Free School for Art Theory and Practice

“I think we still may take art more seriously then in the West nowadays.” Branislav Dimitrijević Interviewed by Peter Fuchs


Overidentification and Modernity. Seminar with Branislav Dimitrijević

Peter Fuchs: At the seminar of the Free School for Art Theory and Practice you presented a work for the participants, a two room installation by Goran Ðjorđjević which reevaluates the notion of art, art history in an Eastern-Western European context. Why did you choose this work in the first place?

Branislav Dimitrijević: Goran Ðjorđjević? Well, his name has been re-occurring when certain art projects dealing with issues of originality, copying, memory, oblivion, authorlessness (if one may construct this term), and unequal distribution of “artistic experience” have been discussed. He has appeared occasionally in relation to some “art” projects, as technical assistant or doorman, but never as an artist or the author of these projects which all have many common denominators, one of which is that they have all been un-authored. The “art project” I have presented is called Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum, and is located behind an inconspicuous door in a cat-pissed basement of a dilapidated 1950s building in Belgrade. It is an environment consisting of two rooms. In one room—which is arranged like some kind of an “ethno-chamber” (with carpets, old musical instruments, books, and curious souvenirs) evoking the oriental background of the local cultural heritage—we encounter images, or rather handmade reproductions painted after the reproductions of the “works of art” appearing in one of the most influential introductory art books, H. W. Janson’s History of Art. The other room is decorated in the style of a typical 1960s middle-class apartment under socialism and features images from another influential book, Herbert Read’s History of Modern Painting. The whole environment is a kind of ethnological display of what has been canonized as art primarily in the West, from where we have also adopted it and mostly took it for granted. It is important that seminal works of modern art are also treated and displayed like some ethnographic artifacts.

Why have I chosen this work? Maybe first of all because it is not known outside a narrow group of enthusiasts who highly value the unpretentious ability, presented in this work, to question and challenge what has become a norm of art, its appearance, its story, its canonized protagonists, and its intellectual accomplices. Also, I think that the whole story about this work may be better shared in communities with similar social, economic, and intellectual experience. That’s why I decided to share it with the community of young intellectuals in Budapest as an excellent opportunity to gain new meaning of this work, which is, needless to say, a work open to different interpretations. One of the common features of, say, the Hungarian and Yugoslavian modernist experience of art, is that we have (at least my generation and older colleagues) acquired our knowledge of what art mostly from reproductions in books (sometimes bad black-and-white copies) and not from originals which were hanging somewhere far away, in New York or London. This is an important feature of how our view of art has been constructed: rarely as a “physical” or material encounter, but rather as intellectual speculation, as unverified storytelling, free-associating, fractured and disembodied. Kunsthistorisches Mausoleum deals on the one hand with what is familiar (art as canonized in books by Janson and Read), something which has already been explained, and on the other, with what is curiously evasive and needs new forms of storytelling. Finally, I have chosen this work because my seminar dealt with the issue of modernity and its legacy in our part of the world.

PF: The other work we discussed, the Scene for New Heritage by Croatian artist David Maljkovic, also deals with the same notion of lost-and-found heritage. The work is a reinterpretation of a colossal partisan monument in Petrova Gora, Croatia (built in 1981). Do you think that the notion of investigating our heritage is a common pattern in these two works? Do you think that we East Europeans all have the same feeling of time, space, displacement, which comes to the surface in these works

BD: Both works are time machines. They both deal with the past as well as the future. Maljkovic’s work shows a hypothetical future encounter with the monument by Vojin Bakic, the Yugoslavian socialist-modernist sculptor. Why is this huge object there? What does it mean? How can we use it? Which strange rituals have been performed at that place? It is about a group of explorers investigating this strange site of modernity at some point in the future? And, as you know, modernity was about the future. It was about some utopian promise, radicalized by the avant-garde as both destructive and constructive, both Dadaist and Productivist. I wanted to stress that many artists today have been rediscovering and investigating the legacy of modernity and modernist art, its universalist promise, its heroisms, and catastrophes. Of course, there is also this sense of nostalgia mixed with the genuine interest in the radical potentials of modernity. But what is behind this interest? Is it just another postmodernist citation ground? Is it only about fascination with aesthetics? Or is it about the vision of the future which was so essential for the dreams of modernity? Is it just about evading contemporary disillusionments? Finally, is it simply the reaction to the general pessimism of the new “drained and tired generation” as David Maljkovic calls it?

