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A conversation with Braco Dimitrijevic

Braco Dimitrijević

This is an interview with Braco Dimitrijevic on the occasion of his 60th birthday and the retrospective of his work in the Ludwig Museum of contemporary art in Budapest.

AfN : Mr Dimitrijevic, your retrospective is called "Louvre is my studio, street is my museum". This sounds like a street art statement from Banksy. How is your relation to younger artists?

BD: I am very happy to see that my ideas which were elaborated when those younger artists were born, are still alive. It means that my work of the 60s and after was of interest to them, and we can say that the artists of interest for the future are those who are very often quoted by younger artists. It means that the work will survive for the next decades or centuries, through interest of younger artists the museum shows or collections or private collections.

What is interesting, is that, these days, somebody like Picasso does not have any interesting artists that are his direct followers, and that Marcel Duchamp has many. In the 1920s, their position in the society was very different, and Marcel Duchamp was spending a lot of time playing chess, waiting for his time to come. And that moment came with a generation of artists such as Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton who was maybe the first to recognise that already in '53, and who went in the late 50s to meet Marcel Duchamp... It is very interesting to distinguish, throughout the decades, this relationship between these different groups of artists which are grouped around the same type of ideas. Street art was really a very noble idea in the time when art was reserved only for indoor events; all the ideas of Arte Povera and Conceptual Art and Land Art were really intended to break this frontier. This very precise statement "Louvre is my studio, street is my museum" from 1969 is referring to the fact that there is actually no frontier or no big glass between good work that could be seen in public spaces and good work in private spaces.

AfN : Mr. Dimitrijevic, the first chapter in the brochure accompanying the show is titled "ways to post history". When looking at the exhibition, it seems that your overall message is that we, all people, should not take everything for granted. All we have learned in school is something that has been chosen for us, but that is representing just one particular view. Is this a correct interpretation?

BD: I would say so because "post history" is a kind of utopian idea, is understanding that past is more complex than History. I think utopian ideas are, after a certain time, becoming some kind of social law. All the visionary people were first called "utopians", but later, it becomes somehow clear that they had this good intuition to project their idea first into an art space e.g., and then afterwards, this idea becomes part of the common knowledge. The idea of post history comes from the fact that, very often, I noticed that the things I was interested in, were not in the books. Now it is in the books, but when I was a child, there was, for instance, a book published by Skira Edition in Geneva in 1953 about Abstract Art. There was not one word about Malevich, not one reproduction of Malevich. So how can one publish, 50 years after the black square, a book on Abstract Art without talking about Malevich or giving him whole chapter? Obviously now, everybody knows and talks about the black square. So post history is the time when there is a place for established and non-established ideas, for ideas which are very well-known, but also for alternatives.

I wrote a story in 1969 which was quoted in the Hollywood movie "Great Expectations" with Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert de Niro. The story goes: Once upon a time, far from cities and towns, there lived two painters. One day, the king hunting nearby, lost his dog. He found the dog in the garden of one of the two painters. He saw by chance the work of the painter and invited him to the castle. The name of the painter was Leonardo da Vinci; the other painter disappeared from human memory. This story is a fiction. It has nothing to do with the real facts of Leonardo's life but it is pointing out that we do not know half of the history or half of the creativity, and I have so many different proofs for the validity of my story which I wrote when I was 20 years old. We know that, for instance, El Greco was not known until the beginning of the 20th century despite the fact that he had an altar piece in an old church in Toledo and paintings in other places. Now, he is considered as the biggest painter of that time. If he had waited for five centuries instead of three, we still would not know about El Greco today.

So my eternal question is "Who is waiting for his three centuries right now?". And as a possible answer to that, I started meeting these people on the street, and then, giving them a position of prominent public figures, making big photographs displayed on the facade in major cities in Europe and the United States, making also monuments like the first monument in London in '72 or memorial plaques for the casual passers-by saying that this or that unknown person lived in this particular building. So this was just to hint at this perspective of history which, according to my mind, is a reduced version of the past.

