Achille Bonito Oliva

I still remember the 1971 Paris Biennale, where I participated in the organization of the Italian Pavilion, and Braco Dimitrijević showed his The Casual Passe-rby I Met in the section devoted to Conceptual Art. It is a photographic monument to an anonymous passer-by, a hymn to potential and unknown creativity, to the non-recognition of the artist-poet who is erased by history. Already then Braco Dimitrijević introduced a typically European ideological component, into the analytic neutrality of Conceptual Art that generally tended towards self-contemplation and preferred the theoretical “workshop.” In the following decades, he consistently conquered the conformist indifference of a bureaucracy which, as I still recall, ordered the police to remove the giant photograph of the unknown passer-by since it visually disturbed the public image of Paris. Braco Dimitrijević with Cartesian rigor and Slavic irony immediately pinpointed the problem of a mass culture that was increasingly subjected to the metastasis of an unstoppable kitsch that turns every historical complexity into schematic facts and every city into a picture postcard. Hence the conformist revolt of the authorities against the well-aimed incursion of the conceptual artist Dimitrijević. He has consistently been inspired by the material culture of the countries in which he has made his works. For example, when working in Latin America, coffee has been both a material and a color that he has adopted to create mainly installation images that are the fruit of a blend of nature and culture, photographs and elemental objects. Dimitrijević’s conceptual art has always avoided the pragmatic neutrality of Anglo-Saxon art, giving precedence to the partiality of a gaze that is never solely visual but investigative and judgmental. While kitsch is a virus malignantly attacking the collective imagination of mass society, on the other hand the icon, the image of the popular myth, is definitely the visible flipside of all this. Taking this as his premise, Braco Dimitrijević began to demolish the false myths of cultural history and international politics. Or, as in one of his more recent work, he stigmatizes and punishes the musical kitsch of operetta. Here we see Émile Blanchet, Oskar Strauss, Johann Strauss, Victor Herbert and Victor Massé, photographed and framed in a casual arrangement gazing at us from the wall. They each have a pickaxe outrageously breaking the icon’s protective glass of authority, accompanied by rivulets of red blood, red chili peppers reminiscent of coagulated blood. Here Dimitrijević brings the circle of the discourse begun in 1971 to a close and shows the other side of the coin. While the unknown passer-by is celebrated and rendered monumental on public buildings and at the entrance to the exhibition, and is thus turned into an involuntary icon, now by contrast, Dimitrijević punishes and demolishes, by executing the historic icons of musical kitsch. Now he glaringly and poetically executes the creators of a light music that floated blissfully unaware over finis Austriae, stealing space and recognition from a culture that was instead investigating the crisis not only in the Austro-Hungarian Empire but the whole of Western society in general. The explicit violence of the pickaxe that shatters and offends the respectability of the personalities is Dimitrijević’s attempt to remove Conceptual Art from the analytical limbo of pure ideological research and make it a political and emotional incursion into history. Thus the weapon of a crime ceases to be an instrument of murderous destruction, but is paradoxically the tool of creative and constructive work conferring a different identity in art. An art, as Pablo Picasso said, that focuses on the world. On other occasions the work unites other elements not always related to ideas of violence and death. At the São Paulo Biennale in 1996 Dimitrijević presented the work Against Historic Sense of Gravity, a sequence of photo portraits including the painters Malevich and Modigliani, the inventor of psychoanalysis, Freud, the scientist Nikola Tesla and the writer Kafka. Attached directly to the wall was quantity of coconuts, which naturally evoked the tropical Brazilian context and whose display formed an astral image of the Great Bear. In this already stellar space in which are displayed these great representatives of culture, five cellos were planted in the wall like spears. With the help of the musical instruments every kind of violence was transformed into spirituality, which arms all artistic creativity and engages the mind. If the law of gravity brings everything down, then art overcomes this force and spins the icons of artists and thinkers towards the constellation of the Great Bear, which in this case smelt erotically of the tropical fruit.

Dimitrijević develops his own poetic, conceptual investigation by contextualizing the work in the geographic, historic and cultural space in which he makes the work. At the 1997 Havana biennial he made the work Last Road to Paradise, another shortcut between nature and culture, presenting three carts with three tons of sugar cane on which he placed big photographic portraits of Proust, Kafka and Dostoevsky. The creators of individual utopias furthered the ferment of history, just as the sugar cane was fermenting in the carts. In any case utopias and sugarcane both end up in a cul de sac: the exhibition. The whole of European culture, from the Urals to the Mediterranean, precipitates itself into the Caribbean space, in the wagon of a collision, which represents relation and not domination, dialogue and not colonization. Braco Dimitrijević’s work always pushes the notion of value to extremes, implying a coexistence of differences, sometimes celebrated through linguistic conflict between the objects from diverse origins, art and the everyday, related to each other as objet trouve. At the 1990 Venice Biennale Dimitrijević presented another constellation work in the exhibition Ubi Fluxus Ibi Motus, this time a comet of apples on the floor serving as a pedestal to a bicycle to which was attached a work by Duchamp. Once more Dimitrijević was playing a creative game which implies different linguistic options but only one compositional strategy: to make a universe out of fragments, by creating a system of harmonious relationships between high and low, full and empty, history and nature, figurative and abstract, matter and form. He created a great work at the Jardin des Plantes zoo, Paris, in 1998, with the motto “If one looks to the Earth from the Moon, there is virtually no distance between the Louvre and the zoo,” demonstrating the artist’s ability to create an itinerary for the spectator, to absorb him in the place where in different cages cohabit the animal world and world of culture —lions with paintings belonging to art history. The zoo became a space of regeneration, an Indian reservation in the best sense of the world, in which energies gathered from different universes, created an iconographic and formal miracle. The zoo was taken out of the ghetto of Nature and transformed into a place in which cages looked like minimalist structures, the paintings threw off their cultural rhetoric and animals became gentle creatures able to host a Gesamtkunstwerk. In this way the artist transferred language from a purely metaphoric plane onto a completely metonymic one. The planet Earth is a theater of conventions which have come to be called history. It is itself the fruit of a linear development which tries to give a meaning to everything under the name of progress. In his 1976 book Tractatus Post Historicus, Braco Dimitrijević develops a reading of that meaning in order to introduce a notion of Post History capable of defeating logocentrism, that completely occidental, completely rational idea of historic progress playing on the categories and distances between different realities that in fact surround each other. From this vantage point, outside of the purely evolutional order subordinated to the ideology of Darwinism, Dimitrijević proposes prophetic works, accompanied by his theoretical text. Dimitrijević’s art has developed to a level of great maturity and at the end of the 1970s his artistic poetry escaped the ideological heaviness of the purely evolutionist linguistic Darwinism that had an almost superstitious manner power over most of the avant-garde art of those years.

