Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
Mladen Stilinović, Artis at Work – Again, 2011
Today we're with Olga Sureda Guasch, an independent curator and writer who lives in Barcelona, in discussion of the Croatian artist Mladen Stilinović, who passed earlier this year. When did you first come in contact with Mladen's work? I understand you two worked together?
The first time I really came in closer contact with the artist Mladen Stilinović and his work was last year, although I already knew about his artistic practice through my studies in art history. I had the chance to work with him in 2015, within the context of the "Tedium Vitae" exhibition (ADN Platform, Barcelona), which I co-curated along with a group of students from the training seminar I coordinate at the University of Barcelona, On Mediation (global art theory and curatorial practices), as part of the research group Art, Globalization, Interculturality (AGI).
On Mediation is a seminar organized through a first theoretical phase of lectures led by curators of recognized international experience. There's also a second practice phase where the participants are asked to generate a curatorial project along with the coordinators and in collaboration with a local Institution, Art Gallery or Art Center.
"Why cannot exist art any more in the West? The answer is simple. Artists in the West are not lazy. Artists from the East are lazy; whether they will stay lazy now when they are no longer Eastern artists, remain to be seen" — Mladen Stilinović
This quote, by The Praise of Laziness’ manifest from the Croatian artist, articulated the theoretical framework of Tedium Vitae’s exhibition, which explored boredom as an artistic catalyst, by presenting a series of artistic visions about tediousness, and by taking hyperconnection, laziness, boredom and non-production for their emancipating powers, political choices and sources of resistance before a hermetic system. Mladen Stilinović’s words were, hence, the starting point of our research and the main focus of the curatorial project. The active pause can create art—however, how can the artist create without forethought? What if laziness acts as a kind of alternative to this culture of supply and demand? What if the overwhelming need to produce is instead turned, by intentional disinterest, into the freedom to produce? Laziness, pause and not doing are necessary in the middle of this whirlwind; take them as having emancipated power presented in the form of a policy option, a source of resistance to the system.
Within this theoretical framework, we also showed Artist at Work (1978), a series of photos showing the artist lying down in bed, fully clothed, in broad daylight. A work that explores the relationship between work and production, in which Stilinović ironically commented on an artist working while sleeping, which is seen today not only as a position of resistance to the ideology of work and the necessity of leisure and doing nothing for creative work, but also as a literal realization of the total overlapping of work and life, in which even sleep is included.
Mladen Stilinović, Belgrade, 1964
How would you describe his art? Who was he directly influenced by?
Mladen Stilinović belongs to the generation of artists active in the Zagreb and former Yugoslavia art scene during the communist regime in the late 1960s. The early work of Stilinović was marked by his involvement in poetry and experimental film. At that time he worked mostly on his own taking part in amateur film events from time to time. Nonetheless his interest soon evolved in the relationship between visual symbols and words using film and photography alongside other media of expression, leading to the creation of a series of collages, hundreds of artist's books, paintings, installations and videos.
He was also a member of the conceptual Group of Six Authors (1975-1984), which radically stepped out of the institutional framework of visual arts defined by museums and galleries by organizing exhibitions-actions (a term coined by Stilinović) in public spaces in Zagreb from 1975-1980. After the group broke up, Stilinović continued working in a consistent manner, critically reflecting on art and the society, as well as individual categories, such as pain or laziness, transposed into a wider social context.
About his influences, it’s worth to mention that, in agreement with the Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s statement that “Language is the ideological sign par excellence,” the artist’s interest in language remains at the center of his activities. Stilinović’s understanding of the ideological manipulation of language is also influenced by the Italian philosopher Ferruccio Rossi-Landi’s book Language as Work and Trade (1983), a collection of critical essays on language and ideology in relation to sign production and the process of social reproduction.
The aesthetic and social program of Kazimir Malevich takes also a central place in Stilinović’s political aesthetics. In many works, the artist referred to the forms, colors and symbolism of Malevich’s Suprematist paintings, taking them as historical, ideological and aesthetic signs subjected to analysis.
In his extensive oeuvre and through various media, Stilinović mirrors and questions the ideological signs that condition a society. Being nowadays one of the most influential contemporary artists in Croatia, his art is marked by a conceptual approach, critical attitude towards society and political structures, discussion of the relationship between language and visual symbols, and consistency that is often brought ad absurdum. To summarize, Stilinović's work, where he exposed the symbols that were the strongest expressions of ideology at the time, is characterized by the use of everyday materials, simplicity, social criticism and questioning the social role and position of art.
Mladen Stilinovic, Pjevaj! (Sing!) (1980) Courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art
Stilinović was one of the leading figures of the so-called "New Art Practice". What is this?
