Sabina Sabolović: Do you remember the artist’s book that you saw first?
Mladen Stilinović: At the beginning, this kind of work wasn’t called that, and you didn’t know what you were seeing in fact. But at the end of the 60s and in the early 70s in the bookshop of Mladost you could see the first photographic books of Ed Ruscha, and so I saw those pretty early on. This bookshop also had international magazines like Art Forum from which we could get up to date information. I always went to a lot of bookshops and had the same way of buying – flicking through all the mags, and buying one. It was a way of looking and learning. The first exhibition of artists’ books I saw was in London in 1976, a big touring exhibition organised by the British Arts Council. I saw some books there that I was really keen on, I have forgotten a lot of the names of the authors, but I recall that the books of Dieter Roth made an impression on me.
SS: There is in Croatia quite an important local heritage in experimenting with the forms of books and magazines: the anti-magazine of the Gorgona group; painter and designer Ivan Picelj issued the art magazine a; the artist Mangelos did books. Was something of that of any importance in your work with books.
MS: I think those were all important works, but at the time when I started out doing artist’s books, these works were all completely unknown, even in inner circles of artists. I saw maybe one issue of the Gorgona anti-magazine, but I wasn’t well enough acquainted with their practice for it to have been of any influence.
SS: When did you do your first artist’s book, and what was it?
MS: I used to think that my first artist’s book was They Spoke to Me to You of 1973. But when I was working on a retrospective in my flat I discovered works in plastic bags, of 1972. I hadn’t thought of them as books before, but now I shall fit them into the exhibition of artist’s books. They are collages on plastic bags, which always reveal a bit, hide a bit, cover each other over, you have to flick the pages over to see them, but the sequence of them all has a certain course.
SS: How do your books get created, do you make sketches for them? When do you decide to produce a certain idea in the form of the book, and not, for example, of the collage?
MS: I think that in each one of my books there is some reason why it is a book, that the element that interests me in it is repeated or put in such a context that without being read in book form it would not have the same effect. I don’t do sketches. My sketches exist only in written form, I jot down the ideas. When I started to do books, I was spending a lot of time with literature and experimental film. Various kinds of dramaturgy or anti-dramaturgy interested me. There are various ways in which the structure is built; sometimes on the first page, everything is already said. Sometimes there is a page-by-page development of the idea, or sometimes there’s a catch that comes only at the end.
Today I’m interested, glad even, that I structured some things in a manner that I cannot any longer discern. My thinking is going along some other lines today. I know that there is some story in the background. Perhaps someone will be able to reconstruct it. For example, in the book My Sweet Little Lamb there are quotes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. But they are not in the right order, following some order of mine instead. Why I changed their order, I just don’t know any longer.
SS: You mentioned being interested in literature. Have you ever written stories, poems?
MS: Yes, literature interested me from when I was very young, and I used to write poetry. I even published a few poems in the seventies, on the radio and in Republika, the literary magazine. I still occasionally write poems. When you start dealing with poetry, you get various insights. About rhythms and word-play and so on. I have always gone on being into language in my works, and in addition to poetry, I’m also interested in everyday speech, and its subversion.
SS: How has the reading of Bakhtin, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Rossi-Landi, which you say are important for your way of seeing language, had an impact on your ongoing work with language? I was interested to read that you once said that you read most of this theory later on, did your works with language modified by the theory?
MS: No, they weren’t, these authors explained to me something that I had been doing earlier, and that I am still doing. Some of their books changed my interpretations of the earlier works. I liked Bakhtin’s claim that “language is the ideological sign par excellence” a lot. Even more so because he was saying this at the time of hardline communism. These books, like many others, were inducements to thought, revealed new things to me.
SS: Once you said that you are a signwriter and that you were interested in rawness in writing. Can you expatiate on this a bit?
MS: I’m interested in the city milieu, the streets, the everyday life of the papers. Apart from culture, i.e., art, they are my main interest. Rawness starts off from me personally and from the street. When I was a kid I would go by myself to the market place, walk around, watch… I was always interested in the way people were writing, how they were expressing themselves in the displays, writing up the prices in the market, at various events, flea markets. The manner they use to express themselves is actually signwriting. This is a concept that is particularly connected with the street. It’s close to me, and I always work by hand.
