Artbreak hotel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 January, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 January, 2009, 12:00am

Not many people find it easy to remain friends with their ex-lovers. Fewer still go on to partner up in kooky art projects devoted to collecting and preserving the orphaned objects from broken relationships. But that's just what Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic have done.

After ending their four-year romance in 2002, the Zagreb-based pair decided to put together an installation of items culled from failed relationships - partly as therapy to cope with the pain, and also as a kind of performance art for the heartbroken. One of the first things they put in the collection was a wind-up bunny they used to take with them on travels when they were dating. Their project quickly swelled with donations from friends, and then, when an open call went up on their website, from people all over the world.

The result is the Museum of Broken Relationships, a travelling exhibition drawn from about 300 donated objects from many spurned, lonely, grieving and healing hearts. After touring places such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Slovenia and Germany, it recently made its first Asian stop in Singapore as part of the fifth annual M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, spearheaded by theatre company The Necessary Stage.

The show is now heading to North America and back to Europe, with contributions from Singapore.

About 80 objects make up the Singaporean incarnation of the museum. The relics of wrecked love include wedding dresses, a prosthetic leg (the remnant of an affair between a war veteran and the physiotherapist who helped fit him with it), and a brown teddy bear (the sole present exchanged in a secret interracial relationship).

Befitting Singapore's reputation as a hi-tech gadget shopaholic's hot spot, there's even a digital camera whose memory card is filled with photographs taken in happier days.

But Vistica's favourite is a set of seven bras in different colours and designs - one for each day of the week - labelled with the different stages of a relationship by an anonymous donor.

The custodians of the bizarrely poignant museum look nothing like the intense, obsessive-compulsive hoarders you might expect. Tall and lanky with tousled, dark, wavy hair, Vistica runs a film production and creative company and has been dating someone else for a year. The only portent that sifting through the detritus of broken relationships was in her destiny was the fact that she was born in the coastal Croatian city of Split.

Grubisic, a full-time artist who is married with a two-year-old daughter, has an easy smile and exudes a laid-back air. When the museum is not travelling, its collection is stored in boxes stacked neatly in his 80 square metre studio. Although the contents are insured for US$3,000, he is quick to say that their monetary worth is not as important as their emotional and symbolic value.

'You can't put a price tag on memories. One of my favourite donations is a pack of two condoms. The lady says that they were left over from a relationship that ended unfortunately because she was just in love with women,' he says with a wry chuckle.

Then there are the gallstones that the museum once had on loan from a Slovenian woman.

'She said that they reminded her of the gallstone attack she got after her husband called her by the wrong name in bed,' Vistica says with a delighted grin.

Lest you think that the museum is nothing but a depressing freak show, however, the founders assert the intention was to allow people to move on through the cathartic act of giving up their love tokens.

'It's a museum about love,' says Vistica, 'Love is the main thing.' Grubisic says: 'These things must remind their ex-owners of something good in their relationships. They were got at - and are often a celebration of - the high point.'

Evolving sexual mores are also represented. Among the Singapore donations was a letter from an ex-girlfriend to a boyfriend who had parted with her after coming out of the closet about his sexuality. But instead of bitterness, it was a letter of understanding and acceptance. Grubisic jokes that the museum serves as a survey of cultural attitudes. 'In Germany, for some reason, we got some really violent stuff like broken glass and an axe. In Slovenia, people there were so literate that they wrote long, lovely descriptions of the items they donated. And in Split, they gave all these short, cynical remarks.'

The museum is on its way to San Francisco in time, aptly, for Valentine's Day. It will also go to Lille, Kilkenny and Stockholm.

Negotiations with a US publisher are under way for a book about the project, complete with photos of the exhibits. Vistica says it would be nice to eventually have a permanent space to house the museum, so that 'the collection can be rearranged and the relationships between things broken anew each day'.

'This is something that caught us completely by surprise by how far it has gone,' says Grubisic, whose other works include a sculpture that doubled as a skate park.

Asked how the museum broadens the definition of art, he says: 'If we make you think for 10 minutes, that's enough. It's easy to make a closed piece of art, which you can only understand after reading three pages of text.

'This is interactive art that's emotional and as sincere as you can get.'