Interview with Braco Dimitrijević
JHM: I would like you to redefine the idea of Post History as stated in your 1976 book Tractatus Post Historicus.
BD: I initiated this discourse at the beginning of my work in 1969 with the statement: “There are no mistakes in history, the whole of history is a mistake.” This marked a revolt against history which I have always considered as being a false science and which I would call the only impressionistic science. There really is no such thing as the facts. The true power of history does not lie in the physical facts. It manifests itself through the psychological effects brought about by the event. People write their impressions, claiming them to be scientific because real history is made of many possibilities, pluralities and impressions. Let us call it a quantity of subjectivities. What we call History is nothing more than one subjectivity which is imposed on the whole world as objective opinion. This is the reasoning behind my critique of history and my formulation of the notion of Post History which, for me, means the time of a multitude of co-existing truths rather than any one ultimate truth. It is therefore also a plurality of concepts that exist simultaneously. I have always maintained that in Baroque times, it is possible that at least one artist was making monochrome paintings. Such boldness would have been in direct opposition with the richness of baroque, a sort of statement that says, “Now I’m going to make some black monochromes!” The possibility of this being the case has always been swept aside because our civilization is based on exclusion. I would also say that style is just one simple manifestation of the racism in art. If black monochromes constitute the prevalent style, then whoever paints yellow flowers is destined to be excluded. This is all due to the fact that we have a linear history of art, which is to say a succession of styles. Often, for instance, I will pick up the book on abstract art published by Skira in 1953 that features Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Van Doesburg but where there is no mention of Malevich. Few people at the time knew he even existed.
JHM: Forty years later, however, and thanks to the diffusion made possible by your generation, Malevich is considered one of the great artists of our century. From this perspective, how do you see your own position as an artist?
BD: Given the fact that I express myself with images, I consider myself a philosopher who communicates at the speed of light. This is the greatest speed that exists in relation to the speed of sound, the speed of writing and reading or the speed of a spectacle. This is how I came up with the title of my show Slow as Light, Fast as Thought at the Museum Moderner Kunst in Vienna. Since I was a champion skier, I consider it possible to compare the creation of a work of art with a 100 km/h descent. Both require courage and speed in making decisions, as well as the absolute mastery of space and time.
JHM: Coming back to the definition of Post History you have just given, does this mean that the interpretations regarding any given moment in history are significant, including those that are of apparently minor significance at the time? And if we apply such a notion to your work as an artist, does this not mean that you would need to use a multitude of means and techniques in order to create art? Wouldn’t this involve you using a huge variety of methods, materials, and styles in order to say everything you wanted to say?
BD: To create a portrait of the planet, all means are permissible. If traditional painters had blue, red and other colors to make their paintings, on my palette I have Titian, Cézanne, elephants, apples, obelisks, cellos, lions or bicycles. Nothing is excluded.
JHM: Since you admit that all interpretations are possible and valid, and that those which appear completely insipid and negligible can prove, with time, to be the most important, do you set out to break away from the prevailing thought of an era?
BD: In my opinion, there is no such thing as rupture in creation, but there are ruptures of perception. I am opposed to all stereotypes in thinking and behavior. For instance, the large-scale Casual Passers-by were obviously a resistance to the cult of the personality as well as a critique of certain automatisms conditioned by the media. What I wanted to do was to create a reversal in meaning, and sometimes this has been successful. One woman who went to Beijing in 1975 told me, “When I saw the portrait of Mao, I thought he was just some anonymous passer-by.” Later, when I started exhibiting in museums, I reacted against the fetishistic treatment given to the work of art. Since my father was a painter and I had my first one man show at the age of ten, I started very early to ask myself questions about the function of an artwork and its presentation in museum, I tried to play with it, and give back some significance to the work of art as an object complete with all its inherent spiritual values, as something that has originated from the mind of an artist. It is no longer a sacred object, an icon that cannot be touched or taken down. It is easier to penetrate all the layers of meaning of a painting in a Triptychos Post Historicus, than to recognize the values of the same work when it is simply hanging on the wall.