SS: Your handwriting is rather specific, you use it a lot in your works. Why is that?
MS: In conceptual art design is really strong, its minimal but stylised, and often in a similar way. That got on my nerves. All my friends who were conceptual artists told me I couldn’t do works like that. They complained about the handwriting, the size of the works, I often use A4 format, and they told me it was too little, I had to increase the size of the works… But I am still using my handwriting that isn’t actually very fluent, and that is the way it has stayed. In some ways I parody it.
SS: I would like to go back a bit to the language of the papers, which you often use. How were the books that you put together out of clippings, the slogans and mottos of political language of a special kind made?
MS: I am an impassioned reader of papers, not a lover of them, but definitely a reader. For days and days you look at something and then you notice something particular. I started cutting these things out, both the political phrase and the photographs. For example, there is a book that was created from reports of various meetings at which the term “energetic action” was used countless times.
SS: You said once that you think the papers have got spoiled. In one work you wrote on a paper “SILENCE” because it was too noisy, I suppose that today most papers would deserve this inscription.
MS: Yeah. Today the situation is different, now the focus is not on ideology, but on gossip and trivialities, and the graphics have changed a lot, become totally boring. I don’t blame the cameramen, but 99% of all the photos are really uninteresting. It’s not the photographers that are at fault, but the way the papers are conceived.
SS: In socialism, what was it that drew you in the newspaper language.
MS: The newspaper inspiration partly stemmed from the fact that papers are collages. If you don’t look at just the one text, but at once link it up with the article next to it or something from the previous page than you get a very different story. I was interested in this newspaper dramaturgy, which was not done deliberately, for if this process was aware, it would all look differently. In socialism they used to say that the graphic industry people deliberately committed howlers. It would be enough to change one letter and from “savez komunista” you get “savez komuništa“, thus “league of socialists” turns into “nothing is in common”. That would be interesting to read. I was also interested in the political clichés and the way in which a personal language was changed because of politics, how normal words by a certain combination are turned into a political phrase, that was an awful process to me. I am not thinking here just of the phrases that get worn out by repetition, like socialism or self-management, but of some ordinary words that are constantly repeated and you can’t ignore the context from which they stem. So for example in normal speech you would never use the phrase “u tom smislu – in this sense” because you would look an idiot, everyone would think of a party meeting. In studying the papers, language as repression interested me. If you want to communicate, you have to keep a constant watch out, or room for misunderstandings opens up.
SS: What was your stance to the context of the socialist Yugoslavia in which you lived and worked?
MS: This context was essential for me, particularly because, as I said, the speech of the street and the speech of the papers were my major topics. I always thought that for my work with this context the important thread was humour.
My stance was criticism, but I didn’t perceive it as such. It is hard to speak of criticism, because this would have implied some system, which didn’t exist in me. We can for example speak in general about red, but in my works there is no establishment of any new system about this colour, rather, the works are a reaction to certain things and situations. It’s hard to generalise. Are you asking me if this was critical art? Well, yes, but this wasn’t really important. It was important that in spite of the constant and tedious pressures I felt free, in life and in art. I didn’t allow myself to be over-impressed by socialism, authorities, intellectuals of various kinds.
SS: In a lot of books that write about the phenomenon of the artist’s book in Eastern Europe, it is linked with censorship and the inability to publish. Do you think this was important in the Yugoslav context?