He elaborates art that is concentrated on art itself, combining a Situationist manner with Fluxus-like freedom as he puts together the high reality of art with the low reality of life, images derived from various moments in art history and elements belonging to nature. In the space of Dimitrijević’s Post History all distances become relative, temporal—-between different periods of art (Renaissance, Baroque, Modernism) as well as spatial, between fruits of earth united with a market cart and old paintings in museum frames. The installation Van Gogh Goes to Paradise (2005), made and exhibited at the Musee d’Orsay,  consisted of a market cart filled with oranges and lemons, in which was placed Van Gogh’s self-portrait from 1889. Hanging on the wall next to this was another Van Gogh’s self-portrait  from 1887. This is surrounded by oranges and lemons that are fixed to the wall, forming the shape of a comet. Here Dimitrijević poetically assumes an astral perspective, a distant view that allows him not to make a distinction between the fruits of the earth and those of the imagination; oranges and lemons and the self-portrait of the great Dutch artist. In that way an interaction between art and life is established, rigorously resolved on the level of language. He jumps over the hierarchical order that substantially governs our everyday life and introduces the vitality of an encounter between the objects of different nature, united by their common belonging to the post-history of our planet. Braco Dimitrijević uses the concept of the found objectin order to construct a new typology of the readymade, able notonly to strike metaphysically our way of seeing, but to produce ashortcut between realities which are foreign to each other.Furthermore, he expands the limits of the conceptual art game,dislocating it from “dematerialization” and bringing it into contactwith the matter of life, because, in the words of the artist, from a great distance there is no difference between the Louvre and the zoo. The mythical French museum becomes the artist’s studio and a confined space within which is cultivated a love of art and a disciplined contemplation of the artwork, which at the same time pushes it towards the myth of untouchability. But since for Dimitrijević “the street is my museum,” at the Musée d’Orsay the artist chose the paintings of Van Gogh and placed them in contact with the fruits of the earth. Van Gogh was given back his human dignity, that of a peasant, in tune with the natural landscapes of his pulsating painting.

From Kandinsky to Van Gogh, numerous artists have been taken as love hostages by Dimitrijević and linked to the natural reality of fruit, which in the closed space of museum announces not the immobile time of immortality but the very minutes of our everyday life. Dimitrijević has again confronted, both in his aesthetic and anthropological solutions, the totality of cosmic time (which contains present, past and future) and the particularities of everyday life (which contains also death and desperation). In a site-specific work he has mixed the cultural heritage embodied by great masters, physical space and pulsating life. Matter and concept, idea and form, find their place in work which succeeds in affirming the relationship between art and life as a contradiction; the hell of life and the paradise of art. In fact, in the case of this work, we inhabit a condition in which time and space interlace in a relationship which is simultaneously concrete and symbolic. In the course of time, the source of desperation represented by the self-portraits of Van Gogh has grown to be valued. The century that did justice to the great Vincent also took him from his wanderings in the French countryside and brought him to the centre of museographic attention in Paris. The market cart becomes an element which is strongly representative of matter, matter which is represented also by fruit. The artwork accomplishes this through the system of art, which can change any existential destiny. Certainly not that of the artwork, whose qualitative evaluation depends on the other subjects of that very system. Now Van Gogh’s self-portraits are not only dispersed in the most important world museums, but are fortunately also made available to another artist, Braco Dimitrijević, for him to establish a dialogue, to eliminate the distance between different personalities and to allow, even if only temporarily, the realization of a special duet.

In the Musée d’Orsay the air was filled not only with the emanations of the historic master paintings, but also with the near loss of gravitational weight of fruits of the earth since they were now displayed on the museum wall. Dimitrijević seems to have introduced in this sacred space the freedom of a vacuum, which makes every thing levitate, and permits connections between things of different natures, organic and artificial, to be seen from the viewpoint of cosmic time which does not distinguish between centuries and months, between real oranges and lemons and the painted products of the earth. Braco Dimitrijević happily confirms the contradiction of art, the possibility of a vision capable of breaking the limits of historic reality of good common sense in favor of a positive vacuum, the ritual of an artwork that is able to affirm the hell of life and the paradise of art.