JHM: I actually think that one of the great qualities of your triptychs is that they allow for this sort of freshness of contemplation, because we are so used to seeing the work of art the way it has to be, vertically on the wall. In this way, it becomes a decorative element and its meaning evaporates.
BD: I am concerned with a certain idea of harmony. How can harmony be expressed in this world? For someone looking at a Triptychos Post Historicus from the outside, the Franz Marc painting has a different value to the pitchfork or the melon. On the other hand, this microcosm, the triptych, would not exist without the melon or the canvas. The Triptychos is by no means an equation between these elements; its role is rather to amplify their significance. The three elements alongside each other on the same plane sum up the universe. Only a small amount of my work is inspired by “cultural heritage,” or by strokes of genius from the past, because I find ideas of genius such as those of Da Vinci or Michelangelo completely normal. What have inspired me, on the other hand, are human idiocy and the idiocy of human conventions. Since urban space is so saturated with messages of culture and dominant ideologies, what I set out to do was to create another space. I have always said, “Louvre is my studio, street is my museum.” The idea was to create a parallel world, something of a utopia, perhaps. What I intended to create was a counter-model and propose a counter-stance to the existing, dominant thought. I recall, for instance, that Casual Passerby on the Boulevard Saint-Germain des Prés in 1971 was, statistically, seen by five million people a day as they walked by. About five of them understood what it was all about. The ambiguity that lies between the five and the five million is interesting. Five million people minus five were perturbed by the fact that there was a portrait there.
JHM: Your concept of Post History has also led you to ponder the origins of art.
BD: After fourteen years of persistent attempts, I finally got to enter Lascaux where I made seven canvases. I feel particularly close to Lascaux man because I feel that prehistoric man was no small painter of detail like historic man. For me the Lascaux era represents the time when man’s talents and skills had to be used to their full extent to enable him to survive. In those days, as now is only sometimes the case, art was a cognitive process, it was art, philosophy and science at the same time. So, the wall of Lascaux was at once painting, notebook, scientist’s blackboard, the book of writer and reader, as the cave was all in one—home, studio, gallery, library and museum. The themes dealt with by man throughout history are very restricted. Even the emergence of museums with their painting galleries, sculpture galleries, rooms of Chinese vases, Greek vases, Roman glass and so on is an idea of fragmentation of the world. Nowadays, we should be breaking away from this idea of the fragmentation of the world which was appropriate in the Renaissance or Age of Reason. This is why, at a certain point, I decided to hold some exhibitions at the zoo. There are cages at the zoo just as there are at the Louvre.
JHM: Lascaux seems to be an important metaphor in your work.
BD: Yes, because prehistoric man lived, slept and created in the cave in which he guarded everything he had discovered, including fire. Lascaux represents for me “the time of primary needs.” If somebody was a good hunter, he would go to hunt; if somebody felt a need to paint, he would get up in the deep dark of the cave, while the others were sleeping, and would draw by torchlight, trying to comprehend and explain the world to himself and to the others. An untalented hunter would soon be unmasked, because the survival of the community depended on the catch everyone brought. Today, in the modern world, we encounter everyday painters who hunt and hunters who paint, people who are far from being both at the same time.
JHM: I think this is the abiding preoccupation of some of the most important artists of today as they try to regain that concept of globality and totality and break away from the idea of fragmentation which, up until not so long ago, was dominant and which is effectively a hallmark of the museum.
