Fragments for H: A Personal Tribute to Hrvoje Horvatic

By Chris Darke

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Golden light of love, do you then shine even for the dead?

Visions of brighter days, do you illumine my nights?
Lovely gardens and mountains tinged with the sundown's red, welcome
and you, silent paths, you that witnessed heavenly bliss;
and you high-gazing stars that so often granted me blessing glances.
Springs, go by, one year supplants the other, changing and warring
Time roars up above, beyond the heads of us mortals,
but not to the eyes of the blessed;
and not to the eyes of lovers. A different life has been given to them.
For all these, the days and years of the stars, are with us now,
closely, eternally.

From 'Menon's Lament for Diotima', Friedrich Hölderlin

If these words are fragmentary it’s because I want them to be personal in spirit, not part of a journalistic piece that wraps a shroud-like overview around a man’s life. Because, for Breda and others, what Hrvoje gave doesn’t stop.

I first got to know Hrvoje Horvatic and Breda Beban, his partner in life and work, through a retrospective of their video tapes at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1994. The piece that struck me most was Absence, which was being premiered. It’s a rhythmic and severe piece with a combination of formal rigour and wait-and-see durational pleasure that intrigued me. I saw objects and landscapes shot in a way that reminded me of the crispness of Godard’s late style. One can always bring it back to Godard somehow but the visual style was not one that I’d seen much in other film-makers, except maybe as pastiche. I found Absence to be very ‘cinematic’ for a work of video-art and this intrigued me further. I couldn’t think exactly why, except for the fact that the references I found, the allusion and echoes, were from cinema. It was shortly after, while interviewing Breda and Hrvoje for a magazine piece, I discovered the couple were indeed artist-filmmakers working in video. They already had a world-class reputation as video-artists but their influences were from cinema, conceptual art and Byzantine aesthetics. We prolonged the interview, turned it into an excuse for long lunches. We talked, ate and drank together regularly, every weekend. It was the most research I ever did for a piece.

Affinities emerged and friendship developed. It will remain a formative relationship for me. There are few friendships as intimate as those forged in a creative collaboration. Hrvoje and Breda made a family of their collaborators and crew, an approach to the process that produced a sense of loyalty and kinship. Theirs was a partnership that they extended to include others. Their recent work, Irina is not Herself Anymore 1995, Hand on the Shoulder 1997, Jason's Dream of the Present 1997 all indicated a burgeoning desire to engage with narrative more than with poetry, to place genre alongside atmosphere. I felt that these films were complete in themselves. Jason's Dream was an anomaly in their output, a highly-coloured and vibrant mini-musical. These films had become studies for the feature film they were developing with Keith Griffiths and the BFI.

london-stairs-hrvoje-horvatic.jpgThis is one of the last four images Hrvoje shot in London in November 1997

Hrvoje could be playful, skittish, antagonised – and he felt betrayals keenly. Or rather, it seemed that exile (they settled in London in 1991) had deepened a vulnerability to those setbacks, false starts and disasters that characterise the artist’s lives. But his was vulnerability that came with a deep sense for survival. Both their lives had been Eastern European, their childhoods lived under Tito. What came after Tito was long-brewing; a resurgent nationalism built on long-nurtured suspicions that was then turned hatefully ethnic. Both Breda and Hrvoje claimed that the war in former Yugoslavia was far more complex than ever admitted by the West.

The last time I saw him was in November last year. We were up near the Angel, both skint, and looking for a drink. We ended up in the Prince George, in Hackney, where I cashed a cheque. It wasn’t bohemian at all or anything like that. We were both listless at the time, pissed-off with setbacks, distracted by ourselves. We’d spent almost two years writing a feature script, the three of us holed up for weeks and months on end, staring at rows of index cards pinned to a wall, something to move around when inspiration was thin. The script we wrote together, from Hrvoje’s and Breda’s original story, is called ‘Moneystains’. We worked for eighteen months, had a bust-up. Stopped. Started again. It was everything writing in collaboration should be, enervating, exhausting, inspirational. But well-fed and watered, also. Hrvoje was a mean, keen cook; quiet, centered and absorbed when he had food to prepare. There were also times when he would dance around the room squawking the name ‘Ozu’ like a demented chicken. He was rarely less than psychologically acute; the hothouse atmosphere and frayed nerves that can accompany collaborative writing sometimes called for such interventions.

H liked: The Fall, Béla Bartók, Peter Handke Money Mark, War (The seventies funk outfit), Grappa, Ozu, Thomas Köner, the films of Bresson, Lang, Gidal. Film Noir and the classic American cinema. Italy. Baudelaire. Cigarettes.  

Now there’s a palpable absence in life, a friend-shaped hole. It’s as recognizable as the space he used to occupy, it holds a sense of his physical solidity, the cloth of air he stood up in, a tremor left by his mass. It’s an imprint taken from life, the ghost – trace.