Croatian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinovic has been active since the 1970s Group of 6 attempted to bring neo-avant-garde art into the public realm of the slightly more liberal but not exactly welcoming cultural atmosphere Yugoslavia. Throughout his career, Stilinovic has examined the relationship between the individual and society, work and money, often taking a deconstructive and heavily ironic approach expressed by a rough aesthetic sensibility, break downs of text and language, and absurd elements. Like cake. The piece floating above was one of many that formed a part of installations throughout this extensive retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb.
While I don’t know if the artist was thinking of Marie Antoinette’s bon mot, the cake in relation to food and the common man’s daily bread functioned much as the artist’s use of pink does. Here too, is a rococo element, in which the color red, closely associated with Socialism, is faded, emptied of meaning by being made rather frivolous. This more recent play with cakes contrasts and build on an notable early work of the artist: a piece of bread wrapped in money (right).
Absence/beginning, a 1990 installation of wires, clothespins, plastic bags, and raw eggs, takes a starker approach to food as material as it greets you at the show’s entrance, recalling in its thin lines and clear material poverty and fragility. This appropriately faces an even more sober installation.
Facing the wall of eggs on display is Bol (Pain). In Dictionary (Pain), the word is taken apart and decoded on page after page of the dictionary lining the museum’s walls whose original meanings are painted over and replaced with the word “pain.” Here, “pain” is also turned into a table, and into a wall text on power and pain and art and nothingness, and into a pair of twin mattresses raised off the floor (pictured above). It is transformed but not exhumed. This world of pain, coming out of 1990s Yugosalvia, is reflective of the Balkan War.
“The subject of my work is the language of politics, i.e. its reflection in everyday life. […] The question is how to manipulate that which manipulates you so obviously, so shamelessly, but I am not innocent either- there is no art without consequences.”
– Footwriting, Mladen Stilinovic, 1984
One of his best known works is Exploitation of the Dead, which brings together many of his smaller works in the structure of a house of raw wood, exhibiting throughout the DIY aesthetic common to the region. Arranged on the structures are paintings, texts, and objects reworking political and religious symbols. This cultural remembrance of what the artist perceives as dead is not nostalgic but critical, even while acknowledging the central role the past plays. Does this exploitation of symbology make them dead, though, or alive?
Older works refer to the pervasive and oppressive features of Socialist Yugoslavia. Red Poem, above, colors a collection of black and white photographs with the artist’s favorite Communist symbol, applying it equally to soup, a cat, a flag, and car tires. Autocensorship below, referring to the feeling of stifling oneself, in advance of actually being censored, because of real or imagined societal pressures.
Geometry of Cakes
What a sadness, cakes in an exhibition and death too. Pink death.
Time is money and poor man has no friends so he who works is not afraid of hunger and in god we trust.
In god we trust is written on the dollar, so he who has more dollars has more god (gods?).
Threat, blacmail, order this cynicism of authority is so stupid it is sad. But funny. But true.
The consequences of this reality of cynicism are always I – who can only sweetly show it and nothing. Bought cakes for death. Sadness.
-Mladen Stilinovic, 1994