BD: I consider Post History as being very close to prehistory for various reasons. First of all, the level of technology we have reached means we are back on the borderline of existence because this world could quite easily be heading for collapse. This is not some apocalyptic notion, but if there were ten Chernobyls all in one go… We have to be vigilant just as the Lascaux dwellers were vigilant in their times. There were always guardians of fire, so they were vigilant people and I think man has survived because there were artists. Moreover, Lascaux was, at one and the same time, both Louvre and zoo. The animals and paintings occupied the same cave. Thousands of years later, and we could finally break through into a situation of harmony. Nowadays, however, it is a struggle to reestablish the harmony that existed so long ago at Lascaux. If historic man was a man of fragmented vision, then posthistorical man has a vision of synthesis. It is the world in which one becomes aware of the relation between paintings and birds, objects, fruits, blacksmiths, and stars. Come to think of it, I have done practically nothing; all I have done is to bring things closer together. I actually do not see myself as the producer of objects but as the creator of a vision.
JHM: On the subject of Lascaux, which is considered as a beginning of the history of art, do you think that there is any progress in art, or that there is an evolution in art, or neither?
BD: Art is just a perception of the world or formulating something which exists but of which we as yet have no knowledge. Obviously, today’s art is different from yesterday’s but that’s just because there are more things around. Art is still a cognitive process, now as in the past. It will always involve comprehension of the world, whatever the product may be. I don’t really believe in art as an evolutionary process. That kind of interpretation is only possible if you exclude all phenomena which don’t fit into your scheme of things. Recently, when setting up a Triptychos Post Historicus, I used an original painting. But it was only 98.2% original because one corner had been restored which means that 1.8% of the painting was painted by the restorers. A lot of art history is retouched in this way, just like history in general whatever doesn’t fit in is excluded or whatever is apparently irrational has to bide its time to be accepted. Picasso, for instance, was 300 years late in being inspired by African tribal art. The proper time for that would have been Columbus’s century because this was the era of Europe’s first contacts with distant cultures. If there had been an artist on board Columbus’s ship he could have been inspired by Indian art. But it took us 300 years to appreciate native art and even then, it was through the interpretation of an artist. It took roughly the same amount of time for the world to come to appreciate El Greco, and if it had taken 500 instead of 300 years, we would still be ignorant of him today. I made a piece referring to that problem entitled Two, four or eight hundred years. El Greco, dealing with the fact that perception is conditioned by the historical and social setup. Nowadays there are plenty of ideas, but if in future somebody summarizes developments in 20th-century art, he may omit what he doesn’t understand.
JHM: Is that what led you to make a piece about Darwin?
BD: Yes. It was really to emphasize my disbelief in linear development. As a student in 1968, I drew diagrams of Darwinist evolution and showed it as being disrupted by various forces or creatures or inexplicable events because I somehow never believed in this linear theory.
JHM: You also made pieces with live animals; you confronted the live animals with classical works of art and actual objects.
BD: In a way, the animals fulfill the same function as the fruits in the Triptychos. My early works dealt with chance or potential creativity. Animals represent the irrational, unknown, unpredictable element because their logic is different from ours and often beyond our comprehension. I made a piece about that entitled Last Witnesses of Another Logic. For instance, when people see these works, they often ask whether the lion tried to destroy the cello or the painting. That’s typical of human logic. Why would a lion want to do either? However, it is impossible to predict what form the work will ultimately take because one never knows where the leopard will move or in which direction the bird will fly. For instance, in the piece with peacocks, the birds walked calmly around or stood in front of the Picasso, Matisse and Monet. But as soon as a Pop Art painting was brought into the room, they became very agitated—maybe it had something to do with color psychology. However, all these elements and many more are included in the work. For example, in Persian mythology, the peacock symbolizes pride and immortality, but also stupidity, so it could be a metaphor for human vices and superficiality—preening one’s metaphorical feathers.
JHM: If you wanted to confront nature with art why didn’t you use photomontage or today’s Photoshop?
