Imagine this. An artistic couple – a filmmaker and a sculptor – break up. They’ve been together for four years. They don’t have children. They’re still friends. The split is amicable, the task of dividing shared assets completed quickly and without fuss. Everything’s fine. They’re going to see each other in the future, share stories – good and bad – and will, more than likely, introduce one another to future partners. This, the real life parting of Olinka Vistica and Drazen Grubisic, is everything that a modern broken relationship should be: respectful, communicative and caring. All fine.
Only, there’s a hitch. While what to do with the house, debts, savings etc. etc. trouble Vistica and Grubisic not a jot, they’re stumped as what to do with the objects – letters, cards, presents, toys, findings - that possess meaning only in the context of their relationship. It’s a rock and a hard place. Like many, they can’t bear to get rid, but know full well that the sentiment attached to each relies on something now dead. Options are unbearably limited: one, share and watch meaning turn to tat; two, car boot, charity shop, give away; three, burn the lot, a symbolic purging of a relationship now gone to nothing.
Clear eyed, forward looking, both agree #1 a no-no; #2 a possibility (though not nearby, and not to friends or family – the thought of seeing the watch Vistica gave Grubisic last Christmas on his brother’s wrist is enough to break the back of even this perfectly broken relationship); and #3 self-consciously apocalyptic. There is, however, a fourth, ridiculous option: to make a museum of the objects. After all – I like to imagine that they’re in their now otherwise empty house, standing helplessly before a small mountain of stuff – after all, says Grubisic, who’s to say that all this is really meaningless? Museums use the past to anchor – inform, surprise, create – the present. They preserve, protect and celebrate a shared heritage. The world is full of all kinds of museums. Why not one dedicated to a broken relationship, to its stories, to the things that help us remember us, to saving something from the oblivion of forgetting? Ridiculous.
And true. It’s an old story, and I’ve embellished it somewhat, and squashed nine years into three paragraphs, but the Museum of Broken Relationships is a real thing. Once a wholly itinerant exhibition, Vistica and Grubisic’s bric-a-brac collection of things is now housed – together with objects provided first by friends, and then by strangers - in Zagreb, in the old town. It’s one of the city’s major pulls, much (at a guess) to the chagrin of the Croatian Ministry of Culture, who for years rejected applications for public funding. And you can see why. Who would have thought a museum dedicated to failure could prove so popular? What the pace of political back peddling – regarding the sanctity of marriage, bringing up children etc – would its support entail? But that’s just it. Life isn’t policy. It’s broken relationships.
It is. Consider. There are three kinds of human love: lust, romance and attachment. The first of these is really desire. It’s a very old love, and without it we would have died out tens of thousands of years ago. On its own, it makes for very short – over night, one hour, five minute – relationships, lots of them, as many as possible. If you’re interested, its chief motor is testosterone. Romantic love, on the other hand, is all about the one. It’s about falling in love, and while testosterone is indeed present in helpfully high levels, the main juice here is a mix of dopamine and norepinephrine. Dopamine is what Roxy Music meant to say. It makes life feel just right. Norepinephrine’s like speed. Together, they turn you into a nutter: a hyperactive, high, super attentive, sleepless nutjob. Add to this the corresponding low levels of serotonin, and you’re obsessive, emotionally unstable and green eyed. Think Othello. It can’t last. And it doesn’t. Romantic love is more about months than it is years. The last love, attachment, forms long term relationships, long enough with which to raise children. Once again, even here, we are the chemicals that run us, in this case oxytocin and vasopressin, both of which are released during sex, their presence guarantors of warmth, care, a willingness to stick around.
So, nothing in the above to suggest lifelong coupling – and that’s just the biology. If they’re not making you be a monkey, or mad, relationships are tough gong. If they do work, that’s because the rewards (emotional support, status, prestige etc) - shored up by barriers to splitting up (economics, cultural expectations, the law) - far outweigh the perceived alternative: loneliness, poverty, not being able to raise your children as you’d like to, a sense of failure, of having wasted a large part of your life. Thing is, failure – as the Museum of Broken Relationships shows – is the stuff of life. One in three marriages break down within ten years – a statistic that only rises in the event of cohabitation. Significant numbers of us engage in what anthropologists can’t help but refer to as extra-pair copulation. And we’re living longer. We raise our children, send them out and continue to desire. We are much more likely to be digamous than monogamous. Serial monogamy is the post-industrial condition, adultery the (bitter-sweet) icing on the cake.
Not that the Museum of Broken Relationships wishes in any way to celebrate pain, loss and, in some cases, death. Vistica and Grubisic are much more about the preservation of memory than they are the rights and wrongs of society. They’re into some dodgy stuff about objects possessing integrated fields (okay), ‘holograms of memories and emotions’ (baloney), but aim essentially to ‘create a space of secure memory or protected remembrance in order to preserve the material and nonmaterial heritage of broken relationships.’ Life is filled with brokenness. This is important. Acknowledge it. Remember it. Get over it.
It’s a beautifully simple concept, and beautifully realised. Divided into sections (sex, anger, death etc), the museum exhibits items along with a date, location and personal story. That’s it. The used and throwaway qualities of the collection stand out (luridly, brilliantly) from bright white walls, the refracted light gathering in pale halo-like clouds about its many seemingly randomly assembled parts - a bike with a flat tyre, a wig, a broken off side mirror, the damaged face of a clay gnome, a wedding book, an old bronze key, handcuffs, a vibrator, an axe, a tiny weaved horse, a comic book, a Frisbee, a We Broke Up on Skype clock.
Powered by their stories, each object swells with meaning, the effect totemic, not only in respect of how it illustrates the real significance of objects in the lives of people, but also in terms of how it unlocks in onlookers – through laughter, sadness, shock, surprise – a sense of the (or the potential for) brokenness in their own relationships. Ex Axe features an axe used by a jilted lover to methodically destroy the ex’s furniture. A Toy remembers plenty of Irish orgasms. A Can of Love Incense ‘doesn’t work’. A Mira Furlan Bowl signifies the lengths to which a woman - kneading dough, dressed in just an apron, like Mira Furlan in Lepota Peroka - went to please a more than faintly disturbing husband. The little horse turns out to be the work of the mother of a now dead son, given as a keepsake to his widow. Theatrical, pithy, spiteful, funny, moving, this stuff could have ended up on a tip. It hasn’t. It’s here, telling us about ourselves, making us think, and feel - positively human.