Dan Cameron

One of the more frustrating discoveries of late modernism, particularly for those who had based much of their practice on the premise that avant-garde art had a utopian mandate to fulfill, came with the slow realization that it didn’t matter how frantically diverse the various schools of 20th century artistic practice may have been—the process of innovation was locked into a system of linguistic tropes and rhetoric with rules and hierarchies that were as rigid as any academic formula. As art then entered the period of uncertainty marked by the collective understanding that conceptual art was the last possible permutation in a reductive series of models of art history, the need to hinge one’s belief structure on some fixed set of ideas led to a splintering of styles across the international spectrum, leading to the development of a post-stylistic method of simultaneous innovation across several stylistic fronts at once, the sorting-through of which has provided the dominant critical methodology in the last 35 years since Braco Dimitrijević’s emergence as a young artist coincided with this unstable moment in art history, which was also marked by considerable upheaval in the social and political realm. Society as a whole was questioning itself on many levels, and with the explosion of popular culture through music, film and experimental video, the entire practice of “art” had become for a large number of people an anachronism. As a young artist in Sarajevo, Dimitrijević created a work in 1969 that seems to foretell much of his development for the next decades. It is Story About Two Artists, which consists of nothing more than a narrative inscription on a marble plaque. The story is of a chance meeting between the king and an unknown artist, who through this well-timed encounter became known to us today as Leonardo da Vinci. The other artist mentioned in the title, who did not meet the king, “disappeared forever from human memory.” In light of Sarajevo’s tragic history, the harshness of those particular words today reaches far past the typical young artist’s desire for immortality, revealing instead the cruel indifference with which history treats those who most crave its attention. Certainly, immortality is no less capricious than death itself—a grim but realistic point of departure to which Dimitrijević has returned many times in his career—, but it seems he is also commenting upon the error of those who place art and its values above all other systems of exchange, even at the price of ignoring the stark reality all around them.

Dimitrijević’s most characteristic work of the 1970s, which he repeats with innumerable variations in form and locale, takes the anonymity imposed by historical processes as its starting-point. “The Casual Passer-By I Met At…” places the idea of randomness at the core of the formation of meaning, but gives it an extra push towards affirmation by allowing us to celebrate the mere fact that a fellow citizen is honored for the sake of having been alive at a particular time and place in history. However, our interest in these works does not depend on the fact that the story turns out all right in the end, but rather that the artist has made us acutely aware of our own participation in it. By continuing to observe the social practice of naming streets, buildings, bridges, museums, and even towns themselves after those individuals who made our predecessors take notice of them during their lifetime, we implicitly reward not the ones among us who desire to turn the historical spotlight on themselves, but only the ones who succeed. Therefore, in rejecting the artist’s role within this trajectory as one who merely designates the visual form that the commemoration will take, Dimitrijević imposes a new set of criteria on the process, criteria which serve to heighten our appreciation of both the contrast between the fragility of the individual life compared with the momentum of history, and the necessity to replace these receptacles of dead men’s power with something more relevant to our daily lives. The various manifestations of “The Casual Passerby I Met…”—banners hung from buildings, advertisements on public transport, sculptural busts, plaques, monumental obelisks, and even a dinner that the artist held in honor of a complete stranger in Belgrade in 1976—seem to highlight Dimitrijević’s underlying subject, which is the fleetingness of lived time compared with the “stopped” time that art is expected to represent. To gain his immortality, the traditional artist makes an implicit pact with society to exchange a social value (prestige) for a private one (exposing one’s name or likeness to the public). But in commemorating the lives of those who are said to have influenced our own lives, the artist can also be said to be putting his identity into competition with that of his subject. This is the point where the autonomy of the art system’s history and that of society at large come into obvious conflict: there are portraits by great artists of men and women whom we do not need to know, and portraits of great men and women by artists whom we do not care to know. While seeming to operate from within this intricate system of exchange, Dimitrijević is in fact offering us a surprising view into its inner mechanisms while proposing an alternative form of immortality based on the role of the artist as self-appointed arbiter of who will be recorded by posterity, and who not. It is as if Warhol’s dictum about everyone being famous for fifteen minutes had been supplemented by the apparently similar (but quite distinct) notion that those who don’t use their allotted moment of fame still have as much a reason to be commemorated as those who have used more than their fair share.

