short: a toaster is ac­com­pa­nied by the words, “When I moved out, and across the coun­try, I took the toaster. That’ll show you. How are you go­ing to toast any­thing now?”

Other ob­jects have much longer tales to tell, of jinxed hol­i­day ro­mances, first loves, of­fice af­fairs. The ob­jects them­selves are gen­er­ally quite mun­dane (a rolling pin, a wed­ding dress), but the sto­ries at­tached to them pro­voke laugh­ter, sad­ness and some­times even shock.

For in­stance, an axe is ac­com­pa­nied by the story of how a Ger­man woman’s lover left her for another woman and went on hol­i­day with her. So the jilted part­ner bought an axe and de­stroyed a piece of her ex-girl­friend’s fur­ni­ture each day she was away. “The more her room filled with chopped fur­ni­ture ac­quir­ing the look of my soul, the bet­ter I felt,” she wrote.

IN A SMALL GLASS CASE JUST IN­SIDE the en­trance to the museum is one ob­ject of par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance. It’s a fluffy white toy rab­bit ac­com­pa­nied by the words: “The bunny was sup­posed to travel the world but never got fur­ther than Iran.”

It once be­longed to the museum’s founders, artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Gru­bišic.´ The idea was that if ei­ther of them trav­elled alone, they would take the bunny in place of their part­ner. They broke up af­ter four years and the bunny took on another role – as the found­ing ex­hibit in their idea for a to­tally novel kind of museum.

“I think we were one of those cou­ples that just run out of fuel,” Vištica re­calls. “We were still young and not ready to set­tle down.” As their re­la­tion­ship broke down, they would have “in­ter­minable con­ver­sa­tions late at night about what to do with the residues of a past love af­fair.”

One “crazy” idea was to set up a museum con­tain­ing all their sen­ti­men­tal bric-a-brac. They for­got all about it un­til 2006, two years af­ter their split, when Gru­bišic´ was con­sid­er­ing ideas for an art show in Za­greb and he re­mem­bered that crazy idea. He gave Vištica a call.

“The idea was to try to cre­ate this space where we could po­et­i­cally store all the emo­tional her­itage of

bro­ken re­la­tion­ships,” says Vištica. “We thought the best thing to rep­re­sent it was by us­ing a shared ob­ject and the story at­tached to it, as we our­selves were sur­rounded by ob­jects that each had their own story.”

With just ten days to go be­fore the show’s open­ing, the pair des­per­ately emailed friends and re­la­tions to gather ex­hibits, which they in­stalled in an old ship­ping con­tainer out­side the gallery. The Museum of Bro­ken Re­la­tion­ships was born.

“It was a very pop­u­lar show and caught the at­ten­tion of the in­ter­na­tional me­dia, which was a to­tal shock for us,” says Vištica. “We had Reuters call­ing, ask­ing about the first museum of bro­ken re­la­tion­ships open­ing in

Za­greb, and we’d say, ‘No, it’s just a ship­ping con­tainer with 40 ob­jects in the yard of an art gallery and it’s not go­ing to be there much longer!’ It turned into a snow­ball. We just let it roll and it caught a lot of snow.”

Af­ter the ex­hi­bi­tion ended, the museum be­gan tour­ing the world – as it has con­tin­ued to do to this day, vis­it­ing more than 40 lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing ma­jor cities such as New York, London and Ber­lin.

IN 2009, THE PAIR BOR­ROWED money in or­der to fund a per­ma­nent home for their col­lec­tion in Za­greb. It was Croa­tia’s first pri­vate museum; the gov­ern­ment hav­ing de­cided the idea was too “weird” to fund them­selves.

The museum has be­come one of the most pop­u­lar at­trac­tions in Za­greb.

The pair, who re­main good friends, now have a staff of 20 and re­cently over­saw the found­ing of a sec­ond museum in Los An­ge­les. As for their own re­la­tion­ships, Gru­bišic´ is now mar­ried with a young daugh­ter, while Vištica will only say cryp­ti­cally that she has “a cou­ple of in­trigues”.

