LIVING MEANS NEVER HAVING TO ATTEND COURT
Branka Stipančić: It seems that, regardless of the variations in your early work, your chief themes have always been language and ideology. What have you read about it and what attracted you to it?
Mladen Stilinović: Language is a type of communication that contains a threat, later I termed it pain. If we want to communicate, we must speak intelligibly, not in individual idiolects and syntaxes. Our field of expression is narrow. What interested me was the relationship between personality and language. I learned about language from various sources: in everyday life, from newspapers and poetry, then I studied Mikhail Bakhtin, Rossi Landi, Russian formalists, Roland Barthes and others. When I read about the philosophy of language in Bakhtin, about the word being an ideological sign par excellence, I realized that man was stuck in the ideology trap. On the other hand, I read about the game aspects of language in Wittgtenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. This was the framework, I can say that now and it sounds logical, but it didn’t work that way. In the 1970s, when I made my early works, I hadn’t read Bakhtin or Wittgenstein. It was only later I connected all that. My first impulses were poetry and everyday speech – ways in which politics contaminated language and means to avoid it. In fact, I wanted to show why this happened.
BS: Did you feel that your analytical and conceptual work challenged the art produced in this country then or you didn’t care one way or the other?
MS: To me it wasn’t a matter of resistance. I simply liked contemporary art and felt at home in it. Although I looked at it and read it, traditional art did not interest me much, not even in literature. Simply, this was my world, that was theirs. My concerns were different from that of recognized artists. There were hardly any political themes in fine art.
BS: Did all the artists in the Group of Six address similar themes?
MS: In the Group of Six I was closest to Vlado Marter, because of his association with literature. Boris Demur was rigidly on the position of “pure” conceptual art with his “a panting is a painting” and in discussions he would always oppose Martek and me. Željko Jerman was open to everything. We had lot of fun.
BS: What did the term tautology mean to you then?
MS: In conceptual art much converged around tautology and this intrigued me: I worked with tautological themes. My red works speak of the possibility and impossibility of tautology. I could not play with red as a tautology because it was ideological. If I write in red, I’ve already stepped into the ideological territory. So I addressed tautology, as well as ideology, with humor. When I write “the time of red”, “the consumption of red”, I can always explain it is a tautological and not ideological work, and the other way round. To me Joseph Kosuth’s work with red neon letters translated into socialism is ideological, not tautological. Some of my red works are linked to ideological and tautological games, others just to ideology. I still do works like that today, but I’m aware that I’m in the realm of politics.
BS: How do you produce artist’s books?
MS: As simple as possible, I take A4 paper, multiply the pages, staple them … I do my books manually, I don’t limit the number of copies and today I have open editions. When I exhibited the books at the Paris Biennale (1977), I described how as soon as a book was sold, I would make another. No stock and always a work ready.
BS: They are usually compact, often based on repetition…
MS: Their structure is varied. In many books it is repetition or a vague dramaturgy where something happens in the end. In Dictionary (A), (B), (C), (1979-80) the word pain is repeated over and over, but always with another word. But then, repetition is a major theme for me.
BS: Where did it come from?
MS: From everyday life, as it were. Throughout the book There Is No Time, I repeat “there is no time”, and I got that from everyday life. You wake up, have breakfast, go to work … and the artists are said to be the ones that break the circle. My game with repetition is parallel to life.
BS: Your first book was much more complex than the ones that followed.
MS: I’ve been doing collages since 1971. At one point I decided to bind them together and I made the book They Told Me Told You. It was above all everyday speech – of children, adolescents. I used various materials: cloth, plastic, sugar, matches etc, but I soon gave it up because I strove for simplicity. Later in books such as Now, I Want to Go Home and others, I used materials such as scotch tape, pins, thread, but discreetly.
BS: The books look “poor”. They differ considerably from books produced by western artists. Did they reflect your financial situation?
MS: It is a different aesthetics because of simplicity and “dirty minimalism”. I included no technology and no geometric aesthetics.
BS: Did film influence your collages?
MS: Collage as a principle is either orderly or disorderly. My collages from that time are both chaotic and neat. I liked the aesthetics of Dada and Kurt Schwitters. The principle of editing certainly came from cinematography. But I also admired films in a single take, films by Tomislav Gotovac, Vlado Petek and Mihovil Pansini from the 1960s. They had another type of narration, which I liked in literature, too. In the early 1960s some interestingly structured works appeared here, but then it all came to a halt. In both language and dramaturgy. Abroad things took a different turn. I was interested in visual poetry. But poetry was mostly typed, not written by hand. And less present in collages. Some excellent artists included words in collages such as Josip Seissel, Srečko Kosovel in Ljubljana …. But such works have not been noted in literary history.
