In 2005 the artist Mladen Stilinović invited people to a viewing of an exhibition in his apartment in Zagreb. Over 90 small format works covered the walls of the work room there in a dense arrangement all the way to the ceiling – collages, paintings, photographs, objects, mobiles, textiles and drawings and other texts. The room consisted of work from over 30 years. For the show there were neither invitation cards nor an official title. Yet since nearly all the pieces shown were thematically associated with money and often worked directly with money as a material, the term Money Room became established in the course of conversations. Money is a central theme and material in Stilinović’s work. He created the first works with money during the seventies. In the art book They Spoke to Me to You, 1973, there is a page of coins depicted using frottage technique, which are set in balloon-like circles, labeled with the text line “Spit it out!” as mothers might say to their children. In 1980 Stilinović installed the Money Environment in the Gallery for Contemporary Art in Zagreb. This was a room, in which bank notes were hung from the ceiling on thin threads and numerous coins were scattered on the floor.
The environment evoked the image of mankind’s eternal dream of a world in which money is available. You only need to stretch out your hand or bend down. Money is associated with luck, like the superstition that a coin found on the street will bring good luck. Or does the Money Environment reflect an image of the world, in which money is the universal measure for everything? Not least of all, the Money Environment is also an allusion to the role of the museum as an institution that valorizes art. Stilinović’s interest in the social significance of money, in the rituals, conventions and ideologies that define the functions of money in society is displayed in the Money Room in many facets.
This is the fifth of a series of six rooms so far, which Stilinović has set up in his apartment and displayed since 2002. The works can be divided by time period into three groups: the first covers works from 1978 into the eighties, the second dates from the early nineties, and a third complex was created in the period from 2002 – 2005. However, the spatial arrangement breaks with this chronology. From the perspective of the political context, works created in socialist Yugoslavia are mixed with those made during the period of the transformations of the nineties as well as with pieces from the time of today’s Croatia with its liberal capitalist constitution For Stilinović, though, this is not a matter of establishing continuity between different political phases, nor of artificially creating a gap between them. Instead he examines the forms and patterns of dominant orders – the language and images they produce and which he reconstructs in his own laconic and humorous way. The model of the spatial representation of his installations is suitable for this, because it allows establishing relationships and connections without subordinating them to a certain totality. The space presents the work as a process. Not in the sense of a linear development, however, but one of things next to and mixed up with one another. This aspect – which is also emphasized by the hanging, which showcases the pictures less as individual works of art – is important to Stilinović in the conception of his spaces. They are experimental arrangements that are open for change and expansion. As Igor Zabel has pointed out in reference to Stilinović, the space stands for reflection and interpretation, for a permanent restructuring and reconsideration of his own work. Thus there are new configurations of the works for each institutional exhibition of the Money Room.
Working with Money
First, two remarks: 1. Money is paper. 2. Money is the reification of social and human relations, their condensation and materialization (Karl Marx). Stilinović is interested in money as a public and private instrument of power and also as material.
In a series of works Stilinović manipulated real money: dinars, dollars, euros. The procedures he uses are simple: cutting and reassembling, removing or adding, for example, hanging zeros to form rows or “erasing” and replacing numbers with zeros. For the work 88 Roses for Comrade Tito, 1991 -1994, for instance, he uses the 5000-dinar note, on which the former Yugoslav president Tito is depicted. Multiple banknotes are arranged in a sequence so that only zeros are visible, resulting in a horizontal band of 88 zeros following the portrait of Tito. It is an ironic allusion to the political and economic situation of the early nineties, marked by the devaluation of the Yugoslav dinar.
Another group is made up of collages with bank notes or fragments of bank notes, which are combined with flat geometric shapes and assembled into compositions reminiscent of Suprematism. Sometimes texts are also added, which may be cut-outs or handwritten texts. For example, rough letters on a bank note spell out “added value.” Or on an American one-dollar note it says: “Slow destruction of the American economy” – an ironic allusion to Stilinović’s own activity of destroying money.
The artist’s appropriating, often minimal interventions detach money from the context of its everyday use. With the artistic transformation, the money loses its “value” or it is transferred into a different context, in which the visual appearance of the money, its formal structure and aesthetics are highlighted.