AfN : Let us talk about your earliest outdoor work "the flag of the world, no. I" in 1963 where you replaced the national flag on a boat with a cleaning cloth for brushes. Was this meant as a political statement for individuality and plurality or rather as a symbolic gesture?

BD: It is all these three things together. I think I had a chance to travel a bit when I was little, and then, for me, borders of any kind have always been somehow unnatural. Obviously, this is again a very utopian point of view. I mean borders sometimes have to exist in this or that form, but what was interesting to me is that in our world - and I mean especially the western civilisation to which we belong - we are used to and our world was made of and our knowledge was based on the selection of particular datas in order to learn more about our environment.

If we think for instance of the origins of the museum (I always like, since I am an artist, to refer to the art world) : Museums started as collections or, more precisely, as cabinets of curiosities, "Wunderkammer" in German. What was interesting about the Wunderkammer, was that everything that was apparently strange was assembled in one place - paintings or maybe some animals in formaldehyde like sheeps with two heads or different embryos or different minerals or the biggest diamonds and things like that. And then, when this idea of collecting developed, people started separating precious stones from precious paintings; they moved the animals to the zoos and so on.

And now, we have reached a stage where our world is becoming too specialised, and this kind of separation, the creation of different files prevents us to see the complexity of this world. And therefore, my first transgression was the idea to replace a symbol of my country with something which would be more universal, and then also to put something very personal instead of something which was some kind of national flag. The same idea came later into life with these installations including real paintings, everyday objects and fruits.

AfN : In 1969, you placed a milk carton on the street and waited until a car ran it over. You stopped the driver and asked him to sign his "accident" like an artwork. The performance was called "Painting by Kresimir Klika" (name of the driver). Can we interpret this as an early form of user generated content - something we see on every web2.0 site nowadays?

BD: It always needs a minimum number of two people for art work to exist: one who makes it and one who understands it. What is interesting about this now, 40 years later, is the fact that it is confirming this kind of theory. If the driver had refused to sign, I would not have called it "painting", and I would not even have taken a photograph of it.

One of the greatest philosophers of the second half of 20th century, Roland Barthes, wrote an essay called "Death of the author" in 1969. It coincides with my "Accidental Sculpture " from 1968 and my "Painting by Kresimir Klika" from 1969.
In my work we have, in a way, this transfer of authorship to somebody who is unknown, somebody who created a visual change by accident. But then, this person had the opportunity to recognise that this was something of visual importance, and therefore, he signed and confirmed the existence of this artwork.

I mean you can be the biggest genius but if nobody says it, and if nobody recognises what you do, then it is supended in the air; and this happens so many times - not to mention the most known examples like van Gogh or Daumier.

AfN : In the 1970's, you took photographs of casual people you met by chance, and placed their image, hero-like, as posters in the city or you glorified them with statues and marble signs. Can this concept of chance against institutional representation be understood as an appeal to others?

BD: Of course, it is an appeal. Actually, one of the very important aspects of my work is what we see, and what we do not see. And I wanted to point out that we do not see certain things. Generally, there is this anthropological side in my work which is also talking about existential issues. I think the existence of men is linked to the perception of things. I mean, you can go from pre-history to post-history but if you do not spot the bison running, your daily food, your daily existence is in danger. So it is really about spotting the bison - and about the way of reading. I noticed very early in my childhood that, if you see a memorial plaque that Hector Berlioz lived here or Mozart lived here, the explicit message is "genius lived here". On the neighbouring house, there is no plaque. The implicit message is "genius never lived here". But how can we be sure? Kafka was a simple passer-by, and he died as an unknown passer-by. But he was a genius. If his manuscripts had been burnt according to his wishes, then he would have stayed a passer-by. But luckily, his friend published his book after his death, and today, we recognise that Kafka was a great writer while working in an insurance office.

AfN : Yes, but I thought that chance, likelihood, plays a big role in these works.

BD: Well, I have a few interpretations on chance in very laconic statements. One of these is that chance is logic beyond reason. So everything is composed according to invisible laws of universe, but we do not see it. I also define chance as a hidden determinism.

