(…) To look and to see – only perhaps to come aware of what we have not really seen, although we did look at it. Damisch remarked that the “photography is nothing other than […]  a technique of inscribing, in an emulsion of silver salts, a stable image.”[1] But if we accept this as point of departure, how are the results (the seen) and the motif to be explained, that is the process (the looked at), when Roland Barthes has already concluded that it is not the photograph that we see, for while the photograph “mechanically repeats what could never be repeated”[2] the situations we are here concerned with are constant, they exist in time and space, they are not just a moment hit at a tangent by someone’s lens. These are shots of state that exist in several parallel contexts, on which we ultimately judge by recontextualising their meaning. A great deal will depend on our personal archives, on the sensitivity of the eye and the readiness to save diverse shots in the memory, where at length links are connected among them.  Whom to pick out and why? More or less convinced of the legitimacy of our view, we shall determine on that which sets off and in a certain measure forms our emotions, which affects the manner of understanding the world that surrounds us.

Nothing is anyway a true image. We could perhaps obtain one if we saw the figures with bags that Mladen Stilinović shoots from the front, if we could personalise and recognise them. His artistic procedure is composed of attitude, reaction to reality, the environment, poverty, to idleness and work. The photograph is just a “by-product”, an expression of the conscious process is imprinted into the artistic context, ultimately a metaphor of what Stilinović is talking of.  Bag People (2001) were taken from the backs, for the author anyway did not “like to photograph people, human faces”.[3] Thus the series of black and white photographs of people passing along a well-trodden path, carrying plastic bags in their hands, becomes in the exhibition context a transferred section of moving, looking and seeing, supplemented with cuttings from the daily papers that the author pastes onto the backs of wooden plaques placed continuously on a relatively high and long “shelf”.[4]

Is it the photograph that we see?

The author puts us into the position of the passers-by that move with the figures taken. Through the fissures we see each other, only incidentally noting that a nameless column of people is passing by us. Everything that the photograph does at this moment is outside the usual parameters the way we evaluate it. The frames are similar, in the background some of the Zagreb housing estates can be discerned, and the path along which the people are moving is just a dusty grassless track. There is no reason for halting, apart from those sensed, improvised “booths” made of items arranged on the ground that are sold for pennies. The backs of the works with the newspaper cuttings function as an archive, reminders of what was happening in the world and in this country at that time, but all these newspaper pages are also just a pointless sequence of events that we have on the whole forgotten, which we pass by just as we pass by Stilinović’s people with their bags.

Barthes says that the photograph is unclassifiable,[5] that it is the point of origin of a gesture of marking the eloquence of which is limited. Stilinović consciously retains a distance, not wishing to speak in the name of those whom he shoots, not wishing to document or archive the phases of poverty upon which he comes. Where to put it, when it is constantly on the move.

The installation as a kind of “extension of the self”[6] where the physical presentation and surrounding in which the work is performed have a direct effect on meaning, has been an important part of art practice ever since the 1970s. The understanding of space as an open field of communication, as site of encounter with the everyday, or as environment in which it is possible to read the content of works from the context, looking at art not as a distinct discipline art, but, in the words of Frederic Jameson, finding it in the air we breath, in the spheres of the public and the common, has its roots in the conceptual approach and in the process of dematerialising art. We read off the content of Stilinović’s works from the context. Observed as a participant of conceptual art practice, Mladen Stilinović early on started with analytical, critical and self-reflexive works created in an urban setting and marked by certain aspects of social and cultural reality interpreted as “an alternative to the crisis of Modernist art”.[7]

Sandra Križić Roban, from „Kontekst“ / „Context“, in: K15 Pojmovnik nove hrvatske umjetnosti, Art magazin Kontura, Zagreb, 2007

[1] Hubert Damisch, “Five Notes for a Phenomenology of the Photographic Image”, in: Liz Wells (ed.), The Photography Reader, Routledge, London, 2004., p. 87.

[2] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, Vintage Books, London, 2000, p. 4.

[3] Tihomir Milovac, “Bezvremeno siromaštvo [Timeless Indigence]”, in: Mladen Stilinović, Cinizam siromašnih, catalogue of an exhibition, ed. N. Beroš, T. Milovac, Zagreb, MSU, 2002, p. 14.

[4] Sandra Križić Roban, “Učiniti vidljivim [Making Visible]”, in: Ostati ili otići [Stay or Go], catalogue of an exhibition, ed. Christine Frisinghelli, Sandra Križić Roban, Hrvatski fotosavez, Zagreb, 2004, pp. 16-17.; Sandra Križić Roban, “63 Meter Schmerz”, Camera Austria, 93 /2006, pp. 30-40.