The “New Art Practice” is a term created for a generation of artists active in Yugoslavia the late 1960s and the 1970s, within the context of Eastern and Central Europe contemporaneous scene. In 1978, an exhibition called New Art Practice 1966 – 1978 took place at the Gallery of Contemporary Art Zagreb (Croatia), presenting artworks by young artists from places where the emerging artistic activity marked a turn away from the traditional understanding of artwork, thus determining the time frame and giving a name to this new ‘model’ of art.
New Art Practice artists, like Mladen Stilinović, shifted their practices from the traditional studio to city streets and artist-run spaces, and worked in a variety of mediums such as photography, video, performance, actions, ambiences, spatial interventions, and installations, as a means of expression and exploration, as well as a critical stance towards reality, questioning the very idea of art and emphasizing the need of its social engagement. The resulting projects often involved public participation, multimedia performances or experimental publications.
You said Stilinović's art has 'an obvious critical and political edge'. Can you elaborate?
Since the beginning of his career in the 1970s, Stilinović has been opposing social norms and ideology of political and culture canons, always questioning his own human and artistic status. Stilinović constantly reaffirmed his position of an artist who operates as an artistic corrective to the surrounding reality, from the Yugoslav socialism to the neoliberal global capitalism.
From a formal perspective, Stilinović proposes an examination of the aesthetic (and social) heritage of historical avant-gardes, overcoming the intellectual strictness of conceptual art, and opening a space for humor and irony. Stilinović’s works are mainly simple in their execution, but meticulously engaged with such subjects as poverty, death, money, economy, and pain, while systematically researching the relations between language and ideology.
In his works is where we can understand better why Mladen’s art has ‘an obvious critical and political edge’. For instance, his critical interest in the social significance of money—in the rituals, conventions, and ideologies that define its functions in society—is displayed in the works dealing with money by pointing out the imperative of earning it and being employed in order to be part of society, in both socialist and capitalist production (88 Roses for Comrade Tito, 1991-1994). His statements often imitate the form of political slogans, which are themselves considered a rudimental poetic form and at the same time a direct mechanism of political and ideological power. In his slogans, Stilinović takes down authority and playfully occupies that space—for example, in Work is a Disease (1981), a fake quotation from Karl Marx, or An Attack on my Art is an Attack on Socialism and Progress (1977).
Since the seventies, Stilinović had often used the color red to criticize and make irony of dominant political ideology. A good illustration is the artist’s books, collages and earlier paintings in which he used the color red, thus thematizing the dominant iconography of the communist regime (Red Bread, 1976). By contrast, he used as well the color white, which in Malevich’s Suprematist system symbolizes utter nothingness as transcendent liberation, becoming the color of pain at Stilinović’s hand (Dictionary-Pain, 2000-2003), and treating white as a color of absence and silence (White Absence, 1990-1996).
Mladen Stilinović “Artist At Work” (1978)
You also mentioned that the fact he came from Zagreb, Croatia might have led to his work being underrepresented. Why do you think that region tends be overlooked in the larger global art market?
Stilinović was one of the main figures to emerge from the art world’s recent interest in early conceptual-art practices in the former Eastern bloc. That background—coming from an era when avant-garde art-making happened below the official political radar and when exposure to markets and movements of the western art world was nil—is key to understanding Stilinović’s underrepresentation in the global art ecosystem.
After the World War II, a mental architecture for an entire postwar generation thinking was provided about the nature of Europe divided, and led to a mental mapping in which Western Europe was presumed to be the better half and Eastern Europe was understood to be lesser: less interesting, less welcoming, more alien, more backward and overlooked. Within this context, the art of Eastern Europe was definitely a small world in comparison with other European regions, and the scene of new media, of alternative and critical art was even smaller. Nevertheless, this map lasted until the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980s and the wars in ex-Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when Eastern European artists began to emerge onto the international art scene. During the 1990s, a period of painful transitions from centrally planned economies to the market system, many artists began to explore the trauma and the legacy of communism, producing works that dealt with various aspects of the ‘post-socialist’ condition. By contrast, in the 1990s, across the ruins of ex-Communist Eastern Europe, the interest of the Western cultural milieu moved progressively to Central and East Europe, and since then, we have witnessed an extended moment where artists from the East came to the fore.
Within this context, and working at the end of a complicated but communist regime in Zagreb, Stilinović maintained optimism for a model of art production outside of what he identified in capitalism as a commerce-initiated complex of "insignificant factors".
Differences between the capitalist West and the socialist East have always existed, from ideological or political, to economical or social. Having said that, how crucial should these “differences” be in interpreting and perceiving art in the East, the West, in Central Europe, in Latin America, but also in the wider framework of the global situation?
“Artists in the West are not lazy and therefore are not artists but rather producers of something…..Their involvment with matters of no importance, such as production, promotion, gallery system, museum system, competition system (who is first), their preoccupation with objects, all that drives them away form laziness, from art. Just as money is paper, so is gallery a room” — Mladen Stilinović, The Praise of Laziness (1993)