The Part of Risk

Catherine Millet

If I knew nothing about contemporary art and met by chance on the street Braco Dimitrijević, who asked me to pose for a photograph, would I accept? Would I agree to be that anonymous passerby whose face would soon after appear on a wall in the city, coming to the attention of all other passers-by. From the position of my anonymity would I be able to bear that my face, full of my identity, all my good and bad features, disproportionately blown-up, were exposed, in the double sense of the word? And even art critic as I am, aware of the work of Braco Dimitrijević would I be ready in the situation where the artist controls the rules of the game to overcome all the inhibitions which one naturally feels, imagining one’s face launched into public space? To tell the truth, I am not so sure. I would ask at least time to think it over. The power of this action and the force which is also contained in the photographs that show these portraits installed outdoors in the city, comes also a great deal from the attitude which we judge as open, free, audacious of the persons who accepted, fully aware of the consequences, to pose in front of Dimitrijević's camera. To be stopped on the street by Braco Dimitrijević is quite an adventure. But to confront the works which he exhibits in museums is not necessarily any safer. One can even say that one of the major preoccupations of this ex-pioneer of the rebellious seventies is to maintain the risk in an art world which is today all too bureaucratized.

Since the late sixties, he has created to this end a radical method by formulating the notion of Post History. He defines it in the textual discourse in 1976 in his book "Tractatus Post Historicus". Posthistoricism allows one to view history not like a logical succession of facts, to which at the end we will tie ourselves, but as an unlimited field of the possible, where for our consciousness opens an abyss of forgotten knowledge and where, in place of the facts which official history has condensed into one unified meaning, intricate paths of interpretations, multiple and contradictory, present themselves. This concept is summed up best by the parable which Dimitrijević invented: "Once upon a time there were two painters… One of them met a king by chance… The name of that painter was Leonardo da Vinci, the name of the other disappeared for ever from human memory”. This concept multiplies vertiginously the possibilities of our present and even of our future. If, as Dimitrijević claims all styles were always possible in all periods, they are equally present today, as they will be tomorrow – this concept also puts them in doubt because if, as he reminds us we needed three hundred years to rediscover the art of El Greco, that which we believe to have built so solidly today, may equally sink into long ‘absences’ from history. In April 1971, Nena and Braco Dimitrijević organized, in the entrance hall of an apartment building in Zagreb, the international exhibition of conceptual art "At the Moment”, which acquired, despite its short duration of only three hours, a great importance. However, with a sense of humour, they put in the introduction of the catalogue three photographs: the first taken the day before the exhibition shows no more than ten people passing by the closed entrance door of the building, in the second taken on the day of the exhibition, one sees a bigger group of people in front of the open doors, and in the third, taken the day after, only a few people are indifferently passing the again-closed door. So while some of his fellow conceptual artists rest on well-defined concepts of history, sharpened like a spearhead, Dimitrijević slips under their feet, and under the feet of all of us, a concept of history which is a minefield. We put our feet in it in order to insert our points of reference, to anchor it with dates, and the ground explodes from all its virtuality. In 1969 when Richard Serra, for instance, made his lead splashes, Kresimir Klika signed a work which consisted of a milk splash left on the pavement by a car driving over the milk-carton. The driver Kresimir Klika drove by chance over the milk-carton, put there by Dimitrijević. When Dimitrijević explained to him the meaning of the action, he accepted, while others might have refused the artistic responsibility for the milk splash and signed it directly on the pavement. Today the written history of the avantgardes values the name of Richard Serra more than that of Kresimir Klika. But can’t we imagine that one day, if other criteria enter the game, the absolute generosity, the marvelous readiness with which Klika accepted responsibility for his gesture may be equally appreciated, even more than the intentionality behind other works, and that some recognition will be given to this artist of a few minutes, recognition at least equal to that of career artists? Don’t we accept already, at the heart of our art history, artists who have arrived to us only through one single painting and whose intentions remain mysterious to us?