In relation to various works that operate with newspapers as basic material, Stilinović describes his method as reorganisation: he uses existing material, which he then reorganises. This is true also for his works with money. Similar to the way dealing with newspapers reveals certain structures of the organisation of information and the construction of topicality, money becomes recognizable as a medium, whose universal validity attains its significance through the abstraction of social contracts: money is paper, as Stilinović wrote by hand on a bank note. Stilinović turns the bank notes back into pieces of printed paper, designed with specific images and lettering, figures and ornamental fields. He exposes the conventionality of money and what is symbolic about its value, which is only based on agreement. Although we know that as a material bank notes are worthless bits of paper, we still act as if they are valuable. Here, the “magic combination” of power and symbolism becomes recognizable. It is expressed, for example, in the authority of portraits of heads of state and scientists or by different landscapes and other symbols of national sovereignty.
In another group, bank notes are combined with various household objects. There are fragments of bank notes glued to a plate (cf. p. xx), a teaspoon holding a coin (cf. p. xx), or a fork with a roll of bank notes on its tines. Food, as a symbol of prosperity, plays an important role in Stilinović’s work in combination with money. He often uses food, for example sticking bank notes to a loaf of bread. In Egg Money, a work that has been repeated several times, a yolk as a circle and a bank note as a rectangle form an abstract geometric composition. This unambiguously clarifies the link between money and food: food is also an instrument of power, just as the private cultivation of food has always been an effective means of eluding the manipulation of power.
Banners and Street Designs – Contexts of Stilinović’s Artistic Practice.
Stilinović’s artistic practice is informed by Conceptual Art, with which it shares a questioning of traditional modes of production and distribution. However, this dialogue is more playful and does not lead in Stilinović’s work to a subordination to the aesthetics or intellectual premises of the Conceptual Art concept. The seriousness and severity of conceptualist reflection is also contrasted by Stilinović’s work, which is just as serious as it is funny, as astute as it is emotional. Stilinović contrasts the sophisticated aesthetics of Conceptual Art with the simple – he likes to use the word “messy” – aesthetics of the street and the market. Not only Stilinović’s aesthetics, but also his procedures and techniques rarely come from the field of art, but rather from everyday life. Part of the “new art practice” that developed in the seventies in Yugoslavia was the removal of a modernist understanding of art as an individualist form of expression and an autonomous field. “Professionalism” as the notion of being able to do something or being in possession of a special skill, was called into question. An important concept was “demystification”: the materials one worked with were to be demystified, also the forms associated with art, the situations in which it was presented, and the profession of being an artist. The Yugoslav artists who decided to work like this turned to everyday reality, which became a workshop as well as the setting for the new production of art.
A large group of works in Money Room consists of pieces on red or pink artificial silk : works on paper and collages of photos or bank notes are stapled onto oblong or square pieces of fabric, text is applied to others with paint. These “banners” show phrases and colloquial platitudes such as “save for a rainy day” or “pay before you go”. These sayings involve instructions that are intended to influence the conduct of everyday life.
The cloths hung on the wall recall the banners that were a familiar element of socialist streets and addressed the citizens with various messages in squares, streets and shop windows. Banners were also a medium conventionally used by the Group of Six Artists, which Stilinović belonged to in the seventies. They appropriated this official format for communicating ideology in urban space to convey their personal messages. As the Croatian author Jadranka Vinterhalter has described the practices of the group and their concerns: “The need for communication and for the direct transmission of their messages to the public both through the work and artists statements.” The “exhibition actions” the Group of Six Artists aimed to develop more democratic exhibition models and included production and reception equally. These “exhibition actions” took place in public, in a square or on the street, where every passer-by was potentially part of the audience.
In 1975 Stilinović hung up a banner across a street in Zagreb, which proclaimed: “Ađo loves Stipa”. In its form it mimicked the aesthetics of official appeals. With an intimate expression of love in public space it intervened in the socialist monopoly on information in urban space. Banners were part of everyday socialist life, yet their messages were hardly noticed. An “inverted” message of this kind – the private sphere breaking into the ritualized space of ideology – must have generated surprise and confusion, but also a comical effect at the same time. The gesture also alludes to the fact that in socialism everything was to be made public, transparent, and collectively arranged.
