PRINT May 1992


IN ORDER TO COMPREHEND, at least in broad outline, the nature of the artistic movements in Yugoslavia today, it is necessary to be aware of two factors that make this country different from all other Eastern and Western European nations. The first is that since the early ’60s, in contradistinction to, for example, the situation in the Soviet Union, Yugoslav citizens have been free to travel to almost any part of the world without any restrictions, with the result that Yugoslavia has been open to and in close touch with the most avant-garde trends in the international art world. The second is that in Yugoslavia, there have never been any real private capital or any private galleries, and the promotion of art and individual artists has been possible only through state-owned and state-financed public institutions.

Neither I nor any of the other artists discussed in this essay belongs to any proscribed movement, nor have we ever been subjected to any kind of intellectual persecution. But neither have we ever been a part of any institutionally recognized and officially supported trend in Yugoslavian art. All of us have been professional artists for at least ten years and have had numerous exhibitions of our work both in Yugoslavia and abroad. But everything that we have managed to accomplish has been achieved by our individual efforts alone, and for the most part without any financial aid from official institutions or art galleries. Fully aware of the situation in our own country, we have consciously shunned the centers of power and have organized our professional and private lives divorced from officially endorsed trends. This does not mean that we have been passive or uninterested in the main issues of our time. On the contrary, we feel that the alternative art with which we are involved sums up and expresses concerns with which Yugoslavian society is just beginning to come to terms.

We Yugoslavs live at the crossroads of East and West. The former extols totalitarian values; the latter glorifies the market, culture, and technology. At least that is the view of the members of the Slovenian group IRWIN, which is composed of five painters—Dusan Mandic, Miran Mohar, Andrej Savski, Roman Uranjek, and Borut Vogelnik. For these five, Yugoslavian art has, over the last few decades, developed in the narrow space between the dictates of a totalitarian regime and the market evaluation of its works. It is in this paradise—or hell—of illusory freedom that IRWIN has chosen to operate.

The members of IRWIN possess a full awareness of the position of the artist within the socialist system, which has had a formative influence on them. They themselves point to the contradictory nature of their enterprise, which accepts the positive role of ideology, and thus establishes a distance and a difference from Western art, while fully acknowledging the influence of Western artistic trends. The principle of composition in IRWIN’S works is based on the fusion of and the tension between different motifs and elements. One finds references to Rembrandt, surfaces treated in the manner of Mark Rothko’s paintings, quotations from Slovenian art history, and frequent allusions to the Suprematism of Kasimir Malevich. But for many people the ubiquitous figure of a deer remains the symbol par excellence of the group, the figure of that proud and glorious animal that, ever on the verge of kitsch, decorates almost every country house in Slovenia.

The key to the understanding and acceptance of IRWIN’S artistic practice lies in a perception of their ideological focus. Indicative of this is their use of the symbols of totalitarian regimes, both fascist and communist. This is done in utter seriousness yet with restraint, and without any distortion or visual criticism of what is being presented that might allow us to define them as openly critical or ironical.

IRWIN starts from the belief that the very nature of symbols is mutable, or rather that the meaning of a symbol is defined by what people project onto it (for example, a picture of Lenin or of Tito does not have the same meaning today as it had just a few years ago, nor does it mean the same thing in Yugoslavia and in the U.S.). Thus the interpretation of the group’s works must always remain open because the viewer is always implicated as a producer of meaning.

Besides the iconological range of images they employ, another distinct aspect of IRWIN’s artistic practice, something common to all the artists discussed in this essay, is the understanding of the artwork as a painting-object that, like an icon, has a life and spirituality of its own. Such an approach, from the group’s point of view, demands a specific method of installation that, in its density, is characteristic not only of an iconostasis but also of the exhibitions of Malevich, the hanging of paintings row on row in the 19th-century Salon, and the horror vacui of the 18th-century Wunderkammer. Proponents of what they call Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian art), the members of IRWIN have worked out a strategy of collective artistic action that is intended to function as a reaction to the particular ideological situation in the country in which they live, but that also aims to reach an audience beyond the limits set by that situation.

Politics has always had a decisive influence on people’s fate, and ideology has always had a hand in molding the “truth.” Yet none of the artists discussed here is interested in immediate political events per se, no matter how extreme. Rather, their interest lies in the field of ideology as reflected, in particular, in the language of art and the mutations in this language instigated by the perpetually changing meaning of signs and symbols.

Mladen Stilinović’s series entitled “The Exploitation of the Dead,” begun in 1984, explores these changes by contrasting elements of Russian avant-garde art, “soc-realism” (Socialist Realism), and the art of the ’50s with such clichéd and pervasive symbols as the star, the sun, the bird, and the cross. Stilinović has been working on this cycle for eight years. Most of the works in it are small in format: paintings on wood in combination with written texts and photocollages, modified readymade objects, and various elements such as pieces of bread and cake. His palette is deliberately limited to red, black, and pink. “The Exploitation of the Dead” is usually displayed in a small exhibition room in order to produce an atmosphere of contradictory emotions: the red and black of death—the demise of artistic meaning as well as the signs of corporeal death—the sweet pink of false optimism—the misguided idea that anything in the world can be changed by art.

Stilinović casts doubt, with a nice touch of irony, not only on art and politics but on his own role as an artist. As he himself says, “The question is how to manipulate that which manipulates you so obviously and so impudently, but I’m not innocent—there is no art without consequences.”

