Pain, Money and Zeroes

author Mladen Stilinović
written by Marko Golub

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Mladen Stilinović’s characteristic self-irony is certainly unfaltering which is corroborated by the very discrete ‘noise’ that the artist included as a kind of overture to his own retrospective, actually, the first wide-ranging review of his work ever organized in Croatia. While you are taking the stairs of the wide entrance in front of the Museum of Modern Art, his recognizable nasal voice reverberates as an invitation to the visitor to witness the spectacle, or as a farewell to those who have just witnessed it – the banal buzzwords Great Show! are repeated in an infinite loop as a mantra, just in case the visitor has not yet learned to behave in accordance with the occasion. The exclamation Great Show! originally belongs to one of Stilinović’s rare video works with a hopping frog failing to leave the frame. Such a scene, such a script, evokes much of the common spirit present in the artist’s works – from obsessive repetitive actions, symbols and motifs, a certain claustrophobic atmosphere and an emphasis on the individual imprisoned in his own social and ideological context, to a very derisive attitude towards all kinds of authority.


Over the last forty years Stilinović has been upgrading his babbling visual and verbal opus, continually focused on language, as well as deviations and manipulations within language. Thus it is somewhat unwise to compete with such a garrulous work, which is eloquent at times, then clear and concise, then again transrational, philosophical, confused, absurd, sometimes quarrelsome and inarticulate, reduced to stuttering or animal onomatopoeia. However, despite the saturation, Stilinović’s work is exceptionally communicative, and numerous individual phrases from his works have turned out to be stubbornly referential, far beyond the context of just one artistic opus. Suffice to quote here, for example, the sentence: An Artist Who Cannot Speak English Is No Artist (1994), precise and self-explanatory in positioning any contemporary author in the global art world; or another very often quoted acclamation: The Praise of Laziness, that at the beginning of the nineties not only marked the inner conflicts within the new power relations between ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ art, but was a witty commentary of the business, calculating worldview and priority complex which dominates the contemporary art system, even among artists themselves.

The position from which Stilinović builds his every expression is vulnerability, and not power; imperfection, and not infallibility; uncertainty, and not conviction. One of his works, based on a photograph and text from the latter half of the 1970s, shows the artist sitting in an armchair, pictured from below. It begins with a quote from the book Practical Film Language by Jerzy Płažewski, which defines the symbolic effect of this camera angle as ‘makes sublime, exaggerates, expresses exaltation and triumph, authority or power’. Two pages later the artist undermines this symbolism, commenting on his choice of the lower camera angle to show the holes in his shoes. Deeply immersed in his own social and cultural environment, Stilinović is an artist who constantly recycles, reinterprets and transforms everything he is exposed to, from empty media rhetoric to established dogmas from the spheres of economic, political and artistic ideology. Sometimes he uses sarcasm, but the effect is not only eye-opening and demystifying, but also redeeming, even emancipatory, despite the fact that the artist’s often expressed desymbolizations of colour (mostly red) and deinstrumentalizations of language are contradictory in themselves.


I hear people talk of the death of art; the death of art is the death of the artist. Someone wants to kill me, help. (1977)


An attack on my art is an attack on socialism and progress. (1977)


These two sentences owe their cult status to their play on the myths and clichés of their time, the former in the theoretical and artistic context, and the latter in the political. Stilinović adopts and transforms both rhetorics by identifying with them, by lowering them to his own level, with absurd consequences. At the same time, his continual interest in elements of visual and verbal communication in the context of typical, urban daily life, bears the same meaning and a similar degree of identification. In several works realized in the medium of an ‘artist’s book’ (for example, Hairdressers, 1975; The First of May, 1975) Stilinović affirmed spontaneous, unskilful, even despised street design, including various panels, boards, shopping windows and bizarre, as well as seemingly chaotic juxtapositions. Moreover, in his own practice he adopted this type of ‘design’ as his aesthetic standard, enabling him to establish an unusual duality for himself. His work is ‘handwritten’ and rough, but not expressive. It is fragile and ascetic in materials and technical construction, but graphically contrived and principled. It is distanced, but still emotional.