[5] Barthes, op. cit., p. 4.

[6] Rush, op. cit., p. 116.

[7] Miško Šuvaković, Pojmovnik suvremene umjetnosti [Concepts of contemporary art], Zagreb, Horetzky, Vlees&Beton, 2005, p. 313.


Bag – People (2001), installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 2012


Bag – People, detail, 2001


Bag – People, detail, 2001


Mladen Stilinović made the series of images, Chinese Business, during a residency at Iaspis in Stockholm in 2009. Produced on standard copy paper, this two-dimensional series is comprised of three elements: black and white photographic images of miners and steel mill workers cut from literature documenting Swedish industrial history; prices taken from Swedish discount store advertisements; and seven-millimetre wide strips of US dollar bills. Stilinović’s extensive oeuvre – which uses language and various media to mirror and question the ideological signs that condition society – enables us to see these collages as a series in which a dramaturgy or anti-dramaturgy is formed. Even if a conventional narrative is not immediately apparent, an imminent story can develop intuitively in the mind of the reader.

Stilinović was born in Belgrade in 1947, where he was a member of the informal Group of Six Artists, which had a significant impact on the development of radical Yugoslavian art in the second half of the 1970s. With dark humour and a critical interest in history and time, he often points out the absurdities to which structures conform. So, for example, the Chinese Business series is numbered so that the images with higher numbers represent price-tags with lower values. This structure equally alludes to Greek tragedy or Harry Potter – where every step of the solution to a riddle takes us backwards in time – or, as in this case, to the lowering of globally outsourced production and manual labour costs. Borrowing from the future, global production has never been as cheap as it is today; partly, but not solely, due to variations in earning levels between the places in which goods are produced and those in which they are consumed. In the ‘final’ image of the series, the workers appear to be asleep (the stated ‘value’ on the collage has also depreciated so much as to be worth nothing). Perhaps they have become so cheap that there is no point in working. Could it be that the workers are on strike? They could be resting between shifts, or perhaps they are simply exhausted.[2]

This last image in the series also brings to mind several photographs by Stilinović from the late 1970s – which pictured him idle, but fully dressed, in bed – entitled Artist at Work. In its original context, this project was intended as an attempt to express the artist’s anarchic attitude towards the discourse of productivity imposed in socialist Yugoslavia. With hindsight, it is clear that he was acting from a situation in which a different notion of productivity was operating from that of today. He meant that the artists from the East had the luxury of free time, of leisure, and could devote time to nothing but art. In the process, he relishes the marginal position that the critical artist could have during the socialist period and the luxury of being detached from a Western art market.

Some fifteen years later, the artist wrote “The Praise of Laziness” (1993), which uses the example of Malevich to claim that laziness has been branded the mother of all vices when, in fact, it should be regarded as “the mother of life”. This short, playful text performatively ends with the words “there is no art without laziness”.[3] According to Stilinović, aesthetic indifference, deadpan and non-work are not pertinent concepts if we wish to capture contemporary art. Instead, we should speak of laziness – a concept unfortunately unknown to artists in the West and, Stilinović adds, nowadays even from the East.[4] “As an artist, I learned from both East (socialism) and West (capitalism)”, he says; “Of course, now when the borders and political systems have changed, such an experience will be no longer possible. But what I have learned from that dialogue stays with me. My observation and knowledge […] led me to a conclusion that art cannot exist […] This is not to say that there isn’t any”.[5]

Recently, interest in Stilinović has been awakened in the global art world. The artist himself simply comments on this phenomenon as a desire: “That all these discussions about laziness refer to something that’s not happening in reality, as everybody is still working too hard”.[6] In an age of perpetual distraction, the circulation of the Artist at Work series may then be regarded as a symptom of a desire for a kind of leisure, laziness or spare time that we no longer have. Perhaps the fact that contemporary art is focusing on these desires may also be regarded as symptomatic. In many cases, the (re-)staging of these artworks seems to refer to battles lost, whereby art has become a kind of symbolic sphere in which lost utopias and dreams can be revived in a ghostlike way. On the other hand, historical reflection could be a means of making direct political intervention. As the Swedish philosopher, Lars-Erik Hjertström Lappalainen, claims, Stilinović insistently returns to the inability of both criticism and philosophy to give a positive account of what contemporary art is.[7] Prolific thinkers such as Giorgio Agamben and Boris Groys somehow always end up, albeit in different ways, saying that contemporary art manifests the absence of art. According to them, this particular absence simply defines the contemporary of art. At best, Groys advocates that art might serve as an index of the posttraumatic condition of things that have already taken place, thereby also becoming an instrument of post-political practice.