The works of the painter Željko Kipke, who lives in Zagreb, may at first seem to relate less specifically to the Yugoslav political scene, although both his painting and his art criticism have sprung from the tension between artistic excess and a society impervious to it, or, as he says, “the Yugoslav scene which is constantly retrogressing in terms of verbal and plastic language.” In the ’70s, Kipke practiced analytical painting and art criticism. In the mid ’80s he began to create a complex artistic language, called the “Painting of the New Aeon,” that is based on the integration of different and, at first sight, contradictory and even incompatible visual systems. In contrast to the works of IRWIN or of Stilinović, the paintings made in this new painterly language rarely include easily recognizable art-historical quotations, but they nevertheless reveal a common spiritual ancestry. His specific method of work communicates an awareness that all so-called painting has already examined most possible formal solutions and that, consequently, to include images from film, television, and photography is fair game. This constant mixing of images, languages, and information, a prominent feature of post-Modernism, is expressed by Kipke in well-thought-out, erudite canvases influenced by Byzantine fresco painting and by Marcel Duchamp, as well as by Malevich and the Dadaist and Surrealist experience. Like Metaphysical painting, to which it bears some resemblance, these works can be read on several different levels. If, in speaking of IRWIN’s work, we can refer to a “cubism of ideas,” by which is meant a frequent shift in ideological viewpoint, in looking at the paintings of the New Aeon we can speak of the desecration of one optical system by another, to the point of incompatibility. Yet the results, paradoxically, are fully unified.

If the notion of the artwork as object unites, despite their differences, the work of IRWIN, Stilinović, and Kipke, my own work may be said to promote an understanding of art as idea, opening up new spaces for art, for expression, for action. The artifact itself, as a product of that idea, still exists, of course, but I do not insist on its importance, for most of my work is the result of collective effort or is even made by a third person. What I am interested in above all, and what I regard as the most significant product of my creativity, is the formation, development, and full understanding of the idea. I, as artist, initiate the process, but I neither can nor desire to bring it to fruition alone. For me, the most important aspect of any of my projects is the ability to transform a momentary vision into a workable plan of action in the minds of other people. Whether one designates this form of creation a “social sculpture,” or simply an artistic project, depends on how serious and far-reaching we take its consequences to be.

During the ’80s I was mainly interested in classical abstract painting, but toward the end of the decade I gradually embraced the third dimension and began creating objects made of Plexiglas, light-reflecting tin foil, and multicolor neon light tubes. Neon is for me the symbol of the aggressive modern fairy tale in which we live, and of the unreality of a world directly perceived by us only in flashes, a world in which, more and more, we are the passive recipients of information provided to us by the media.

It is precisely this refusal of the role of passive recipient that has made me change the focus of my attention away from the artwork as object to the wider field of art projects, or, as I like to call them, “art constructions.” It seems to me that an art construction shaped as an environment can communicate with people far better than any two-dimensional picture. To enhance this goal, I always participate personally in one way or the other in my work. By communicating with me personally, by accepting me as a source of creativity, people can reach over the barrier and begin to regard their own experience as art.

For FRA-YU-KULT (Fraction of Yugoslavian culture, 1988), for example. I worked with the Franciscan friars of the monastery at Široki Brijeg to establish a collection of Yugoslavian contemporary art by 15 artists, some well-known in this country, others relatively obscure, among them all of the artists discussed here. In this case, the exhibition and the accompanying catalogue functioned as the art object, communicating a sense of spiritual energy almost religious in tenor. It is, in fact, not so strange to find a collaboration between Franciscans and artists. Both share a belief in the nobility of the individual, and, by extension, a belief in the nobility of art.

It is such beliefs that have enabled the Yugoslavian artists discussed here to establish a balance between political awareness and a need to make art that has distinctly metaphysical overtones. Conditioned by the situation in which we live and fully aware of contradictions inherent in our social environment, we feel an inner urge as individuals for a form of artistic expression that can transcend the limits of an existing hierarchical structure that would restrict us to architecture, sculpture, and painting. At the same time, it is our belief that a work of art must remain free of the material and ideological pressures that, at present, are active in our country. For instead of the hoped-for democratic revival after the collapse of the communist regime in Yugoslavia, we have seen a revival of nationalism and the outbreak of civil war. What we in Yugoslavia have experienced is the birth of another tyranny. Over a very short period national hatred has grown to such an extent that even the cultural ties between institutions in various parts of the country have been completely severed. The interests of one’s own nation have become uppermost in everybody’s mind; national passions, history, and pride have become the only relevant concerns. Those who, like myself, belong by birth to more than one nation (I’m both Serb and Croat) have suddenly found themselves in an impossible situation because they cannot and will not take sides in the raging conflict. Thus I have again found myself in opposition to the official authorities. In the socialist Yugoslavia of a few years ago, I was bitterly opposed to the suppression of individual freedom of expression in both art and politics. Today, I find myself in instinctive opposition to the ruthless power struggle in my divided country. And, indeed, I am hard put to decide which of the two evils is greater, which of the two totalitarianisms I hate more.

Which returns us to the specificity of the Yugoslavian situation and its relation to the circle of artists discussed here. The works we have been examining may be a bit harsh in their sincerity, but that is understandable, since they sprang up like flowers without any official support. Their creators have had to struggle on their own for recognition, their strength lying in an accurate appraisal of Yugoslavia’s place in the world and the quality of the work they have been able to make in response to it. In the present circumstances in my country, this may be more important than ever.

Jadran Adamović is an artist who lives in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

Translated from the Serbo-Croatian by Ivo Slavnić.