When Braco Dimitrijević uses the facades of buildings in the busy centres of European towns to hang his gigantic portraits of unknown people, knowing that he comes from Yugoslavia, one recalls immediately the pictures of communist heroes under which the masses marched past in Eastern Europe. All of a sudden, the face of a casual passer-by takes on the same importance as that of Tito or Mao. It is not unimportant, precisely regarding the artist’s concept of history, to mention how the network of analogies in which this oeuvre is entangled has evolved. The net through which we perceive reality, our criteria, has changed in 25 years. Today, don’t we first think of the portraits of the disappeared brothers and husbands, carried by the women of Argentina, or even of those posters showing the faces of ordinary unemployed behind which demonstrators were walking recently in France? Perhaps Post History, which makes apparent the obscure background of the abyss of history, could have been invented only by somebody who lived in the society in which censorship of memory was applied with a scientific methodology. However, all societies practise to a bigger or a lesser extent such a censorship. Braco Dimitrijević by carrying one day in 1970 in the streets of Munich a placard with the face of a passer-by who he met by chance at 2.04 PM, or in Belgrade in 1972 placing in front of the camera for posterity a group in which Dzem Dzemo poses between Daniel Buren and Giuseppe Chiari, or engraving a street sign in San Sicario in 1975 with the name of Gianfranco Martina, was a predecessor of these movements in which groups of individuals engage by all their power to keep on the surface of the world, in the reservoir of recordable and memorisable images, the identity of other individuals, which all kind of repressive regimes engage to wipe off or to at least humiliate.

In commenting on the anti-humanism of Baudelaire (who embodies the image of the dandy and who is a key figure in understanding the derpersonalisation of the artistic act, characteristic of modernism) Giorgio Agamben writes: The novelty of modern poetry, vis à vis a world which, the more it glorifies man, the more it reduces him to an object, consists in unmasking humanist ideology in taking literally a witty remark which Balzac attributes to Georges Brummell: “Nothing looks less like man than man himself.ii

Nothing looks less than an artist than an artist. This is the principle that Braco Dimitrijević understood from very early on. Very early, he knew that the wreath of post history, whose method is to bring to the light that which was in shadow, was that the one who dedicated himself to this task, accepts in his turn to be partly recovered by shadow. Thus his actions, mentioned above, which are not signed with his name, thus his participation in the Biennale de Paris in 1971, under three different identities, Braco Dimitrijević, Slobodan D. and Tihomir Simcic (name of a pensioner he met by chance in Zagreb in 1969), thus the big banners bearing the names of Gerda Bollen and Eric Hoefer, respectively on the facades of the museums in Brussels and Monchengladbach where Dimitrijević was invited to show in 1975 (whilst Dimitrijević’s name appears on a house of a friend somewhere in the countryside). After all, this voluntary self-abolition of the artist is an adequate strategy to make obvious the necessity of this action in a society which does not know any longer which place to give to the artist. (In the eighties, during which this place, unlike the seventies was so well defined that it was banalised, we saw a certain number of artists retaking the model of disappearence and hiding behind psuedonyms, initials, or enigmatic names of companies. As far as the personality of artists is concerned, who finish always by inscribing themselves in a style, Dimitrijević has found since 1976, a means to keep it to the maximum through Triptychos Post Historicus, all works from this series consist of three elements – natural objects (fruits, vegetables), one or few manufactured objects, which belong to somebody else than the artist (the name of the owner is given in the title of the work), and a painting old or modern, always bearing another signature, often famous, to that of Dimitrijević.

The effectiveness of the triptychs comes a great deal of course from the fact that these are real paintings which are exhibited and not, as one would expect in the post-modern era, their reproductions. Beyond the play of formal and symbolic relationships which they invoke and which mean that every element acquires critical quality in relation to the other, these works have two major effects. They seem to put precious paintings in a precarious and risky situation. They put works of art closer to us in both a literary and metaphoric sense of the word. (One is tempted to touch the works taken down from the wall, from where they usually dominate, and to push them or put them upright again.) Material risk is emphasized by symbolic risk. Works of art which we believe to be eternal can be revealed as more ephemeral than an apple, which may take a long time to dry and rot. At the same time, the way in which some objects, especially those which are close to the body – tools, clothing – touch the paintings, is not sensed without certain unease. It is as if a ghost body appropriates for itself only, this masterwork which belong to all (this feeling leaves us at the very moment when we see the work accessible to our hands). A certain audience was not mistaken about this, the one which expressed in the press its indignation that museums, in this case the Tate Gallery, accept that cultural heritage is treated in this way.

As a child, being a son of well-known artist and himself already a painter, Braco Dimitrijević lived in a daily and familiar relationship with art. He spent a lot of time in his father’s studio where the paintings were simply ordinary objects casually leaning against the wall and exposed to all kinds of danger from a jar of paint which could be overturned to the more irredeemable danger of the artist who judging his own work can, unsatisfied, decide to destroy it. In a painter’s studio the works still have the status of ordinary objects, liable to be thown away, because they are still in the process of creative. They are still alive and thus able to die. They are not yet mummies protected and inert, as turned into by the museum.