It doesn’t require careful scrutiny of the 1969 Tale of Two Artists to realize that lurking behind the anonymous passer-by series is the nagging issue of the artist’s own identity. A key to understanding this problem of self-representation can be found in the manner in which Dimitrijević documented these activities: not just with himself photographed alongside his subjects as a form of witness, but often with one other, more well-known artist (Richard Hamilton, Douglas Huebler) in the picture as well. In other words, Dimitrijević’s image tends to function within these photos as a kind of mediating persona between the figure of the historically legitimized artist and that of the man (or woman) in the street—a place which he, as an emerging artist, might be said to have occupied at the time. However, as his reputation in Europe grew through the 1970s and early 80s, Dimitrijević became increasingly aware that his work, despite its claims to being outside the art system, was in fact operating from a real insider position. Furthermore, the works themselves in their final state became subject to the same rules of critical analysis that applied to all art production at that time, regardless of whether it was conceptually-based or not. For that reason, the next step in his development as an artist, while far from inevitable, had a strong connection to these previous works which is not always brought to the fore.

It would also be tempting to analyze his concept of “post-history” as analogous to certain more recent manifestations of post-modernism, since the goal of recasting one’s relationship to history remains the primary objective in both cases. Still, it is just as crucial to stress that the fundamental strategies of post-modernism—appropriation, (mis-) quotation and recycling—are noticeably absent or underemphasized in the “Triptychos Post Historicus” work, which has been Dimitrijević’s main area of concentration from the mid-70s on (the two lines of his work have more or less continued in a parallel relationship to one another since that time).

One of the most intriguing features of the “Triptychos Post Historicus” series is that it is entirely conditional, in the sense that it depends on borrowing an existing work from the cooperating museum in order to occupy the center of the tableau which Dimitrijević then creates for it. Seen in comparison to the use, by other artists, of reproductions of artworks that act as a reference to previous art without actually trying to replicate its presence, this body of work by Dimitrijević can be seen as a bracing affirmation of the fluid system of negotiated values that surrounds the original work, but in a way that keeps our attention fixed on the social as well as the artistic values conveyed by that system. Like his casual passer-by work, the “Post Historicus” series derives its peculiar tension from the half-concealed meditation on time, which is summarized by the contrast between an exaggerated symbol of temporality (a piece of fruit) with an equally loaded symbol of timelessness (an important work of art).

Most importantly, perhaps, the “Triptychos Post Historicus ” series acts as a direct, if somewhat extenuated, affirmation of the museum itself. This factor is crucial, if for no other reason than because Dimitrijević began his practice by developing a methodology that circumvented the museum as the primary site of cultural activities, and replaced it with the street. Eventually, however, it became increasingly clear to him that, in the same way that the earliest photos documenting the passer-by series entailed the presence of art-world “witnesses” to make them more verifiable, so the larger-scale variations on this theme required the site of the museum in order to distinguish them from the efforts of the sort of marketing or political campaign whose stylistic tropes (scale, simplicity) they intentionally mimic. Perhaps in comparison with his earlier work, Dimitrijević’s “Post Historicus ” interventions even seem to embrace the languages and structure of the museum with an enthusiasm that contains much less of a critical impetus than before. But this supposition does not hold up under engaged scrutiny of the work itself, which in many individual examples succeeds in tilting the values of the institution in the same way that the works themselves are literally tilted to one side or another, as if reinforcing the narrative impression of the artist’s having had his way with them. In fact, these are hardly episodic works at all, but rather diagrams of the fault lines that lie between the museum’s often conflicting responsibilities toward modern art on the one hand, and contemporary art on the other. There can be no doubt that the success of Dimitrijević’s intervention depends upon his convincing the museum director that one of the works which have been entrusted to the protection of the institution and its trustees should in turn be placed in the hands of an avant-garde artist whose interest in the object is obviously more inspired by its meaning as a transmitter of cultural values than by its historical value for connoisseurs of painting.

But Dimitrijević goes much further than the creation of a spectacle from the temporary suspension of the museum’s authority in favor of its purported liberalism. On the contrary, by recontextualizing a canvas by Matisse or Malevich as part of an expression within contemporary art discourse, he makes a strong case for integrating the art of the first half of the century with that of the present, at least insofar as the continuity established determines the painting to be something more than an artifact to be studied or a masterpiece to be admired. Our reality, Dimitrijević seems to be saying, demands that we construct new relationships for ourselves in relation to all inherited social forms—that is, if we don’t want to see the forms themselves slip away into a state of crystallized irrelevance. At the top of that list is the very practice of art itself, which increasingly gives the impression of wanting to entwine itself with the multitude of new languages and media that form the currency of everyday life. Curiously, however, it is only when we start showing art becoming redefined in direct relationship to this quotidian structure that we begin to understand how our artistic values have the potential to become as free-floating as the functional objects that find their way into Dimitrijević’s installations. In fact, art which accepts anything less than a complete overhaul in our way of assessing our relationship to it suddenly seems tame by comparison.