Braco Dimitrijevic: Happy Coincidences
Interview by Sophie Berrebi (*)
English version


- Versión en español -

Sophie Berrebi: I would like to go back to your childhood and to the way it determined your career as an artist. Your father was an important painter in Yugoslavia, and as a child you painted, and your pictures were exhibited. Later on, you moved away from the artworld and became a junior ski champion and when you returned to art, you became a conceptual artist. You could say it was inevitable that you would become a conceptual artist, given a background which could be compared, for example, to that of Yves Klein, whose parents were very much involved in contemporary art. In a way, you knew all the tricks of the trade.

Braco Dimitrijevic: I think that is very true for many artists actually - for Yves Klein, for Gordon Matta-Clark, for some other people who took radical steps. In a way, you know the rules of the game from the very beginning. It may appear that it becomes more conscious later on, but somehow intuitively you are there from the very beginning, you relate better to the art of the past.

In what other ways did your background influence your first works. How did the idea of the casual passer-by [from 1968 on] come about?

Well there are two reasons: one is that in my childhood I was surrounded by many artworks, not exclusively by my father, but also by artists from the 19th century because my grandfather collected art, and there were also other works from the past. Then also there were so many people who were of special importance in the art and cultural milieu. Throughout my childhood and teens, they appeared as everyday normal people, so instead of trying to find the same environment in the other cities I moved to later on, I had the idea of working with anonymous people, anonymous people that I would meet or select at random to work with. They embodied for me a certain creative principle that has probably been ignored in the course of history. Because if you approach somebody you don't know, he might be a great poet, or great inventor, or... Anyway, the unknown is the richest field of all, because the unknown has no limits, no frontiers.

Did you ever get to know any of these anonymous figures who were the subject of your works, the large portraits you hung in public spaces, the monuments you erected to passers-by, or the memorial plaques displayed on buildings? Or do they just remain a face or a name?

I really do not know what they do. I would never ask them so they'd remain as an open possibility, and I would just speculate about what they did. However, I remember two examples. One person in Holland approached Rudi Fuchs [then the director of the Stedeljik van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven] and he intended to make a trip around the world in a raft and wanted to use the large banner I had created with his face on it as a sail. And on another occasion, when I was lecturing in Germany, an elderly gentleman came to my class, and when I asked him why he had joined my class - because there were three or four other artists lecturing at the same place - he said he came to my class after hearing about me through a casual passer-by I had previously met in Düsseldorf. So there is this kind of invisible link.

These works create some sort of poetic link between people; they create stories that would otherwise not exist. I have the feeling that a work like your 'portable monument', the stone plaque bearing the inscription 'This Could be a Place of Historical Importance' [first installed on buildings nearby St Martins School of Art, London, in 1971] works in a similar way, but with places rather than people.

This work is actually linked with the idea that any place under special circumstances can be historically important, or that every image could become the image of the century. Sometimes it is a question of convention and sometimes it is a question of chance, where the chance appears to be some invisible higher authority. I think actually there are so many elements that come into play in deciding what could be the event of the century, who could be a person of historical importance.

Whereas your works on the casual passer-by and the portable monument are virtually immaterial pieces based on chance, or anonymity, the series of works you began to work on in 1978, the 'Tryptichos Post Historicus', are very material, very heavy, invested much more with a sense of tangible cultural time and space. How did you move from one kind of work to another?

The passer-by works and the photographs of different places where the portable monument is installed try to emphasize the importance of every place, of every segment in time, of every person and his or her possible contribution to history and creativity. In the museum, I make installations, which consist of a masterwork that is sometimes insured for several million dollars or whatever, and everyday objects such as fruit or vegetables. There is a kind of link because, in the triptychs, every element is given equal importance, regardless of material value. In this triangular relationship, one can see how these elements are perfectly capable of measuring each other. An apple in the kitchen is not the same as an apple next to a Cézanne painting, and you have a different feeling with an everyday object when it's next to a painting. You get a different perception of an apple when it is standing next to an everyday object and a painting at the same time. So in a way these installations are the universe in miniature because you have a representation of two different spheres of life: cultural and natural. And within the cultural you have two different categories: the everyday object represents everyday life, and the paintings stand for spiritual values (although not only spiritual values), because in our culture these are the connotations that art has. The idea is to point out that there is a very complex meaning in every segment of a triptych, just as every particle of the universe has a very special meaning. So for me the triptych is a metaphor for something that is much greater.