BD: An important aspect of all my work is that I never use photomontage. In the early pieces with passers-by it would have been easy to take a photo of a square and glue a picture of somebody’s face on it. But for me, it was always essential to have the work executed in real life. It is also vital to invest a lot of energy in executing it, doing the impossible, combining incompatible things. Usually I require a lot of time and energy to make a work happen. People ask me, “Why don’t you put a Cézanne reproduction next to the violin?—it would be just the same as using the original.” But it’s not the same because it’s not merely an image by Cézanne or Picasso which is part of the Triptychos but painting with all its material, sociological and cultural significance: its heavy frame, its cult status, its market value. All these factors play a role in the Triptychos. In our civilization, original paintings have a different status from reproductions so it is essential to persuade museum curators to let me use something which is sacred to our culture. For me, it is important to bring these model situations to life, even if it’s only for five minutes.
JHM: When you used elephants to make a work, was it just to create an effect or was there something more behind it?
BD: I brought elephants out into the open field, and perhaps for the first time since Hannibal, elephants were walking around freely in Europe. In principle, the work is not different from the early casual passers-by pieces in which I eliminate the barrier between the known and unknown, the recognized and unrecognized potential. The elephants’ free walk symbolizes the breaking down of barriers between different cultures, the flow of ideas between continents and the promotion of harmony in the world. So I see these works—the Triptychos and Culturescapes—as a portrait of our planet, because after all, if one looks down at Earth from the Moon, there is virtually no distance between the Louvre and the zoo.
JHM: We were both witness of 1968.
BD: Probably more than that.
JHM: OK, but what I want to say is that it was remarkable time, and in fact what followed it was probably more important. There was one whole generation whose mind and ideas were shaped in relationship to the experience of a preceding generation, that is our parents, who spoke about war, resistance, and holocaust. Naturally we wanted to escape the experience and values of our parents and to create our own. For me internationalism was an essential value, because it also bore fruit in art. How do you see yourself in all that and especially in recent years with regard to the revived interest in Conceptual Art and the appearance of Neo-Conceptualism?
BD: It is true that we wanted to position ourselves, not only in relation to our parents’ generation, but also in relation of everything else that existed before. Those who considered themselves artists started to question art. As for myself, I started seeking the answers to the question of the artist’s role, and that is visible in my work of that time. In 1968 and 1969 I made works like Accidental Sculpture and Accidental Painting where chance played an important role. I always considered that chance is logic beyond the reason, but in that context one can ask what reason is. Is it in the domain of individual, collective or part of something even wider than that? Those works questioned the notion of the author, of the recipient and also the context in which art is created. Although not every artist of that generation was aware of art’s social context, in some cases attitudes overlapped. There was a common desire to leave the galleries and museums in order to create and show our works somewhere else. That goes for Land Art people as well as for me, but I think the similarity would end there. My comprehension of the space was quite different. I had a very strong notion of urban or social space and the main difference was that I started to understand space as history, as an environment that shapes our behavior. In this stage of civilization our environment is no longer physical space but cultural heritage. The logical consequence of that understanding was also the analysis of the way in which certain messages were conveyed. After using exclusively photography for Casual Passer-by works, I became aware of the importance of the medium in which these messages were transmitted throughout history. That is how the idea of using bronze cast came to mind. Since I have never had a dogmatic mind, it was natural that in the most orthodox period of Conceptual Art, I should start using, alongside with photography, a totally different medium—marble and bronze.
JHM: Your memorial plaques, the Berlin obelisk or monuments to casual passers-by are in appearance completely outside of the Zeitgeist. But can one escape the Zeitgeist? At the same time there were other kinds of urban interventions, like Gordon Matta Clark splitting houses or Joseph Beuys sweeping the street after a demonstration.