MS: Yes and no. We were aware of what we couldn’t do. There was self-censorship, certain works were simply not shown. When at home I did my own retrospective in the theme red room I noticed about ten works that I had not previously wanted to exhibit. If there had been a whole series of works that I thought I wouldn’t be able to put on, that would have been awful. But if I self-censored myself about one or two works, this was no real problem. If the self-censorship had been big enough to hold me back, that would have worried me. The only work that was really censored was “Work is a Disease”, a declaration that I attributed to Marx. It was both pointless and harmless, the work was censored at the Youth Salon in Zagreb, in 1979, I think, and they threw it out of the show. Then for several months they showed it without any reaction in the Student Centre Gallery, in Zagreb again. In recent times there has been a debate about the censorship of the time, and the party leadership was mentioned in connection with censorship, but that is not truth. The top was not interested in those things, and the censorship was carried out by over-zealous creeps in the fine arts sphere.
SS: It is interesting that they reacted to making work a subject, although in your books there are many other elements that certainly don’t permit criticism. Red, for example, your constant topic. Why did you always go back to red? How did this interest start, and how did it change?
MS: In the same way that at a certain moment ideology or the state is the owner of the language, so they also possess the colour. To do anything at all with red was unacceptable. Colour is human structure, human material, which shouldn’t belong to anyone. When colour turns into property, the sense of its existence – some kind of emotional level – vanishes… At that time I studied gestalt colour theory, but I can’t agree with generalisations, I think that the important category of colour is its momentariness. One day you can be thrilled by red, the next day is a turn-off. That is how it is with any colour. I was mad that red had been ideologically appropriated and that you couldn’t make free with it just any way you wanted. I could almost divide books into those that were created red and those that weren’t.
SS: How has red changed today, does it still have an ideological content?
MS: It does, but no one cares. That’s the thing. This content is more of a memory. I joked recently that anyone looking at my works from Exploitation of the Dead, which are on the whole black and red will think I was once a socialist-realist. If they can’t read, that is.
SS: Also in your work is pink, what about that? Is it a faded red or something else?
MS: Pink is absolutely something different, it’s a bourgeois colour. I thought about what was opposite to red, and definitely decided it was pink. When I worked with pink, it was also connected to pink socialism in Sweden. This is a traditionally women’s colour and only at an emotional level – a soft colour. In some works I made use of pink silky material.
SS: Now and earlier you mentioned humour. How essential is in your work?
MS: It is essential, when you are dealing with the themes that interest me, you find yourself on terrain that’s close to pathos or humour. Criticism is treated as something serious, humour as something not-serious. But with me, humour is not a joke, but through it, the truth can be understood. In the book Written in Blood I say “I am bleeding over this book”, it’s a joke, but it should make you think. Lots of my work has this effect. It isn’t always visible though, it is there in some of the minimalist books, it’s concealed there.
SS: You often deal humorously with the topic of art and work and art and laziness. Still, your exhibition of books in your flat shows the enormous number of books you have made. What’s the relation between your productivity and the issue of laziness?
MS: If you knew how fast I do my works, you wouldn’t ask that (laughs). It’s true, I’m surprised myself when I see such an amount of works, but I think it’s primarily connected with the fact that it’s about 35 years and that I still have 90% of my works in the house. Talking in general about work, for me it is always a question of time, not amount. How much time work takes, or doesn’t take. I have been lucky enough in life not to have had to work for a living and so I have always had time. I have never worked for art every day eight hours. Or four hours. And we can go on. Or two (laughs). But work is all kind of things. I think I showed that in the book Artist at Work, consisting of photos of me in bed. When you’re just lying down, no one from outside can see whether you’re lying down with eyes closed or open. If you’re thinking, or maybe sleeping.
SS: One of your best known books is I Have No Time (1979), based on the repetition of this sentence on all the surfaces of the book. How did that come into being?
MS: People who had no time always got on my nerves. Today in particular, the excuse of not having time has become the worst kind of rhetoric.
I wrote it into the book because I did have time. When I read it later, I realised it was a bible for our times. “I have no time” can be stretched so far as to become an excuse for murder. This is terrible and it’s seen like this in many fields. Bush has no time, so he has to attack Iraq. But it is not true. The war in Yugoslavia too is the result of this. Someone had the idea that there was no time and that the country had to collapse in five minutes. But if everyone had sat down and talked, perhaps for a couple of years, it would be better for everyone. There’s one funny little anecdote of praise connected with this book, when I went to get a Swedish visa, some young chap at the counter asked me if I was Stilinović the artist. And he told me I had written the best book ever I Have No Time. There’s no literary structure that is going to consider this book literature. Although I am a litterateur (laughs). But it’s rude literature.