They re­ceive new ob­jects and sto­ries two or three times a week. In a stor­age de­pot sit more than 2500 ob­jects, all wait­ing for their time in the lime­light. Both Vištica and Gru­biši´c see this as an evolv­ing artis­tic en­deav­our.

And what have they learned about love and re­la­tion­ships from all these sto­ries? “It’s all just as per­plex­ing as it was,” says Vištica. “I’m not smarter – if it’s pos­si­ble to be smart in some­thing like this. If any­thing, I’ve learned that re­la­tion­ships are what count when you’re alive and they’re some­thing that makes us re­ally hu­man. No mat­ter how dif­fer­ent our cul­tures, or how­ever short the pe­riod of in­ter­ac­tion is, it’s some­thing pre­cious. And we should cel­e­brate it.”

“I think it’s taught me that truth is stranger than any fic­tion,” adds Gru­biši´c with a grin.

ONE PER­SON WHO WAS “BLOWN away” by a visit to the museum is psy­chol­o­gist and in­no­va­tion ex­pert Sa­muel West. He went there in 2016 and it’s safe to say it changed his life. For some time he’d been try­ing to find an in­ter­est­ing way of

com­mu­ni­cat­ing his re­search into busi­ness fail­ures, and sud­denly a light bulb lit up above his head.

“I was fas­ci­nated by how they could com­mu­ni­cate an ab­stract con­cept with con­crete items and short sto­ries,” he says. “It was there and then I de­cided I was start­ing a Museum of Fail­ure. It was a eu­reka mo­ment.”

West is an ebul­lient Cal­i­for­nian who mar­ried a Swede and ended up liv­ing in Hels­ing­borg, Swe­den. Fired with en­thu­si­asm by his trip to Za­greb, he suc­cess­fully ap­plied for fund­ing from the Swedish Gov­ern­ment to set up his own museum, which opened in Hels­ing­borg last year for a lim­ited pe­riod.

It turned out to be a big hit with the gen­eral pub­lic. “No at­trac­tion in Swe­den has got such pos­i­tive press in such a short amount of time,” says West.

As a re­sult of its pop­u­lar­ity, it has now re­opened in the city’s Dunker Cul­ture House. On show will be more than 70 ob­jects that sat­isfy West’s key cri­te­ria for in­clu­sion: “It has to be an in­no­va­tion, it has to be a fail­ure, and it has to be some­what in­ter­est­ing.”

This means the in­clu­sion of such high- pro­file flops as New Coke, but also of the less well known un­suc­cess­ful brand ex­ten­sions such as Har­ley- David­son per­fume and Col­gate frozen din­ners, en­ti­tled Col­gate Kitchen En­trees. And there are un­wanted gad­gets such as the Re­ju­venique Elec­tric Fa­cial Mask. This ‘re­ju­ve­nat­ing’ fa­cial mask looks like some­thing from a hor­ror film and gives mild elec­tric shocks to the ­user’s face. It wasn’t a hit.

One of West’s favourite fail­ures is Frito-Lay’s Wow range of potato crisps made with olestra, a kilo­joule-free fat sub­sti­tute that can cause di­ar­rhoea. “You won’t get fat, but you might be sit­ting on the toi­let for a long time!” he hoots.

Jok­ing aside, the museum does have a se­ri­ous point. “If peo­ple are afraid of fail­ing and get pe­nalised for it, that doesn’t en­cour­age cre­ativ­ity,” says West. “It’s im­por­tant to know that even huge brands like Coca-Cola some­times risk get­ting it wrong.”

Fit­tingly, West ex­pe­ri­enced a fail­ure of his own while set­ting up the museum. “One of the first things I did was to buy the In­ter­net do­main of mu­se­u­mof­fail­ure.com,” he says. “I was very happy that it was still avail­able. Then a cou­ple of days later I got the re­ceipt and to my sur­prise it said, ‘Con­grat­u­la­tions, you have bought musumof­fail­ure.com.’ I missed out the ‘e’. I re­ally screwed up!”

Dražen Gru­biši´c and Olinka Vištica got the idea for the Museum of Bro­ken Re­la­tion­ships from their own break-up

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