BD: I am glad that you mentioned them. Both were close friends and great artists. I became friends with Gordon in 1975 during my first exhibition in New York at the Sperone Gallery. We considered each other as counterparts in our respective milieus. We were both sons of painters, but apart from that there was something else we had in common. Each of us reacted strongly to the traditions of the countries of even continents on which we were born. American art is concerned with space and Gordon responded to it in the most radical way. For my part, my reaction concerned a typical European problem, that is many layers of time or simply too much history. By coincidence, in 1979, after Gordon’s death, a curator of the Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe put on simultaneous one-man shows of our respective work, without knowing that we were friends. Speaking of Beuys at the time l liked his idea that everyone is an artist, but now I would add that everyone is maybe not a good artist. Good artists are like good conductors. They are the first to tell you about laws or logic that exist in the space/zones that yet do not belong to us. Anyhow, if my monuments and memorial plaques were not part of the Zeitgeist 30 years ago they are very much now, because the artists of today use a much greater variety of media, free from the dogma of early Conceptual Art. It was my individual contribution to that very rigorous movement that was shaped by our generation. We invented a language and I am glad that this kind of language is in use again by the Neo-Conceptual generation. The interesting artists amongst them will find ways to talk about their own problems.
JHM: Always when I talk to you what strikes me the most is your absolute fascination with the question of creation, your almost obsessive desire to understand creation. I don’t know many artists who reflect so much on the process of creativity or where the core of creativity actually lies. To some point it is understandable given your family background, but you are quite a special phenomena because of your insistence on philosophical questions of creation and perception. All your texts, all the stories you have written, your Passe-by works as well as Triptychos Post Historicus turn on these issues.
BD: In fact all my work probably revolves around one key problem: perception. It sounds simple, but it is at the same time a philosophical, anthropological, aesthetic and psychological issue. The importance that is attributed to art I see as a crucial existential question. What we can see and what we cannot see at a given moment. What I am interested in doing is understanding that fluid, that is the mechanisms that govern the acceptance of certain ideas. It sounds odd that in nature you can’t hide a volcano, in culture you can.
JHM: When I hang paintings in museums I often think about what you said back in the late 1960s: “Just as a piano is not music, painting is not art.” As a curator when hanging the collection or making an exhibition I feel responsible for creating that music.
BD: This was a shortcut way of explaining the nature of art, that art is immaterial and that it depends as much on the recipient as on the artist. If art is a metaphysical process then the identification of art with an object is meaningless. One of the issues often discussed in the 1970s was the dematerialization of art. All the answers consisted in presenting something physically invisible, exhibiting an empty gallery or a space filled with light or invisible gas. Strictly speaking, I would consider all that as still fitting into the scheme of an evolutionist idea of art, relying on the invention of new forms or materials, that would be added to an endless chain of formalist innovations. My answer was a work I realized at the Stadtisches Museum Monchengladbach in 1975, where I attributed a new title and new meaning to the bronze bust from the museum collection. The actual object had been there for decades, I just selected it and renamed it. A certificate of purchase was delivered and, through an institution, officially, the existence of Post History was confirmed thanks to the plurality of truths. What was really being played upon was the multitude of meanings contained within one work under different perceptions. I believed that this would stop the formalist approach to art, and that was my contribution to the question of the dematerialization of art. Since then, with no material transfer, there was one more artwork in the museum without anything being actually added to the collection. That was the time when I started writing Tractatus Post Historicus.
JHM: Your most recent works are installations with portraits of well-known writers, musicians, artists and scientists. How do you relate these works to your previous cycles of works, i.e. the Casual Passser-by and Triptychos Post Historicus?
BD: In some way the new installations represent the synthesis of my previous work, in terms both of vocabulary and composition. The portraits representing personalities of wider social significance have historical connotations. In that way these portraits have a similar role to that of the master paintings in Triptychos Post Historicus. The people chosen, the complexity of their oeuvre and destiny, can provide multitudes of readings in the context of the constellation of surrounding objects and natural elements. Also they represent people that contributed a lot to culture and yet their faces are not so well known. In that sense they are similar to the Casual Passersby, as a representation of unknown creativity or genius. After all, most people whose portraits I use were stored in the twilight of collective ignorance, before being accepted. What separates known from unknown is a thin line of convention.