SS: Some of your books show an interest in the course of time and consist of recording things that have radically changed over the year. What set you off on, for example, the book Hairdressers or the little booklets that document 29 storefronts of photographers’?
MS: I always look around on the street. I notice something, and then I do the structuring. Hairdressers, for example, particularly kept up with the signs for hairdressing places since 1939 (I found out about this year later) up to 1977 when I did this little book. So through these hairdressers’ signs, history could really be seen. I was interested in the signwriting that we were talking about. I looked at the adverts for restaurants with lambs on a spit, and compared them with the car mechanics, who structured their ads very differently – precisely, because they’re from a more technical crowd. What is interesting, when I look at it today, is that in all of them there is some specificity of the time, the trade, the message… Today, it’s all so terrifyingly the same. Things that I didn’t like then, like the socialist dives, when I see them now, I feel glad, because they are different from those of today. It’s all so uniform that it makes you feel sick. Today time is being wiped out as an element of the city, the street, anything at all.
SS: Yes, it seems that today increasing numbers of things have the same meaning. Your work Dictionary – Pain as far back as 1979 equated all the words with pain. It exists in several forms, as book with a few words in the dictionary and as an extensive installation on the wall. Can you tell me how you got to the first Dictionary – Pain and how much do you think that the various ways of exhibition are important for this work?
MS: A little book is one that you can read through. You can read the installation, but you can’t read it through. It talks about impossibility. The first word I did with pain was a die for gambling, on which on all six sides it wrote pain. Then there were dictionaries and another book – in one the numbers were all synonyms for pain (one=pain, two=pain…) and in another the days of the week (Monday=pain, Tuesday=pain…). There is a book in which I laugh at myself, Mladen=pain, in it I pulled out a hair, which is also pain. If in 1979 Croatian was pain, in 2000 it is English that is pain, since in our day English is what we try to establish communication with but it is still impossible. In this work there is once again a story about language as ideology, and English structures everything today, history, history of art, politics. We aren’t aware of this. And that’s why it is pain.
SS: Your work An Artist Who Cannot Speak English is No Artist also relates to the hegemony of language, it’s quoted in lots of places, and I know that people often identify with it. How do you see your own works, because of this constant preoccupation with language, working in contexts in which the language is not understood? Do you for example translate your books when you show them?
MS: Once I added in pencil translations in the actual books, now there are some of the books in English. To an extent, my criterion is what is easy to translate. If it seems to me that it is – then I don’t think twice. If it won’t work, then I don’t translate them. They would become pointless. Particularly about the early works, the socialist phraseology and so on. The last book that I did, I dreamed, in English at that. I woke up and did it. That shocked me. I have never dreamed about art, particularly not in English. And correctly as well. I wrote it all down, then we called a translator, and it was all correct. The book was called Baaa, like the noise that sheep make. And it says: “I am the shepherd…” I did dreamin English before, but that was when I was abroad and speaking the language all day. But at that time I had been home for a month already. English had already got into my dreams and my art. That was a double worry.
SS: At the exhibition for which we are doing this interview, a lot of your books will be on show. What do you think abut them being exhibited in a gallery? Are you going to put them in showcases, do you think that they will work the same way without the pages being turned?
MS: I think it is pointless to show books if you can’t turn the pages over. On the whole they will all be accessible. I now do multiples of some books to have them for exhibition. Only the books done on plastic bags, which are really one-offs, will be put in the showcases.
SS: How many books of yours have been printed and how many exist in just the one copy? Has that changed over time?
