All the Broken Ships

A Margaret Atwood book he left behind. A train ticket he used when coming to visit me from Liverpool. A Uyghur hat I bought for him in Xinjiang. A DVD we once watched together. A green hoodie that still has his smell… Do I keep them, do I throw them away, or do I simply destroy them now that he’s gone?

Many people find it painful to be reminded of the ones they used to love, of the relationships that are broken. Yet there are always things popping up now and then to remind us of someone we try so hard not to think about. In the Almodóvar film“Talk to Her”, Marco sleeps on the couch instead of his bed for months after his girlfriend leaves him. In Croatia, after their own four-year long relationship ended, artists Olinka Vištica and Drazen Grubišić decided to set up an art project together, displaying objects from people’s “failed” romances and the stories behind them. The Museum of Broken Relationships is dedicated to broken hearts.

Years after I interviewed founders of the project, Museum of Broken Relationships is finally traveling from its original location in Zagreb to Shanghai, bringing not only tokens but also memories of love.

During our interview with Olinka and Drazen, they sounded calm and humorous. When asking whether they still felt the pain from their previous relationship, Drazen smiled and said, “You are the person who you are also because of who you have been with. Every relationship shapes and defines you as who you are.” Despite their romantic history, they said doing this project together had helped them maintain their relationship and move on with their lives.

Olinka Vištica is a 40 year old art and film producer from Split, Croatia and Drazen Grubišić is a 40 year old artist from Zagreb, who is dedicated to participatory art. They both live and work in Zagreb.

What was your initial motive for creating this project?

It was during our break-up that this idea came to our mind during our numerous attempts to save, transform or ultimately overcome our relationship. However, it took a period of over two years before the idea was finally realized. We shared our thoughts with friends and it turned out that everybody we talked to reacted so enthusiastically to the concept. It is one of those really simple ideas that comes to one’s mind in normal conversation. What to do with all those tokens of love (material and nonmaterial) that you gathered during your relationship?

You mentioned the project was to create a space of “secured memory” in order to preserve the material and nonmaterial heritage of “broken relationships”. Do you think most people keep things from their broken relationships, or is it quite the opposite?

It’s hard to tell. If the break-up is painful often we are all tempted to destroy everything that reminds us of our “failure”. But eventually, I think, each of us keeps something. Maybe it’s hidden at the bottom of a closet or a drawer or at the bottom of the heart – but it’s still there. The Museum project is an attempt to bring all those memories to the surface for the richness of the human experiences they can tell.

Why do people still want to preserve their memories even when their relationships have failed?

Whatever the motivation for preserving or donating personal belongings – be it sheer exhibitionism, therapeutic relief, catharsis or simple curiosity, we believe people embrace the idea of exhibiting their legacies as a sort of ritual, a solemn ceremony. Our societies consent to marriages, funerals, even graduation farewells, but deny such gatherings as the demise of a relationship, despite the strength of its emotion. In the words of French philosopher Roland Barthes in “Lover’s Discourse‘: “Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator… (there is) no amorous oblation without a final theatre”. It is not clear, though, and it will probably never be, whether we need this final showing to eradicate our love or to make it eternal. We like to think our Museum does both.

Unlike self-help books and prescriptions we think that love pains cannot be considered as an illness from which its protagonists simply have to recover. For us there has always been much more to explore in that feverish but yet introspective state of mind following a break-up. Throughout history, pain has always been a great impulse for artistic creation. If we ignore it or if we try to eradicate it by destroying memories, we lose a precious opportunity for personal development and expression. That is, we think, a reason people still want to keep their memories alive.

Are you the kind of person who is attached to things?

I would not say I’m a person attached to things but for sure I’m attached to stories, memories, energy hidden behind things. And sometimes we need things to trigger memories.

Is there a piece from you included this project? What’s the story of it?

Yes, this was the first exhibit in the museum collection. It is a small plush wind up bunny. Since we both travelled a lot, the idea was to take the bunny on the trip each time we were not travelling together. The bunny was supposed to travel around the world but it never got further than Iran because the relationship fell apart just after that. But still there is a nice funny photo of the bunny in a desert near Teheran.

What’s the most bizarre piece in this collection?

“In a Zagreb hospital I met a beautiful, young and ambitious social worker from the Ministry of Defense. When she helped me to get certain materials, which I, as a war invalid needed for my leg prosthesis, love was born. The prosthesis endured longer than our love. It was made of sturdier material.”

How many cities has this project travelled to so far? What were the receptions like?

The project has travelled to 13 cities so far and despite the obvious differences in cultures and languages of different countries the response has always been overwhelming. We had never seen such great interests from people before during our 20 years of working in art and culture. One of the main reasons for that lies in the universality of love. It takes just a couple of sentences to explain this project to someone. They will immediately understand it, because they can relate to it. Heartbreak is a painful and formative experience for everyone, no matter in what part of the world you might live. The feeling is universal.

Do you play music in the background of the show? If you had to choose a song, what song would you choose?

Normally we do not play music as a background. If I had to pick one song I would pick a line-up from the Smiths or a French song used in one of the films of Francois Truffaut (Que reste -t-il de nos amours? Meaning: What’s left of our Love?)

What do you think are the most important things in a relationship?

Tolerance, trust and humour.

How would you describe Croatia in a few words?

It’s a beautiful (and small) Mediterranean country, only 4.5 mill people, which still needs to be discovered. It is a country that needs to shape and develop its full potential.

What is the art/culture/design industry like in Croatia?

There are many talented and active artists and designers in Croatia (and also Croatians living and working abroad) creating interesting, globally relevant projects. But still we lack exposure and support to be able to talk about a general concept or brand that could be talked about as Croatian design or art in the manner we today know about Danish design for example, or French cinema.

What do you think happiness is?

That’s a philosophical question. I’m afraid I can only say that sometimes life passes by in our attempts to define happiness. Happiness is hidden in little, precious moments that are always on your fingertips.

What are the things that make you happy?

Discovering places, meeting people and creating.

Published in Zing Magazine