Theorists have, in other words, arrived at this point in various manners, but the fundamental principle they share is that art should be understood as a mode of action, a doing, a particular kind of activity. This principle works like clockwork in modern and early contemporary Western art, with Chris Burden’s performances or Jackson Pollock’s action paintings as its apotheoses. Therefore, it might seem that we can only understand and isolate what contemporary art isn’t and doesn’t manifest when we treat it as an activity or in terms of actions. In trying to understand what contemporary art is, Stilinović might offer some insight. For instance, one way to reach such an understanding may begin with the notion of laziness, or, to put it philosophically, active passivity. Understood in this way, passivity could connect art to a different notion of subjectivity and a different body. We might even argue that there are quite a few works around – works by Marina Abramović or Elin Wikstrom,[8] for example – that seek to be related to a primordial passivity.

However, art and actions continue to be related to a system, perhaps less in the Greek sense and more in line with Kant. This presumes that sensory stimuli are processed to form perceptions, in response to which we act through the intellect’s “determination of the will”. Of course, in the creative act, as well as in the reception of the artwork, unconscious motives and habits also come into play.

Nonetheless, art remains roughly understood in the ontological terms of the eternal soul (zoe) and the biology of the animal soul (bios). While the discourse of interactivity and the fight against the passivity of the audience is consistent with this system, Hjertström Lappalainen suggests that contemporary art itself goes further. Robert Smithson, for instance, wanted art to provoke “a deprivation of action and reaction” and one might claim that the denial of agency could have a relationship to labour insofar as it can potentially hold a politics of non-productivity. In many ways, contemporary art simply connects to a different system, the vegetative life, a passive body incapable of performing actions that still produces impulses or spontaneous gestures not qualified to be called actions. Bodies trembling from exhaustion or sleepiness do not act; they simply are.

The final dimension in which the trope of passivity may have relevance today is that of the political. Certainly, a political ontology of slacktivism is being reinvented within the predominantly English speaking art world, which is exemplified by the (re)discovery of artists like Stilinović and by playful, passivity-affirming concepts like Helio Oiticica’s Creleisure.[9] Oiticica’s somewhat enigmatic concept can, therefore, be interesting to juxtapose with Stilinović as a means of determining the forces at play. In both, we become aware of vacation, rather than labour, as the normative concept, alluding to the artist’s primary provocation being his/her inability to take a day off.

Oiticica writes that: “those who do not open themselves to Creleisure cannot know it, nor do they believe that one can live without thought which always comes a priori, and which always was the glory of the Western world, since the Oriental always viewed the European ‘white madness’ with indifference or incomprehension”.[10]

Oiticica expresses a more utopian vision through Creleisure that, to a certain extent, parallels Stilinović´s intention to highlight the importance of play and “remove the brand of shame from laziness”.[11]Creleisure may be marginalised now”, Oiticica says, “but I am sure there will be a day when it won’t be, as far as human aspirations become desalinated in an oppressive world, not as a desublimative and fake activity, but as a real one, demystifying and transforming it internally”.

Today, as work becomes harder to tell apart from leisure (and vice-versa), the utopian aspects of this vision might be interpreted differently – perhaps even as a dystopian premonition. Bob Black’s last words in The Abolition of Work from the mid-1980s: “Workers of the World… Relax”[12] now have an insipid aftertaste as, in an uncanny way; it is no longer clear what is being signified. At this point, the frankness of Stilinović still has a lot to teach us about how to remain obstinate and ambivalent, how to refuse a doctrinaire position and affirm the luxury of artistic detachment, perhaps even as a means of engagement. Perhaps Chinese Business can also serve as a lazy ghost, whispering to us that the idea of the passivity of the consumer and voyeur is no longer at play. Rather, the fundamental passivity of the vegetative life of the body has been identified with pure life.

In a recent interview, Stilinović said: “I never propose anything; I wait until someone writes to me, and I don’t like being asked to do something new for exhibitions. I have too many existing works, so I suggest selecting something from them”.[13] The process that many of Stilinović’s artworks have gone through, along with the work that they are set to do could, of course, be described in the Benjaminian terms of commodification and adoption of the traces of an artistic process into more commercial products. This is a process that has been in effect since early modernity as a part of the art system itself.[14] But the work of the work itself can also serve as an example of a society that is no longer satisfied with biopolitics – merely producing patterns of behaviour and spontaneous modes of action – a society that is also interested in getting a hold of people’s passivity.[15] In the post-slacker age, people’s passivity might be as important as their activity.