AfN : I have seen a sketch in your recently published monograph where you have drawn a time line from Malevich and Duchamp to your theme of the "casual passer-by". This drawing seemed to me deterministic - as if artistic production leads to a certain artistic event in the future. How does this go together with your concept of chance and your term of "post history"?

BD: Everything that we cannot rationalise, we tend to call "chance".
There are certain things which are kind of set: if I met this passer-by at a Budapest exhibition, it means that I was in Budapest, and that he was in Budapest; that he was getting out of the tramway, and I was getting out of the museum. So, a posteriori, you see that this was inevitable. It is also like a man-woman-relationship. It starts maybe in the discotheque, but then, when you fall in love, you see that this was inevitable. In art, it is the same.

I was familiar with the Paris scene since I was born because my father lived in Paris before the Second World War; then, as you know, I started studying physics and mathematics, and then, realised that my working methods were not scientific ones. I had not this kind of patience or scientific temperament, and eventually, I decided to study art. So when I decided to leave Zagreb where I had been studying for the first two years, there were several options like Paris, Italy, Rome and these usual places of grand tradition, but then, by intuition, I went to London which was not on the art market. And then, by coincidence, it happened to be at Saint Martins where, amongst others, Gilbert & George and Richard Long were studying. So somehow, there are sometimes these invisible forces, invisible for now, which drive us to the same place, to the same destination. There is also this beautiful German word called the "Zeitgeist", and somehow the Zeitgeist of the time said "Be in London, listen to the Stones and go to Saint Martins!".

AfN : In the 80s, you started the series of works called "the Louvre is my studio". Where you combined a natural element (like a pumpkin), a man made functional object (like a cupboard) and a masterpiece like a Modigliani painting into one composition. In "culturescapes" you added living animals to a museum as installation and said "if one looks down at Earth from the Moon, there is virtually no distance between the Louvre and the zoo". How are these works connected?

BD: All my works are connected. I happen to become a polyglot, speaking five or six languages and this manifested itself - also in my art practice - as different artistic languages or forms. I am always talking about more or less the same issues. So for instance, when I met Ilya Kabakov in '89 for the "Magiciens de la Terre" exhibition which is, according to my mind, the most important exhibition of the second half of the 20th century, cruated by Jean Huber Martin in the Centre Pompidou in Paris, he said to me, looking at my big photos of passers-by hunging on the Pompidoiu facade: "I know it is your work but I do not dare to ask." He had been in Russia for the first 50 years of his life and he knew the persuasive impact of these big photographs and unquestionable statue-like figures which were represented in those kind of . And of course, I went through this in my childhood: before we had - it was much softer - similar forms of representions of politicians. Just to give you an example: at the time when I installed for the first time at a public square in Zagreb, the only pictures that were shown at that particular place were those of President Tito and Marx and Engels. My photos were installed at about 2 or 3 a.m. At 5 o'clock or 6 o'clock, the first people started looking for public transport, and when they saw these photographs, they thought it was a coup d'état because they could not imagine somebody else but Tito and Karl Marx.

When I actually started spending more time in the museums, and when I came to Berlin in '76, it was an opportunity to reflect about what kind of taboos we are living with and in what kind of environment. Berlin was a difficult city in those days, when it was divided, because it was totally unnatural. I do not even like to separate pumpkins from Modigliani so when you separate a city in two, it is a catastrophe for the country...

I realised that actually there was a false respect manifested to the work of art. By that, I mean the way how paintings were hanging chronologically; you would have paintings from 1905, 1910, 1915, etc on the same wall. But you could see that, for instance, a painting from 1920 could have been a painting from 1880. So this chronological order was already wrong to me. And the second thing on which too much emphasis was put - although in those days much less than now - was the material value of the work. I agree totally that paintings should be worth millions, and that people who make those works should be paid millions as well, and the dealers and the museum curators and all art related people should learn that big money shuld come by producing or showing good art. But by emphasizing only the material value of these works and saying "it is worth 10 millions" without saying what is inside of these works, how many important issues this artist is dealing with, this is not acceptable to me, for the simple reason that I have respect for other artists, from the past, from today, for older and younger ones.