I also find that the objects you use often have a timeless quality. Can you give an example of how this metaphor works?

They are indeed. In some cases, for instance, when I put a bicycle next to a Kasimir Malevitch painting [Russian suprematist working in the early 20th Century], one would probably think of contrasting the circular shape of the bicycle's wheels with the square painted by Malevitch, but it would also suggest a certain rotation, a sort of revolution. There is one particular work with a bicycle, Red and Black Square by Malevitch and a yellow melon standing on the same pedestal, and it is a work which basically talks about the zeitgeist of 1914, when this painting was made, but also possibly of Marcel Duchamp's bicycle wheel, as well as of Einstein's theory of relativity, which also goes back to 1914. And I think that if you would observe this image very carefully, you would see that first you have a big black square on the upper part of the painting, and then a slightly rotated red square. In my triptych, that red square is extending towards the yellow melon and it gives you a full spectrum of the colors, indicating a kind of rainbow spectrum. It implies a certain perception of the sky and, automatically, it evokes space in a more abstract way, which is where we join Einstein. Then, while the wheels and shape of the bicycle suggest a horizontal movement, you have the almost vertical arch of the rainbow colors, from black to red and yellow.

But at the same time, you don't want to comment on natural and artificial beauty...

I think one important thing to know is that these works are not about equations - equivalencies saying 'apple equals painting or bicycle'. My aim is basically to underline their differences and the fact that every element or object has its own beauty and meaning. I think the view I have of things is to say that they are not divided into two categories: those that are very beautiful and those which are not, or those that are meaningful and those which are not. The idea is to point out that there is a complexity and richness in each element which surrounds us. I remember the story of one person who exchanged four bottles of vodka for a Tintoretto painting, in Dresden in 1945. It is a true story. So there are situations and contexts in which somebody can find four bottles of Vodka more important that a Tintoretto painting. If somebody thinks he can save his life by making this exchange, which doesn't seem to make sense in any other context, one should be aware that one only has one life and this is the way to judge these things.

Couldn't you say that there is in these triptychs a kind of DIY process, whereby the viewer brings all the elements together and creates his interpretation from his personal relation to the objects and his knowledge or appreciation of the masterworks?

I think that is basically the case in every artwork. If you want a Color Field painting, and you have yellow, black and a little bit of green, then you can make out of it whatever you like. I think art is the basis for reflection, and somehow you always get involved when confronted by an artwork. Instead of using those elements of yellow, black and a dot of green, I have these other elements that I play with.

Objects, you mean?

Yes. I think that in my triptychs we have the accumulation of several thousands of years of people creating a vocabulary that I am then using to construct the meaning of my own work.

Is that to say that everything has already been said? Is it a postmodern attitude?

No. Really no; I think that the language of art has simply become more complex. For instance, if you take the palette of the traditional painter, take for example Matisse, he had these very full colors: black, red, green, yellow and so on, and on my palette there are already paintings, sculptures, refrigerators, bicycles... I think that kind of process was already much evident in philosophy, or in literature.

Is this what is called intertextuality?

Yes, I didn't arrive at a definition of Culturescape [in 1978] out of nothing. It is very symptomatic to look at the moment when I arrived at the definition of Culturescape. The definition that I gave in the mid-70s, that our environment is not physical space but cultural heritage, is really significant because technological goods have been assimilated ever since the Neolithic Age. I don't mean environment as physical surroundings but as history or culture.

To end, could you tell me about one work of art you own: your portrait by Joseph Beuys, which is made from a leather jacket with cans stuffed into the pockets.

It is a flying jacket with a drawing of an aeroplane. I bought this jacket on the King's Road in London and then Beuys recognized that this was a kind of original leather flying jacket [used by the RAF during the Second World War] and he decided to draw this aeroplane.

Does it refer to the lifelong perilous condition of the artist, living hand-to-mouth?

Probably yes - it is some kind of survival kit.

(*) Sophie Berrebi is a Paris-based art critic.

- Versión en Español -

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