Jonatan Habib Engqvist

Published in the catalogue Work Work Work – A Reader on Art and Labor, Konstnärsnämnden / Iaspis / Sternberg Press, Stockholm, 2012

[1] The title is a quotation from Mladen Stilinović, “The Praise of Laziness” [1993], Moscow Art Magazine, no. 22, 1998. A previous version of this text was published in Work, Work, Work: A Reader on Art and Labour, Ed. Cecilia Widenheim, Lisa Rosendahl, Michele Masucci, Annika Enqvist and Jonatan Habib Engqvist, Sternberg Press and Iaspis / the Swedish Arts Grants Committee, 2012.

[2] M Stilinović, Work is Disease (Karl Marx), 1981.

[3] M Stilinović, op. cit.

[4] Interview by Joanna Sokołowska, in Workers Leaving the Workplace, ed. Joanna Sokołowska, Muzeum Sztuki, Łodz´, 2010, p. 210.

[5] M Stilinović, op. cit. An interesting comparison can also be drawn with the New York lawyer Bob Black’s text, “The Abolition of Work” – available online on numerous websites, originally published in The Abolition of Work and Other Essays, Loompanics Unlimited, Port Townsend WA, 1985 – which mocks the ideology of work inherent to Liberalism, Conservatism and Marxism and the accompanying lack of playfulness.

[6] Interview by Joanna Sokołowska, op. cit., p. 212.

[7] All references to Hjertström Lappalainen are taken from Valand Advanced Theory Seminar, Gothenburg, November 2009. See also Paletten, September 2011. Hjertström Lappalainen is currently working on a publication that expands on the theme of passivity in contemporary art.

[8] Ibid. Elin Wikstrom’s What Would Happen If Everyone Did This? (1993) saw the artist moving her bed into a supermarket. When it was originally shown, in the early1990s, it created considerable debate around the uselessness of artists, the waste of taxpayers’ money, etc. Contrast this with the generally positive way in which the same work was received in the context of its re-staging in 2010 for an exhibition on Swedish Conceptual Art, in which the action had become something desirable.

[9] As with laziness for Stilinović, it is clear that the concept should be understood both as highly individual and in relation to his spatio-temporal explorations. In Oiticica’s own words: “The idea of Creleisure arises slowly with the Eden concept, in fact it is its profound sense: leisure in itself, an opened idea based in a behavior state that, internally, will require a transformation or an identification of the ones who want to penetrate it, but this transformation would not be pre-dictated: be that, or that, no – you can’t buy a piece, because also the idea of a solid work to be bought is a fake: the nests, or tents, or bed, etc. are Nuclei for leisure, for it, given in a specific context, but that must be different relating to each person’s internal feelings; no use having something as an object, distorted then to bourgeois structure, etc, because it relates to the idea of the non-representative leisure, creative, it is not the place for divertive thoughts, but for the replacement of myth in our lives, the cresleep conscious of itself. I am planning the Barracdo which should be the whole communal environment for the Creleisure in my specific group in Rio de Janeiro. Have you the idea for yours?” Hélio Oiticica, English-Nederlands, WalkerArtCenter, Minneapolis and Witte de With, Rotterdam, 1992, p. 132.

[10] Loc. cit.

[11] M Stilinović, op. cit.

[12] B Black, op. cit.

[13] M Stilinović, interviewed by Joanna Sokołowska, op. cit., p. 212.

[14] A very clear example of this process from the early 2000s is provided by Swedish artists, Thomas Broome and Arijana Kajfes, who produced the artwork Brainball for the Smart-studio at the Interactive Institute in Stockholm. This is a table based ball game in which two players are connected to the field through electrodes to their brains. The one with less brain activity can approach the adversary’s goal and score. This work has been exhibited not only in art venues but also at global design fairs and even at medical fairs. In 2003, the game was developed into a commercial product under the name Mindball with the slogan ‘Relax to win!’, see

[15] In a further analysis of this phenomenon, the concept of Noopolitics which refers to a Biopolitics of Nous (the Greek concept of intelligence often described as a form of perception which works within the mind, or the mind’s eye, rather than only through the physical senses – aesthesis) can be helpful. It has been discussed by, among others, the Italian thinker, Maurizio Lazzarato, who speaks of it as a second bios – the life of the brain with the potential to give expression to the virtual power of immaterial events of subjectification which materialise in the bodies that actualise them and the possible, shared worlds that they are capable of producing.


Nobody Wants to See, 2009


Nobody Wants to See, 2009


Nobody Wants to See, 2009, installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 2012


Nobody Wants to See, 2009, installation view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 2012


Chinese Business, 2009


Chinese Business, 2009


Chinese Business, 2009


Chinese Business, 2009


Chinese Business, 2009


Chinese Business, 2009


Chinese Business, 2009


Chinese Business, 2009

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