It is not only that Dimitrijević uses the real art work and not its reproduction, but paradoxically those he choses, in being combined with ordinary objects, cease to be reproductions of themselves, as they have become under the weak light of museology, and under our disinterested gaze. We should take literally Dimitrijević’s claim that the Louvre is his studio. Masterpieces for the artist are raw material; he arranges them not even as others would arrange apples and lemons as a model for a still-life, but rather as they would mix the medium and the pigment. The encounters which happen in front of our eyes, the dangerous encounters (the yellow of real lemons catches the eyes, before lemons painted by Matisse), struggles for identity (the harmonious ochre of a painting by Géricault emerging out of an enormous pile of coconuts), rivalries (what remains of David’s The Death of Marat, when Dimitrijević puts it in a bathtub and raises the installation on a monumental pedestal?), are all opportunities for these paintings, aroused instantly from the sleep of history, to regain their status, to prove their supremacy, to confront again reality. Often Dimitrijević improvises and does not decide until a few days before the opening which works he will borrow from the collection, which objects he will use to provide hints for interpretation. In this way these works are not only placed in a new cultural context, but are also launched into the orbit of another philosophy. In Art after Philosophy Joseph Kosuth wrote: “If certain artists from the past are revivied, it is because certain aspects of their work became usable for living artists.” Braco Dimitrijević gives a completely new turn to this rule, audacious and radical, not being satisfied to merely quote the work of his predecessors, but integrating them literally into his work, with all their properties – spiritual as well as material, aesthetic, philosophical and even their market value. One series of his works consists of putting next to various objects a plaque bearing the inscription “This Could be a Master Piece”. During his exhibition at the Städtisches Museum Mönchengladbach in 1975, he attributes this sentence to the portrait bust of Max Roeder belonging to the museum collection. The museum acquired the work of Braco Dimitrijević. Thus the same bronze object was, from this moment, classified under two different inventory numbers. Is not this act of appropriation the very symbol of a creation, the red-hot instant of actualisation/abolition of history?

It happens that post historic artist Braco Dimitrijević, reverses some historical process, it also happens that he accelerates others. His work entitled Culturescapes confronts, as his triptychs do, nature and culture, except that here nature is represented by living animals. Peacocks in front of paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Léger, a painting and a palette ina cage where the couple of lions are pacing. Escaping from the control to which it is subjected today, art finds again its natural environment. But Dimitrijević questions the evolution which lead us from Lascaux to sophisticated displays such as the Grand Louvre. He believes the only difference is that at the time of Lascaux, man was trying to domesticate animals, whilst today we have succeeded in domesticating art! What progress from the painted caves to the cellars in which museums?

In order to describe this accelerated process, I will quote again Agamben explainging that the “transformation (by Baudelaire) of the work of art into absolute commodity is also the most radical abolition of commodity”. And he adds, referring to the experience of “shock” which the poet places “at the heart of his art work”: “The ‘shock’ is the potential alienation of the object when in order to hide behind the mask of commodity, it loses the authority which its use value gives to it and which traditionally guaranteed its reading. Baudelaire understood that in order to secure the survival of art in the industrial civilization, the artist has to try to reproduce in his work this destruction of use-value and of the traditional reading which gave a place to the experience of ‘shock’…” We are no longer in the times of Baudelaire. The “shocks” that we experience are very rare in a society where art as “absolute” is so well integrated that it finds a kind of use value, as a product to be consumed exclusively for leisure, whilst its exchange value, openly advertised, exploited, managed, pulls it down to the level of ordinary commodity. However to answer this new situation Dimitrijević adopts a strategy which follows the logic of Baudelaire: he takes to its limits the social model. And the “shock” is born out of ephemeral encounters of some products which are to be consumed in the literal sense of the word, of some commodities whose exchange value is sometimes very small because they are worn out, and one object which is not much more than a rectangle of smeared canvas framed in wood. The “shock” springs no longer from the exceptional value that we attribute to art, but from the risk art runs of not knowing whether to acquire or to lose this value.

Notes 1. Braco Dimitrijević has always chosen unknown people met in the street as subjects of large photographic portraits; chance being the main regulator of his work. 2. Giorgio Agamben, Stanze, French translation Editions Payot & Rivages.