The last is mostly characteristic of his series of works on the topic of pain, represented in the exhibition by the large installation Glossary of Pain (the largest and the most recent variant of the concept with the same title), by the artwork Pain Play and some others. Pain is in a way the end result of Stilinović’s questioning of language and its function, realized in Glossary by a painstaking correction of the translation of every term from an English dictionary, while it is defined in advance as the only possible outcome in Play. Our communication apparatus is reduced to a single, unavoidable, elementary emotional reaction. When he deals with economics, in several temporally and conceptually distant cycles, Stilinović is equally unrelenting – almost the only number he uses, that he obsessively subtracts, divides and adds is zero. Even when it is not the only number, the result is again zero. Also, his relationship to money is especially blasphemous – he cuts banknotes up and uses them for ironic montages (88 Roses for Comrade Tito, 1991-94). He intervenes in them graphically, treating them as obituaries (elements of the Exploitation of the Dead, 1984-90), or he installs them in inaccessible places to provoke the observer’s existential instinct (An Ambience with Money). The world that Stilinović presents seems dark, but poetic and comical at the same time. Underneath our whole culture and value systems, when they are stripped naked, there is only fragile and vulnerable existence and some basic humanity.


The cycle Exploitation of the Dead, created in the second half of the 1980s, is especially sombre. This is the most consistent cycle within the artist’s opus and it bears a grave undertone from beginning to end, while addressing two basic, yet connected topics – the exploitation of dead signs and the exploitation of dead artistic poetics. It is significant that the cycle was created at the time of the postmodernist wave of quoting, and it may be seen as a part of this wave, as well as its criticism. Exploitation of the Dead contains hundreds of objects – paintings, collages, objects and photographs – connected by not so rigid, but comprehendible logic. Visual patterns evoking the poetics of the historical avant-garde (primarily Russian) and those deriving from socrealism, the ever-present religious and ideological symbols of the star and the cross, a photograph of Kazimir Maljevič on his death bed, as well as a heap of plates, spoons, obituaries, candles, food and items of clothing, all tossed around an alienated and not very pleasant ambience. Exploitation of the Dead seems to summarize Stilinović’s whole strategy of desymbolization and deinstrumentalization of language and signs. It is also a step further – it establishes a fragmented, but rather lively new narrative, a kind of a ‘death dance’ directed by the artist himself.

With all Stilinović’s persistent renouncing of aesthetic embellishments, high technical quality, with all his self-irony and unpretentiousness, this forty-year opus has been collected in one place and, in a competently conceived display, displays exceptional power of communication, and even much despised authority. As a large review mostly clearly differentiated in the exhibition space, the exhibition confirms that his works function best as a vital whole, free within itself, without a strict hierarchy among the units. Mladen Stilinović’s retrospective, as well as the two previous smaller, parallel exhibitions dedicated to Antun Motika and Miljenko Horvat, or a similarly extensive presentation of the multimedia opus of Ladislav Galeta a year before, are examples, if not of the most important, then of the most obvious direction which the relatively new Zagreb Museum of Modern Art should take in the future. Such a direction is certainly also locally imprinted since more or less identical expectations have been projected on the Museum for years – how to present some key opuses in a representative way, even whole narratives of domestic modern art, how to build on current values while creating some new values, as well as to find ways to communicate and enrich them in a continual dialogue with the same values globally. Stilinović’s case is specific because this artist’s works have without doubt gained much visibility through many international exhibitions, especially in the last decade, while retaining exceptional vitality on the domestic scene at the same time, even more in the context of the lively field outside institutions than within institutions. For instance, from the very beginning the globally very influential curatorial collective from Zagreb, Što, Kako i za Koga (WHW - What, How and for Whom), has repeatedly found in Stilinović, beside Sanja Iveković, the most important link for their numerous advocacy and polemic exhibitions that are mostly about challenging the social context. The reason is the already mentioned communicative character of his art, especially its proverbial garrulity on questions of work, money, politics, poverty and death, which keeps itself in an equal dialogue with the present artistic and social environment, whether the works are post-conceptualist from the mid-seventies or brand new. Considering this last statement, the Zagreb retrospective happened at the right moment. At the peak of an economic crisis and wild political and media rhetoric about productivity and savings, the necessity for more work, more economizing and cuts, and against a background of an even greater scarcity that may no longer be hidden, Stilinović’s opus, essentially addressing the language of ideology, economics and power for decades, has never been more up to date. Great Show.