The color red also belonged to everyday socialist life. In contrast, the color pink, which Stilinović also frequently uses, stands for both kitsch and the bourgeoisie. Stilinović is especially interested specifically in the shop windows arranged by normal small businesses, in which the ideological precepts of socialism – such as certain slogans, Tito portraits, Yugoslav flags or just the red banners – conjoined with the private ideas and practices of the merchants. Not least of all, these shop windows reflect the relationship between between ideology and everyday life. In addition to the appropriation of the public decoration of everyday socialist life, Stilinović turns to the market and the street as places marked by simple actions, and whose processes are not characterized by abstraction and aesthetification. In Geometry of Time, 1993/1977, for example, by placing the works on newspapers spread on the floor, he repeated the gesture of the people in the market displaying their goods. The simple “poor” materials, such as cardboard and newspapers, and the techniques he uses, or the rough, almost sloppy handwriting are equally inspired by the do-it-yourself design of the cardboard signs of market stands and shops. The simplicity and functionality of everyday design from the street, the directness with which it addresses us, are moments that fascinate Stilinović and which he takes up in his artistic practice. As he quotes and aestheticizes the gestures, though, he does not show them as being unique, but rather political; it is the personal positions and different appropriations within a communication system that interest him in everyday displays.
The Value of Words
In the small text “Footwriting” from 1984 Stilinović explained the starting point of his work as the question of how one expresses something personal in a language whose words or images are “not mine”, a language that is “occupied”, whose elements are already determined by meaning. From this perspective, language – words as well as pictures – is altogether no personal instrument of the individual, but rather of a society with its politics and ideology. Roland Barthes has shown how conditions are affirmed through the use of languages and seemingly innocent symbolic systems. Specifically because power is exercised through it, Barthes calls language violent. Violent “politically contaminated” language is one of the subjects of Stilinović’s work. He examines its force and effect in his series of work on sayings and everyday phrases. For example, he writes adages and platitudes on plates, which he previously painted with geometric patterns reminiscent of Constructivism. After a visit to New York in the nineties, he created an ensemble of five works: these were small format paintings on wood panels, the surfaces of which were divided into irregular rectangular fields and painted with different colors. A one-dollar bill and reproductions taken from magazines are collaged respectively on this colorful, geometric grid. With stencils Stilinović added words like “pretty”, “charming”, “sweet” or “nice”, thus parodying a “jargon” of the New York art world, which makes the specific everyday usage of language into categories of art education: “pretty”, “sweet” or “charming” like modern interior decorating on the page of a magazine or children playing ball in one of the pictures. Stilinović shows how added value is created with language. Not the forms themselves, but the meanings associated with them – the adjectives – determine the value of an (art) object. In another series Stilinović writes the frequently used vocabulary of art jargon on bank notes: “interesting”, “subtle”, “cultured”, “refined”, “unique”.
Art and Society
Yet there is also another theme suggested in the colorful geometric patterns: the complex legacy of geometric art. Geometric art is regarded as the epitome of engaged art, which sought on the one hand to change the entire world of life with a new aesthetic and on the other hand was integrated by a (corporative) aesthetic of the “universal harmony” (Herbert Read) of the bourgeois capitalist society, which it once wanted to change. Whereas geometry once embodied the drive for an emancipated society whose ideals were collectivity and commitment, the abstraction that became established in the postwar period stood for values like individualism and freedom, conveying the interests of capital and not those of the working class.
But in Eastern Europe – in the context of adapting artistic creation to the doctrine of Socialist Realism – the geometric form language became a field of individual and romantic internationalization, a more private protest against the totalitarianism of the socialist cultural policy. Stilinović integrated the ambivalence inherent to geometric abstraction (and the avant garde in general) in his works with his use of color and form. Just as he is interested in the details of everyday life, he is also interested in the function(s) of art in society and its connection with claims to power. Yet his position is different from that of the avant-garde of the early 20th century. Sceptical about the potential of art to contribute to social change, Stilinović investigates its relationship to power. The focus of his attention is on the “afterlife” of utopias. When is a utopia of liberation turned into a gesture of authority? What is the continued impact of utopias, whose claims have been buried, but whose aesthetic forms and architectural productions are still accepted and applied?