BS: Your works with red are a category in themselves. You used red to paint over the Pope, architecture, money, Communist symbols … In 1977 you wrote about desymbolization of red; why did you want to strip it of symbolism?
MS: Because it is impossible. For instance, you cannot interpret the swastika omitting its connection to Nazism. In Red Poem I painted red various details on a hundred photographs: a crack in the road, a star, a toenail, taking red in ideological sense to the point of the absurd. On the one hand it is logic, on the other critique and, finally, it is absurd, because the meaning of red is elusive.
BS: Why did you use so many Communist symbols?
MS: Because of the time we lived in. They were all around me and I had to refer to them. My themes are prompted by what I encounter. I have never done abstract art, always my life through art.
BS: Some of your red drawings look like obituaries. Why do you link red and death?
MS: I painted a frame and it looked like an obituary. Don’t forget that red had been the color of death in Communism since Lenin’s death. Red is the color of the revolution, blood and life, so how can it be the color or death? But after the Revolution all things had to change, even the color of death. And so two colors symbolized death – dead Communists were red, the others black.
BS: Your wrote sentences “I’ll shed blood over this book”, “blood is not water”, “no art without blood” in your own blood … Why did you use blood, another powerful symbol?
MS: Here, when discussing art, people would often use expressions such as “an artist must have balls” and symbolism of blood to describe artistic power. In the book Written in Blood I joked about it because I’d always been appalled by this kind of pathos in art and in life. I was afraid of it. My works are in a way tautological, because the phrases are true, being written by my blood. Today my DNA is in these books.
BS: You wrote the book sitting in the environment “Art is …” at the Gallery of Contemporary Art (1977) which consisted of papers with quotes from various aestheticians pasted on all the walls of the room.
MS: I believe that young artists, faced with thousands of definitions of art, are in great trouble. Particularly if they feel they should somehow relate to it in their work. I created a setting in which I myself proposed certain definitions of art: no art without blood … It’s about terror of art over artists.
BS: Finally you put red up for auction.
M.S: It was a sort of sale. I repeated auctions of red, always for a reason. The first was here in socialist times, and the second in the 1990s in Sydney, when the Communist Party of Australia was dismantled. The third auction was held in Split and was dedicated to the red scare. At the time HDZ was phasing out red wherever it could, for instance, in newspaper mastheads, so Slobodna Dalmacija changed into blue, Vjesnik into yellow, etc.
BS: Slogans such as “Buying courage, determination …” sound strange.
MS: I did various combinations of “buying-selling”, utopian wishes. “Buying courage, determination, confidence”, “Selling fear, auto-censorship” – I’m selling things that are totally undesirable. “Selling paintings – buying foreign currency” was done in the 1980s when everything was valued in foreign currency. On the other hand, I had slogans about work, the first was “Work cannot not exist”, and then “Work is a disease – K. Marx”, “Work is a word”, and others. Slogans are of socialist origin, and when you twist tradition, you get many meanings. Along with slogans, I did texts that played with various possible and impossible things. I used phrases from official context such as “an attack on xxx is an attack on socialism and progress” and I would switch roles: “An attack on my art is an attack on socialism and progress”. There are still such language traps today. I’ve seen it in the papers – an attack on a politician is an attack on Bush and his politics.
BS: Was the manipulation method important to you?
MS: It was manipulation of language, of the “credibility” of language that always contains a threat. These are not solely socialist phrases; they are employed in all political systems. I call it the language blackmail, just as there is blackmail for money. Politics mainly blackmails people through language and economy. I wrote about this in Text By Foot, about wanting to manipulate as I am being manipulated. I repeat their game in language, but I understand it, I am aware of its consequences.
BS: How do you use newspapers for your art?
MS: I worked with newspapers a lot. I cut out headlines and grouped them around particular themes: work, speech, strikes, authorities, bread, food … I arranged them in different ways: as a kind of poetry, entirely documentary, or as language games. I also used newspaper photographs. Or newspapers themselves as the material in which I intervened. In one work I took VeËernji list and wrote on all the pages in large letters “Silence”. The newspapers are always too loud so I asked for little silence! I heaped headlines to the point of saturation: in a large collage I stacked headlines so densely that the viewer would lose orientation. In some works, such as “To put up for public discussion” I did not use the paper, only the journalistic phrases. It was an installation made up of about 60 phrases written on cardboard – political phrases without the political language. They did not mention self-management, brotherhood and unity, but rather “concrete measures”, “important factors”, “achieving goals”, “common interests” … suddenly ordinary words and speech turned into political phrases, or political threats. Since this happened with language, I decided to put the language up for public discussion. I set the installation into a room with chairs, as for workers’ meeting. This was at my solo exhibition at the Gallery of Contemporary Art in Zagreb (1980) and I suggested to Božo Bek, the Gallery curator and also a member of the CP Central Committee, to reassemble my work in the Committee lobby. He laughed, the idea appealed to him, but he knew it could not be done.