And so I came to want to do something which would induct a kind of active relationship to the painting, and I found a way to compose this works, in my mind, something which would reflect a microcosmical relationship between everyday life and high art. And high art is - for me - somehow representing the spirituality in general. I wanted to get rid of this kind of ballast of one sided viewing at art so there would be visual harmony and respect and understanding of transcendental inside of work of art; I am just trying to provide, to put some light on all these things as when you see a beautiful ballerina dancing in the theatre, you should have a proper light on her. That is what I am trying to do with these paintings inside of my triptych installation. So there is an interrelationship creating mirror effect, and then you get to see the pumpkin, you get to see the Chagall, you get to see the violin. And that was done for the first time in Mönchengladbach in '75, and then in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin with Dieter Honisch and Lucius Grisebach; I incorporated two Kandinsky paintings, Manet, Jawlensky, Mondrian and Monet paintings. So it was an attempt to save art from falling into this bunker which is sealing the artwork from public reflection.

AfN : In your recent works from the 90s to date, you work with portraits of people we all know from history. Their faces are unknown to us. For us, Kafka or Malevich could be passers-by. Would you say that you have come to a full circle in your artistic oeuvre? The unknown and the known both end up as unknown in a museum collection?

BD: Just let me add something to my last answer. - This dichotomy culture-nature which is present in these triptychs where you have a fruit and a Mondrian, I extended it later into the works where you have peacocks looking at Picasso; it was done in '81 for the first time in Cork Street at the Waddington Gallery, then it went to different zoos and then, there was also, ten years ago, this exhibition in the Paris zoo which was seen by one million people.

Eric Fabre - who is known as a legendary Paris gallery [owner] and art collector and also as somebody who has his museum in Blois which is based on post-Dadaism said it is fantastic to see the merging and melting of these well-known names - he did not say well-known faces - with the passers-by. This exhibition is supposed to show the development of this idea and also to show that I always saw a passer-by as a possible genius, and a genius as a possible passer-by.

If you go to young artists' studios or have informal conversations in the train or in the plane, there might be another insight and another priority to "small things". And I don't think they are small things! For instance, when I made the Obelisk in Berlin, since it was such a sensitive city in the 70s, the authorities checked if the "11th of March", that was a birthday of a casual passer-by, which is inscribed on the obelisk is no day of any significance in any country of the world and especially not in Germany or Berlin. Then I remember, when I was for the first time at the Seoul Biennale in Korea, one day, at a table with Nam June Paik, there was the first democratically elected Lithuanian president Landsbergis who said to me: "Congratulations. You anticipated the Lithuanian independence day by 20 years!" It had been looked up in all history books and encyclopedia and certified to be really no date of importance. But it had later become the national day in the Lithuanian. This is somehow confirming that there is no unimportant day, no unimportant place, no unimportant idea.

AfN : When we come back to this full circle of artistic career I mentioned before, what would you say? Is it somehow a circle of life?

BD: I had many pleasant experiences, but sometimes you have to struggle to get this original works of Kandinsky, Picasso or Manet to become part of my installation. It was not easy. I had to talk for six months, and every day, they offered me nice tea and coffee in the Nationalgalerie in Honisch's office... I think one of the biggest privileges of an artist is to be invited to different parts of the world. Then you get the confirmation that your works are shown in London, in New York or Paris or Berlin, and then Rio or Saint Petersburg; and then also the fact that you can meet other creative people and live the same life, like in your own city, is an enormous privilege.

AfN : It is a universal language in a way.

BD: It is. And we come, once again, to this idea as it was in pre-history that, to all people in those days, fire was important. The food was also important to all of us, the key things are important to all of us. I think we should revive this because somehow we have to have a kind of global concern with the global living. We have less oxygen, we have fewer forests, and so on. For me, artist is a metaphor for "responsible human being".

AfN : Dear Mr. Dimitrijevic, thank you for the interview.

BD: You are welcome. It was a pleasure to see you in Budapest.

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