One artist that Stilinović frequently refers to is Kazimir Malevich. It is widely known that the Suprematism invented by Malevich was not solely an artistic style, but a world view – an aesthetic, but also a social program. Malevich understood his Suprematist pictures as descriptions of an ideal future world “liberated” from material and political interests. Another reference to Malevich is found in Stilinović’s “white works”. In Malevich’s Suprematist system white stands for nothingness, for emptiness; the white area designated an undetermined field, an infinity, but in a positive sense as a liberation. In 1986 Stilinović painted an old-fashioned alarm clock completely white, except for the number zero (the hour 10), which is visible through a small rectangle left open. The white clock undermines the thinking upheld in both capitalism and socialism that work is to be regarded as the most important condition legitimizing existence. The work additionally links this principle with the question of the economicization and rationalization of life by means of time. In contrast to this, in the text The Praise of Laziness, which also refers to Malevich, Stilinović proposes a concept of laziness as the precondition for making art at all. He criticizes the model of the “western” artist, who is compelled – as Stilinović sees it or at least polemically asserts – to establish himself “professionally” and routinely produces objects for the art business. The activity of the contemporary unofficial artist in socialist countries – who is not commissioned by the state and involved in the ideological education of the citizens – is regarded as being lazy or not working. This theme was dealt with in a series of black and white photographs created in 1978, Artist at Work, showing the artist in bed. In the photos, Stilinović’s eyes are sometimes closed, as if he were asleep, then they are open again, as though he were thinking about something. In some photos he is turned towards the viewer, in some he has his back turned. The various positions subtly reflect the ambiguous position of artistic work and its status in (socialist) society. Yet the tone of the work is not tragic; on the contrary, with a certain irony and self-assured nonchalance the photos also transport something of the comfortableness and benefits of being an artist. If the social consensus is that artists are lazy, then you can either try hard to prove the opposite, or – like Stilinović – assert this idea specifically as a quality with an incomparable potential for private life and artistic practice.
Grammar, Rearrangement, Bricolage
One concept that Stilinović applies in relation to his work is grammar. What interests Stilinović is investigating conventions (laws) and dissecting the construction (the edifice) of grammar. From a semiotic perspective, art is, pictures are a specific language, the functions of which can be investigated and identified. For Stilinović grammar thus metaphorically stands for a system for ordering the world, which structures life and everyday living. Stilinović seeks to show this order and its way of linking things, at the same time conveying the relativity of these links, the conventionality of this value system. In a staged reality held together by rules, his intention is to incite disorder or – as Stilinović himself describes it – “anarchy”. In a short text Insulting the Anarchy Stilinović writes: “I (…) fight for the disintegration of the system, of the grammar.”
Stilinović’s work is characterized by a heterogeneous selection of materials and techniques. He takes up the most diverse materials that are already lying around as finds from everyday life, such as newspaper clippings, cardboard or money. He collects pictures, photos, phrases and quotations from ideological or everyday language, which he reworks, combines, transforms and then places in a new context. He often works with what is left over from earlier works. This resulted, for instance, in the mobiles made from the remainders of bank notes, from which he had cut out symbols, numbers or signs for other works and collages. His practice, which he describes himself as rearrangement, recalls the procedures of the bricoleur described by the French sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The bricoleur tears his material from its original context and meaning and uses it in a new way. The result of this tinkering is, according to Lévi-Strauss, the recombination of the material – a new universe – whereby something always indicates the original use of the material, and the fragments used remain visible. The activity of the bricoleur is constructive; he rearranges the world, but his projects – and this is how he differs from the engineer – are not final, but are open to change: they are created to be destroyed again.