MS: It has changed, perhaps more because I have stopped selling them. I didn’t feel like doing more of them. In the seventies my idea was to make two or three books, and when they were sold, to do them again. I didn’t count them. The matter of copies didn’t concern me. I did the first one in 17 copies, and I have two today, and so 15 of them were sold. I know that I sold quite a lot of the photographic books, and some I didn’t sell at all. I recall that at my first exhibition in 1976 in the Nova Gallery in Zagreb that five or six people bought various books. Then I had the idea that they cost about the same as the average book. They cost about the same as today’s ten euros, so it’s a book you can afford quite easily. Some of the books, because of various circumstances, were only in one copy, about a score of them.
SS: In the seventies, then, for you the distribution of your books primarily meant exhibiting your books in the gallery and then selling them?
MS: Yes, but there was also private communications with people who would come to my home and sometimes I would give them the book or they would buy it.
SS: Which was the first book to be printed?
MS: I Have No Time was printed first, in 70 copies in Zagreb. Then I printed it in three versions – English, Croatian and German, published by the Dacić Gallery of Tübingen, in which I was exhibiting. And a few years ago, Secession in Vienna did a reprint. I printed the second book Subtracting Zeroes last year in the P74 gallery of Tadej Pogačar, the artist. None of the others were printed, I made them all.
SS: How do you see May 75, the magazine issued by the Group of Six, of which you were a member. Does it have something of the collective artist’s book about it?
MS: Yes, to an extent. But May 75 was free form, it wasn’t structured as a unit. Everyone had his own sheet, and there were dialogues among the different artists. I think that is what gives May 75 its particular interest today.
SS: The Group of Six did exhibitions-actions on the street. At these exhibitions did you ever show or hand out your books?
MS: Yes, I exhibited books at the exhibition-action at the Sava swimming place, and later almost at every exhibition-action of the Group of Six. When we had an action on the main city square, which was then Square of the Republic, I had a table and books on it, people came along, flicked over the pages, looked at them. I recall one nice situation, there was some young chap there, seems to me from his way of speaking he must have been a sociologist, who turned and addressed the people about my book Speech. It was a terrific interpretation. The situation with the exhibition actions was specific, two-sided. People came and didn’t look at a lot of our works as art. It was never written that it was art. They would come up and start looking. I know that all those who were there were very pleased with the interpretation of this man. It was an interesting experience, someone else taking on your role. Those who knew that this was art despised this.
SS: You always test out the point and role of art, you often talk about powerlessness. In connection with this, who do your books communicate with? Who are they for?
MS: For art lovers. It can’t be said that there is exactly a wide audience for this here, but if I can exhibit them in foreign museums where thousands of people see exhibitions, then they do have an audience. Sometimes you never know how many people see the work. But I am not someone who pays a lot of attention to quantity, which never interested me. And then the books are very different, I can see that people react very differently. Not long ago I had some young students here, I noticed they more or less liked the ideas in the books, but they were much more interested in the appearance. I don’t find this all that important.
SS: You often say that art is nothing. How do you move on from this proposition, in the production of books and in the creation of other works?
MS: When I say that art is nothing – I am thinking of the social role of art. Here art means nothing, and not just since today. But this nothing is important because it is a form of freedom that is outside the main system of society. Actually, inside this system, which does not permit of voids, this nothing is very important. Everything has some purpose, but art does not. Except in me as artist.
I find this hard to explain. You do some critical art that is a part of society, but you are aware that it has no consequences at all. And this is an absurdity, but I love it, this absurdity, I love this nothing. They are what provoke me to work.
Sabina Sabolović is a curator, a founding member of curatorial collective “What, How and for Whom / WHW” formed in 1999, that organizes different production, exhibition and publishing projects. Since 2003 WHW has been directing the non-profit gallery called Galerija Nova in Zagreb, Croatia.
 Since 2003 in his study Stilinović has been making a retrospective in phases. So far he has shown six thematic rooms – Red-Pink, Words-Phrases, Papers, Photos, Money, Artist’s Books.
 The Zagreb based Group of Six Artists published the first issue of Magazine Maj 75 in 1978 and the last in 1981. The magazine consisted a compilation of individual pages made by the artists, multiplied and arranged into a whole and published in small editions. Maj 75 was open to other artists of similar artistic persuasions.