I think that the investigation of “different modernisms,” along with the sense of failure that characterizes them, may help us understand why the world of today is going astray so much. Anti-modernism is one of the crucial aspects of the vulgar and pervasive anti-communism which dominates Eastern European societies today. But this is basically an acknowledgment that we produced modernity in our shared communist past, and by that I imply all the controversies of modernity. But then as well as now, the radical aspects of modern culture have been excluded and often banished, in the West as well as in the East. And this is our common point of departure.

PF: Do you think that we have to rethink our own methodology in art history in order to define ourselves as Eastern European curators/art historians? Is there such a thing as an Eastern European artist or curator?

BD: Apparently there has been. We may accept it, or we can fight against this stereotype, but it has obviously been encountered. If we really believe that cultural phenomena are mostly structured in order to comply with western European or American narrative patterns and the market, we have to establish whether we have another version, or whether we really want to reject this type of methodology. Maybe this can never become a real battle, for as the previously mentioned Goran Ðjorđjević, in one of his very rare interviews, dishearteningly claimed, “the true power of Tradition and Institutions is incongruously and discouragingly great[1].” We have had important episodes in our art history, in the avant-garde of the 1920s, in the actionism of the 1960s and 1970s, but the discourse constructed to interpret these practices mostly relies on Western academic discourse. Some of the features of our experience of art are that it has been fractured, mystified, and always political. Western academic discourse since the 1970s has been steadily working to politicize aesthetics. For us, for example, this is not such a big endeavor. And again, because of that, the figure of the East-European curator is brought in to accommodate this radical view on art. When we see the profiles of best-known “Eastern European curators” (from Victor Missiano to Maria Hlavlajova or the WHW collective in Zagreb) it is always this aspect of interest in the politics of art which is characteristic. And, yes, I think we may still take art more seriously then in the West nowadays. When I say “we,” I do not think of Eastern Europe any more, as this geo-political construct practically does not exist any longer, but of places where art does not occupy an already established and pretty safe institutional niche.

PF: Was it your intention that the open seminar method we used could explore some of these questions?

BD: I very much enjoyed this seminar as it has been an opportunity to speculate. This opportunity is rarely given, especially in institutionally developed situations. Simply put, too much happens in the art world of today (I say “too much” as in, this is usually too much of the same) and just to make an inventory of these things is admirable work. But this situation is unfriendly for a speculative mind. At the seminar we have all questioned our own motivation for being curious about art. We reinforced the notion of free will in a world in which the notion of freedom is connected only to the notion of economic freedom, of free market, but not free choice or free will. Do we have to worry if we have not produced anything by this speculation? Of course, we shouldn’t. Art has always appeared in an encounter; this is where it gains at least some sense. We need the space for this encounter beyond either old or new institutions, which are by definition featuring a one-way road, departing from some figure or concept of authority.

One of the most important features of modernity is this production of space. This is why this legacy may be important for us. If the road to our interest in this legacy is primarily motivated by some nostalgia for the aesthetic of the modernist period, this is also fair enough. I intended to throw these and other issues at the participants of the seminar so we could all start juggling. And as Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “in a conversation one person throws a ball; the other does not know whether he is supposed to throw it back, or throw it to a third person, or leave it on the ground, or pick it up and put it in his pocket, etc.”[2] All of these things happened, but we still managed to keep some balls in the air.

The interview was conducted in February-March 2008 via e-mail.


Peter Fuchs is a critic, journalist, and theorist based in Budapest, Hungary.


[1] In:Prelom. NO.8. Edition in English; pp. 249-268.

[2] Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), 74.