BS: What was your attitude towards actual execution of the work, towards technical skills involved?
MS: I wanted the material side to be as simple as possible, the work not too large, yet not mechanically executed. I liked the street design, not the designer type, but that of the market where they write on pieces of cardboard: peppers – 3 dinars/kunas. I liked everyday design and finally I adopted it. I call it cardboard design; everything is plain, written on cardboard. I often talked about it in interviews but nobody took it seriously, as if this kind of design and communication did not exist. Even today young colleagues are surprised at the way I write.
BS: Were you interested in sign painting?
MS: I took photos of advertisements – for grills with lamb on the spit, car shops, hairdressers – of the kind made by sign-painters. I was also interested in shop window design. In large department stores such as Nama professionals did it, but in small private shops the proprietors would fix their windows themselves. There were standards, for instance, for the Day of the Republic on November 29. You had to stick to the patterns: Tito – the flag – flowers and the printed slogans. Nobody dared write socialist slogans by hand, sloppily.
BS: It was characteristic for conceptual artists to set the idea before the actual technical execution of the work.
MS: Yes, but they were all extremely neat. There is a great difference between our “messiness” and the Western way. And I don’t mean only the artists from ex-Yugoslavia, but also from Eastern Europe of the time. This certainly had to do with the lack of adequate technology and the fact that the artists had to do everything themselves. It was also clear that the works weren’t going to sell. Many factors made the aesthetic of conceptual art different from that in the West. At a recent symposium in Prague they asked Czech artist J Kovanda who photographed his work and whether he waited for a particular light? The man didn’t know what to say. For him it was important that his street action was documented. It was shot by a friend, an amateur photographer. If the Prague School of Photography did the same photos, they certainly wouldn’t look right. These works had no photographic effects.
BS: To what extent is the theme of language analysis an emotional subject for you?
MS: We are daily immersed in the political, ideological speech and this language hurts. This is an emotional category. I defend myself against the everyday pain by works that analyze language, with plenty of humor, irony and cynicism, of course. But humor sometimes happens by itself. When I worked with newspaper headlines, I saw many people laugh and shake their heads. It is still like that today. It is painful because you’re in it, but in five years we are going to laugh about it. It is funny and then it isn’t. In socialist times the spokespeople of the Party on television or in the papers often did not speak in its name, or for themselves; ideology spoke through them. They talked without talking and this is the ultimate absurdity. Of course, it is the same today; people repeat words they haven’t even understood. This is a conglomerate of nonsense that tries to suck you in.
BS: What rhetorical figures did you like best in socialism?
MS: I don’t know, I no longer remember them, they are obsolete.
BS: Which phrases impress you today?
MS: The ones about justice. We speak about the rule of law and the law is being constantly broken. The trend in general is to circumvent the law, both by politicians and lawyers.
BS: Do you see art as an absurd act?
MS: In the social sense, it is useless and absurd. Of course, culture is a spiritual phenomenon, but it ought to be accessible. Here this has never been the case, in socialism or today. The 20th century art is not taught seriously in schools and at universities, there are no serious art magazines, and the media glorify all sorts of kitsch as art. My work has never been treated seriously. There are catalogues on sale, but in the Museum of Contemporary Art you can still buy catalogues from the 1970s. I can be in all the papers for some reason, for instance, because of the Venice Biennale, but they will write about the importance of this event and not about my work. It never goes beyond that. You don’t have 15 minutes, but rather one second of fame. My work is known to about 100 people in entire Croatia. I repeatedly wrote, “Art is nothing”. Art in the 20th century has no social, spiritual or cognitive function because it does not reach people. The critics agree that the most important artist of the 20th century is Marcel Duchamp, but 99 percent have no idea who he was and remember him only by the urinal and the moustache. The rest they don’t know and don’t want to know. They don’t understand the point.
BS: I meant, is art for you personally absurd?
MS: Art is absurd for me too, but I like the absurd. It provokes me to act. It is not ideological, it opens various spheres, and it does not burden you. This may sound strange. I am an absurd nihilist of sorts, but not a pessimist.
BS: I think that your life motto can be found in your work from the 1970s where next to you photograph it says: “Living means never having to attend court”, a quote from the 16th century writer Pietro Aretino. Would you agree?
MS: I always immensely admired this quote. I understand the court in a broad sense; and living means never having to pander to any authority, political or artistic. Court is power, authority. Yes, you could say this is my life motto. Not only not attending court, but also avoiding it. I’ve been free of court, but I haven’t been free of many other things.