Yet the figure of the bricoleur is also interesting in another respect in reference to Stilinović’s artistic concept: the bricoleur counters the professional distribution of labor in various disciplines. Several works show Stilinović’s interest in the models of artistic labor and in the position of the artist in society. He consciously explores the (professional) image of the artist. This is evident not only in references to other artists, art directions and artistic practices, but also in the playful (self-) stagings that are found in Money Room and other work complexes. In the work Sing!, 1980, a black and white portrait of the artist is attached to red fabric. A 100-dinar note is stuck to the artist’s forehead. Below the photo the instruction “Pjevaj!”: Sing! is printed in red letters. The image refers to the tradition of spitting on a bank not and sticking it to the forehead of public entertainers like street musicians. This ritual is based on a certain power relationship. Does Stilinović identify the position of the artist with the street musician here? Then he possibly alludes to the status of the contemporary artist in 1980 in Yugoslav society; sometimes tolerated, sometimes needed, but also not really respected. But like Artist at Work, Stilinović’s work is not to be grasped with an ethical and moral interpretation. Even he says about the work: “Many are shocked with the gesture because of the spit. I think it’s in fact really friendly. You can also just give the money and the singer spits on it himself and sticks it to his forehead. On the other hand, ‘sing’ also has another meaning, when the cops interrogate someone, they tell them to ‘sing’, to provide information. I pasted money onto my own forehead and told myself to sing. It is auto-ironic, but I’d also like to earn some money.”
Finally the question arises as to the significance and criticism of political power in Stilinović’s work, in which numerous ideological and political figures and motives are found. This question is also relevant in reference to the specific political context of socialism in Yugoslavia, in which a part of the work from Money Room was created. In the aforementioned text from 1984 Stilinović explains that the subject of his work is the language of politics; the reflection of politics and ideology in everyday life.
According to the French philosopher Louis Althusser, who developed in his 1969 essay Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses a concept of ideology as the invocation of subjects, the place where ideology is carried out is in everyday life and everyday actions. Ideology is realised in the everyday practices and rituals of individuals that are regulated by the state apparatus. Public life in socialism was visibly coded by political and ideological signs. The way the citizens conducted their life was organized and controlled by the state. To elude this indoctrination, a protected private sphere with close friendships developed. Whereas ideological gestures and rituals were repeated in public, they were “unmasked” as soon as one was among friends. However, the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who has extensively investigated the function of ideology in the Eastern Bloc in his texts, shows that the these two spheres of the public and the private were closely connected. Žižek’s criticism is directed to the questionable assumption that ideology can be escaped in private life. The idea of an ideology-free, non-politicized space is an illusion and itself an ideological construction. The question facing a critical art practice is thus, what position can you take in a system that manipulates?
Stilinović’s work, which developed in the mid-seventies, is not a heroic confrontation with this problem, seeking to (morally) reveal the “insincerity” of the system or insisting on an autonomy of art outside the realm of ideology. One strategy against this, with which Stilinović and many of his generation countered power, is the playful appropriation of the formats of political ideological language, which is taken to the point of absurdity through repetition, twisting or fragmentation. Several works by Stilinović refer to the jargon of socialist ideology, such as the piece An Attack on My Art is an Attack on Socialism and Progress from 1977. Absurdity is used as a mechanism of self-protection in a reality that has subjected the whole of social life to a despotic regime. Stilinović is less interested in revealing the “secret” of power, but rather in investigating the forms of this power: Through which kinds of visual, linguistic and ritual figures of everyday practice is power constituted in life? As one of the most powerful symbols of power, through which dominant reality is affirmed and celebrated, money takes on a central role in Stilinović’s work. Stilinović is often described as a cynic, presumably because of his direct, almost absurd manner of documenting and interpreting facets of everyday reality. The cynic, however, as described by Peter Sloterdijk, keeps the world at a distance. Stilinović, on the other hand, enters into reality. He regards the world sceptically, but never indifferently. The words that he uses often in conversation when he describes the world are “crazy” and “strange” – and he lets what is strange and crazy guide him.
Published in the catalogue Mladen Stilinović – On Money and Zeros, (eds.: Mari Laanemets i Soeren Grammel), Grazer Kunstverein / Revolver Publishing by Vice Versa, 2008
Translated from German by Sophie Sedgwick and Aileen Derieg